Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Star Wars Will Return!

Last week the internet exploded with the news that Disney had purchased Lucasfilm.  Subsequently, Disney announced that they are developing a new trilogy of Star Wars films for 2015.  As a lifelong Star Wars fan, I must confess the prospect of seeing the continuing adventures of Luke, Han, and Leia is exciting and bewildering.   On the bright side, in a week that saw Hurricane Sandy pulverize the east coast and the bitter rancor preceding the 2012 election, it was satisfying to learn of George Lucas's change of heart on his creation. Ever since the release of Star Wars Episode III: The Revenge of the Sith in 2005, Lucas remained adamant that he was finished with the franchise.  Now that Disney owns Lucasfilm, a whole new generation of writers and filmmakers will get a chance to refashion Star Wars in their own image, albeit with the rueful caveat that the past is past.

I recall a Lester Bangs article when he went around asking people on the street (this was in the 1970s) their suggestions on how to revive rock and roll and many longed for a Beatles reunion, to which Bangs replied,"it would be the biggest anti-climax in history."  Of course to this day, Beatles' fans can only imagine what a reunion would've sounded like.  John Lennon always dismissed such notions as foolish nostalgia and suggested fans should give it up and just enjoy the old albums: What more did they want from the Fab Four?  The lesson of the Beatles applies to Star Wars in the sense that our cultural obsessions and desire to relive the past are phantoms and exist best where they belong- in our imagination.

What must George Lucas think of his fans?  In 1999, people around the world finally got what they wanted: a new Star Wars film.  Expectations were high since George Lucas had written and directed The Phantom Menace!  But by the first week of its release, most critics and original fans panned it.  And the fans felt betrayed and drew up a litany of complaints: Lucas cannot write dialogue.  The acting was awful.  Darth Vader was now a kid from a cereal ad.  The new characters (Jar-Jar Binks) were bothersome and played upon cultural stereotypes; yes Lucas in one week went from being a cinematic visionary to a reactionary racist.  They were decreed unworthy follow ups to the great saga of their youth.  But children generally liked the prequels and the films were massive hits worldwide. I suppose Star Wars fan culture will never forgive Lucas (I like the Freudian overtones to this drama).  They were unable to accept that Lucas had ruined the story of their childhood.  Hmmm... or maybe they never grew up?

One point that's left out of the legacy of Star Wars was the boldness of Lucas's decision in the mid 1970s to make a science fiction film with young people as the primary audience (ages 9-13)  That was the Silver Age of American cinema; a time when filmmakers made tortured personal films about alienation. While exploring the dark soul of humanity with the likes of Travis Bickle or Alex the Droog has some aesthetic value, but is rather hard on the psyche.  Interestingly enough, Lucas began his career as an avant guard filmmaker who serious, artsy films as a student at UCLA.  His debut feature, THX-1138, is an obscure dystopian flick that failed with audiences.  He changed tactics with American Graffiti, a masterpiece of 1950s nostalgia (I know the film took place in 1962), that continued to explore humanity's relationship with technology.   A student of mythology and anthropology, Lucas imagined telling a coming of age story in space.  He drew upon a multitude of sources in world literature ranging from Frank Herbert's Dune to the Bible.  And it is important to note that science fiction films were considered a dead genre in 1977, with Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey still considered the gold standard (and remains to this day).  Lucas's peers urged him not to pursue the project.  Peter Biskind reported in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls that Lucas invited other directors to his home to screen an early version of Star Wars and they thought it was awful (apparently Brian De Palma made insulting remarks throughout).  But to the surprise of all, Lucas had launched a cultural phenomenon.

The problem is that no one can go back and recreate the moment Star Wars came out in 1977.  For fans, that fact never quite computed: Lucas was taking the story in a new direction.  So, what does that mean for the new installments?  Times have changed, but there remains a great hunger for Star Wars.  No matter who writes or directs these new films some will not be happy with the final product. As long as they stay with the spirit of adventure, humor, and wonder that is part of all the films - they will be fine.  The web is replete with speculation on who will take the reins.  A popular name is J.J. Abrams who launched Lost and rebooted the Star Trek franchise. Steven Spielberg is another possibility for relaunching Star Wars films; perhaps a master filmmaker like Spielberg is the perfect choice for the for first film.

Lastly, there is speculation about the story lines for the new films.  Devoted fans will recall the Timothy Zahn trilogy that came out in the early 1990s that continued the saga after Return of the Jedi.  From what I remember those novels emphasized action,but lacking on character development.  A countless number of forgettable novels and comic books followed.  According to reports there are detailed treatments that Lucas wrote for episodes VII, VIII, and IX, which seems to contradict his statements of recent years. I commend Lucas for handing his creation over to a new generation and that a new one will get to experience the films in whichever direction they decide to take it.

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