The impish 2010 documentary The People Vs. George Lucas chronicles an apparent contradiction: the sizable community that loves the original Star Wars trilogy, yet nurses feelings toward its originator ranging from complicated ambivalence to unambiguous hatred. How could so many people hate a creator while worshiping his creations?
Probably because the fans’ intense emotional investment in Star Wars creates the kind of expectations that lead to disappointment and rage. As my friend and former co-worker Todd Hanson wryly notes in the movie, this rage becomes a strange badge of true fandom. Clearly only people unhealthily obsessed with the original trilogy could feel so betrayed by Lucas’ changes to those films. The more invested people become in something, the more liable they are to be shattered if the subject of that investment lets them down.
The People Vs. George Lucas prominently features fan videos, tributes, and spoofs from acolytes so enraptured of the world Lucas created that they don’t just want to passively consume it, they want to be a part of it. The film suggests that, while Lucas created a wonderful, vast universe with Star Wars, after the rage induced by the “Special Edition” re-releases of the original trilogy and the introduction of Jar-Jar Binks into the canon, it would be best for him to step aside and let the generations inspired by his work take over.
From the vantage point of 2014, with a new trilogy in the works headed not by Lucas, but by J.J. Abrams and others, The People Vs. George Lucas looks awfully prescient. But before foreshadowing what will hopefully be Star Wars’ glorious future, the documentary immerses itself deep in the most painful parts of Star Wars’ past.
For true believers, the release of 1999’s Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, the first new Star Wars movie since Return Of The Jedi in 1983, was akin to a religious event. (In the documentary, a wide-eyed superfan jokes that the trailer to The Phantom Menace was so mind-boggling that its very existence shames God, since He has never created anything nearly as magnificent.) But when the film itself appeared, the disappointment that ensued among all but the most faithful and deluded proved so devastating that it caused fans to reassess their entire belief systems. If you couldn’t believe in Star Wars, what could you believe in?
But fans’ disillusionment with George Lucas predates The Phantom Menace. Its beginnings can be traced back to the appearance of the Ewoks in Return Of The Jedi, or maybe even the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special, but it officially kicked into high gear with the 1997 theatrical release of the Special Edition versions of A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return Of The Jedi. The re-release of the original trilogy on a massive scale should have been a moment of triumph for Star Wars fans. Finally, they could see these movies on the big screen again—or for the first time—and share that communal experience of watching Luke Skywalker and company in a theater. What could be better?
But the faithful were mortified to discover that these sacred texts of their childhood weren’t the same as before. The images had been cleaned up, with new special effects added. But that wasn’t all: Lucas also went back and changed some details Star Wars fans considered essential to the film, the fact that Greedo now shoots first in A New Hope’s cantina scene most notorious among them. To diehards, Lucas was trying to fundamentally alter the character of Han Solo from a sexy, morally ambiguous badass into an uncomplicated, clean-cut hero. The old, fussy George Lucas of today, the one who seems primarily interested in amusing small children and selling them toys, was taking the grit out of the young George Lucas’ work.
As the God of the Star Wars universe, Lucas was within his rights to do as he saw fit with his characters and films. But The People Vs. George Lucas suggests that at this point, Lucas’ characters belong to their fans as much—or more—as they belong to their creator. In a 2012 interview with The Hollywood Reporter, a clearly irritated Lucas responded to a question about the Greedo change:
It’s not a religious event. I hate to tell people that. It’s a movie, just a movie. The controversy over who shot first, Greedo or Han Solo, in Episode IV, what I did was try to clean up the confusion, but obviously it upset people because they wanted Solo to be a cold-blooded killer, but he actually isn’t. It had been done in all close-ups and it was confusing about who did what to whom. I put a little wider shot in there that made it clear that Greedo is the one who shot first, but everyone wanted to think that Han shot first, because they wanted to think that he actually just gunned him down.
In Lucas’ mind, the change that enraged the faithful wasn’t a change at all. It was simply a matter of him finally having the resources and the technology to realize his original vision. In the same interview, Lucas argues, “All art is technology, and it improves every year.” That may be true for Lucas, but it makes movies seem like operating systems that must be constantly updated with the latest technology, or they’ll crash, rather than indelible works of art with a soul and integrity all their own.
Watching The People Vs. George Lucas, I thought, “You nerds really need to get over yourselves.” But I can also see how enraging it might be to see the creator of something of vital importance to millions condescendingly dismiss the object of their obsession. To many people, Star Wars is “just a movie” in the same way the New Testament is “just a book.” To Lucas, these changes were an uncomplicated matter of updating the technology to contemporary standards; to the faithful, it was a matter of taking the soul out of the movie, of replacing the funky 1970s-ness of A New Hope, a film that came out only a few years after American Graffiti, with something polished, soulless, and pointlessly contemporary.
