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George Lucas breaks up with ‘Star Wars’

When you break up with somebody, the first rule is no phone calls. The second rule, you don’t go over to their house and drive by to see what they’re doing. The third one is you don’t show up at their coffee shop and say you are going to burn it.

George Lucas, speaking to CBS News about his (lack of) involvement in making The Force Awakens.

How would it feel to invent a universe, hand it over to others, and watch them reject your input? To become the goat of your own fan base, only to see your successors embraced as heroes? This interview accomplished something remarkable; it made me pity George Lucas.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m still glad someone else grabbed the franchise’s reins. Somewhere along the line, Lucas lost the plot.

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“It is your destiny.”

Geekdom is abuzz; Star Wars will be reborn. Out of nowhere, Disney snatched up the rights from Lucasfilm, simultaneously announcing sequels to Return of the Jedi. After the disastrous prequel trilogy, a new director and proven screenwriter will attempt to jump-start the stalled franchise.

Fans are already speculating wildly about the new trilogy’s likely story. What conflict will drive the films? How long after Return of the Jedi will the movies take place? Will we re-join familiar characters—Luke, Leia, and Han—or will a new cadre of adventurers steal the spotlight?

To me, one question looms largest of all. How do you tell a good story when the main character is dead? According to Lucas, Star Wars (Episodes I-VI) centered around Anakin Skywalker: his mysterious origins, his fall from grace, his ruthless rule, his ultimate redemption, and his tragic death.[1] With Vader gone, what’s left to tell?

Of course, you could simply shift the focus from Vader to the characters who survived Return of the Jedi. What are our old friends up to? Luke likely spends his time scouting wunderkinds for a Jedi Academy. Leia wades through Galactic Senate bureaucracy. Han Solo gives up smuggling and starts his own shipping company.

Hardly spellbinding stuff. In fact, a Vaderless Star Wars sounds insufferably boring. Who wants to eavesdrop on Leia’s interminable Galactic Senate hearings? Or watch Han Solo chair Kessel Transport board meetings? Or look over Professor Skywalker’s shoulder as he revises the syllabus for Jedi Mindtricks 101? “Happily ever after” reads well on paper, but in practice proves sadly dull.

Even introducing some replacement villain seems fraught with downsides. How do you top Vader’s menace? All due respect to Darth Whoever or Admiral Thrawn, but Ol’ Helmet Head automatically trumps any newcomer. The Dark Lord of the Sith is a tough act to follow.

So what can you do? ROTJ painted the franchise into a corner. Lucas killed off the lead, burned him on a pyre, and turned him into a ghost. Everything revolved around Vader—the prophecy, the conflict, the heartbreak, and the biggest stakes. How do you move on from that?

Simple. You don’t move on. You stay with Anakin Skywalker; you make his legacy the central conflict. Focus your films on the one character who can’t shake Vader’s shadow.

In short, Luke Skywalker must turn to the Dark Side.

In fact, we’ve already seen Luke start down that path. Watch his Return of the Jedi entrance again. Skywalker strides menacingly into Jabba’s palace, cloaked in black and brooding. He chokes Jabba’s guards (to death?), then threatens to destroy Jabba himself should the Hutt fail to acknowledge Luke’s power. The transformation takes us by surprise; these aren’t behaviors we expect from the blasé Jedi.

We begin to wonder if the Emperor might have been right about Luke. “I have foreseen it,” Palpatine crows, predicting Luke’s downfall. “It is your destiny,” he insists later. And Luke does eventually give in. When Vader threatens to corrupt Leia, Luke lets love crowd out the detached, Zen-Jedi mindset. Hatred flares up, and Luke rages against his father, the machine. For a while, at least, Luke indulges the Dark Side of the Force, before that same compassionate streak prevents him from finishing off Vader.

That brings us to the end of Jedi. In the wake of Vader’s death (and his own flirtation with the Dark Side), Luke must face serious questions about the Force. “How can the Light Side be truly good,” he must wonder, “when it demands that I ignore my deepest feelings, my love for family and friends?” Kenobi and Yoda endorsed a sterile, calculated approach to the Force. Meanwhile, the Sith embraced the full breadth of human experience: desire, yes, but also compassion and love.

As the decades pass, Luke attempts to forge a middle way—to “bring balance to the Force,” as his father did. To check cold logic with compassion. Skywalker’s syncretism slowly corrupts the Jedi way. Eventually, some impossible scenario pits his heart and head against one another. Maybe Leia is put in harm’s way, and Luke vows to protect her—by any means necessary.

