Tag Archives: george lucas

The Disney Star Wars films could at last bring a balance to the force

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NaBloPoMo November 2012My initial shock of discovering that George Lucas has sold Lucasfilm to Disney has given way to contemplation about what a post-Lucas Star Wars universe might look like.

For many people this is bad news; it simply means more bad films cashing in on the goodwill of a dwindling generation of fans who are destined to be disappointed. Sometimes I think Star Wars fans have very selective memories, choosing to forget not only that Star Wars all but invented film related merchandising as we now understand it, but that they lapped it up as kids as well. Would either Empire or Jedi had been anything like as successful as the were if their prospective fan bases hadn’t spent the previous three years tirelessly playing with their action figures and dreaming about what might happen in the next sequel? I doubt it.

The prequels failed for several reasons: bad scripts, an over reliance on CGI, poor directing and poor continuity with episodes 4-6. Most of the problems can be laid at George Lucas’ own door. If he had recognised his limits and handed directorial duties to other people – precisely as he had done with both Empire and Jedi – we would almost certainly have ended up with better films. Both iterations of the Clone Wars animated series have been both superior to the prequels and felt more Star Wars-y and it cannot be a coincidence that Lucas has been for the most part at arm’s length from them.

But there’s a more fundamental problem, and that is that they were prequels. Prequels are inherently problematic because you always know how they’re going to end – and what might make for satisfying backstory will often fail to work as drama itself. So, for instance, Padme always was a doomed character and making her more interesting would have been problematic in terms of tying into the later episodes (which isn’t to say that pretty much anyone could have done a better job with her than Lucas managed). To make things worse, the episodic format meant that they were stuck with telling a linear story that couldn’t really reference anything which we knew was to come later (see the Godfather Part 2 for an example of how a less restricted prequel could work – I understand there’s a TV edit somewhere with the story of both Godfather films put in chronological order; it sounds like an utterly awful idea).

And finally, you have the problem that, more than 30 years ago, Lucas chose rather arbitrarily to make A New Hope episode 4. The series could have sustained one prequel – two at a push – but it is pretty hard to deny that there simply wasn’t enough story to sustain three films (this is one of the reasons why I personally feel that Attack of the Clones is a worse film than Phantom Menace, but I won’t get into that right now).

In short, the two biggest handicaps of episodes 1-3 – the fact they were prequels and George Lucas himself – will not apply to episodes 7-9. It is hard to imagine how they could in any way be worse. And we should also be a little fair here: I would regard Attack of the Clones at its worst to be light years (never mind parsecs) ahead of a film like the latest Total Recall or any of the Twilight films. The Harry Potter films at their best fall far short of episodes 4-6. So the idea that making new Star Wars films will lead to a new dark age of commercial cinema is simple nonsense.

So, with that out of the way, what are my hopes for episodes 7-9? Well, for starters, I’m hoping they’ll be a continuation of episodes 1-6, not just a sequel. For me that means two things: it has to be about this whole “balance of the force” thing, and it has to feature Anakin/Vader as a significant character. However tempting it might be to simply ignore episodes 1-3, ultimately the final three films have to reflect on the prequels’ ideas – especially if they are to be in keeping with Lucas’s idea about repeating motifs and themes throughout the films as if they form an overall symphony (I might not like Lucas’s execution, but I’ve always thought he had some great ideas behind his films).

I’m not terribly familiar with the Star Wars New Republic expanded universe beyond the Dark Empire comics – and since there’s so much of it (and since no one will buy me the encyclopaedias – I probably never will). Generally though, I think they should avoid adapting anything which might have been written before. I also think they ought to resist the temptation of featuring the cast of episodes 4-6 too heavily, leaving them instead as mentor figures. The focus should instead be on a new generation of Skywalkers/Solos.

