Rick Dixon writes from Cambridge: Firstly, I’m going to assume a basic awareness of the cultural phenomenon that is the Star Wars saga – I think it’s fairly safe to assume that anyone who has never heard of Star Wars won’t be reading this anyway because of the lack of an Internet connection in their cave.
It’s possible you might not be aware that Disney bought the rights to everything Star Wars-related (and some other minor stuff – Indiana Smith? California Jones? Something like that…) for a staggering four billion dollars from creator George Lucas, back in October last year. It’s possible; but if you haven’t heard about it I’d suggest moving out of that cave.
Obviously Disney could only see a return on their investment by milking one of the most lucrative cash cows of all-time, and promptly announced a new Star Wars trilogy, beginning in 2015.
This announcement sent the Internet into hyperspace as everyone from hardcore geeks to casual fans began debating: who would direct the new film? The initial good news was that it would not be George Lucas – his role is reduced to ‘creative consultant’. “Why is this good news?”, I’m imagining you asking. Well I’m glad you asked – not least because this article would finish here if you didn’t – so let me explain: strap yourselves in, we’re about to make the jump to lightspeed.
The original Star Wars film was directed by George Lucas in 1977 and was unfathomably successful, but it succeeded despite him, not because of him. Disagree? Look up Journal of the Whills online, if you get the chance. Obviously I’ve already suffered so you don’t have to, so I’ll provide a brief overview. I’m good to you.
Journal of the Whills reads as if George Lucas was eating mescaline-soaked cheese before bed, then writing down his subsequent dreams in the morning without editing them. There are some vaguely familiar names hinting at things to come (Deak Starkiller, Mace Windy), but nothing resembling the iconic film we know today. Jedi Knights were called ‘Jedi-Bendu’; the force was referred to as ‘The Living Force’, requiring special crystals to focus its power (not a ‘lightsaber’ in sight); the bad guys were the ‘Bogan’. A bewildering array of characters come and go throughout the story with no real protagonist, and Han Solo – the roguish space pirate played by Harrison Ford with devil-may-care charm – was a giant green bipedal lizard. No, I’m not kidding.
Unsurprisingly, no Hollywood studio would go near the script. So after several rewrites by Lucas (presumably while not high) and some guest writers, a touch of story theft from Akira Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress, and a dash of 1930s Flash Gordon serials, something resembling Star Wars took shape, and 20th Century Fox financed the film – with deep reservations.
The stories about the original Star Wars shoot are nearly as famous as the film itself. Lucas was plagued by an uncooperative film crew who had no idea or faith in what he was doing; a special effects division newly put together, staffed by work-shy hippies taking months to produce seconds of film; scorching desert heat on location in Tunisia – after a freak storm destroyed most of the sets, which had to be rebuilt; and immense pressure and a meagre budget from a nervous, controlling studio. George was not allowed to make the film he wanted and Star Wars was largely shaped by studio constraints.
Despite the subsequent success of Star Wars, George vowed he would not direct the subsequent sequels or other proposed films in the saga, but instead write the stories and let others direct. This resulted in what is widely regarded as one of the best sequels, and one of the most revered pulp sci-fi films, in motion picture history: The Empire Strikes Back. The third film in the trilogy, Return of the Jedi, was also not directed by Lucas but suffers from his noticeably increased ‘creative control’. Although still a strong finish to the trilogy, the weaker elements of Jedi were a foreshadowing of things to come.
1999 Saw the release of the first film in a new Star Wars trilogy entirely written and directed by George Lucas – The Phantom Menace. I cannot bring myself to say much about this ‘Prequel Trilogy’ except that hype and expectation seldom exceed reality, and that these films are perfect examples of what happens when one man has complete creative, artistic and directorial control, and nobody has the guts to point out his terrible ideas. This is film-making as a benign dictatorship and it nearly killed Star Wars.
But now with the announcement of JJ Abrams as director of the new film, there is renewed hope. Star Wars films have mainly benefitted from not being directed by George Lucas and Abrams is no stranger to iconic sci-fi. He directed the 2009 Star Trek reboot and achieved the seemingly impossible feat of making a Trek film entertaining, and fun to watch. Ignore the insular nerds who were furious that Star Trek is now enjoyed by, and accessible to Joe Public. JJ Abrams is now in control of two of the biggest sci-fi properties of all time and if anyone can restore peace and order to the Star Wars galaxy, it is he.