The Lucas Legacy
I was perusing the net recently and came across a story about how a Star Wars fan film that had built up a head of steam online, has been slapped with a copyright strike from Disney. Nothing unusual there as the company is virtually legendary with respect to its litigious proclivities. However, someone over a Lucasfilm interceded and got the strike lifted, because the fan film creator had allegedly sought prior permission and supposedly received it. George Lucas has always maintained an equitable attitude towards fan usage of the Star Wars IP, something he tried to impress upon Disney when he sold the rights to them back in 2012. But it is very difficult to have a balanced discussion about George Lucas as the man is such a paradox. On one hand he is possibly one of the greatest contributors to twentieth century pop culture and has influenced a generation of film makers, writers and fans. On the other he is the man who single headedly has managed to queer his own pitch, with the way he has continuously tinkered with his body of work and appended it with supplemental material that many deemed substandard or to the detriment of the original. He is also still vilified in some quarters for his business arrangement with Disney.
Lucas announced back in October 2012 an interview with the New York Times, that he was "retiring" from the sort of film making he had become closely associated with over the last three decades. He was however still going to pursue creating more "personal" films. He also made some fairly broad statements about getting mainstream Hollywood to buy into his last project Red Tails and the movie industries overall inadequacies in dealing with issues of race and African-American history in films per se. He took time to pointedly described how he had to finance Red Tails himself. Sadly, the movie was met with relative indifference at the box office and garnered the usual criticism associated with his work. IE too much emphasis on spectacle and not enough attention of characters and script. Since then Lucas has not produced any major cinematic works and has continued to pursue his philanthropic and charitable endeavours.
There are some who feel that Mr. Lucas is a misunderstood film maker who has suffered at the hands of a rabid and unreasonable fan base and a system that hates him for bypassing their rules. Then there are those who simply see him as a gifted technician, well versed in the mechanics of film making but lacking in the narrative skills shown by the true “greats”. As per usual, the truth more than likely lies somewhere in between these two positions and is far more nuanced. As for his last movie Red Tails (which he produced and then took over the reshoots from incumbent director Anthony Hemmingway), it’s a distinctly average film. It is visually impressive as you would expect, but the story is incredibly formulaic, and the characters are weak. The issue of racism is not given the depth or intelligence required to explore it effectively and the dialogue is unconvincing. Whether the films reception was a key factor in Lucas choosing to semi-retire from the wider industry, is up for debate. For decades he has been a prisoner of his own success and at times it does seems like he still struggles to come to terms with it all. “On the Internet, all those same guys that are complaining I made a change are completely changing the movie … I’m saying: ‘Fine. But my movie, with my name on it, that says I did it, needs to be the way I want it. Why would I make any more when everybody yells at you all the time and says what a terrible person you are?”
Although I fully understand and even agree in principle with his sentiments, such a position is purely an ideological one and is not very practical in reality. Star Wars has become an integral part of popular culture and although there is no legal precedence, the public feel that they have some collective emotional ownership of it and are therefore not going to take an even-handed view to alterations and new material (as the Disney movies have shown). Lucas should have learnt from others who have participated in films and TV that has grown bigger than themselves. You come to terms with it and try to work within the confines that it sets, or you simply withdraw. Lucas may think that the restraints of the Star Wars phenomenon has limited his options and thus he has not had the critical success he looked for. I think more blame can be attributed to his skills set. The original trilogy although overall his own work, had the creative input of additional screenwriters and directors to smooth the rough edges and curb his excesses. The prequels did not and therefore their ideas and visual style were marred by poor dialogue and turgid stories. In fact, I would draw a parallel between George Lucas's career and that of M. Night Shyamalan. Both are talents that possibly require the counterbalance of a third party to reach their full potential.
Of course, George Lucas has not fully retired and has provided himself with a get out of jail card, with the ongoing development of a fifth Indiana Jones film. However, it should be noted that he is only involved as an executive producer and is not contributing to the story. Yet regardless of any future film output, his long-term legacy is clearly established and of considerable magnitude. He created a mythology for a generation that had none and has been instrumental in pushing back the technical boundaries of the film industry. He has demonstrated that the mainstream studios do not need to have it their own way all the time and he has influenced an inordinate amount of people globally to pursue their creative dreams. However, it can be argued that he has also set a precedent of style over substance and spectacle over narrative. Yet, whatever your opinion on the man and his work, we have not heard the last of him. Lucas is by nature a “fixer” and I suspect he has something he still wants to put right or follow up upon before he’s “done”.