A sizable, vocal percentage of Star Wars fanatics didn’t want dazzling new special effects; they wanted the Star Wars they grew up worshiping, and they were enraged that Lucas not only changed their version of Star Wars, he made the versions they grew up with commercially unavailable in new formats like DVD and Blu-ray. Star Wars’ imperfections gave it life and character; cultists didn’t want them removed in the name of progress.
The Special Editions made a sizable fortune for Lucas, in addition to enraging some of the faithful. But if the Special Editions were like tinkering with sacred scripture, then The Phantom Menace’s introduction of Jar Jar Binks into the Star Wars universe was akin to following up The New Testament with an even Newer Testament where Jesus comes back and spends all his time waterskiing with Guy Fieri and Bret Ratner. The Internet was less of a cultural force at the time of The Phantom Menace’s release than it is now, but I suspect that if the movie were released today, the anger and resentment Jar Jar Binks engendered would form a black, bilious cloud that would swallow up all of Twitter and Facebook en route to destroying much of humanity in a raging cyclone of ill will. The populace would storm Skywalker Ranch and angrily demand Lucas’ head for his transgressions against the universe he created.
The People Vs. George Lucas grudgingly concedes that, while Jar Jar angried up the blood of the adult faithful, children actually seemed to like the silly-talking alien goofball, and the movie that introduced him. Making movies that appeal specifically to children is no crime, and Lucas succeeded in introducing the Star Wars universe to a new generation—one that might prefer the sequels to the original trilogy. But fans of the original trilogy greeted the release of The Phantom Menace with a panicked feeling of, “This can’t be it, can it?” combined with rage directed specifically at Lucas. In the minds of Lucas’ detractors, these prequels weren’t the product of the good George that gave the world Star Wars, but rather the bad, greedy George who destroyed the original trilogy with his asinine changes, and had now tilted the franchise unmistakably in the direction of kiddie fodder.
To people who love Star Wars but hate what Lucas has done to it, the solution was simple: Take Star Wars out of his hands, and put it in the hands of the faithful. And that’s pretty much what Lucas has done with the upcoming batch of Star Wars movies. Lucas wrote and directed the original A New Hope and all three prequels, and served as executive producer on The Empire Strikes Back and Return Of The Jedi. But Lucas will not be assuming any high-profile role for the new batch of movies, though he’s reportedly going to be a creative consultant.
For Lucas, giving up control of his creation is apparently a matter of moving on to the next stage of life while ensuring his films and characters will live on for posterity. In the press release announcing Lucasfilm’s sale to Disney, Lucas explained, “It’s now time for me to pass Star Wars on to a new generation of filmmakers. I’ve always believed that Star Wars could live beyond me, and I thought it was important to set up the transition during my lifetime.” In a Collider video about the acquisition, Lucas speaks of his desire to properly retire into “another stage of life where I’m not in the film business anymore, where I don’t have to run a corporation.”
I have no idea whether George Lucas has seen The People Vs. George Lucas, but if he owns a computer—and I’m going to go out on a limb and guess he probably does—then he’s obviously aware of the sentiments angrily and articulately expressed throughout the film, and of how they color fans’ reaction to his departure from the franchise he created. It’s a testament to the strange, complicated relationship Lucas has with his fans that many would happily receive the news that the man who created their beloved world no longer wants to be in the film business. For a guy who came of age during the prickly, divisive world of New Hollywood, Lucas has always been a populist entertainer committed to giving audiences what they want—and in 2014, that seems to mean more Star Wars without his active participation. To paraphrase the words of another widely reviled American icon who arguably did more to earn that anger than Lucas, fans won’t have George Lucas to kick around any more—though it is possible that some fans, just for the sake of tradition, will grouse about how these new films are completely ruined by sub-par creative consulting.
Writing and directing the Star Wars prequels put Lucas in an impossible position: Expectations were so high that the best he could hope to do was meet them. If he fell short (and oh boy, did he), fans would be crushed, though he couldn’t have envisioned the scope and intensity of their disappointment, or the way it seemed to linger indefinitely. By handing off the next Star Wars movies, however, Lucas has taken a win-win position. If the films succeed creatively as well as commercially (there’s no doubt the films will make a fortune, the only question is whether it will be “a fuck-ton,” or “all the money in the world”), then Lucas will be hailed for making the right decision and putting the movies, the characters, and the fans above his ego. If the films fail, then it isn’t so easy to make a Star Wars movie, now is it? Maybe those haters should have had a little more sympathy for old Uncle George when he didn’t knock it out of the park with every movie, huh?
Will this change in management make a difference? Will Abrams invite the same blowback from Star Wars fans as he did from Star Trek fans? Will it matter to the next generation of fans, the ones even younger than those who think of the prequels as their Star Wars? No one knows, but it’s no longer Lucas’ responsibility. Soon Star Wars’ most vocal fans/skeptics will see if getting what they think they want will make them any happier. If the films disappoint, though, those fans will at least have the exquisite consolation prize of being able to complain about them.