I said it should reflect on the balance of the force. This prophecy was discussed a lot in episode 1 but was barely touched on in the later films, except (and my memory may be flakey here), when it is announced that the prophecy is clearly wrong because Anakin has turned to the dark side. But it has long been speculated that, in fact, the prophecy was true. Anakin brings balance in two ways: firstly in bringing down the Old Republic, which has become infantilised by its over reliance on the Jedi (and here, Ryan Britt’s recent article about illiteracy is particularly instructive) and secondly by being instrumental in bringing down the Emperor. So we’ve seen him redress the balance, but what we haven’t yet seen is him restore some modicum of equilibrium.

The agenda of episodes 7-9 therefore must surely be to recount how that equilibrium was eventually achieved. Possibly this means getting to the roots of the Sith-Jedi conflict (and even how the Mandalorians fit into that).

As for Anakin himself, both 3 film cycles thus far have focused on his life as a Jedi Knight and as a Sith Lord. Both cycles end on him transforming into something new. The Revenge of the Sith states at the end that the blue glowing “life after death” form that we see both Obi Wan, Yoda and Anakin eventually become is a relatively new innovation discovered by Qui Gon Jinn, but this is thrown in as an almost throwaway line. For me, the films have to ultimately be about how Anakin in this new incarnation somehow plays a decisive role in restoring this final equilibrium.

Episode 9 therefore needs to be a real resolution in the way that episode 6 never was. That isn’t to say there can’t be any Star Wars films after that – indeed, by all accounts it is Disney’s plan to keep churning out Star Wars films after that for as long as they keep making money. But these films can be set in other times or focus on other characters.

Anyway, that’s how I see the films developing. I may well find myself disappointed, but I’ve never really understood why Star Wars has been treated as a a sacrosanct film series which should have a finite number of films, while it seems fine for other franchises to continue to churn out sequels endlessly. If this move to Disney means slightly less reverence, the franchise can only benefit.

UPDATE: I also wrote this for Unlock Democracy today, about the parlous state of democracy in the Old Republic: Unlock the Galaxy.

Review: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls (spoilers)

I have to admit I doing my best to keep expectations down to a minimum with this film. I still bear the scars of the Star Wars prequels. On the other hand, this film had two things going for it that those films did not: firstly, the setting is (literally) more down to earth – meaning there was less scope for going completely green screen; secondly, with Spielberg at the helm there was a good chance he would be able to keep Lucas’ worst excesses under control. At least that was the theory.

The truth of the matter is, Indy IV is less of a travesty than Star Wars I-III, but by as much as it should have been. One of the biggest problems was the lack of any surprises. For about the last fifteen years it has been rumoured that if a new Indiana Jones film were to be made it would involve UFOs and tie together the Roswell incident with the theories of Erich von Daeniken. And so it turned out to be. But this in itself is very old fedora. We’ve had the X-Files. We’ve had Stargate. And Steve? Remember Close Encounters of the Third Kind? There was no point in going to all the expense and effort of making a film that had nothing new to say. Surely the reason for all this delay and all these screenplays was that they were looking for a decent twist in the tale. If that was the case, they clearly failed.

The other main plot thread is equally badly handled. You don’t need to have read the internet rumours to have figured out that “Mutt” Williams was going to turn out to be Jones’ son, so why leave it to halfway through the film for the revelation? This was hardly an Empire Strikes Back-style twist – we knew from the titles who the mother was and they even continued the joke from the Last Crusade about being named after the dog. Yet, while the Last Crusade spent a fair amount of time exploring the father-son relationship, in Kingdom it is all-but resolved in a single scene.

That was a shame because at the start I really thought they were going to take this in a more interesting direction. The first part of the film seemed to be concerned with exploring how this 1930s pulp action hero would be a fish out of water in the atomic 1950s and that all his achievements would be forgotten in a country dazzled by science and gripped with Cold War paranoia (and at this point can I just ask: what was the point of the first five minutes of the film except to give Lucas an opportunity to wank over his American Graffiti glory days? It slowed down the film interminably). In comic-book parlance, this is a case of the Golden Age crash landing into the Silver Age. Yet that theme is completely forgotten within half and hour.

