The People Vs George Lucas

Posted: July 19, 2010 in Movies
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Friday night I went to the annual Puchon (Or Bucheon) Fantastic Film Festival, my favorite film fest in Korea. They mostly show sci-fi/horror films, and also have genre oriented art/model exhibits.

Friday night I saw The People vs George Lucas, a documentary about fandom’s violent reaction to the Star Wars prequels (It also mentions the latest Indiana Jones movie). It shows the journey of Lucas from a young rebel film maker to the creator of Star Wars to the overlord of the Star Wars prequels. We see interviews from various figureheads of geek culture, from nerdcore artists to independent film makers to major figures in fandom. They all talk about the influence Star Wars had on their lives. A few big names are also included like author Niel Gaimen and director Francis Ford Coopola. Interspersed throughout the film are Star Wars fan parodies and tributes.

It opens with the early days of George Lucas, who as a teenager was in a near fatal car accident, which was a turning point of his life that drove him to do something special. Footage of his early film career is shown and we learn he had some unknown traumatic experience with his early films THX-1138 and American Graffiti. He clashed with studios over the final cut and from then on wanted to have complete control over his films.

Next the original trilogy is covered, and the first Indiana Jones is mentioned as well. Fans recall their memories of seeing them in the theater and being blown away, and the influence on today’s film makers is noted. Star Wars was the first great media merchandising franchise, so the toys get mentioned as well. Apparently the toys sold so fast, that at one point an empty box was sold, through which kids sent a proof of purchase in the mail to get more figures shipped to them. It worked too. People loved Star Wars so much they bought an empty box.

The first hints of controversy came with the Special Edition releases of the late 90s. The Han Shot first controversy is covered, as is the issue of ownership of Star Wars. Does Lucas have the right to do what he wants, or does Star Wars now belong to the fans? Both sides are presented fairly, as it’s revealed that many classic paintings were actually revised by their artists. It’s interesting to note that George Lucas actually fought against Ted Turner in the 80s, over the issue of colorizing on black and white Films. There’s a great quote from Lucas from a Congressional Hearing about how the old films should not be altered as they are a valuable part of our culture. Some fans see this as blatant hypocrisy.

There’s also the issue of releasing the original versions on DVD/Blue Ray etc. It’s noted that ET, Aliens, Blade Runner, Brazil, and other films all have original and directors cut versions available, often in the same box set. In a moment that almost seems like a conspiracy theory, a statement from Lucasfilm is shown about how the original prints of the first trilogy don’t exist anymore. Lucas is also quoted for saying that the old VHS tapes will go bad over time, hence the new versions on DVD will be all that people should and will remember. Allegedly the original prints were altered to make the Special Editions. Many fans and film-makers cry foul, noting the films were digitally enhanced, hence the original prints almost have to exist somewhere, unless they were actually destroyed.

Then the anticipation of Episode one began. News coverage is shown of how ticket sales spiked for films that just showed a two minute trailer of Episode I. The excitement begins and it’s laugh out loud funny to see old news reports of fans saying the new movie couldn’t possibly be bad. How could a Star Wars movie possibly be bad? One interviewee notes that some fans almost certainly would not like it because the expectations were too high.

Opening night in California is shown, news footage of the time shows people that flew from Australia and Europe just to see this movie. The true highlight of this documentary is recapturing that spirit of enthusiasm, and the rush of excitement of that exact moment in 1999 that the Star Wars logo burst onto the screen for the first time in over 15 years.  The film festival audience cheered for that moment as if it were 1999 all over again.

Then the reality set in, and fans confessed that even after seeing it 3 times or more in the theaters, it was a bad film. Jar Jar of course is covered, as is the issue that Star Wars was always for kids anyway, and today’s older fans were kids when they saw it. It’s shown that younger kids today like Jar Jar and the new movies. Of course the midi-chlorians (scientific basis for the Force) are covered. This is seen as especially insulting to the fans who bought and empty box during their childhood. It ruined the spiritual dimensions of the Force.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is also covered, as is the South Park episode that spoofed it. Also shown are clips from the Star Wars Holiday Special, which Lucas refuses to acknowledge. We’re drawn back to the beginning where Lucas clashed with the studios in his early days. It’s noted that film is a collaborative process, and with Lucas having total creative control in the new films, this was the result. The documentary ends in a song asking Lucas to actually make more Star Wars film in the hopes of fixing the franchise again.

All in all it’s a very fair documentary. Both sides of various arguments are presented. Lucas is criticized for the merchandising of Star Wars, but it’s noted that no one forces us to buy anything. Fandom itself feeds the system, and it’s not like everything else isn’t mass merchandised these days. Francis Ford Coppola notes the tragedy of Star Wars is it prevented Lucas from doing arsty/avante garde films, something Lucas always said he wanted to do more of.

The eccentricities of Star Wars fans may be a bit much for the average film goer. However, the only true criticism I have for this documentary, is that it only lightly touches on what I believe to be the true issue of the new trilogy. In my opinion, the reason fans were so angry is not that the new trilogy was bad, but that it revealed Lucas to be hack writer, and that the true magic of Star Wars came from contributions of other actors, screenwriters, and directors. In other words, the original Star Wars was great as a result of a collaborative process, a.k.a the allegedly evil Hollywood system.

The writer/director Alexandre O Phillipe and Producer/director of photography Robert Muratore were present for a Q and A session. Both admired Lucas as a film maker and made this documentary not out of a hatred for Lucas but to channel the intensity of the fans disappointment, something they believed is a true cultural phenomenon. Alexandre wished Lucas would let some of the hot new directors of today take a crack at Star Wars to make it exciting again. I asked him what he thought of Lucas not making appearances at conventions to meet the fans. He said that did come up when making the documentary but wasn’t included for time constraints.

All in all a good show. 9/10.

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