I’m killing time re-watching The Matrix: Revolutions and suddenly it occurs to me where George Lucas went wrong. And I’ll sum it up for you right here, so you don’t have to read my opining and supporting arguments unless you want to (but your opinions to the contrary don’t count unless you do): All good science fiction has always been more than what’s presented on the surface, but Lucas forgot this and made kid’s movies based on his franchise.
Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with cashing in, as long as we’re honest about it. Heck, look at Cars 2. I imagine the meeting for that movie went something like this: “Kids like cars, toys and ‘Mater. Any questions? Meeting adjourned!” But somehow I felt like there was at least some honesty in the intent. It was never purported to be a Toy Story 2 or 3, just a blatant cash-in featuring the wacky adventures of a side-kick given too much screen time. ‘Mater + kids = profit. And if the devoted Star Wars fans out there recall, Lucas took a decidedly kid-oriented profit bent early on with the made-for-TV Ewoks movies. The real problem with the prequels is that we expected something different. Many Star Wars fans have other geeky tendencies, and maybe even didn’t realize the depth of quality story-telling they were accustomed to. …and that Lucas has failed to achieve for 35 years, now.
First, let’s establish the premise here that all good sci-fi is really deeper than it appears on the surface. It’s not all laser beams and space ships, or it tends to be washed away in the annals of forgotten garbage. Sci-fi without a deeper message or purpose is nothing more than any other generic fantasy that winds up in pulp magazines and purchased in the we-can’t-be-fussed-to-throw-this-away bargain bin at a second hand bookstore. But the good stuff? The classics and works that inspire other writers or film makers, spin-offs and tie-ins and fan fiction? All of them take science fiction to say something about the human condition. Let’s run the list (and this is just off the top of my head):
- The Day the Earth Stood Still. The original is inarguably one of the greats, giving us the phrase “Klaatu barada nikto” to be repeated in Army of Darkness and Lucas himself named aliens after each word in Jedi. More than a story of how awesome Gort was, it was a cautionary tale of our own natures during an atomic age cold war with the Soviets, with Klaatu having more than one allegory of Jesus Christ.
- Starship Troopers. Not the Paul Verhoeven movie, but the book by Robert Heinlein on which it was based. I heard sci-fi nerds constantly lament that the movie “left out powered armor”. Seriously? That was their complaint?!?! It’s hokey 50’s lingo and British author combine for a book that’s tougher to digest for modern Americans, but the real crime of the film was stripping out all of Heinlein’s political commentary.
- The Matrix. Calling it a trilogy is a bit of misnomer, there was the first movie and then a second magnum opus that was long enough it had to divided in theaters. But it doesn’t change the fact that the entire film set (I never played the game or sat through The Animatrix) was so laden with religious and philosophical subtext that college professors now assign it’s dissection as an assignment.
- Star Trek. Here was Gene Roddenberry trying to show us all what we could achieve, in a time when racial and political tensions were palpable. Uhura put a black woman in a prominent position, and with Kirk the first televised interracial kiss was put forth. Chekov put a Russian serving as a team member with a mixed cast during the cold war (even if the Klingons largely served as a USSR allegory). Sulu put an asian in a prominent position at a time when legend says producers were hesitant to hire Bruce Lee to play Kato on The Green Hornet because he looked “too asian”… to portray an asian.
- Star Wars. Because in my world, there is only one trilogy, and they’re named as they were marketed and sold as VHS: Star Wars, Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi. (“A New Hope” might be technically correct, but it was literally never called this until the abomination Episode I was foisted upon us.) While I firmly believe Lucas got lucky here, the fact is he did it right. The first Star Wars was basically a fairy tale in outer space, where magic coexists with laser blasters, and borrowed heavily from Kurosawa. It also defied the norms of the day by being an overtly optimistic story in the cynicism of the ’70s.
Allow me to vent my frustrations about George Lucas as a film maker here quickly before going on to my specific criticisms of the prequels (which you can probably see coming by now). In light of Lucas recently announcing his “retirement”, it’s only fair to point out some facts. He complains fans have called him a terrible person, but I think he’s confused his identity with criticisms of being a terrible director. He’s a good story man, but when you look at Empire and Jedi they’re not good sci-fi, they’re simply movie that were good because they directed by others and the screenplays weren’t done by Lucas himself. All the Indiana Jones movies were directed by Steven Spielberg. The prequels, bad acting and crappy dialog, fall squarely on the shoulders of Lucas himself, who has admitted to being a terrible writer in favor of a visual director.
In brief defense of Lucas, while he’s a terrible film maker, nobody else has forwarded the state-of-the-art like him either. ILM’s visual effects, Skywalker Sound studios… His battles with the Director’s Guild to open his movies with scrolling titles and story rather than credits. Heck, PIXAR owes its existence to George Lucas. He’s done a lot for the movie industry- he just can’t make a movie worth a damn.
So, specifically, where/why did the prequels fail in my line of thinking now? Aside from Lucas writing and directing them himself, these movies were doomed to fail because they became slaves to the franchise. They didn’t have any deeper message, any statement of the human condition… They didn’t have any depth at all, really. They were demanded by fans, and by dollars. They were Cars 2. And there’s nothing wrong with that when you know that’s what you’re getting. Lucas likes to make relatively innocent, optimistic movies. He likes to entertain adolescents with tales of adventure (Star Wars began as an homage to Flash Gordon), and quite frankly that’s admirable. But fans used to being served up sci-fi the likes of Asimov, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and stuff sourced from Philip K. Dick weren’t ready to be served up the unabashedly shallow prequels. This is why they’re loathed but still made money- they’re slaves to a franchise, but it’s a successful franchise.
I don’t have a good closing statement, and I’ve said my piece. There’s no use in bemoaning George as a movie maker- he’s just not a very good one and that’s that. And because of this, he confused visual spectacle for being the needed ingredient for science fiction. He forgot what made the first one special, and didn’t tap into “something more”. It’s not a sin. It just doesn’t make for good movies, either.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna go re-watch Blade Runner.