At the Expense of the Moment

Image: Lucasfilm / StarWars.com

Image: Lucasfilm

I am not a filmmaker. My chosen medium is the written word, and that, by necessity, complicates my relationship with the work of George Lucas, who will forever be remembered not as a writer but as the creator of a pop-cultural juggernaut. The last Star Wars film I saw was neither written nor directed by him; the last Lucas picture I watched was 1973’s American Graffiti. At the time of this writing, Star Wars: The Force Awakens has been in theaters worldwide for only one week and has grossed more than $813 million. About sixteen of those dollars came from my pocket. For the chance to catch up with old friends, the mythological heroes of my childhood, for the first time since 1997, I’d call it money well spent.

There is an undeniable sense that Lucas’s legacy has taken on new life in the hands of the Walt Disney Company and Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy. A decade ago, we saw a seemingly world-weary Lucas put his six-part space epic to rest, much to the relief of his more vocal detractors, who had by then declared his ambitious prequel trilogy an artistic mess.

“You can [fail],” Lucas told puppeteer Frank Oz during the production of The Phantom Menace, recalling the 1979 sequel More American Graffiti, a critical and box-office disaster. “You can destroy these things. It is possible.” Talk about prophecy.

I’ve never understood why Lucas’s second trilogy of Star Wars films came to be almost universally reviled. Even if I might cringe at the occasional bit of horrendous dialogue, or wish that Lucas had left certain scenes on the cutting-room floor, there is nothing in The Phantom Menace to make me wish, like so many moviegoers, that the film did not exist. Lucas’s prequels—if at times uneven or frustrating—represent the dawn of digital filmmaking, to say nothing of Industrial Light and Magic’s incalculable contribution to cinema.

Imperfect though they may be, Lucas’s late-career films and their reception are an important, perhaps even unprecedented, part of our culture. In an industry that has settled on prequels, sequels, and “reboots” as par for the course when it comes to selling tickets and filling seats, it’s fascinating to me how a film like The Force Awakens can mean so many different things to so many different viewers. It speaks to the complexity of a notion such as the audience: a film’s meaning surely depends as much on the life experiences of the individual moviegoer as on the number of practical effects versus CGI shots, or the number of returning cast members versus new, et cetera.

In his 2005 review of Revenge of the Sith, the late Roger Ebert noted: “This is not necessarily the last of the Star Wars movies. Although Lucas has absolutely said he is finished with the series, it is inconceivable to me that 20th Century Fox will willingly abandon the franchise, especially as Lucas has hinted that parts VII, VIII, and IX exist at least in his mind. There will be enormous pressure for them to be made, if not by him, then by his deputies.”

Fast-forward to present, and it’s clear that the history of Lucasfilm is in no danger of becoming uninteresting. As ever, Ebert was right. Again we are seeing a new generation of filmgoers discovering Lucas’s mythology in their own way, in their own time, and with their own unique set of expectations. The story of the Skywalker family—of “the fight against the Dark Side”—will continue to unfold for as long as Disney can continue selling tickets.

As somebody who watched the first Star Wars on VHS and then saw The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi in their 1997 special-edition theatrical rereleases, Lucas’s prequels became for me what The Force Awakens probably is to those in their teens, or younger: a chance to revisit the enthralling magic of the movies through Lucas’s larger-than-life, spacefaring characters, even if it means having to adjust.

I remember thinking in 2002, particularly, that Lucas’s work had changed a great deal in tone even as it grew more mature, more spectacular. C-3PO’s jokes in Attack of the Clones fall flat at every turn, but the canvas is a boundless one—and we’re seeing into a self-described auteur’s vision more directly than ever. By contrast, J. J. Abrams’s seventh installment, joyous and thrilling in a way Star Wars has never quite been before, owes an immeasurable debt not only to what the original films were but also to what the prequel trilogy was not.

“It just felt . . . different. Disappointing,” I’ve heard at least one young viewer complain—referring, oddly enough, to The Force Awakens. “Compared to the George Lucas [films], it wasn’t the same.” Of course, it never is; see the Bond franchise. As a culture changes, so does its definition of fun. The same can no doubt be said of filmmakers.

And so the hall of mirrors deepens, twisting and turning, each constituent piece altering the full meaning and resonance of the greater work in progress.

Strange as it might have been to watch Lucas continually reinvent and revise the galaxy he built in decades past, it will be even stranger to watch as the audiences he inspired begin adding their own coat of paint to his runaway masterpiece. Part of me hopes the likes of THX 1138 and American Graffiti, and all the best bits of the oft-maligned prequel trilogy, won’t go unnoticed by Lucas’s many successors, admirers, and critics in the years to come. Yet another part of me hopes his long-gestating “experimental films,” if they ever truly get made, will somehow prove better than all the rest.