What follows is in response to a video I just saw from AMC Movie Talk. Towards the end, John Campea jokingly disregards the Star Wars prequels. He insists (again with tongue firmly in cheek) that the first three movies are the only three and when the others on the show mention the prequels he feigns ignorance that they even exist, making a point that so far as he is concerned they are simply not worthy to exist in his subjective perception of reality.
By the way you can skip this first video. it’s like a half hour long and I just told you about the bit at the end that inspired this whole blog post. I just leave it here for completeness sake, but most of that video has nothing to do with what I’m about to write about.
I’m torn here because as a child I adored the Star Wars films and even had Star Wars (and the original trilogy overall) in my mind as THE best film ever. My top three films of all time were Star Wars, then Citizen Kane, and then The Princess Bride. The criteria is long and involved but the short form is that if I’m ever in the mood to see a film of any kind, throughout my life those three have been my touchstones. If nothing else looked good, I knew wasting another two hours watching those three again would be worthwhile. I could sit down and watch them any time, anywhere, and I’d have a stupid smile on my face. There’s other variables too that kept them in that top tier but that’s the best way I can explain it without being too boring with details.
And the prequels annoy the crap out of me. So much so that as the years have progressed, Star Wars has simply fallen out of favor. The prequels turn Darth Vader into a tragic, tortured soul, so watching Star Wars has been ruined for me. It’s no longer a cut and dried, black and white, good guys versus bad guys movie for me. In fact, years later when I saw Kevin Smith address some major problems with Empire Strikes Back from a more adult perspective, I completely understood where he was coming from because I’d been wondering that too.
By tinkering with his own creation, George Lucas has inadvertently destroyed it. Like so many men around my age, around John Campea’s age, I feel like my childhood has been pissed on by an old fart with more money than brains. That’s how I feel, and I’m simultaneously aware that’s a very irrational, unfair way to feel, cuz I’m not George Lucas. I don’t have a right to tell George Lucas what to do with his own franchise, any more than Lucas would have the right to write to me and tell me how to write in my own wordpress blog thing.
It was his franchise to do with as he so chooses. The fact I personally found the enemies in Phantom Menace to be offensively racist (and Jar Jar Binks), or the relationship between Obi Wan and Anakin to be completely unbelievable, or Anakin’s sordid affair with Queen Amidala to frankly be kinda creepy (he’s like a third her age for crying out loud when we first meet them that’s bonkers!) these things shouldn’t matter. It was Lucas’ dealie win or lose. Nothing is making me watch them.
I’m kinda between the extremes on the Star Wars thing. The first film (A New Hope) is supposed to feel like a serial episode from the early days of cinema, and added to that is that it’s even a fanboy’s wet dream from way back when where instead of it being just a 12-20 min installment, this movie serial IS the feature! George Lucas was initially just capturing that feel of what it was like for him as a child going to see movies back in the 1950s. When he first put pen to paper he was only trying to appeal to the eight year old inside himself, and what he remembered movies were like back then.
After making American Graffiti, but before it became a hit, George Lucas was not a big name in the business. He was by his own recollection essentially a starving artist trying to cut a deal with anyone who would give him a chance. He wasn’t even sure if American Graffiti, a film he had directed and poured years of his life into, was ever going to see the light of day. So when he finally got some people to fund him for writing the screenplay for what eventually became Star Wars, he got so excited that he finally had money to write, he ended up writing too much. He had an idea for three films, but knew they’d only let him film the first two hours of his story.
Also, again cuz of his love for serials, he indicated that this first film was actually episode four of a larger story, because he wanted the audience to get that feel he had felt as a kid, coming into a serial sometimes half way through and not really knowing what’s going on but getting excited cuz the story always starts with characters in peril in the movie serials. The excitement kicks in before you even really know who the main characters are.
