We all know the story. A man creates a trilogy that captures the imagination of millions, and through a combination of harnessed merchandizing rights and pre-internet accessibility, he becomes a geek-god. But like the fabled Icarus, he flies too close to the sun. He delivers unto us a new trilogy that’s deemed unworthy of its predecessors, unworthy of its very genre. Stripped of his godhood, rebuked by fans and critics, George Lucas was cast down, unworthy. Restrained by the chains of his former fans’ so-called “ruined childhoods,” pinned by nitpicks that exacerbated his inherent flaws, no longer Icarus but Prometheus bound to stone, Lucas became food for internet hostility. But unlike Icarus, it wasn’t arrogance that caused his fall; and unlike Prometheus, he took nothing from us. Yet, he was left twice damned all the same, a man left in our debt for his supposed pride and supposed theft. But it’s time we let him go, not to raise him up yet again to something he could never be and never asked to be, but to accept him as a man: creative, fallible, and a product of his own interests and amusements. It’s time we realize that George Lucas owes us nothing.
The thing about George Lucas is that I don’t think he ever was the grand storyteller who so many imagined him to be. He’s always been a concept man, someone who could see the story in broad strokes like the oral storytellers of old, set upon the Earth to tell myths while subtle characterization and strong dialogue lay beyond reach, perhaps even beyond interest. He may have walked the same lots as his buddy Steven Spielberg, but their approaches were never the same, despite how often film history has lumped them together. Lucas has always been tied to the past while looking towards the future. His earliest films, THX 1138 and American Graffiti, are in the long shadows cast by Huxley and Orwell, respectively, as well as his own teenage experiences. But his willingness to reimagine the past through new technological practices and techniques allowed him to bring out the new in the familiar. I’ve long seen him as an experimenter, one who in the midst of telling the story he wanted to tell in the way he wanted to tell it, was swept up into one of the biggest franchises of all time.
Star Wars, largely inspired by Flash Gordon serials, Greek mythology, Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, and Joseph Campbell’s writings on the monomyth, was never meant to be more than a B-movie throwback, powered by the magic of innovative special effects. There’s a certain earnestness to that first film, one that’s strikingly different from the blockbusters that fill our screens today. I love it, but at the same time recognize that there’s something silly about it. This silliness isn’t a revelation. We’ve all heard the stories of the cast’s complaints about the dialogue and Harrison Ford’s now famous “George, you can type this shit, but you can’t say it!” Whether it was the experience of seeing something familiar through a fresh set of eyes, the performances of new but charismatic actors, or the fact that you could see Lucas’ love for this world up on the screen, Star Wars not only worked but became quotable. I can’t help but think that had the film been released in today’s market with the same script, it would be seen as a modern cult film, one that would leave fans clamoring for a sequel that would never come, instead of a billion dollar launchpad.
When the sequel did come, the franchise reached another level. Whatever The Empire Strikes Back lost in terms of earnestness and B-movie plotting, it made up for in direction and screenwriting. And Return of the Jedi, which saw Lucas return as co-screenwriter once again, displays the intrinsic writing tics, and occasionally juvenile humor, that unmistakably belongs to Lucas. The Star Wars Trilogy as we know it looks and sounds the way it does because George Lucas, through his own decision, didn’t have full creative ownership over those sequels, and his original story outlines underwent major revisions. This isn’t to discredit Lucas, not at all. The point is that we’ve continually blamed Lucas for what he allegedly became, while failing to see what he always was.
While I get many of the complaints about the altered editions, I will admit that I’ve never understood the hatred for the prequels or that hatred for Lucas that stemmed from them. I’m not here to defend the prequels, rather the man behind them, The prequels are clearly lesser entries than the originals, but their flaws can be traced back to that original 1977 film. Many of us are aware of Star Wars’ pulpy roots and throwback nature, yet we were surprised when the prequels offered that same B-movie-ness instead of fitting perfectly on the pedestal of nostalgia that had been built for it. After spending decades romanticizing the originals, we’ve spent over a decade pulling apart the prequels. Tearing them and Lucas down has become a contest of hyperboles, a fetishized movement to make him and those films seem as unskilled as possible. We blame Lucas for ruining something that was always his to begin with. Fandom’s sense of ownership and entitlement has only grown more problematic into the 21st century, but unlike the comic book adaptations that dominate so much of our attention, Lucas didn’t muck up something someone else created. There’s so much noise around how he “failed,” “destroyed,” and “falsified” while missing the point that this story was always Lucas’s to do with what he pleased, for good or ill.
There are many issues with the prequel films, issues I’m sure Lucas was aware of during the filming of them. But this isn’t a case of a man refusing help, caught up in his own hubris, and foolishly believing he held all the answers. Lucas approached other filmmakers to direct the prequels, to take them down a similar path as the first sequels went. But he was told that he should do them, and make them his own, which is exactly what he did. The prequels became a platform for Lucas to once again take the reins of the experimentation that drove his filmmaking. The CGI effects, while nowhere near as interesting or textured as the models of the original films, did help push special effects and green-screen technology forward. The story, which ambles and takes too many unnecessary deviations, allowed him to try his hand at new narrative devices and plot structures. It perhaps seems laughable or irresponsible to use films of that budget and anticipation as experimental films, but again, he didn’t create Star Wars to become what it eventually became, and I don’t believe he had any responsibility to take his story and cater it to what people thought it should be. He created something he found entertaining, something children would find entertaining, and something that would provide him with new challenges and new tools in a new age of film. These prequels, made to satisfy his own interests and the demand of unquiet fans, are made the only way he’s ever known how to make films.
So George Lucas, “ruined your childhood?” Well, he made mine, and I’m sure mine wasn’t the only one. George Lucas was, is, and forever shall be a personal hero of mine. Not because I think he’s one of the greatest filmmakers who ever lived, not because I agree with every decision he made, but because he made films the way he wanted to, and brought wonder and excitement into the lives of children. You may hate the prequels, or just feel nothing towards them, and that’s ok. But I remember the excitement I felt with each prequel, the thrill of seeing this universe expand as its history grew deeper and richer. And I see kids, unmarred by internet anger, who share in the excitement of films we’ve deemed “garbage.” Even in the recognition that the original films are better in quality, the prequels are for some what the originals were for others. I think there are far worse ways to solidify a directorial career by making movies to feed the imagination of youth and sell toys, though I’ll add the caveat that some of the cringe-worthy changes and insertions added to the original films over the years (that song in Return of the Jedi) are unappealing for any audience.
As we move into a new age of Star Wars with The Force Awakens, I think it’s time we finally let go of the hatred, the deafening complaints, and repeated criticisms of George Lucas, and simply accept him, flaws and all. He at least deserves that much. Whether or not you like the prequels, and whether or not you like George Lucas, it’s impossible to deny the impact he’s had on our pop culture, filmmaking techniques, and storytelling. Lucas has said that he will go off and make art films that are just for him and for no one else to see. There’s something sad about that, that we’ve beaten this man’s art into private existence. But it’s also evidence of his continual interest in experimenting with his own filmmaking skills and interests, and it’s a far braver move than most directors are capable of. Instead of making a case why these films should be shown to the public, or once again raising criticisms that we’ve forgiven lesser films for, or using George Lucas as the punchline of a joke, I’d like to thank him because if anything, it’s we who owe him.