Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Star Wars at Forty: Part II

It's hard to get across to Millennials just how little Science Fiction there was in pop culture prior to 1977.  We didn't have a lot of  Speculative Fiction on the big or little screens back then.

We would get a new TV show once every three years of so and then it would be canceled after one season.   Science Fiction movies were almost as rare, although they had actual science in them, (you sure as hell wouldn't see that today).

Quality movies were quite a bit rarer, yet.

Yes there my beloved cheap ass Italian scholcktastic extravaganzas but if you are talking real budget with a competent cast you can come up with about three names that weren't horror films dressed up like science fiction.  The Day the Earth Stood, Forbidden Planet and 2001.  That was pretty much it so far as American film makers were concerned.  And in bitter truth, two of the movies on that list are horror dressed as Sci Fi.*

That was one of the things that made the phenomenon of Star Wars so amazing.  Not only did it make money, it made more money than any other film had in that space of time.  This is the film that took  
Sci-Fi mainstream!

Except of course that it didn't.

There wasn't exactly a flood of Science Fiction movies after Star Wars came out but you could usually count on at least one a year after that.  Close Encounters, Alien, and Blade Runner come most readily to mind.  There were a few misses as well (Outland, The Black Hole) but they were still good tries.

And of course the best movie of this entire period.  The Empire Strikes Back.  It was that rarity, a sequel that was done right.  A bad sequel isn't really a sequel at all properly speaking, there is nothing in sequence.  A bad one is typically just a remake of the first one with slightly different situations.  A good one builds on the story and advances character development.  Star Wars was fun for kids but Empire reflected a world that wasn't as fun for those now slightly older kids.

The worst elements of first movie were elegantly swept under the carpet.  The Empire stopped being space Nazis and started being servants of Sauron like dark sorcerer.  Lucas' Luddite fetish quietly vanished.  The heroes of the first movie were all broken, Luke, Chewie and Leia barely escaping with their lives.  And capping it all off was one of the greatest plot twists in film history.  Empire showed that that was a hell of a lot more to Star Wars than some dumb fun kid stuff.  With the release of Empire, Star Wars grew up.

And then it stopped growing.

Return of the Jedi had a few good scenes but there was no way in hell you could say it was better than the first or especially the second movie..  The Luddite fetish was back in the form of the Ewoks.  The story structure was terrible because they had to put in a mini-movie in order to rescue Han.  Yoda's last scene was also rushed because of the mini-movie as well.  And lets' face it nothing says, I'm out of ideas like blowing up your MacGuffin from the first movie a second time.

All of Jedi's problems can be laid at the feet of one man.

George Lucas.  The genius who created the Star Wars universe ...unless he didn't.

According to several film scholars, Lucas didn't have that much to do with the first Star Wars movie after principal photography was completed.  According to them the studio took the final cut out of his hands and saved Star Wars in editing.

Now I file that under maybe true, maybe  but there is no question that he had almost nothing to do with the best of the films; The Empire Strikes Back. Even Lucas admits that he basically handed over the reins on that flick.

Return of the Jedi sucked but due to the limitations of film technology it didn't suck anywhere near as bad as Lucas wanted it to.

Then came the creeping incompetent horror of the prequels.

George Lucas is like the Milli Vanilli of Star Wars, he was found out to be fraud years ago but claims to this day he could sing as well as the artists he was taking credit for.

Do you want to see the truest reflection of Lucas' talent.  I'll show it to you right now.

Yes Lucas does indeed disown this one.  But when you compare it to the Prequals a number of patterns of ineptitude begin to make themselves apparent.

This is not an unfair comparison
George Lucas's vision for Wookie Public Housing
Didn't change much for thirty years.

He owns the Christmas Special even if Bea Arthur is in it.  His ideas are obvious.  To include the introduction of Bobba Fett whom no one on Earth had heard of before that stupid show.

Yes, Bobba Fett first showed up 
riding a swamp dinosaur.
He milked that intro for decades
And never lived up to it.

His next big project was recutting the original trilogy with a few new special effects.  This in fact was the real Phantom Menace.  The Special Editions were a warning shot.  He used the best technology of his day to make the previous films just a bit worse.

Then came the rolling disaster of the Preqeuls.

George Lucas was also powerful enough to banish anyone who could threaten his delusion bubble.
He did this by the usual trick of surrounding himself with yes-men.  And on top that, paying actors to say to how brilliant he was.   If you ever dig through the Special Features interviews of the Prequals you can find the inadvertent but tragically hilarious comedy gold of his cast members trying desperately to come up with something positive to say about the movies that didn't involve special effects.

The basic problem with the prequals is pretty much everything.  They were an utterly incompetent attempt at story telling by a guy who liked to pretend he was the Tolkein of science fiction.

After the prequals were in the can and ruining childhood memories.  Lucas was at a loss.  He tried messing up the original films some more and only succeeded in making them even worse than they had been getting.  Everyone laughed at him and thanks to the internet he could no longer hide himself.he didn't like that.

He tried messing up Lucasarts software and successfully derailed advanced projects with just a few well placed demands.

Make that guy Bobba Fett!

Bobba Fett fixes everything.

He decided to step away from Star Wars for a bit and took a swing at improving  Indiana Jones.  I think we all remember how that worked out.

That film made three quarters of a billion world wide so there was still blood to be squeezed from those stones and yet something seemed to be broken after that.

Lucas could buy his percentage by retreading and shredding the works of his youth.  That was easy for him to do.  No trouble there at all.  But he simply could not buy the thing that he craved the most...


So he finally gave up and sold out for one final time in the biggest sell out of his life.  Lucasfilm was sold to Disney for billions.

And then the worst thing that could have happened to George Lucas finally happened.  Someone made a good Star Wars movie.

Or at least it was better than the last three.

*The lesser works of Charleton Heston were indeed made during this period but I think it's best for everyone if we just paper those over to the extent that we can.


Jason Starks said...

If your writing about George Lucas failing as a film maker from ROTJ onward, you have to mention Gary Kurtz and Marcia Lucas. Kurtz along with ESB director Irvin Kershner were responsible for the first sequel's more grown up tone and story.
Marcia Lucas did editing work on all of George Lucas's films until their divorce. Her Oscar for best editor in 1977 is the Star Wars franchises only Academy Award.
Their where many others. Prior to becoming a billionaire from merchandising, George Lucas hadn't yet surrounded himself with yes men.

Steve Sky said...

Another example of George Lucas's lack, "Howard the Duck". I think he'd like to forget/ignore it, but it shows his film work as himself. I saw it "because it was Lucas", and was the next in the movie string of: Star Wars, Empire, Indiana. I left the theater thinking that Lucas had Jumped the Shark. It was only later that heard that Star Wars and Empire were as good as they were due to the others, rather than Lucas. And as Jason noted, it was the merchandising empire that made him rich, rather than the films themselves. Note the contrast to Spielberg, or Kubrick.