Friday, October 4, 2013

Lucasfilm Franchise Wars: Controversial Prequels/Sequels and How Haters, Apologists, and Fans Have Gone Their Separate Ways

Written by Sean Ferguson
In the interest of full disclosure, Star Wars is the movie that sparked my love of movies and because of that; I’ve wanted to be a director for as long as I can remember. That feeling was solidified when I saw The Empire Strikes Back which is possibly my favorite movie of all time except for the days I prefer Raiders of the Lost Ark. Being a life-long Star Wars fan I’ve watched the ebb and flow of the series’ popularity go up and down as the years passed, but I don’t think anyone could have guessed that the prequels would divide the fans as much as they have. It’s something that I’ve followed and thought about for a long time and I thought it would make a good topic for discussion again for this new site as I’m sure many of you share my love for the Star Wars universe.

It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.

Back in 1977, Star Wars was released to almost universal praise among all demographics. That feat was repeated again in 1980 when The Empire Strikes Back was released to even greater acclaim and Return of the Jedi provided the victory lap in 1983. While many fans were unhappy at the inclusion of the small furry ewoks in Jedi, there was a reservoir of goodwill from the previous two entries that largely made those reservations disappear. Few movies are as beloved as the original Star Wars trilogy and it has rightfully earned its place in pop culture and cinematic lore. For the next sixteen years, the Star Wars universe largely disappeared to the chagrin of many of its fans. Sure there were a couple of Atari games, some canon busting Marvel comics, and of course Kenner toys, but as the years went on, it all began to dwindle away.

It wasn’t resuscitated until the release of the fantastic hardcover book “Heir to the Empire” by Timothy Zahn in 1991. That kick-started the golden age of Star Wars novels and the resurgence of the comic line starting with the “Dark Empire” storyline, both of which were the only Star Wars fix available to fans for years. The fan community at that time shared an overwhelmingly positive opinion of the Star Wars films and ewoks notwithstanding, George Lucas was viewed as a visionary genius. Flash-forward to 1999, when George Lucas took a huge gamble with that stellar legacy and released the first of a new Star Wars trilogy with The Phantom Menace. At that point, the solidarity that Star Wars fans had shared was shattered as fans split into different divisions of viewpoints based on their reactions to the film. Star Wars fandom would never be the same again.

A Tremor in the Force

The anticipation for The Phantom Menace was incredible. Fans were so excited about the return of Star Wars that they camped out days in advance to stand in line for tickets and again for the day of release. I know because I was one of them. You would think that hundreds of people standing in line in the freezing cold would be unhappy, but you would be wrong. People were laughing, playing Star Wars Trivial Pursuit & Monopoly, having lightsaber fights, barbequing, and discussing the movies while listening to the soundtrack playing off in the distance. It was more of a party than a line. So many people had bought advanced tickets that the theater was showing the movie on every screen they had at 12:05am.

By the time everyone had rushed the theater and settled into their seats, the air was electric with excitement. The lightsaber battles continued in the aisles until the movie started along with a roar of approval from excited fans. The sound was deafening when the Star Wars logo appeared accompanied by the much loved main title from John Williams. The rest of the movie was a blur for me as I tried to absorb this familiar yet completely new look at the Star Wars universe. There were many sequences that I loved in the movie, (lightsaber fights, Qui-Gon Jinn, Darth Maul, the podrace), and some other parts I wasn’t as happy about (Jar-Jar Binks, the Gungans), but I was still thrilled to finally have a new Star Wars movie. After exiting the movie, I was asked what my thoughts on the film were, and I remember saying,”Who knew Obi-Wan Kenobi could kick ass like that.” However, even then as I left the theater I could hear some grumbling from some fans about the movie. Time passed and that grumbling became an angry outcry and then the oft stated remark first appeared: “George Lucas raped my childhood!” That ridiculous statement and the anger behind it was only the beginning of the fracture between fans.

You May Fire When Ready

Every time I read or hear someone say that George Lucas raped their childhood, I want to force-choke them Vader style. Even taken metaphorically, it makes absolutely no sense. If your entire childhood is encapsulated by the Star Wars movies then what you should say is that George Lucas GAVE you your childhood. After all, you wouldn’t have had that childhood to be raped if Lucas hadn’t given it to you in the first place. Some fans were so incensed by the prequel trilogy that they have forsworn the entire saga. I call them the Haters. This group of people has allowed their hatred of the prequels tarnish the love they once had for the original trilogy which I do not understand. If you think the prequels are terrible then that’s fine, but how does that change your feelings on something you loved? I believe there are certain people that feel that George Lucas has ruined their relationship to the saga by making the prequels. They have a sense of entitlement as if they own the franchise and they are appalled that the caretaker did not follow their wishes. These people generally assumed that the prequels wouldn’t start with Anakin as a young boy and what amounted to Little Orphan Annie’s action-packed journey to Coruscant.

