George Walton Lucas Jr is only a man. Unlike in myths, gods never create men. Only men create gods. To father a family of immortals is a burden no man can really bear.
Among adults of a certain age, it has been accepted that George Lucas has betrayed his fans. Star Wars is the central mythology of the 20th century, second only to Lord of the Rings, if only because Tolkien wove a prehistory for a real people, the Britons, while Lucas told the story of a people who may not even be the forefathers of Earth.
But those prequels. Ask anyone – anyone! I do not know a single person who thinks otherwise – about Episodes I through III and you’ll get, at best, a concession that they got better as they progressed, not worse, shambling towards some sort of coherency as the story quickened towards the familiar, iconic territory of Luke Skywalker and Old Ben Kenobi.
I cannot defend the prequels, despite their many laudable qualities: often wonderful if no longer industry-defining special effects; Jedi Knights that are warriors to be feared and respected; a glimpse of a splendid Republic of majestic alien races, a galaxy worth fighting for.
What I can say now, after re-watching the best film of the series on the occasion of its 30th anniversary, The Empire Strikes Back, is that George Lucas is directly responsible for one of the things that has given me the greatest, most quantifiable joy (if by “money spent” alone) in my life and no one – not even George Lucas – can sully the goodness that he created.
Think of the Children
A common defence of the prequels is that they’re not for adults, but for children. That’s no defence at all – what entertains a child, especially in fantasy, is not so different than what entertains an adult. Children respond to verisimilitude and the gravity of a well-constructed world just as much as any grown-up. (See: Star Wars.)
So if the prequels were bad, it’s not because they were for children. It’s because they were just bad.
But it’s clear that George Lucas does legitimately care about children, something that should not be conflated with his perceived misstep to aim the prequels at children.
In J.W. Rinzler’s much-quoted The Making of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back: The Definitive Story, many of Lucas’s notes from the ’70s are reproduced, giving a glimpse into his thoughts at the time. Bear in mind that this is pre-merchandising George (although he surely had toys on his mind). Empire was still not a sure thing – and in fact would come ice-crackingly close to remaining uncompleted.
“Children are innocent and love justice,” wrote Lucas. “While most of us are wicked and naturally prefer mercy… Need symbolic images which reassure them that there is a happy ending, solution to the Oedipal problems.”
Later, during an interview which I believe was conducted around the same era, Lucas expounds on his motivations: “I love making kids happy. Somebody’s got to do it. Your childhood is so long and I think kids need all the breaks they can get to make it bearable, because it goes on forever.”
As someone who had a difficult childhood, I can only say that George Lucas gave me many much needed breaks over the years, time away from the tedious horror of childhood to smash laser reeds against dark, unyielding trees and to obsessively mull the duties of life aboard a cardboard starfreighter.
If today there are millions of children who, having never seen the original trilogy, are escaping the endless years of youth with telescoping plastic lightsabres and video games overflowing with Jedi, then maybe we older fans can lighten up a little. The old bearded toymaker may not have crafted something as transcendent in middle age as he did in his younger days, but he’s still making toys.
“And money!” some might reply, as if that matters. Don’t forget that that money – and ballsy, deft handling of it – allowed Lucas to wrest control of the rights of his own creation from an old Hollywood regime, creating an environment of auteur-controlled cinema that laid at least some of the groundwork for independent cinema that could be both artistically and commercially successful. Without George Lucas there might not have been Quentin Tarantino.
Moreover, Lucas recently committed to Warren Buffet’s Giving Pledge – he’s going to donate at least half of his money, billions of dollars, to charity when he dies. Not just any charity, either, but his own: Edutopia: the George Lucas Educational Foundation.
Star Wars is going to pay for the education of many future children.
The Hero Reborn
It bummed me out to hear that Lucas has put the brakes on the planned Star Wars television series, saying that he didn’t know a way to produce the series with the quality he wanted on a reasonable budget. (I have a few ideas, most of which would not be unfamiliar to a younger George Lucas who knew a thing or two about shoestring budgets.)
I was almost surprised I was upset to hear about the postponement. I really don’t care for the prequels, having seen them each in the theatre and then never again, unlike the original trilogy that I tend to watch about once every year or two. I think much of the criticism raised in the Plinket review of Episode I is on point: Too many people held Lucas up as an inviolate genius and many of his ideas – even the clunkers – went unchallenged.
I watch a lot of television. I’m convinced it’s in many ways a more viable, mature narrative form than movies at the moment, if only because it has more time to stretch out and tell a story. And it was on television that I hoped that George Lucas would be able to restore Star Wars to the critical and creative heights it had once reached.
Wishful thinking, I know. There’s little out of Lucasfilm in the last decade to warrant such hope, although there are always glimmers in the darkness, like the first run of Clone Wars cartoons or Knights of the Old Republic.
But I’ve come to realise that wanting the Star Wars television show to be good at all is evidence that my love for the universe isn’t fully extinguished. I may be frustrated at what it’s become, but I’m not over Star Wars. It’s only one reinterpretation away from working its way back into my heart, very much like the feelings I have for Star Trek post-reboot – I feel like I have space to love what I love, hate what I hate, while not being beholden to defend the weakest parts. Star Wars may be sullied – arguably that happened as far back as Jedi, although I don’t think most people disliked that movie too much until Episode I made us re-evaluate our affections in the first place – but it can be good again. More than good. It can be great again. It’s already a wave that’s impossible to unweave from modern culture, but it can be relevant, challenging or simply cool again. Star Wars can still be important.
But to do that, Lucas has to look at the work of three decades and realise what he’s created is beyond his ability to control. Star Wars is a pastiche of mythological arcs, pop sci-fi and pulp adventure tropes which just so happen to be bolted on to a bunch of exciting characters played by talented actors. To make Star Wars great again, Lucas will have to take an even bigger leap, perhaps relinquish more control of his creation to other artists and storytellers. It has got to be a mindfuck to hold the responsibility for something that means so much to so many people – doubly so when you set out to make something better and find yourself with a mixed reception from those you set out to please.
I hope Lucas can see the cultural riches he holds. I hope he can donate them to the civilisation at large and let us reinterpret them and explore them.
In his notes for Empire, Lucas wrote: “What the evildoer wishes to inflict on the hero should be the bad person’s fate.”
I can’t speak for anyone but myself, but I don’t want to hold on to any frustration and disappointment for Mr Lucas any longer. He could make a thousand more Star Wars films, each more terrible than the last, and they wouldn’t do anything to diminish the feeling inside my chest that wells up when I see an AT-AT stepping out of a Hoth blizzard or hear the sound of a lightsabre being brought to bear.
You’re just a man, George Lucas. I forgive you for being imperfect. Just do me this favour: Go out there and knock it out of the galaxy one last time.