ReelThoughts: May 17, 2009

"Remaking Star Wars?"

Commentary by James Berardinelli


Re-making Star Wars?

Everything old is new again, and there are no sacred cows. Those are precepts upon which the current film industry is built. If it has been made, it's fair game for a re-make. It's not hard to explain Hollywood's fetish for re-fashioning nearly everything under the sun: with only a few exceptions, remakes are successful, they come accompanied with a built-in marketing advantage, and the degree of creativity needed to develop a screenplay is markedly lower than what's mandated for something original. In fact, Hollywood's penchant for re-makes has become so extreme that we're seeing remakes of remakes, sequels to remakes, and remakes of sequels. It's starting to look like a blender of cinematic recursion.

All of the old warhorses have succumbed. Star Trek has fallen. Superman and Batman, those venerable superheroes, have gone under. James Bond has existed in a state of perpetual re-making and/or re-booting. So why should Star Wars be any different? After all, if such treasures as Casablanca and It's a Wonderful Life have been remade, who would stop the Powers That Be from re-spinning a 1977 space opera?

George Lucas, that's who. As a result of re-releases, home video triple-dipping, overmerchandising, and countless other sins, he's richer than God. So he doesn't need the money. And he's a jealous deity, wanting no one else to lay hands on his creation without specific license. Because of a deal Lucas struck with Fox in 1999 allowing them to distribute the maligned prequels, he acquired the rights to Star Wars, the only film of the original trilogy he didn't own. So, in practical terms, no one can re-make Star Wars unless George Lucas says they can re-make it. And that's not something he's going to say any time soon.

When it comes to Star Wars, Lucas' well of creativity has long since run dry. The reason there's no Episode VII-IX trilogy wending its way through pre-production is because Lucas doesn't have a story. Truth be told, he didn't really have a story for the prequels, either, but he didn't need one - it was already mapped out. All he had to do was fill in the blanks. Episodes I-III look a lot better when seen through the eyes of a virgin Star Wars watcher (assuming they are viewed before Episodes IV-VI). One of the problems with prequels (not just Star Wars in particular, but prequels in general) is that you know where they're heading and the journey usually isn't enough to justify the investment of time. Impatience sets in. For a prequel to work, it has to be plot-independent (read: pretentious art film). Of course, watching Star Wars sequentially (I, II, III, IV, V, VI) damages the integrity and power of the original trilogy, so there's no easy answer. I wonder, however, whether today's 8-year-olds, who have no previous experience with Star Wars, are starting with Episode I or Episode IV. Or maybe they're not starting at all. Maybe they're waiting for the re-make.

In reality, Lucas keeps re-making Star Wars on his own; he doesn't need help from Hollywood. This isn't a recent phenomenon. When distilled to its essentials, Return of the Jedi is largely a re-telling of the original Star Wars. The space battle at the end is just bigger and badder and, regrettably, there are Ewoks. Next came the Special Editions - the same, yet flashier. Then the prequels, which were hardly masterpieces of originality. And George isn't yet done, even ignoring blueprints for a live-action TV series. Plans are afoot for 2012, when Star Wars turns 25. The rumor mill suggests that the films will be re-released in 3D, possibly with deleted scenes re-incorporated (yes, that means the Biggs stuff) and all of the special effects from the original trilogy re-done via CGI to bring them up to the same level as the prequels. Who knows what Lucas really has planned, but it's unlikely he's going to stop tinkering with his babies until the day he dies.

But some day in some way, he will die. Not even Lucas' Jedi mind tricks can stave off that moment. At that time, the rights to the six Star Wars movies will pass to his estate. And eventually one of Lucas' heirs is going to decide he/she likes the money more than the ownership of a few old movies, and a deal will be done. It's fascinating to consider what a Star Wars remake might look like in another 30 years or so. Will it be hailed as a fresh take on a familiar story - a clean break from all the tinkering Lucas accomplished over his lifetime? Star Wars old-timers, those who were in grade school and junior high in 1977, will gaze through rheumy 80-year-old eyes at the recreation of their childhood fantasies and discover that the new version, despite incredible special effects and maybe even holographic imagery, can't touch the memories.

But that's the truth about all re-makes. They never exist for those who loved the originals. They exist to introduce newcomers to something that would otherwise be past history. My generation grew up consuming old movies. We had no choice. In the pre-VCR era, we were at the mercy of TV stations, and their programming included everything from three-year old major releases (for prime time viewing) and old black-and-white movies (for late nights and on UHF channels). Now, viewers program their own entertainment, and the average movie watcher doesn't look back more than a few years. I recently spoke in front of several classes of 9th grade students (about 25 children per class). In one of those classes, I asked for a show of hands from those who had ever watched an ENTIRE black-and-white movie. Two hands went up. Remember, though: For those kids, Jurassic Park is ancient history.

The beauty of time is that it plays the same joke on everyone. When I was a kid, I laughed at the silly Saturday afternoon serials of yesteryear, only to lap them up when they were re-worked as Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Today, children chortle with unconcealed contempt at the Star Trek of my youth while enjoying the new one. 30 year from now, they'll be waxing nostalgic about today's crop of movies (hard as that may be to believe) while lamenting a Harry Potter remake. And their kids will be ignoring any form of entertainment not conceived before 2030.

Maybe Star Wars will never be re-made. Maybe all of Lucas' tinkering has placed those films into an untouchable category. But what about Episodes VII - IX? Perhaps that's where the future of Star Wars lies, after George Lucas has moved on to the big Death Star in the sky. Until then, never fear - Star Wars mini-remakes are likely to come along every few years, as regular as clockwork. And perhaps we should be glad that Lucas has voiced his intention not to make any more chapters to this saga. After all, if the fourth Indiana Jones movie is an indication of his current level of creativity, then he is sparing us unending heartbreak. Sometimes, unmade movies are the best ones. Once they're made and expectations are not met, the results aren't pretty. But even then, there's a fix. Just remake them and we can long for the greatness of the originals. And perhaps that's the ultimate fix for the prequels.


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