I think they basically believed that the prequels would start with what happened in Revenge of the Sith and continue on to cover the missing years up until A New Hope. While I agree that would have been totally awesome, the Haters refuse to forgive Lucas for ignoring their wishes and having the temerity to make the movies he wanted to make in the universe he created. I would further suggest that another reason why a lot of people felt let down was the impossible expectations of the film itself. Between the natural anticipation of a cherished series returning and the massive marketing campaign, many people were bound to be disappointed after all of the massive hype. Another factor that may have played a part in the negativity is the belief that Lucas should have made sequels to the original movies and not prequels as we already knew how the story ends. Adding to their consternation, the original trilogy was re-released in the theaters as Special Editions and elements were added to the movie or changed in some fashion. Jabba the Hutt and Boba Fett now were in Star Wars and Greedo shot first so Han wouldn’t look like a cold-blooded mercenary. Think of the children! Many changes were made, and some were applauded and some reviled. For the Haters, there are no reasons or explanations that excuse Jar Jar Binks and the rest of the poodoo prequel storyline.

Someone Has To Save Our Skins! Into The Garbage Chute, Fly Boy

Of course there are just as many people that appreciate the movies as there are detractors. In fact, I believe the majority of Star Wars fans can be called Apologists who may not love everything about the prequels but still try to justify those reservations. For example, for everyone that hates Jar Jar Binks and wondered why he was in the movies, an Apologist would point out that it was Binks that ended up giving Palpatine the Republic on a silver platter by giving him the opportunity for emergency powers. Haters would argue that Binks was there for little kids and merchandising sales and never should have been included. As a side note, I’ve always wondered if that was supposed to be Jar Jar’s arc from the beginning or if Lucas modified the story when he saw how unpopular the character was. In the first movie Binks had a large part, after the uproar he barely had any lines in the second movie except to be the fall guy and give more power to Palpatine, and in the third movie he has no lines at all. I’d like to think that Lucas was at least listening to the majority of fans in that respect. To be fair, a lot of adults and children enjoyed the hijinks of the mentally challenged Gungan. Most Apologists believe that George Lucas has earned the right to make the movies he wants. He created this universe and it’s his sandbox to play with. If these aren’t the movies you were looking for, you can go about your business and move along.

Let’s Just Say We’d Like To Avoid Any Imperial Entanglements

Finally, you have everyone else…the Fans and the rest of the people who are indifferent about Star Wars. Fans are people like my immediate family that liked the movies well enough, but don’t really care who shot first in the Mos Eisley Cantina, (Han!) or any other details. These are the people that will buy the DVD sets but refuse to play Star Wars Trivial Pursuit because the only details they remember are who the main characters were. If you try to impress either of these two groups with some esoteric knowledge from the movies, you will either be met with a glazed look or ridicule for being such a geek to know that. These people will pay to see the movies but they don’t have the desire to be there on opening day and will be happy seeing it weeks after it’s been released if it means less crowds. In no circumstance will they camp out in line in advance but they won’t have a problem joining you in line right before the movie starts.

We Seem To Be Made To Suffer. It’s Our Lot In Life

I remember when the Star Wars trilogy was finally released on DVD that there was a lot of excitement and rumors that the movies were being changed even further than when they were when they were re-released as the Special Editions in the theater. It turned out that they were changed again and I liked the new changes which included replacing Clive Revill as the Emperor with Ian McDiarmid who played Palpatine in Jedi and the prequels for continuity’s sake. For a lot of people however, they did not want any changes made to the movies they fell in love with. George Lucas isn’t helping his reputation with those fans by only releasing the untouched movies in a sub par fashion as part of a second Limited Edition Set that was a double dip for those that craved the untouched versions and had already bought the previous set. Fans are still demanding Lucas release the original untouched movies as a new remastered anamorphic box set in at least Dolby 5.1EX glory. I won’t even mention the Star Wars Holiday Special as we can all agree that that “special” deserves to be Rancor chow. Everyone is now waiting for the movies to come out in High Definition on Blu-ray and Lucasfilm has announced that they are in the works. Time will tell if they meet fan’s high expectations.

A Certain Point of View

I would say that the majority of my best friends all love the original trilogy but they aren’t crazy about the prequels. They can appreciate the prequel’s special effects and choreography, and Padme in her conveniently slashed outfit, but they were disappointed in the script and the direction the movies took. In fact, in some recent conversations with people, I’ve discovered that many people had never cared much for the Star Wars movies but were afraid to say anything in fear of ridicule until the prequels came out. Once the prequels came out, then it was anything goes and everyone started dog piling on the movies. One of things that annoy me is the new tendency to badmouth Star Wars. It’s now the hip new trend that everyone is doing and it was recently demonstrated again when the news came out that the Blu-ray versions were finally being worked on. Watching my twitter feed, it was amusing and irritating to see an endless stream of tweets reporting that along with additional snarky comments. I understand that a lot of people enjoy now having the opportunity to take shots at the franchise, but I really hate the bandwagon mentality going on.

