The Evil Empire

August 13, 2008
A thought by James Berardinelli

It's becoming increasingly difficult to defend George Lucas. It's hard to reconcile the greedy corporate fat cat at the top of Lucasfilm's empire with the hungry filmmaker who transformed cinema and enthralled millions in 1977. Fans who once worshipped Lucas now revile his name. Lucas the god has become Lucas the devil. For those willing to defend Lucas, the release of The Clone Wars may be their undoing.

25 years ago, fans adored Lucas. He could do no wrong. Star Wars was fresh in 1983 and, while it was uncertain how long it would take before Lucas produced more stories in that galaxy far, far away, fans believed. In 1997, when the Special Editions were released, the lovefest was still in full swing. Old fans re-discovered the magic of Star Wars. New fans experienced it on the big screen for the first time. Lucas was 14 years older, with gray peppering his once jet-black hair, but no less an admired figure. Better still, everyone knew there was new Star Wars on the horizon. Then came 1999 and The Phantom Menace, dubbed by many as "the movie event of all time." (Considering the hype and attendant expectations, it seemed that way.) Suddenly, not only could George do no right but, in a hyperbolic statement of unrivaled vitriol, he was being accused of "raping" people's childhoods.

My childhood, with its fond memories of that first drive-in viewing of what would eventually become known as A New Hope, remains untouched. I enjoyed the prequels for what they were, but there are reasons to lament them. While they fill in holes regarding Darth Vader's history and the genesis of his character, are those gaps that needed to be plugged? Wouldn't it have been better to spend all of that time and money moving the story forward and showing us what happened to Luke and Han after Return of the Jedi? Lucas didn't think so, so he gave us three films designed to transform the Star Wars story from Luke's tale to Vader's. So many of the plot points unveiled by Episodes I-III were established elements of Star Wars lore, making the prequels feel obligatory. Maybe that's one of the reasons for the lingering dissatisfaction.

The real reason, however, that fans turned on Lucas was because they were being taken advantage of. There comes a point when merchandising goes beyond making a reasonable profit and enters the realm of gouging. This is true when you have a loyal fan base that is so eager for product that you abuse their loyalty. Lucas has earned a deserved reputation for being fan-unfriendly. There are times when he seems to despise the loyal legions who have given their hearts and souls to his creation. How does he reward this loyalty? Consider this list of Star Wars video releases (original trilogy only), all sold sequentially (not in parallel): VHS pan-and-scan, VHS widescreen, laserdisc widescreen, laserdisc re-release, special edition VHS and laserdisc, DVD box set, DVD special edition individual releases. Undoubtedly, there are more to come.

Watching The Clone Wars, I was struck by a powerful sense of sadness. It has come to this. 31 years of fans' love for the mythos of a then-young filmmaker has turned into one of the entertainment industry's biggest marketing machines. There's no creativity in The Clone Wars. It's a cynical money-grab. It's an exclamation of "fuck you" to those who still consider themselves Star Wars fans. This is a pilot for a cartoon TV series blown up for the big screen. Who will pay $10 for that? Members of a dwindling fan base who either haven't lost faith or who can't help themselves. It's Star Wars, if in name only. They love Star Wars. The must see it. I'll defend the prequels because, for all their flaws, I like them. But I can't and won't defend this because it's indefensible.

As recently as 10 years ago, George Lucas had the goodwill of almost everyone. It's amazing to me how he could piss away so much love and adulation in such a short time. Everything he touched once turned to gold. Now it turns to shit. Am I angry? Not really. My days of fandom are behind me, but I understand the pain of those who still love this saga even though they hate its creator. For many, it's the betrayal of first love. Lucas is a very rich man. He doesn't have to worry what anyone thinks about him. He's the perfect capitalist, exploiting demand as he sees it. How much would it have cost him, however, to do it in such a way that he would have retained the love and loyalty of those who were once devoted to him?