'Star Wars' and George Lucas: Why it's time to grow up
When I say that it’s time for us to stop caring so much about Star Wars, I want you to understand: When I was a kid, my obsession with Star Wars was all-encompassing. I had the original trilogy memorized — not just the lines, but the sound effects. I had a massive collection of Star Wars action figures: the Ewok village, the Y-Wing fighters, the Empire Strikes Back-era rendition of Han Solo, when he was wearing that awesome blue jacket. I collected Star Wars comics, Star Wars fan magazines, Star Wars T-shirts. I lost track of how many times I played through Shadows of the Empire on my Nintendo 64. In fifth grade, I had only one real goal in life: To write a series of books for the Star Wars Expanded Universe. The books were going to star Davin Felth, the stormtrooper who says “Look sir, droids!” in the first movie. (I can’t tell you why, exactly, I was so fascinated by such a minor character. Maybe it was his initials.)
What I’m trying to say is that Star Wars simply was my childhood. I didn’t have many friends, and I couldn’t play sports, so my obsession was splashed with a massive dollop of yearning. I wanted so badly to live in the Star Wars universe. Which meant that, for a young me, George Lucas was more than just my idol: He was a walking representation of transcendence.
And, as it happened, I wasn’t the only one who felt that way: When I was an adolescent, the God-Cult of George Lucas was a massive cultural force. There was a Star Wars exhibit at the National Air and Space Museum. You couldn’t walk through a philosophy section of a bookstore without seeing at least five books describing how Star Wars was a modern myth, how George Lucas was heavily influenced by Joseph Campbell, how Carl Jung was all over The Empire Strikes Back. Since the ’90s were a miserable time for sci-fi/fantasy movies — Lost in Space, Dragonheart, Wing Commander — the promise of more Star Wars films just over the horizon made Lucas seem (to my young, naive eyes) like the anointed savior of the cinema.
Like every other science-fiction-loving movie fan from my generation and earlier, I can pinpoint the specific day that I lost my innocence: May 19, 1999, the day Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace opened in theaters.
There was already an anti-George Lucas movement growing in the dark corners of the Internet after the 1997 Special Editions: You know, Greedo shooting first, that ridiculous Wampa costume, the bizarre choice to make the Sarlacc Pit look like a refugee from Little Shop of Horrors. But Episode I cemented a whole Star Wars counter-myth, best expressed in the eternal cry of the betrayed Star Wars fanboy: “George Lucas raped my childhood.” That’s a sentiment that returns to the spotlight every couple years, usually when a new version of Star Wars hits DVD with additional “corrections.” Certainly, it’s the most common response to the news — reported yesterday by EW — that the new Blu-ray version of Return of the Jedi will feature Darth Vader melodramatically screaming “Nooooo!”
Believe me, there is a big part of me that wants to join the chorus of betrayed fans. But why? Why am I so angry at the man who was responsible for some of the major formative moments in my existence? Studying various Star Wars encyclopedias was a gateway drug for enjoying actual genuine history books. Watching the films on repeat taught me basic film grammar. Star Wars made me love science-fiction, so I have to thank George Lucas for indirectly pointing me onwards to Philip K. Dick, to Iain M. Banks, to Robert Heinlein and Orson Scott Card and every other great S.F. author. George Lucas can’t ruin my childhood, because my childhood already happened.
And that, I think, is why all the George Lucas hatred is fundamentally misplaced — and, in fact, why my initial gut-reaction (“Screw you, George!”) reflects much worse on me. The reason why our first response is to hate George Lucas is not because Lucas is ruining our childhoods. Far from it. Lucas is, perhaps accidentally, forcing us to admit two things: First, that our childhoods are over; and second, that the things we enjoy when we are children tend to be silly.
Because make no mistake: Star Wars is extremely, extremely silly.
I want to stress: Silliness is not a bad thing. Silly things can be important, and even profound. The first Star Wars film is a near-perfect work of propulsive silliness: funny robots and ninja-priests who speak from beyond the grave and big scary space-weapons that can blow up planets. The second Star Wars film is a genuinely perfect Hollywood entertainment, a work of narrative schadenfreude that merrily chops our beloved heroes down to size. And then there’s Return of the Jedi, which is basically an extended episode of The Muppets.
I’m not insulting any of these movies, but you have to understand that Star Wars is the rare long-running science-fiction series that doesn’t really have any Big Ideas at its core. The whole Light Side/Dark Side dichotomy is so vague that it could essentially apply to anything: The Cold War, the American political system, Pong. Lucas famously attempted to sprinkle a Big Idea into the Star Wars prequels — the rise of reactionary fascism in a republican democracy — but the metaphor was simultaneously too on the nose and too cluttered by narrative doggerel. The early movies don’t need Big Ideas. They are fun, and fun can never be overrated. (I guess you could argue that the “Idea” of Star Wars is just very elemental: “You should be a good person, because good is more powerful than evil.” But that’s not an idea; it’s a Sunday School lesson plan.)
But we have to stop confusing the fun of Star Wars with the abstract notion of cinematic perfection. Unfortunately, we live in an era of nostalgia, and nostalgia makes everything look profound, especially the stupid things you enjoyed when you were a kid. Take Return of the Jedi. Jedi is a bad movie by every measure, but I loved it when I was a kid, because when I was a kid I was much stupider than I am now, because kids are stupid. When I saw the Special Editions in theaters, the only tweak that bothered me was the deletion of “Yub-Nub” from the film’s finale. “Yub-Nub” is a terrible song. Kids are stupid. I purchased every issue of Kevin J. Anderson’s “Tales of the Jedi” cycle, even though the characters were all lame and the plot was pretty dull. Kids are stupid. Once, I put my finger on a lit stove just to see what it would feel like. Kids are stupid.
I’m reminded of an incredible section in Sir Alec Guinness’ memoir, My Name Escapes Me: The Diary of a Retiring Actor, in which he describes his feelings on the Star Wars franchise:
Guinness was a real actor. He was in freaking Bridge on the River Kwai, a thrilling entertainment that is also a bitter, fascinating meditation on war. So we Star Wars fans should, perhaps, pay more attention to him than we typically do. Guinness begged the little fanboy to never see Star Wars ever again; when he wrote the memoir, he expressed his hope that the little boy, “now in his thirties, is not living in a fantasy world of secondhand, childish banalities.”
But in a way, that’s exactly what happened to popular culture. We’ve all become so obsessed with the notion that the original Star Wars films were perfect and wonderful and original, and mean old George Lucas just keeps on changing them. In turn, we all believe that the next great action-adventure franchise is just around the corner. When franchises disappoint us — when X-Men and Spider-Man and The Matrix and Pirates of the Caribbean all descend into big-budgeted inanity — we might be angry at the filmmakers, but we never stop to question our basic presumption: That big, dumb action trilogies can be anything more than big, dumb action trilogies.
I think that it is time to put away childish things. Time to admit that Star Wars — like fruit snacks and Nickelodeon — should perhaps be left behind in our adolescence. There is no shame in changing your mind about something, and come on, can you really trust someone who hasn’t evolved beyond a first-grade level? The reason why we hate George Lucas is because we are George Lucas: Eternally obsessed with putting a spit-shine on films from long ago, insisting that Star Wars is the modern myth, and so it can never stop evolving.
There will always be generations of children who love Return of the Jedi, but there should also be generations of adults who admit that Return of the Jedi is awful — yes, even without the added “Nooooo!” Star Wars was never perfect, and will never be perfect. That dream is already behind us. We will never be kids again, so maybe it’s time to just grow the hell up.
Follow Darren on Twitter: @EWDarrenFranich