George Lucas, chairman and CEO of the Lucasfilm empire, is retracting his lightsaber and hanging up his mainstream megaphone, 35 years after seizing imaginations with the wallet-rinsing sci-fi epic, Star Wars. News of his retirement from making laser-happy blockbusters in order to focus on smaller, artier works the like of which he cut his teeth on in film school will come as the lifting of a Wookie-sized weight from the shoulders of his erstwhile fans – many of whom preferred the way things were from 1983 to 1999 when he hopped off the radar and focused on corporate leadership.
Ironically, that period – bookended by the third, classic Star Wars film Return of the Jedi and the first, tragic one The Phantom Menace – was when Lucas’s creative reputation was at its hippest. He hadn’t directed anything since the first Star Wars, but had marshalled his resources on the second and third so successfully that an all-forgiving cult of personality was inevitable. Sequestered at his Marin, California mansion, Skywalker Ranch – a geek’s-paradise version of Elvis Presley’s Graceland – Lucas steered his firms through a range of pioneering projects, such as injecting the word “morphing” into common parlance, unleashing photoreal dinosaurs into multiplexes as a favour for Steven Spielberg, and revolutionising video games with The Sims. His special effects house Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) and gaming label LucasArts were romanticised as technological Shangri-Las, despite consisting of little more than flank after flank of software hotshots in flannel shirts sitting at workstations for 14 hours a day.
There were a couple of glitches. Howard the Duck (1986), a film he’d produced, succumbed to a shooting party of critics depressed by its vulgar tone. Willow (1988), a Tolkienesque fantasy that Lucas had scripted to pretty much the same template as Star Wars, was hissed at for ripping off Tolkien and repeating the template of Star Wars – but did draw some muted praise for early examples of CGI. Apart from that, though, Lucas was untouchable – his Michael Jacksonisation at the heart of Geekdom well and truly assured.
But as Michael Jackson would probably have admitted on one of his quieter days, Michael Jacksonisation isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be. If Lucas did indeed turn to the Dark Side of any particular Force, it was surely that of the mass-entertainment cult he’d worked so hard to build. On the one hand, you could argue that artistically, the only way for him was down, and that 1999’s bilious reaction to The Phantom Menace was the only possible result of 16 years of pent-up expectations… impossible dreams of the Skywalker family’s early years kindled in fans’ minds by numerous novel and comic-book spinoffs that could never be matched or surpassed, no matter how good the finished film was. On the other hand, you could point to problems as simple as Jake Lloyd’s performance, the lamentable screenplay, and a reduction of the enigmatic Force to a genetic condition that could be picked up by a breathalyser as evidence that quality was never on the agenda. Fans diagnosed chronic mojo loss. It was hard to disagree.
Further depletion of the funk faculty was detectable in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002) – easily the worst entry in the prequel series – and the dark-but-soulless Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005), in which Lucas appeared to grudgingly show interest in giving the public an approximation of what it wanted, after six years of online manure sprayings from the same forums that had begged him to return. Fans were left to wonder what, precisely, he intended to screw up next.
Helpfully, Lucas dished up an answer in 2008 in the form of the wretchedly titled Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Like its three, Indy-featuring predecessors, Skull was a Lucasfilm production helmed by Spielberg – although crucially, creative decisions stemmed largely from the top, in honour of Lucas’s original role as the saga’s driving force, keen for Dr Henry Jones Jr to rival James Bond. Like Star Wars, the first three Indy films were whip-cracking crowdpleasers that only churls or dullards could fail to enjoy. Again like Star Wars, the new entrant limped away unloved after taking a pounding for sanitised CGI, lumpen plotting, and a scene in which Dr Jones survives a nuclear explosion by shutting himself in a fridge.
In a tailspin?
Intriguingly, Lucas’s announcement of his retreat from the big leagues was accompanied by a revelation in the New York Times that Spielberg had pulled his own brand of workplace insubordination over fridgegate, arguing quite correctly that audiences wouldn’t buy it. Lucas’s response – worthy of David Brent – was to present Spielberg with a six-inch-thick dossier of scientific documents indicating that a healthy Caucasian male would, in fact, be a-ok in a lead-lined, domestic chilling compartment with just enough spare room for the air he’d locked himself in there with. Never mind that audiences wouldn’t be convinced: Big George was, and he wasn’t having any backchat from his deputy manager on the subject, thanks very much. With the epic memo duly served, Spielberg obligingly turned in the scene that Indy fans would love to hate.
Talk about detail devouring the big picture.
Time was George didn’t operate this way. Just look at how constructively he lords it over Spielberg and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan in this transcript of the legendary first, formal plotting conference for Indy’s debut, Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) – probably the most scintillating batch of management minutes ever taken. Every single point that Lucas elucidates is shot through with a dazzling knowledge of film styles and character types, yet absolutely anchored to the sure rock of storytelling. A casual reader trawling through the transcript would come away with an impression of a figure in full command of his game, who can hold every point of an A-to-B narrative journey in his head with the required balance to fashion a streamlined slice of pure entertainment.
But that was then, and this is now. In US cinemas over the past weekend, Lucas released his last, big-budget hurrah – the quarter-century-in-the-making World War II drama Red Tails. A rose-tinted, picturebook depiction of the lives of the Tuskegee Airmen – the first black fighter pilots in US history – Red Tails managed an estimated $19m three-day gross: not bad for a film that has weathered a slew of awful reviews for harnessing more in the way of gung-ho movie clichés than social realism, or indeed any sensitive notions of how it must have been for those men to fight for a country that racially abused them. Yet Lucas’s production, directed by Anthony Hemingway (alumnus of gritty TV sensation The Wire) was still bested at the box office by the $25m gross of Underworld: Awakening – the latest Kate Beckinsale PVC-fest.
It’s hardly a triumph that would’ve had the oppressed peoples of Tattooine punching the air in giddy celebration. In fact, it’s more of an “and finally!” bulletin from a man who once garnered exactly the same kudos for his services to popular entertainment as Steve Jobs did for his contribution to gadgetry. So, what does it prove?
At the very least, that once Lucas chose to be an entrepreneur, he should have stayed an entrepreneur – and left the artistic decisions up to the artists.