On the other hand, I’m sure that those people making the comments now probably hated the universal love the franchise had for years so maybe this is payback. I am willing to bet serious money that most of those people making the dismissive comments will be in line to buy the Blu-rays once they come out. I would also further bet that if George Lucas had made the prequels in 1984 instead of 1999, this would have been a completely different story. I think the break he took after Jedi was long enough to change his outlook on life and what interested him. Sure he was still interested enough in racing to include a podrace, but he also framed the story to be a political one with a cautionary message about how power corrupts from within and how inaction and pride allowed a government’s conversion from a democratic Republic to a fascist Empire. Now there were trade issues, taxes, and Senate debates instead of Tarkin’s straight talk and Vader choking people whose lack of faith was disturbing.

Lucas’s worldview had completely changed in the intervening years and it showed on screen. I believe he made more of an effort to please the fan boys with Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, but for a lot of people the damage was already done. In my opinion the prequels got better with each new release. Lucas even embraced his dark side by showing Anakin going to kill the little Jedi younglings. As much as everyone wished that Lucas would pick up right where he left off in 1984, that isn’t a very realistic expectation as no one is the same person they were 15 years ago. This older and mature Lucas was making movies for himself first and fans second as he has said many times. Therein, lies the conflict. This pattern extended to all of the Lucasfilm productions which brings us to the other touchstone of my childhood….Indiana Jones.

Marion: You’re Not The Man I Knew Ten Years Ago

Indy: It’s Not The Years, Honey, It’s The Mileage

After years of torturing fans with the prospect of Indiana Jones 4, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Harrison Ford finally agreed on a script. It took years for them to agree on a concept and several scripts were commissioned (including one from Frank Darabont), before they agreed to make the movie. Unfortunately, the time away from the franchise affected Indiana Jones just as it had the Star Wars prequels. This time the issue was that Lucas wanted the franchise to go to a new decade and feel, while the others didn’t. Lucas wanted the movie to be set in the 1950s where alien stories and movies were prevalent at the time and wanted that aspect included. Spielberg and Ford were more inclined to keep the status quo but since Lucas owns the franchise they ended up compromising.

According to Lucas, “Really, with the last one, Steven wasn’t that enthusiastic. I was trying to persuade him. But now Steve is more amenable to doing another one. Yet we still have the issues about the direction we’d like to take. I’m in the future; Steven’s in the past. He’s trying to drag it back to the way they were, I’m trying to push it to a whole different place. So, still we have a sort of tension. This recent one came out of that. It’s kind of a hybrid of our own two ideas, so we’ll see where we are able to take the next one.” [1] That compromise divided fans again as many felt that aliens should not have been included and that it wasn’t true to the spirit of the previous entries. It goes without saying that a lot more people would have enjoyed Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull more if there had been no aliens and instead the skull was some kind of a supernatural element like the previous ones. It also inadvertently brought a new catchphrase to replace “jumping the shark” with the new description of “nuking the fridge.” Financially the movie did very well and they are talking about doing another one so I hope Spielberg sticks to his guns more this time.

I Don’t Know…I’m Making This Up As I Go

In conclusion, I do believe George Lucas is a visionary genius but he has gotten too used to doing everything his way which affects the final product. Of course that is his right as he is the creator of Star Wars and Indiana Jones, but I would like to think that for these movies that have made such an impact on the world, and have been supported so much by the public, that he would take the fans more into consideration. Spielberg, being an equal partner as the Director, should have more say on the Indy movies and I wish they would go back to having Lucas determining the MacGuffin of the story (the item being looked for), hiring Lawrence Kasdan to write it, and then letting Spielberg run with it. Someone needs to balance Lucas out and help it from just being a movie made just for him.

I understand that it’s his money being used to make the movie, but at the same time, there would be no Skywalker Ranch, no ILM, no Skywalker Sound, no LucasArts, and he definitely wouldn’t be sitting on prime real estate in the Presidio if it wasn’t for the fans. The fans paid for the movies, the toys, clothes, posters, soundtracks, the countless re-releases of the movies on every conceivable format, and everything else. Lucas has a unique relationship with the fans due to the cultural impact his movies have made. The fans feel a strong sense of ownership of the movies as it’s been such an important part of their lives. When Lucas unilaterally changed the direction of that universe and seemed to want to erase all previous versions of his movies, it caused a rift that still hasn’t healed. Documentaries like The People vs. George Lucas reflect that chasm. I honestly believe if Lucas even made some kind of token gesture to appease those fans such as releasing the original untouched versions of Episodes 4-6 on Blu-ray, it would have a huge impact. As it is, some fans will never forgive what they consider Lucas’s betrayal, while others have moved on, and then there are still some of us that continue this wild and uncertain life journey with him, all the while hoping that Force stays with him.

Author’s note: For the record, my favorite movies of all time are the Star Wars and Indiana Jones movies and nothing will ever change that. My son's middle name is Lucas in honor of George Lucas and Harrison Ford will always be my favorite actor.

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