Did Lucas plan on making those first three films someday? What first three films? He hadn’t really written them. He had some notes about what happened before what became Star Wars, but he was focused more on what we now see as the latter three installments of the saga. Did Lucas plan on making the other two sequels after Star Wars Episode Four A New Hope? That was a pipe dream in the back of his mind, but when he was sitting there in the late 1970s hunched over the film he’d shot, cutting the first Star Wars print together and making that now iconic open title sequence, he was sweating bullets cuz the people who invested money in this crazy thing weren’t all that sure he knew what he was doing. He just wanted to guarantee his audience a good time. He just wanted to please the guys who put up the money. He just wanted to SURVIVE making this film. His inner child was probably not getting much of a say in how the first film was even getting cut. I doubt Lucas figured there’d be money for a sequel. He’d be lucky if they broke even. He’d be lucky if they didn’t sue him over this. That’s where his mind must have been at, at the time.
All that changed after opening weekend when the long shot paid off and the world suddenly became his oyster over night. Now keep in mind also, after this success, he no longer had to do everything himself so much. He could delegate authority to others. He had a basic idea what he wanted the next two films to be like, but he could let someone else direct it, more people produce it, there was more capital now so he wasn’t as scared of pleasing money bags. He was becoming a money bag himself.
The second and third films were mostly a natural progression from the unanticipated success of Star Wars, and the story overall holds up. Empire gets DARK towards the end, and that’s what’s so fun about it. The end of the second installment really brings about the feeling of the cliffhanger, so important to the initial serials of the 1930s thru 50s that inspired Lucas in the first place.
However, by the third installment, we can see he was reacting to fan and critic input. For example, the wookie toys simply weren’t selling, so for Return of the Jedi, Lucas cut em in half to make them cuter and turned them into Ewoks, which is just the syllables “wook” and “ie” backwards. “E” and “Wok.” The Thanksgiving special he had made for TV crashed and burned. There are no mainstream marketable qualities about the wookies, so he cut his losses on them and went for what would sell. What would appeal to eight year olds.
That’s just one example. From the zany characters in Jabba’s hut, to the almost cherubic face of the redeemed Darth Vader at the very end, Return of the Jedi was a responsorial to countless charts and graphs and surveys and analyses done over the years regarding the first two films and how to maximize their profits. At the end of the first film George Lucas knew he had to answer to the people who gave him all that money. By the end of the third film he WAS one of the guys with all that money and the progression showed in his “creative process.” Video may have killed the Radio star, but money is essentially what ultimately both fuels, and often fails, the creative spark in all of us.
Lucas could see where the money was really coming from by this point, and so he intentionally began catering the storytelling to a younger, or at the very least “family friendly” demographic. Return of the Jedi was just the beginning. After a long hiatus in which he had WAY too much time to overthink it, and probably way too many Yes Men surrounding him NOT telling him what’s stupid and what’s not, George Lucas was set up to create a continuation of the franchise that appealed to his pocketbook, but not the people who got him there some twenty or so years before.
With the prequels, George Lucas just let the profit margin take over the creative process which is in my opinion why parts one thru three are such a cluster fondue. And I get why. I was eight or nine when Star Wars first came out. That film spoke to me viscerally as a young child and i recall screaming in the movie theater at the end of Empire when Darth Vader said he was Luke’s father cuz I didn’t believe it any more than Luke did. George knew what he was making was intended for the young male demographic. He wanted the prequels to speak to the eight year old in the movie theater, so he made Anakin Skywalker (the future Darth Vader) a scared little eight year old boy.
By the time the first three films got made, my inner child had moved on. George waited too long to get my vote, and he never really wanted or needed it. He appealed to the eight year olds of the 21st century. I think he was aiming to appeal to the eight year olds of whenever in the future that film gets picked up by a new generation. It made over a billion dollars in the box office worldwide. I can’t say it failed. If it failed me, I doubt George Lucas loses sleep over that.
By the way, my top three movies now are The Princess Bride, Serenity, and The Incredibles. And yes, I wish someone would make sequels of all those films, and yes I’m very aware that if they did that now, they’d probably suck, and my top three films would change, but the heart wants what the heart wants.