Just in case you’ve been stranded on an uncharted island in the south Pacific for the last few days, shooting the breeze with a volleyball, Disney bought Lucasfilm this week. For four billion dollars. And they haven’t wasted a second in announcing a 2015 release date for Episode VII with VIII and IX to follow as a new trilogy. That’s quite the newsflash, isn’t it? Legions of fans are in an uproar over this development, frightened and indignant at the possibility of a beloved film franchise being desecrated through mishandling. Who wants such an endearing cultural artifact to be exploited, its mythic power sucked bone dry by soulless corporate suits?
Fret not, true believers. I’m actually extremely optimistic about this! Disney is, after all, the cabal ultimately behind The Avengers, which (I don’t know if you heard or not) positively ruled. We have every reason to believe the franchise is in good hands. In fact, I think it’s finally found sanctuary from the maniacal clutches of George Lucas himself, who, it seems, will stop at nothing to squander the legacy of the original trilogy and drive his own creation into the ground. Think of it this way- the worst has already happened, and it happened slowly and painfully between 1999 and 2005. Nevermind the Sith- George Lucas, ironically, is Star Wars’ worst enemy. Two points should prove sufficient to flesh this out.
First of all, Lucas is prone to shooting himself in the foot with ideas so lamebrained, lamebrained creatures the galaxy over take offense. Of course, he isn’t responsible for exclusively terrible ideas- clearly he is quite capable of concocting some incredible stuff in that noggin of his. What he desperately needs in order to bring balance to the Force is some sort of creative conscience to keep him in check, a co-pilot to share the helm and course correct all the bizarre flights of fancy he’s bound to unleash if he goes it alone. Left to his own devices, discrepancies, implausibilities, inanities, and sheer creative failures run disastrously amok. Let’s face it: there is no universe in which Jar Jar Binks is a good idea. It’s as though Lucas thinks terrible ideas merit just as much consideration as staggeringly awesome ones. Someone needs to be there at his side to occasionally slap his wrist and say, “George- don’t.” A collaborator can provide a crucial quality control function by carefully surveying Lucas’ output and troubleshooting the refining process whenever any dross threatens to make it into the final product.
We see this principle at work even within the first three films. The Empire Strikes Back, arguably the finest installment of the original trilogy, is monolithic in its greatness, an enormous accomplishment in terms of atmosphere, plot and character development, and visual effects, but its screenplay was actually written by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan, working from the original story by George Lucas. The plot’s most crucial elements all found their genesis in the fertile imagination of Lucas, but the narrative fineries were smoothed out and refined by Brackett and Kasdan. Add the inestimable input of director Irvin Kershner, and you have a veritable masterpiece on your hands! The evidence draws us toward one inescapable conclusion: Lucas shines when someone works in between what he brings to the table and the finished work. And there’s nothing wrong or shameful with this- after all, even Han Solo needs Chewie to help run the Millennium Falcon! J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Charles Williams all read drafts to and bounced ideas off one another- creative accountability is a beautiful thing to be embraced, not an ugly thing to be spurned.
I think my take on the prequels is judicious- I’m not one of these guys who hates every second of the films without qualification. They’re rife with stunning visuals, and are littered with indisputably spectacular moments: Ewan MacGregor’s disillusioned scream, “You were the Chosen One!”, the epic lightsaber battle between Darth Maul, Qui-Gon Jinn, and Obi-Wan Kenobi, Anakin Skywalker leading a legion of clone troopers into the Jedi Temple and burning an era of galactic history to the ground all stand out immediately. And of course I can’t imagine a future in which the opening orbital battle of Revenge of the Sith will ever fail to suck the breath out of my lungs in a fit of rapturous glee. Even with awesome performances and sequences such as these, however, the prequels fall tragically short of greatness, the tragedy of it all amplified by how far they aim to reach and disappointingly come up short. The scope of their vision is immense, but that vision doesn’t come close to realization. Its flight is grounded by setbacks so catastrophically obvious they almost look like sabotage. Absurd failures of tone and atmosphere (“No, no, YOU HAVE LOST!!”), terribly timed cartoonish buffoonery (any of R2 and 3PO’s misadventures Episode I on), dialogue so wooden it makes forests cringe (“No, it’s because I’m so in love with you“), intercanonical inconsistencies (how in the world does Leia remember anything about her mother in Episode VI given what we see in Episode III???), egregious conceptual letdowns (wait- the Force is really just a bunch of microscopic critters??), and unbelievable plot and character developments (Anakin and Padme’s stumble into romance in Episode II will always and ever be unconvincing and nonsensical) vampirize any hope of success. Even worse, they make you question what drew you in to the Star Wars universe in the first place.
Admitting that the prequel trilogy is a mess doesn’t make you a hater- it’s just the way it is. There is no wedding of concept and execution in these films. Grandiose vision won’t redeem a sloppy production- good frames won’t save bad paintings! The edifice of Episodes I-III is marred by deep structural and surface flaws that could and should have been easily avoided. This brings us to my second point: it irritates me to no end that Lucas can’t keep his own legendarium straight. He is inattentive to the details of his created universe and its characters. He doesn’t exhibit the careful intention of a craftsman; rather, what we see on display in the prequels is a reckless carelessness that runs roughshod over his own creation. Continuity error after continuity error plague the prequel trilogy and call Lucas’ integrity as an author into question. No, let me revise that: empties an E-Web heavy blaster into his authorial integrity, riddling it with glaring, gaping holes, leaving the entire thing a tattered mess.
Is he really incapable of reviewing Episodes IV-VI just to ensure he doesn’t contradict himself on stuff he’s already established? For the life of me, I cannot understand how someone who has been blessed with ability and means to craft a work of art can suddenly demonstrate such disregard for their labor of love that they choose to neglect the internal consistency of their creation! This is an enormous creative failure, an abandonment of the responsibilities that come with the artist’s calling. Tolkien is surely our paradigm for the responsible artist. Tolkien took these responsibilities seriously and wouldn’t be caught dead mishandling the thing God graced him with the means to create. He took his calling as author and world constructor seriously and with humility and gratitude honored the consistency of his mythos accordingly. As an aspiring author myself I taste the bitterness of Lucas’ failure to accord his work the honor it is due and properly continue the Star Wars saga in a manner consistent with its beginnings.
So yes, for all of these reasons I think Disney’s acquisition of Star Wars is stellar news (pun monumentally intended). Getting back to something like the working relationship that produced the original trilogy is, as the prequels have amply demonstrated, a fantastic idea, and bodes well for fans of epic narrative the world over, whatever their level of fanaticism. In fact, the only thing that dampens my enthusiasm even slightly is the ongoing existence of Episodes I-III. Making plans for a new trilogy while those are still out lying around feels like inviting your upper crust brother-in-law’s family over for Christmas without tidying up the house first. Look: this is the decade of the reboot. If you have the power, Disney (which you do!), start from scratch and make the prequels the original trilogy begs to have made. Honor the saga and fans alike by wiping the slate clean and beginning anew. Do what you did with The Avengers– find a superb cast, an ambitious director, and a screenwriter with undeniable power, and do this thing. Then go ahead and carry this forward into Episode VII!