Culture

Why Disney Brings New Hope to Star Wars

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Star Wars holds a sacrosanct place in my heart, as it does with so many among my generation. As we’ve grown up, its mythology has served as a ready reference, shaping our perception of the world. Good and evil, light and dark, rebel and tyrant – while its moral dichotomy may prove simplistic, the struggles in Star Wars nonetheless resonate with conflicts we face in real life.

Anything which has such influence over a child, sparking imagination, shaping morality, and stimulating aspiration, ascends to an object of reverence. It becomes something we carry around with us (some more literally than others) and cling to like a sacred idol. A kind of theology develops around it, with conflicting doctrines advanced by competing denominations of fandom. So it is with Star Wars. For that reason, any tinkering with the the saga’s mythology inevitably draws cries of heresy.

Betsy Woodruff of National Review went so far as to declare Star Wars dead, due in large part to the brand’s acquisition by mega-corporation Disney. Citing George Lucas’ own introspection regarding his Vader-like transformation from ragtag rebel of the film industry to head of his own corporate empire, and detailing her experience trying out for a role in director J.J. Abrams’ forthcoming Episode VII, Woodruff concludes:

Here’s why Star Wars is dead: First, because they made a huge mistake in not casting me. Second, because it’s no longer in the hands of a bunch of nerds in California and because it’s been entrusted instead to the kind of people who think eight-hour meet-and-greets are a good idea either as A) publicity stunts (or, giving them the presumption of good faith) B) a good way to determine who’s going to be the next Luke Skywalker. It’s because Star Wars — a story that’s profoundly anti-centralization, anti-bureaucracy, anti-depersonalization — is being micromanaged and scrutinized by nameless bureaucrats who think that people who’ve stood in line for five hours will be satisfied with being directed to a website. And it’s because a film enterprise that was initially about risk is now about bet-hedging. No one should need to be told that the seventh film in a franchise probably isn’t going to be super great. But, you know, just in case, consider yourself warned.

Consider me a fan of another denomination. While the next film in the franchise may indeed bomb, it won’t do so for the reasons Woodruff cites.

Lucas gets too much credit for the original trilogy. While we certainly owe the creation of Star Wars to him, plenty of tangible evidence demonstrates that the brand thrives best when furthest removed from his input.

No greater evidence exists than the prequel trilogy. Universally panned by critics and moviegoers alike, the prequel films were commercially successful in spite of themselves, owing more to their pedigree than their stand-alone merit. Guess who wrote and directed each of them? George Lucas. More than that, the maestro of the modern serial wielded unprecedented control over such high-budget productions.

Consider that prior to its acquisition by Disney, and despite its size and resources, Lucasfilm was essentially an independent production company. Nobody was telling George Lucas what to do, and no one could stop him from doing as he saw fit. No cap was placed on how much money he could spend, or to what effect. In an industry of collaborative art, Lucas seized the big screen as a canvas uniquely his. The Star Wars prequel films may hold the distinction of remaining the most integral expression of one man’s vision ever commercially projected.

Compare that to his experience producing the original 1977 film. Here’s what he had to say to the American Film Institute during a turn-of-the-century interview:

What happens when you [are making a film], especially when you’re making a science fiction film, but almost any film. You’re working with limited resources, and you’re constantly sort of bumping up against the technology that you have. Cinema is an extremely technological medium. So you’re defined by those two barriers. One is resources. One is technology. And Star Wars especially bumped up against those. So I was never really able to tell the story that I wanted to tell. I had to self-censor the story down to something I knew could be done given the technology I had available…

Especially with the first film, I had very limited resources. I mean, the budget was $9,999,000. And for a film of that scope, it was almost an impossible exercise. I could deal with it. I mean, the other movies I had made were all under $1,000,000. But at the same time I was frustrated. I got the film finished somehow. But it wasn’t finished to the level that I wanted it to be finished.

Add to that what we know about Lucas’ original vision for that first film. Adapted to an eight-issue comic book run this year, the first draft of “The Star Wars” differed significantly from what made it onscreen. We will never know for sure, but it seems likely that a young Lucas enabled to do as he pleased might have ruined the chemistry which gave the 1977 film its sizzle. The constraints imposed by others forced him to refine his tale, reducing it to its essentials.

Cover art for "The Star Wars," a comic adaptation of George Lucas' first draft concept.

Cover art for “The Star Wars,” a comic adaptation of George Lucas’ first draft concept.

Recall that The Empire Strikes Back, first released in 1980, remains at the top of most rankings when critics and fans compare installments. Its screenplay was penned by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan, with George Lucas meriting only a story credit. Sitting in the director’s chair was Irvin Kershner, who had been running film sets since Lucas was nine-years-old. The results speak for themselves.

From such evidence we may conclude that Star Wars soars highest when guided by a team of creative professionals, balancing flights of fancy with a corporate bottom line. It could be argued that Lucas benefited more from his contractual prowess, retaining the merchandizing and licensing rights to his intellectual property, than from his creative talent as a filmmaker. It helps that he also stands as a tremendous innovator in film technology whose contributions to the industry reverberate through the countless films credited to his Industrial Light & Magic. All that provided him with gobs of money to do as he wished with the prequels.

Considering that, Woodruff places the wrong bet when reading Disney’s acquisition of Star Wars as the kiss of death. Indeed, Lawrence Kasdan returns to the franchise as screenwriter on Episode VII under the watchful eye of executive producer and longtime Lucas collaborator Kathleen Kennedy. Fans will recognize her name from the credits of several classic franchises including Indiana Jones and Jurassic Park. And yes, there’s a corporate profit motive. Thank God! Thank the Maker that these new films won’t emerge as vanity projects enslaved to the will of one man.

In that way, Woodruff’s allusion to the “anti-centralization” theme in the Star Wars franchise actually affirms the wisdom of Disney’s approach. I’m not ready to predict the new films will blow our socks off. But it’s fair to say the franchise lays in good hands. Disney has built its success on delivering what moviegoers want. After a disappointing prequel trilogy, they offer a new hope.