Friday, November 2, 2012

Why Disney's Star Wars Sequels Feel So Wrong

"Star Wars" began with a snub.

Forty-some years ago, a young George Lucas--fresh from making "American Graffiti" and "THX"--approached Italian film titan Dino De Laurentiis to pitch him his vision of a "Flash Gordon" epic. De Laurentiis certainly wanted to make a movie based on the iconic 30's star crusader--he had, after all, bought the movie rights, and his taste for spectacle would earn him the nickname "Dino De Horrendous." But he was perhaps expecting something a little bit more old-school, and was hoping to coax legendary fellow Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini--who had worked on the Flash Gordon comic strip decades ago--into directing. So Lucas was politely rebuffed.

And then, in a historic cinematic "Fuck you," Lucas went ahead and made "Flash Gordon" anyways, except he changed the name of the hero to Luke Skywalker. The resulting movie, of course, was "Star Wars," and it was the top-grossing movie at that point in history, revolutionizing Hollywood and redefining the blockbuster. De Laurentiis was forced to rush his own now-forgotten "Flash Gordon" epic through three years later, to mediocre reviews and horrible box office performance. (Poor old Dino had a habit of screwing up valuable franchises--he also sold away the rights to "Silence of the Lambs.")

Who knows how much the "Star Wars" franchise was worth from 1977 to 2012. But now, we know exactly how much it is worth from 2012 on--$4.05 billion. As everyone now knows, that's how much the Disney company paid George Lucas to buy LucasFilm and all of its intellectual property, to launch an new "Star Wars" film in 2015.

Whatever response Disney was expecting when it made its big announcement, I doubt they were expecting the amount of skepticism, wariness, and outrage the news provoked.

Why exactly was everyone so upset? It's not like there was a lot of demand for another trilogy of "Star Wars" films with George Lucas at the helm. (Oh, hell no.) It's hardly the first cherished franchise to get an update. Part of it is misguided fears that Disney will "Disney-fy" it. (Folks, Disney owns a LOT that it doesn't market under the Disney brand. Has it "Disney-fied" college football?) But that's not all. For reasons that are frustratingly difficult to put a finger on, it just feels wrong to a lot of people, myself included. But why?

When Lucas was forced to blatantly knock off De Laurentiis's intellectual property, that act of plunder became the spirit of Star Wars. Lucas didn't just steal from Flash Gordon, he stole from Buck Rogers, "Hidden Fortress," "Lord of the Rings," and countless samurai epics, medieval action flicks, Saturday morning serials, pulp novels, sci-fi mags, World War II spy thrillers, and virtually anything else that was available. He didn't stop there, also studying up on Joseph Campbell's beliefs about universal mythology so they could be added to the stew as well. Basically, anything that could fit went into "Star Wars."

Aside from the tale of scrappy rebels fighting an evil Empire, that spirit of robbery is what gives the original "Star Wars" its slight flavor of subversiveness. George Lucas is a lover of film, but his love is the irreverent kind. "Star Wars" embodies the postmodern belief that art and literature aren't pathways to great truths, but are simply stories for their own sake, to be deconstructed and rebuilt for our pleasure. This is a movie which borrows from cheesy B-grade sci-fi action flicks, hallowed medieval epics, and famous Nazi propaganda films as if they're all one in the same. Lucas wanted to show Hollywood that the crap they used to run on Saturday mornings was just as valuable as the "meaningful" films they prepared for Oscar season--and he succeeded.

With all of these spare parts, Lucas built himself a universe which took itself seriously yet was totally illogical at the same time. Why is there no Earth, yet there are humans? Why are we flying in spaceships at light speed, yet fighting with swords? Why in God's name does the Empire invade with clunky, unworkable giant walkers? As Yoda says, "There is no why." "Why" goes against the entire idea of "Star Wars." This universe just exists, because George Lucas could imagine it.

And that, essentially, is the problem with these planned sequels. How do you re-invent something which is about re-invention? How does a new filmmaker put his (or her) personal style on "Star Wars," when Lucas' style was "Star Wars?" This isn't like Batman, which has a source material (the comics) that you can return to and re-interpret. You can't give "Star Wars" a "gritty reboot." And you really can't give "Star Wars" the "Star Trek: The Next Generation" treatment and jump ahead a century or two--best as I can tell, the passage of time is meaningless in this universe, as least as far as technology. Once you take away the style, the look, the tone, the feel of "Star Wars," you really are left with nothing. Debates about who should helm the next movie--if this is a good chance to diversify the field of sci-fi directors--kind of miss the point. There is no "right" director for this, and frankly I'd be worried about an up-and-coming visionary getting stuck in this cul-de-sac.

Of course, it doesn't do much use to complain about this--it was inevitable. Hollywood's obsession with remakes, reboots, sequels, and franchises has long been discussed and lamented over. Like newspapers, it's operating on a failing business model, and relying on hyped-up "event" movies with built-in audiences to keep theaters from going broke. The economy of Hollywood has left movie producers like prospectors arriving to the oil field long after the rush, desperately fighting over the remaining gushers so they can be pumped dry. Whatever obstacles Lucas faced in getting "Star Wars" made in 1977, they're nothing compared to the prohibitive conditions for an original sci-fi movie today. You can't even imagine a movie like "The Matrix" getting green-lit today. (It's hard to remember now, but that movie was originally released as spring filler for the 1999 summer season.) James Cameron is about the only filmmaker with enough clout to do something original today--say what you will about "Avatar," but it was bold, original, and creative. It's the kind of movie that Hollywood used to do all of the time, but doesn't anymore.

This runs into what I call the "Pittsburgh Pirates Problem." With die-hard fans who are aching to see another "X-Men" or "Superman" flick, studios have an incentive to be just good enough to avoid angering the fans and keep 'em coming back. Just as the Pirates don't have much of an incentive to improve their on-field product -- their dedicated fans keep coming back to the beautiful stadium no matter what -- Hollywood has little incentive to take risks with the dominant genres in movies today. With a few rule-proving exceptions, (Chris Nolan, mainly), this means going big and bland, with some ironic self-detachment to give the appearance of edginess. It's not that these movies are bad, they're just stuck in neutral. They've lost that spirit of creativity and rebelliousness that you saw in "Star Wars," that said, "Hey, let's imagine a whole new universe, just for the hell of it."

Disney is a very big, very serious company, and I'm sure they will protect their very big, very serious investment in "Star Wars." It's a pretty good bet that whatever movies they come up with will be much better than Lucas' turgid prequels. But no matter how good they are, I doubt they'll ever feel "right" to me.

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