Whatever the particular details, Luke falls. The filmmakers would probably save the big reveal for Film Two—echoing the original trilogy’s major revelation in Empire Strikes Back. Just imagine the gasps when the audience sees Luke Skywalker, that archetypal movie hero, finally turn. How heartbreaking would it be to watch a bewildered, elderly Han Solo die at Luke’s hands? And think of the conflict in Film Three, as Leia must plot to end her brother’s life.

The story would be deliciously controversial. Fans would debate, berate, and celebrate the plot twist, just as they did when Vader declared himself Luke’s father. Hopefully, J.J. Abrams and Co. have the guts to take such a risk—to sully the reputation of Star Wars’ golden boy. Handled well, it would do more than just pay homage to the early films’ central character. It would rescue Star Wars from years of neglect.

  1. Perhaps Lucas was not being entirely truthful. A New Hope doesn’t seem to focus squarely on Vader. Grand Moff Tarkin share the top villain billing. Did Lucas really always intend to elevate Vader in the later films?  ↩
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Salvaging Star Wars, Episode IV: Leaner green screen

The last few posts have addressed a single question: how might the Star Wars prequels have been salvaged? How might George Lucas have kept that trainwreck on the rails? In the first post, I questioned the whole “prequel” concept. Then, I discussed how real-world analogues polluted the Star Wars universe. Finally, I suggested some ways that the prequels might have better explored the characters of Anakin and Obi-Wan.

Today’s post addresses the most obvious, glaring problem with the trilogy. To fix the prequels, you’d have to scale back the use of green screen.

“Green screen”—or chroma keying—has become an indispensable tool in the arsenal of modern filmmakers. It allows directors to compose shots that—just a few years ago—wouldn’t have been possible. Whole worlds can be invented, and the creator’s imagination faces nearly no limits.

Ironically, it is the lack of limits that makes green screen a problem for many directions. Creators need ceilings against which to bump their heads; they need obstacles to invent themselves around. Creativity means subverting the limitations of your chosen medium. A New Hope blew our minds because Lucas used models to make us believe in spaceships and laser beams. But without practical obstacles to overcome, Lucas leans too far out into the imaginary, making the action unrelatable and alien.

Overusing green screen and CGI poses problems for actors, as well. Actors need the context that green screening removes.

Why? After all, good actors don’t need a set to deliver a stirring performance. Thespians have dominated empty stages for millenia. Instead, it’s a problem of physics and improvisation. “Physics,” because an actors can’t really fake the subtle way that feet slide differently over carpet than over painted plywood. “Improvisation,” because green screen tends to remove the props and set-pieces that invite impromptu, grounding interactions. When asked to act to an empty room, actors tend to stand around. That’s pretty much all we get from Episodes II and III.

It’s a shame; Lucas hired great actors for his prequel trilogy: Ewan McGregor, Liam Neeson, Natalie Portman, Ian McDiarmid. If any cast could have convinced us that the world was real, it was this one. They couldn’t (no one could). Lucas wasted his fantastic actors by filming them in a sterile, green-walled prison.

This combination—static actors on a fantastically animated background—unnerves the audience. They don’t know why, but things feel unreal. They know, instinctively, that nothing’s really at stake. Such disbelief only further undermines the prequels’ subpar characters, dialogue, and plot. Conversely, while real sets and on-location shooting wouldn’t have single-handedly redeemed the prequels, it couldn’t have hurt.

That wraps up the “Salvaging Star Wars” series. What more is there to say? Lucas wasted his fans’ good will and irreparably damaged the greatest franchise in cinematic history. No thought experiment can change that. But maybe, just maybe, future filmmakers can ask themselves the same questions and thus avoid making the same mistakes on the upcoming Star Wars sequels.

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Salvaging Star Wars, Episode II: Cheap Analogues

Earlier, I bashed the much-hated Star Wars prequel trilogy. How did a franchise so beloved produce something so unwatchable? In the posts to come, I’ll explain how the prequels might have been salvaged.

Here’s one way: let the Star Wars universe stand apart. Throughout Episodes I, II, and III, George Lucas tosses out cheap analogues to real-world culture. In Phantom Menace, for example, the pod race features a track announcer straight out of NASCAR. The character serves to help the audience understand the race as it progresses. But its clunky “on-air” banter and over-obvious observations repeatedly remind us that the Star Wars world is shallow. The move effectively screams, “We don’t have enough ideas of our own to bring this world to life. We’ll steal some that the audience is already familiar with.”

Another example: in Attack of the Clones, Obi-Wan needs some inside information, and he visits a favorite informant for the dish. Okay so far. But their rendezvous point is ridiculous: an American diner, straight out of the 1950s, complete with gleaming chrome, steaming kitchen, and upholstered booths. Worse, the informant himself is an aproned, greasy short-order cook, glossed over with an alien face. Not so much “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,” but more “1993 in a Dayton Waffle House.” The informant’s name? “Dexter Jettster.” You can’t make this stuff up. Or, rather, you can’t make this stuff up, unless you’re already obsessed with merchandise sales.

To be fair, fantasy requires some real-life analogues; the imagined world should intrigue us with its alienness, but it should also be familiar enough to understand. If Star Wars really cut its ties to our world, after all, there’d be no human characters, no English dialogue, and no intelligible plotlines. Yet there’s a line here between intelligible references and on-the-nose anacosmisms.[1]

Other fantasies—even great films—fall prey to the same temptation. Consider, for instance, Gimli’s “axe embedded in his nervous system” line from The Two Towers (extended edition). This dialogue would be clunky in any film, but it’s absolutely cringeworthy in Middle-Earth (with its medieval understanding of anatomy). But such missteps interrupt our sojourn through Lord of the Rings very rarely. In Star Wars, they come all-too-often. The filmmaker seems to delight in watering down the marvelous with the mundane.

“Salvaging Star Wars” continues next time, when we’ll consider how the prequels squandered and spoiled one of the greatest characters in cinematic history.

  1. Made-up word. If an “anachronism” is something that’s out of its native time, then an “anacosmism” is out of its native universe.  ↩

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Salvaging Star Wars

The Star Wars prequels were a catastrophe. These clunky, over-animated films enraged a generation. Thirty-something movie geeks, who had invested love and loyalty in this “far, far away” universe, watched as George Lucas transformed childhood daydreams into a commercialized, overwrought nightmare.

Many have attempted to redeem Star Wars since. Some dreamers still defend the prequels as “Star Wars for a new generation” (millennials enjoy the movies much more than Generation X). Others have attempted to “fix” the prequels via fan-edits, trimming the fat and re-rendering the most offensive animations. Still others, despite being burned in the past, look to the upcoming sequels to restore the tarnished Skywalker legacy.

But it’s too late. Episodes I, II, and III happened. And they sucked. They’re fine for distracting the kiddos on a Saturday morning, but they hardly belong on the bookshelf beside The Empire Strikes Back. Fans are left to dream wistfully of what might have been. To ask “What went wrong?” To wonder how Lucasfilm might avoided the prequel disaster.

I’ve got a few ideas. Over the next few posts, I’ll suggests a few ways that the prequels might have been improved. We’ll call the series “Salvaging Star Wars.”

My first suggestion? Don’t make prequels. At all. With very rare exceptions, prequel films pose problems that should daunt any good writer. First, such projects smack of corporate avarice. A good original film (or film series) ties up its plot threads and wraps up each character’s story. It’s meant to be whole and compelling and complete. But when that film earns big bucks at the box office, the suits trump the creatives. The studio demands a sequel, eager to milk its new-found cash cow. But because there’s no more future story to tell (the villain died; the galaxy was saved; the end), the writers must mine the past instead.

But there’s the second problem. The past is past. It’s history; the audience already knows what’s going to happen. In the case of Star Wars, we know that Obi Wan and Anakin and Yoda and the Emperor will survive. We know that Anakin gets hurt and becomes a hell-bent cyborg. We know that Padme will die. We know (or can very quickly guess) that Senator Palpatine is a secret Sith Lord.

The prequels attempt to generate some drama by introducing characters whose fates we can’t foresee. We get Jar Jar and Samuel L. Windu and Qui Gonn Jinn and Darth Maul and the Trade Federation bozos. But even if these were interesting characters (spoiler alert: they’re not), the audience can’t be fooled. If these characters don’t even get mentioned in the real Star Wars movies, how could they possibly be worth our time?

But there are other prequels that beat the odds. That present a compelling prologue to the original. Think of Godfather II or X-Men: First Class. It’s theoretically possible to make a prequel project work. So how might the Star Wars films have worked, then?

Next time, we’ll dive into the films themselves and explain how the Star Wars universe got muddled with our own—to the prequels’ detriment.