In place of all this promise is a very by-the-numbers adventure which, having flirted with the idea of exploring something deeper, recoils and retreats into safety. The problem is rooted, I think, in the fact that Spielberg and Lucas got their fingers burnt so badly with Temple of Doom while winning high plaudits for Last Crusade. In truth, neither of those films were the respective disaster or triumph that legend makes them out to be (although I don’t disagree that the later film is the superior). Temple of Doom is undeniably sexist and racist, something which cheapens it. But as an exploration of the lead character it is the most interesting of the lot. A prequel to Raiders, at the start Jones’ ethics are rather closer to Belloq’s in the first film. Doom is about why he ultimately rejects that way of life and turns instead towards a purer form of archaeology.

The theme running through the series is the tension between wisdom and knowledge. In Temple, Jones lacks wisdom and is nearly destroyed. In Raiders, he has learned enough to know that there are times when too much knowledge can be a dangerous thing. In the Last Crusade, lesson learnt, he doesn’t merely avoid getting himself destroyed but gets to save his own father in the process. But there was already a sense that the Last Crusade was merely retreading Raiders ground. Kingdom just repeats the same tired formula. Wouldn’t it have been better if this had been an attempt to redo Temple, without the flaws, rather than simply remake Raiders imperfectly once again?

This also comes with plot holes as well. Big gaping ones in fact. The film ends with Dr Jones reinstated at the university he teaches at and getting married to Marion. All very well, and in common with all recent Spielberg films to end so happily. But hang on: if US intelligence were paranoid about to what extent Jones was conspiring with the Russians at the start of the film, how did he explain the fact that almost immediately afterwards he vanished into the Amazonian rain forest with the same group of Russians, apparently got them all killed and all evidence of what happened has been destroyed? And how come it isn’t just him that gets reinstated but Jim Broadbent’s character?

The aliens and their behaviour don’t seem to make that much sense either. How come the crystal skull’s “stare” works on Jones and Oxley but not the apparently psychic Spalko? And yet it seemed to work very well indeed on the all-but brainless giant ants. And if the aliens were so concerned about getting their thirteenth skull back, what about the alien recovered from Roswell (apparently sitting in a Russian truck somewhere in the jungle)? For that matter, since the aliens are clearly visiting earth still, and that damned skull was so magnetic, how come they didn’t simply recover it themselves? None of it sadly made much sense; worse, if these questions had been answered they probably would have resulted in a better film overall.

Oh, and a word about CGI. I expected some CGI. You can’t get away from it these days. I don’t begrudge the decision to depict a nuclear explosion – it was well done. What I really hated was the fucking ewoks. Well, okay, they weren’t actually ewoks, but it did almost feel as if Lucas and Spielberg felt they had to do something to twist the knife after watching that South Park episode.

So it is that in the Nevada desert, Jones encounters a bunch of CGI prairie dogs (is this some kind of obscure Caddyshack reference that I’m missing?). Later, Mutt decides to become Tarzan and in so doing befriends a bunch of CGI monkeys. Neither of these elements adds anything to the film except to give the effects department more to do. They pissed me off so much in fact that I almost expected the gray alien that appears in the finale to say “how wude!” before eating Cate Blanchett’s brains.

This isn’t to say it’s all bad. Some (but not all) of the action sequences are what you’d expect from an Indiana Jones film. When Karen Allen switches on that smile, it’s like a day hasn’t passed since 1981 (the lack of screentime for Karen Allen overall is another crime for which Spielberg and Lucas must be made to account for). It certainly could have been worse and the fact that it resists the temptation to try to compete with the Mummy franchise is no small mercy. But after 19 years, this needed to be something very special indeed. As it stands, it only succeeds in making Temple of Doom look good.