Star Wars - When the fans hit the Sith

In a new documentary, George Lucas is accused of ruining his Star Wars franchise with poor prequels and gratuitously tweaked reissues. James Mottram reports

Oh, boy," says Alexandre O Philippe, with a groan. I've just asked him to recall one of the most painful memories of his adult life. No, it's not breaking up with his first love, or the death of a parent. It's the day he saw The Phantom Menace, George Lucas's 1999 Star Wars prequel (or Episode I, if you prefer). Living in New York at the time, where he was studying film at NYU, Philippe had been waiting 16 years for a new Star Wars movie to appear. "What can I say? It was massively disappointing. The first time around, I fooled myself into believing it was good. Then I went to see it again a couple of days later and then it really sunk in."

He was hardly alone. Just like Simon Pegg's character in the Channel 4 sitcom Spaced, who ceremonially burned his Star Wars merchandise after watching Episode I, millions of fans around the globe felt like doing the same. With the subsequent episodes, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, being only marginally better than Menace, internet forums soon became the only recess for disgruntled fans to vent their spleen against Lucas. Until now. The People vs George Lucas, Philippe's new documentary, sees Star Wars obsessives take the film-maker to task for crimes against humanity – or, at least, against the universe he created.

The film, which received its European premiere at the Edinburgh Film Festival in June, began life in 2007, when the Geneva-raised Philippe set up a website inviting fans to submit their own mini-films criticising Lucas. "We wanted to make a movie about the dynamic between George and the fans," he says – though, in truth, with no participation from Lucas, its traffic is rather one-way. Philippe's film sets out to document the love-hate relationship Star Wars fans have with Lucas, not only for making three disappointing prequels but also for tinkering with the original trilogy for the so-called "Special Editions". Sounds like a bunch of geeks getting hot and bothered over nothing? Not so, according to the 37-year-old Philippe. "It's an extremely important series of films for us," he says of his generation. "It's in our DNA."

What makes The People vs George Lucas worthwhile is that, as Philippe says, "It's really the first film about George Lucas that's not endorsed by [his company] Lucasfilm. It's not propaganda." Indeed, this is no "making of" like Empire of Dreams: the Story of the Star Wars Trilogy, the love-in that accompanied the DVD box-set release of the original trilogy in 2004. Rather, it's a frank, fans'-eye view of Lucas's alleged megalomania, illustrated through a mix of talking heads, fan films (a total of 719 were submitted) and even clips from the films, which Philippe assures have been legally cleared. "Every single clip was deconstructed by our lawyers to make sure we were within the right boundaries."

Some of the topics covered are easy targets, such as the awfulness of The Phantom Menace's much-reviled character Jar Jar Binks. While Lucas claimed that Jar Jar was an example of how the films were aimed squarely at children, Philippe dismisses this argument. "The kids who were kids when The Phantom Menace came out are now in their late teens and they don't have that emotional connection to those movies, the way that we had an emotional connection to the originals. And there are a number of reasons for that. Quite frankly, the storytelling was sloppy. It's also the fact that Star Wars, when it came out originally in the theatres, was truly a brand new experience. There was nothing like it. It blew us away. The Phantom Menace, you have to remember, came out the year of The Matrix. And that was far more revolutionary."

Given that the Wachowski brothers themselves produced two lousy sequels to The Matrix, Lucas is hardly alone when it comes to producing disappointing follow-ups. Far more sinister is his obsessive desire with stamping out all his mistakes. Take The Star Wars Holiday Special, the embarrassing 1978 all-singing, all-dancing television spin-off, which takes the characters to Chewbacca's home planet to celebrate Life Day. So disappointed was Lucas with the end result (rarely seen footage of which features in Philippe's film) that for years he even refused to acknowledge its existence, reportedly saying at one convention, "If I had the time and a sledgehammer, I would track down every copy of that show and smash it."

Then there is Lucas's offensive desire to continually "improve" the original three Star Wars films – digitally adding special effects, additional background characters or even redundant scenes. For example, the moment at the end of Return of the Jedi, when the ghosts of Yoda, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker appear. Anakin was originally played by Sebastian Shaw (albeit briefly) in the 1983 version of the film, but when the DVD box-set came out in 2004, Hayden Christensen – who played Anakin as a young man in the prequels – replaced Shaw, erasing the actor's appearance as if it never even existed. "Why would you change that?" fumes Philippe. "That's the thing that drives the fans crazy. These choices, for the most part, seem like poor choices. It makes things worse."

