On this day 40 years ago, a little science-fiction space opera — one marred by a lack of confidence from its financiers, on-set struggles that set production back, and skepticism and ridicule from its stars — was dumped into American movie theaters.
Today, it’s a multi-billion dollar franchise which has spawned eight (and counting) live-action features, animated television shows, action figures, lunch boxes, and just about everything else.
That movie was Star Wars.
A Brief History of Star Wars
The film started out as a space-set love letter to the serialized adventures of the 1940s and 1950s. It was adored by audiences and critics alike and became the highest-grossing film of all-time for several years — it lost the title in 1982 by another space-themed movie, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial — and winning seven Academy Awards while receiving nominations for Best Picture and Best Director. It made a bona fide star out of one Harrison Ford, earned respected actor Sir Alec Guinness a place in the heart of every little boy and girl who saw the film and made icons out of a humanoid golden robot and his friend, a blue-and-white trash can on wheels who spoke in nothing but beeps.
Oh, and that tall guy in the black suit breathing out of a scuba respirator, the double-bun hairstyle, the twin sunsets and that walking carpet.
For a time, it made a legend out of its writer and director — George Lucas. Now, that name is arguably the most divisive in all of the geek fandom. Lauded as a visionary, with a keen visual eye and a cunning business sense, Lucas has now become a target for derision and hatred, constantly tweaking his original film (and its two sequels) while refusing to make the original versions available. From 1999 through 2005, Lucas came under increased criticism for his writing and direction of the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy, which filled in the backstory of the franchise’s most dangerous villain (and the galaxy’s worst father), Darth Vader. And that fourth Indiana Jones movie didn’t engender any goodwill.
The End of an Era
In 2012, Lucas sold his company, Lucasfilm, to Disney. He collected a sum of four billion dollars — two billion in hand, two billion in stock options, at least the former of which Lucas gave to charity. The filmmaker had washed his hands of the franchise which had brought him so much fame, not to mention wealth and hate. Pure, unbridled, and frankly, unwarranted hatred.
The George Lucas Problem
George Lucas is not the enemy, people.
Does Lucas deserve some flak for his treatment of the Original Trilogy? Yes, no doubt. Making changes to older movies is nothing new — there was a colorization craze a few decades ago, taking black-and-white movies and adding color to them to make them more palatable for modern audiences — and while Lucas is entitled to make these changes, the original versions should still be made available. They aren’t just movies; they’re pieces of history, especially the one we’re celebrating today.
Considering the Special Edition Changes
The artistry of the visual effects, the precision of the editing, the careful composition of the cinematography is altered substantially by some of the changes made since 1997, and therefore, they change history. Not to mention that while Lucas may have owned the rights to The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983), he didn’t direct them. He’s fundamentally altering another director’s work on his own, which is all kinds of wrong.
But looking at the Special Edition changes as objectively as possible (which is difficult for something as near and dear to so many hearts as Star Wars is), the vast majority of the changes are relatively benign, if not outright helpful. When Lucas uses new technology to erase garbage mattes or to add new creatures that expand the mythos of the Star Wars universe, I’m OK with that. Cosmetic changes don’t bother me, and they really shouldn’t bother most people. Purists have a point, and I am one — I own the Limited Edition DVDs with the old Laserdisc transfers, mainly because I refuse to pirate the Despecialized versions — but I grew up on the SEs and sometimes miss those changes.
The changes that are bad, however, are appalling. Han and Greedo get the most attention, but Return of the Jedi is already the franchise’s worst movie, and it becomes even more unbearable with all the additions to the now never-ending sequence in Jabba’s palace. Adding Hayden Christensen to the end of the film, though sound, in theory, is awful in execution. It’s telling that The Empire Strikes Back has the fewest alterations, since it’s, well, the franchise’s best film. Even Lucas seems to acknowledge this.
The Prequel Trilogy
As for the Prequels, criticism is warranted but largely overblown. It’s a case of a few large negatives overshadowing a lot of positives. The Phantom Menace (1999) is a genuinely good movie; it feels like Star Wars, it has a tactile sense of place and setting, with a struggle of good versus evil, relationships of mentor and trainee, and political intrigue about the state of the galaxy at the height of the Galactic Republic. Is Jar Jar Binks annoying? Yeah. Is Jake Lloyd’s performance bad? Mostly. Is Qui-Gon Jinn arguably the most useless character in the entire franchise? Probably. Are these elements enough to tank the whole thing? No.
Honestly, Phantom Menace is tied with the original Star Wars as my favorite of the franchise. Depending on my mood, the former might even win.
Frankly, Attack of the Clones (2002) and Revenge of the Sith (2005) fall prey to Lucas’ penchant for wooden dialog, poor acting, tonal inconsistency, and CGI overload far more than Phantom Menace. But even then, both have their strengths — Revenge has some of the highest highs of the entire franchise, while Clones is a perfect film from the time Anakin and Padme enter the arena all the way through the end.
Striving for Perspective
All this rambling is to say that when Lucas sold the franchise in 2012, he didn’t sell it so much as wash his hands of it. Something that started out as a joyous experience for him, a chance to take the serialized stories and Kurosawa works he looked up to and repurpose them as entertainment for a new generation, had morphed into something that’s given him pain and anguish for (at the time) 15 years. Even now, with only a few brief appearances in the spotlight, Lucas can’t escape the hate that follows him everywhere he goes.
The Lucas debate takes on new relevance with the recent, tragic news that Zack and Deborah Snyder have had to temporarily step away from their DC Extended Universe to help their family grieve and heal following the suicide of their daughter in March. That the Snyders hid this from the public eye for nearly two months and tried to ignore it because they didn’t want to face the sting of backlash speaks volumes about the world we live in today. These are men and women who live in the public eye, whose work arguably no longer belongs to them as soon as it hits screens, and we often forget that they’re real people with real lives who don’t deserve our unmitigated hatred.
In time, people will miss Lucas. People will realize that the fan-fiction we’re getting now has little of the visual imagination that Lucas brought to the table, with the first Episode fundamentally remaking the original film and the first spinoff offering a story that’s about as asinine as the worst bits of the Prequels. We can hope for the best, but when one movie takes us a New Tattooine, New Hoth, and New Endor all in one movie, I’m not holding my breath.
Lucas had help. He had collaborators. He did almost nothing alone. But he is inextricably Star Wars, and always will be for the rest of time, even more so than his connection to his other vaunted franchise — Indiana Jones. On this day that we celebrate one of the most influential films of all-time, let’s also honor the man who gave it to us in the first place, rather than lambast him for what we incorrectly assume he took away as well.