George Lucas and the Destruction of Memories for the Purpose of Commerce
by Matt Sills
My bedroom is a cluttered mess, filled with memories from 38 years of life. I’ve got binders of baseball cards, cereal boxes adorned with Mark McGwire mid-swing, autographed balls and bats. There’s an entire box of memorabilia from the 1984 Olympics including pins and mugs and commemorative McDonald’s plates. There are programs from elementary school plays, class photos, yearbooks. Then there are the reminders of my obsession with film: movie posters, scripts, books on everything from the religion based on The Big Lebowski to 1950s sci-fi. One box, however, is dedicated to the one film series that I love more than any other, the original Star Wars trilogy. That box includes action figures, die cast vehicles, Legos, signed scripts of all three films, including one with the original Luke Starkiller title, and an original Revenge of the Jedi poster. But the most important thing to me in that box is my 1995 THX remastered VHS re-release of the original trilogy. Why? Because it’s probably the last time George Lucas cared about those three original films as much as I did.
Lucas has spent the last decade and a half doing everything he possibly could to completely alienate the fans that grew up on Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi as they were originally released. It’s been so long that it may be hard to remember what a cultural phenomenon those films were, especially in light of Lucas’s seeming disregard for them. In 1997, Lucas released the “special editions” of these films, and I’ll be the first to admit that I was excited to see these films back on the big screen. I had heard about the changes that were made to the films, but just getting to watch them looking huge was a movie going highlight for me. It didn’t take long for me to find the changes off putting, especially the “Greedo shoots first” addition to the first film. If you’re not a fan of Star Wars, that last sentence might make you chuckle or snicker, as it seems more like a nitpick from a sci-fi geek than it does a serious critique. But if you love the art of storytelling, that seemingly minor change completely alters Han’s character arc. Before, he was an out for himself smuggler who does anything to make money and stay alive, only to find in the end he’s a hero with a heart of gold who saves the day. In this revised form, his arc is diminished, and his transition much less satisfying.
This major change lead the way to the thing that most fans see as the turning point of the series from landmark to roadside attraction: the prequels. I could go on for days about why the prequels are bad, but instead, I’ll focus on the man that created them. You watch the prequels, and you get the sense that not even George Lucas cared how the movies turned out. The actors seem lost, as if Lucas hired them, gave them the script, and told them to figure it out for themselves. The focus is completely on the technology, or, more importantly, the tie-ins. Go back to The Phantom Menace, and its centerpiece scene, the Pod Race. It’s an unnecessary scene, adding nothing to the story. But back when the movie was released, one of the most popular arcade and console games was Star Wars Episode 1: Racer, based on that one scene. Kids wanted the racers to play with at home. That’s right, it seems the scene was created only to sell merchandise. Soon, Lucas was treating the entire series that way. He re released the films, on DVD, with more changes, and ignored everything that came before. His excuse was that technology was allowing him to make the movies into the films he always wanted them to be. It’s hard to accept that when many of the changes seem cosmetic and completely unnecessary, like blinking Ewoks and Darth Vader’s ridiculous NOOOOO! in the recently released Blu-Rays.
With all of that said, I’m going to say something that most die hard Star Wars fans might consider blasphemous, and that is this: George Lucas can do with his films what he wishes. He owns them, they are his possession, not mine or any other fans, as much as we would sometimes like to believe. He created them, and therefore, can tinker with them and re release them as often as he wants. And if he wants to sell toasters that imprint Darth Vaders face on toast, or tauntaun sleeping bags, he should be able to do it, because he created the films from which that merchandise sprung. I can’t say I blame him, because, when you look at it, all Lucas has is Star Wars. The two films he directed before Star Wars were well received, but far from the industry that Star Wars would become. Indiana Jones, which he had a hand in creating, is more associated with Steven Spielberg, and its merchandise never sold that well either. As a producer, Lucas is known more for the failures he produced than any successes. Listen, this is the man who didn’t know what to do with Pixar, so he sold it to Steve Jobs for five million dollars, and we all know how that went. Every success Lucas has had has come from the Star Wars universe, including ILM, which was created initially to make special effects for the original films.
However, it’s still disheartening to me, as someone who grew up on these films, that Lucas is not only OK with the idea of squeezing as much money out of the franchise as he can, but seems to have an utter disregard for the audience. He shoves a middle finger at us each time he puts out a new toy or changes something in the movies that makes us cringe. But maybe the audience is starting to catch on. The Phantom Menace was released in 3-D this past weekend, and while it did OK, it only came in 4th place. It’s a sign that maybe, just maybe, the audience won’t buy everything that has Star Wars on it, and that soon, we might get to see the movies we grew up on. I certainly won’t be seeing heading to the theater to see The Phantom Menace, or any of the 3-D re releases. I won’t be buying the DVDs, or any more merchandise. The boxes of Star Wars memorabilia I have are like a time capsule, reminding me of the originals, unsullied by the present and future additions and “improvements.” I’d rather keep my memories, though the more Lucas messes with the past, the harder it is for me to remember why I fell for those films in the first place.