What's more, Lucas wants these Special Editions to ultimately supplant the originals that many fans grew up with and now consider as much theirs as they are Lucas's. So much so that the original, unaltered theatrical versions, when finally released on DVD as a bonus disc extra after pressure from fans, were not given the usual restoration treatment that films go through before a transfer to disc. "It's really a slap in the face to fans and film history," says Philippe. "We have a quote from George where he says the 30 to 40 million copies on VHS will eventually deteriorate, and one day there will only be one version left, and that will be the Special Edition."

While you might argue that Lucas can do what he likes to films he created, Philippe's documentary shows him up as something of a hypocrite. In the late 1980s, Lucas spoke before Congress against the crude colourisation process that was then being implemented on many black-and-white classic films – yet, as Philippe's film argues, surely Lucas has been doing a similar thing. Add to which the fact that the original Star Wars was in 1989 added to the National Film Registry, an elite selection of films to be stored in the Library of Congress, only for Lucas to then change the film with a blatant disregard for the implications of the word "preservation".

While Lucas has, unsurprisingly, yet to see the film, what makes The People vs George Lucas more than just a bunch of ranting nerds letting off steam is the affection they still hold for the film-maker and his universe. "There was no point in making a George Lucas-bashing movie," says Philippe. "There's already so much of it on the internet, why make a movie version of it? If anything, I think he should take it as a compliment that there's a movie called The People vs George Lucas while he's still alive. That you create that much debate. And at the end of the day, that debate comes from a profound place of love and respect."

In particular, the film is very careful to point out that Lucas has never been against fans creating their own spin-off films, from affectionate parodies such as Troops to fan-edits that take the films and attempt to reclaim ownership by trimming the fat. "That's the thing about George," says Philippe. "On one level, you can look at him as a control freak. On the other hand, he has been very gracious to his fans. But part of me wonders: are we talking about George Lucas being gracious to his fans or is it simply the fact that Star Wars has really escaped him? You cannot possibly control a universe like this. Even fan editors have taken control over it."

That said, Lucas continues to milk the Star Wars universe for all its worth. Rather than returning to the kinds of experimental films he made in his youth, as he once promised he would, he has plans for Star Wars spin-off cartoons and TV shows in operation. "It's terribly sad," says Philippe. "If anyone has the resources to do whatever he wants, it's George Lucas. But recently, you can tell, he's lost that drive to do something like this."

Does he fear Lucasfilm may attempt to stop his film from being aired? "I don't think they can stop the film," Philippe answers. "The bottom line is, this is an important story and I think it needed to be told. So if people want to drag us to court, it's their prerogative. But I feel very strongly they're not going to win." As they say in Star Wars, the saga continues.



The Force Is With Them: The Best Star Wars Fan Films

Star Wars '30s Serial Edition

Compressing all six 'Star Wars' episodes into 280 minutes, this beautiful black-and-white silent effort just uses dialogue cards and John Williams's score.

The Phantom Edit

"The granddaddy of all fan edits," according to Philippe, Mike J Nichols's film skilfully trimmed back 'The Phantom Menace', removing Jar Jar Binks for starters.

Troops

One of the earliest 'Star Wars' fan films, Kevin Rubio's 10-minute skit from 1997 is a whip-smart 'Cops'-style parody about stormtroopers patrolling the dusty planet of Tatooine.

Duality

Mark Thomas and Dave Macomber's six-minute short, in which two would-be Sith Lords battle it out with lightsabers, is staggeringly well made and slyly funny.

Chad Vader

A series of shorts that see the titular Sith Lord trying to settle into a new job as a day-shift leader of a supermarket. "I sense a disturbance in the store!"

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

    Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

    His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
    'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

    Open letter to David Cameron

    Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
    Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

    You don't say!

    Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
    Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

    So what is Mubi?

    Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
    The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

    The hardest job in theatre?

    How to follow Kevin Spacey
    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders