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
Friday 09 July 2010
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.
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