Tuesday, December 14, 2010

George Lucas = Freaking Genius

A few days ago, I started an entry with the above title that...after several driveling pages...wandered far astray from my original topic (or rather, from the idea I had set out to blog about). As I was at the car dealership at the time and my car was ready to go, I set aside the damn thing "for later" and have let it stew on the design board without alteration.

Rather than take the time to clean THAT one up (it's got a lot of Forgey-stuff about creative agendas as relates to SciFi RPGs), I'll try to get back to my original idea: George Lucas is an f'ing genius.

Now, of course, this seems like a no brainer statement, right? I mean, even the folks who hate-hate-HATE the prequel films (or even Episodes V and/or VI) generally admit they would rather have a world WITH Lucas creations than without. In other words, bad Star Wars is better than no Star Wars.

If you like Star Wars, that is.

So then what's the point JB? Why the "duh" topic?

'Cause Lucas doesn't get ENOUGH credit...that's why.

Currently, I'm "grounded" from re-watching Star Wars films for a couple weeks (this is my punishment for the aforementioned speeding ticket from Spain), but just PRIOR to that I was re-watching the prequel films with the audio commentary running so I could get some insights into what the hell Lucas was thinking.

Turns out (if one believes what Lucas and co-commentators say) that Lucas WAS thinking throughout the whole process...and thinking a lot. "Visual jazz" is the way he describes the filmmaking process...and make no mistake, Lucas is a filmmaker first and foremost. Storyteller? Eh...only with regard to film being a "story told with pictures." Lucas was NOT setting out to create a mythology, nor a franchise (though the franchise model, firmly established by earlier films, was probably taken for granted as part of the over-all revenue stream). What fans (like myself to a certain degree) have read into the films, or wished for the films, is nothing more than wishful thinking and Our Own Problem. George Lucas had his own agenda when making the prequel films, and it had little to do with making a trilogy that was faithful to the backstory implied by the first trilogy.

Really. Truly.

[and just by the way, Lucas isn't the first storyteller to write prequels that don't quite jibe with the earlier written stories. I need look no further than Marion Zimmer Bradley's own Darkover series, specifically the excellent "prequel" novel Heritage of Hastur. In the foreword, MZB writes that if the story seems to be different from that recounted in the later (chronologically) Sharra's Exile, it was due to faulty memory and/or wishful thinking on the part of the characters doing the recounting...a sentiment I think Lucas would be happy to ascribe to his own "lapses" of continuity!]

And here's the funny part...as I watched The Phantom Menace listening only to the DVD commentary, I began to see the film through Lucas & Co.'s own eyes, and I found myself absolutely falling in love with the visual spectacular that is Episode I. This is a great film...and that's something I never thought I'd ever write.

Granted it probably helped that, without the normal sound, I was not subjected to the clunky dialogue (and often clunky delivery) rife throughout the film. But you know what? There's plenty of clunky/dumb dialogue in the original films. Lines like "Not this ship, sister." and "...made the Kessel run in less than 12 parsecs..." and that whole scene where Luke tells Leia that she's his sister are just as wince-worthy as "Good call my young padawan!" and "This party's over."

George Lucas is not a writer of literature...hell, he's not even a (decent) writer of screenplays. Only the 1st film ever received an Academy Award nomination for Best Screenplay, and I'd guess that was more to do with what was DONE with said screenplay, rather than what was written...the translation of the script into sheer visual magic and spectacle.

And ALL of Lucas's Star Wars films do that.

Even f'ing Jar-Jar Binks who I hated as much as anyone the first time I saw the film...even HE was palatable as I went through the movie with an eye to just what exactly the character was. There WAS a real person in a costume for much of the film, seamlessly interchanged with the CGI character. A movie magic masterpiece that gets completely over-shadowed by the character's ridiculousness and pseudo-Caribbean dialect.

All six of these films are space opera fantasy of the highest order, and they DO have both rhyme and reason to them, trying to walk a line somewhere between gonzo SciFi serial and more serious morality play. There is really good stuff in there to see, once folks lose their attachment to what they feel the movies SHOULD look like and simply enjoy them for what they are: the best space opera films of all time. Better written than Avatar. More serious than Starship Troopers. Possessing more depth and heart than Riddick. Grander in scope than Serenity. More heroic and fun than the Alien films. And, yes...far more imaginative than ANY of the Star Trek films, even the slick new J.J. Abrams one.

These are the best SciFi films of all time. George Lucas is the master of this particular type of filmmaking. Maybe someday, he'll give us another trilogy dealing with the children of Luke and Leia and Han...I'll tell you I would pay to see such a film in the theater, regardless of what the reviews said. And if they happened to completely ignore the "Expanded Universe" stories that have come out over the years...so much the better. F continuity anyway...I want spaceship dogfights, planet-killing super-weapons, and laser sword duels. Give me those plus aliens that smoke hookahs and get liquored up before flying their starships ("one more for the road, bartender...my droid does the flying")...I'll buy into it all.

I only wish we saw more of it on the screen.


  1. ". . .as I watched The Phantom Menace listening only to the DVD commentary, I began to see the film through Lucas & Co.'s own eyes, and I found myself absolutely falling in love with the visual spectacular that is Episode I. This is a great film . . ."

    You weak-minded fool! He's using an old Jedi mind trick!

    Only joshing (kinda) George is a genius, but I dislike the visual and aesthetic of the prequels as much as the dialogue or mythology. Is it the opening to the third prequel, I don't know, anyway I remember watching the space battle in one of the prequels and thinking wow star wars looks like Babylon 5 now. Not that I dislike Babylon 5, but I preferred the starker WWII dogfight style of the original movie's space battles.

    Anyway, I like American Graffiti.

  2. JB,

    I very specifically remember coming out of the theatre after watching Phantom Menace asking myself why I hated the experience. Part of me knew that it was a good film, but I was not in the same emotional zone as I was when I walked out of Episodes IV-VI.

    I went home and re-watched Empire as a pallet cleanser. Then it dawned on me: I was angry at Lucas for not making the prequel I had written in my head for 20+ years since seeing the original. When I went to see Phantom with a mind to enjoy what Lucas wanted to do with HIS version of the movie (as opposed to mine) I really enjoyed myself. All six films WORK within the framework LUCAS created.

    Ever since then, I have noticed that everyone who enjoys these movies are the ones who have accepted the reality that they don't own the franchise, Lucas does. Everyone who hates them is still angry at Lucas for not making the version of the prequels that exists in their own head.

    So I heartily agree with you — Lucas is a genius.

  3. I've been saying that for years. I am an apologist for the prequels. I love them unconditionally, despite the piss-poor dialogue. Sure, there are some pretty undefendable choices ("NOOOOOOOOO!" comes to mind) but really, does anyone remember, "Governor Tarkin! I should've expected to find you holding Vader's leash. I recognized your foul stench when I was brought on board."

    Or, wait! How about in Empire Strikes Back: "NOOOOOOOO!"

    Lucas IS a genius as a filmmaker. But the truth is, there's no prequels he could've made that wouldn't have been panned by the fans because after 20 years, expectations were way too high. Everyone who had read a book or played a Star Wars RPG in that time had written their own version of the Clone Wars, and they were all bound to be different from what Lucas did (especially since WEG and Timothy Zahn already gave us theirs, which were EU canon before the prequels).

    People also forgot an important fact: Star Wars is, and always was, targeted at young boys of ages 7 to 11. My friends' kids talk about Anakin Skywalker and the Clone Wars the same way we talked about Luke, Han, and Leia. And if you can shut off your adult cynicism and re-capture the wonder of the age you were when you first saw Star Wars, you can enjoy the prequels.

    In the end, I'll defend the prequels while admitting that the original trilogy was superior overall (due largely to other people writing the screenplays and directing ESB and RotJ) but here's the simple truth for me: I find myself, without thinking about it, re-watching the prequels far more often than the original trilogy. That says something.

  4. Yep. As you said it, JB. The movies themselves were great. They just can't live up to the stories WE came up with in our own heads in the 20+ years between the trilogies. There is no way they could satisfy everyone's own take. The only alternative would have been to not make the prequels. And you know what? I enjoyed them too much for them not to have been.

  5. The "genius" of Lucas is exposed in this extremely worthwhile and thorough review of Phantom Menace:

  6. Sorry I don't get that. I didn't spend 20+ years writing my own prequels in my head. I also don't hate the prequels, I like the second one that's a decent enough action flick, I just don't rate them as great movies.

  7. I was just telling folks yesterday at the office how I thought of D&D 4E as the Phantom Menace of D&D, i.e. soulless and ultimately unsatisfying technical excellence.

  8. @Fumers, you just have to watch 4E with the commentary on... ;)

  9. Yes, I agree that Lucas IS a genius at what he does best: function as the executive producer / creator of highly entertaining and imaginative space operas. But he is a LOUSY writer and director for the most part, and while I agree that there is much to love in these films if one just relaxes and enjoys the ride, it is also true that ESB is a high point of the series due to the overall team (Kersh directing, Kasdan screenwriting) that made it. The Prequels are AWESOME for CGI and grandeur but the writing --and more so, the directing and acting -- verge on the unwatchable.

    That said, I LOVE shitty B-movies, and that is essentially what the STAR WARS films are: shitty B-movies on A-list budgets. So I actually watch the prequels a fair amount, especially the second two.

    Lastly, and with a BIG grain of salt here, I must take umbrage at the comparison to Star Trek -- those are films with a different audience in mind, and what's more, Star Trek films II - IV are pretty goddamn great, especially when taken as a coherent trilogy, which they are.

  10. @Josh: Or maybe JB needs to play 4E with some commentary to fully appreciate it for what it is.

  11. I've heard 4E commentary. Mike Mearls talking about getting the math right = George Lucas talking about getting the pixels right, both succeeded technically but produced something unsatisfying on the whole.

  12. I partially agree. I thought Episode II was good. I think Episode I suffered a lot from his attempt to create a new way to create movies. I suspect it would have been stronger if it had stuck closer to traditional production phases. (I still want to see the Phantom Edit.)

    Episode III I haven't settled on an opinion yet. I think that film was put in a very difficult position from the moment the prequels were conceived. There was so much that had to be included. Not to mention having to both be the last film produced and end on a down note.

    Verification word: myrantyl. A drug used to treat (or enhance?) rants.

  13. "redwald said...

    Sorry I don't get that. I didn't spend 20+ years writing my own prequels in my head. I also don't hate the prequels, I like the second one that's a decent enough action flick, I just don't rate them as great movies."

    I didn't mean 'literally writing them' (even if that is what I said). Rather, I meant that if you were a huge, geeky fan of the original trilogy (as I am) and you spent your life growing up with them and gaming in that universe (as I did), you build up your own notions on how a prequel should go. Nothing set in concrete, just 'notions'. And there is no way George Lucas or any other director could (or should) cater to those notions. As much as I may bitch about some things. Those movies and that universe are his creation. He told the stories he wanted. I had fun going to them. Are they movie masterpieces? In some ways (especially technically) yes. In others? No.

  14. JB, I have to disagree with you on this one. Not necessarily about all three of the prequels, movie two works for me, but the Phantom menace for me just doesn't function on too many levels to forgive it because of the great visuals....and this from some-one who enjoyed Avatar, and considers it a far better film then The Phantom Menace.
    Listen, take A New Hope, and The Phantom Menace side by side and you can see how episode four is a superior story in all respects. Somebody above already mentioned the red letter media review, which gives a terrific, if long, explanation as to why the Phantom Menace is seen by many as an inferior film.

  15. @ mondbuchstaben:

    Thanks for the link...I hadn't seen that earlier and the guy makes a lot of excellent points.

    However, similar to the Lord of the Rings film trilogy, I can't help but look at the prequels as one six-hour movie. While it may be unforgivable to leave the audience hanging for three years after shelling out good money for a complete film experience, Lucas's prequels were the first films to do this. Hell, remember waiting for Jedi to see what would happen to Solo? Talk about a pain in the ass!

    As for the "everyman" character not being present, I'm afraid he is in the form of Anakin. One might rail at this idea, but the kid (and the bigger kid Christiansen) is no less whiny and chumpy than Mark Hamill in the original trilogy. Jeez, you should hear my wife badmouth Luke Skywalker for being a big pansy. "Oh, it's just not FAIR..." whines the fair-haired hero making us want to bitch-slap him and tell him to grow up already.

    But, hey, I digress. To all those who disagreed with me let me say: I see your point. The original film WAS a better, self-contained story. Once it was successful, Lucas stopped making individual films...he's in the process of making one big saga. It's meant (unlike the original) to be viewed as a whole. As a whole, it works for me...maybe not as well as *I* would have liked, but as already pointed out, it's not MY fantasy, it's GL's.
    : )

  16. Late to the game, but I am a partisan for Carter's observations.

    I'm not sure about the argument that people in their mid-30s will always be disappointed by the prequels because we already made them ourselves, and nothing would live up to our personal version. I find it hard to believe that Lucas spent MORE than 20 years thinking up the inanities of the prequels. They seem like technologically enabled knock-offs. But whatever, I don't have to watch them, so I don't need to get upset.

    But if he calls what he does 'Visual Jazz', well seriously, no. For the prequels, and all the improved special effects grafted onto the reissues of the first series, 'Visual Kenny G.' is what he is, not jazz.

    Yes, it's a cheap shot, but when somebody tees it up like that, I've got to swing.