Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Heath Holland On...George Lucas and a Galaxy Far, Far Away

by Heath Holland
Right now, thousands of people are descending on Anaheim, California to take part in this year’s Star Wars Celebration, a huge bash dedicated to everything Star Wars. This year is a bigger deal than ever before, because we’ve got a NEW STAR WARS MOVIE coming in December, and all eyes are cast toward California to see what new information we’ll learn. As the leaks and rumors flood out, I want to take this opportunity to look back on the man who started it all. Thank the maker!

I love George Lucas. In fact, I think he’s one of our most important filmmakers, a visionary genius, and I hope that by the end of this piece, you’ll at least understand why I feel the way that I do. He’s not an infallible man, and I’m not wild about the continued touch ups of things I thought were perfect to begin with, but he has given us much to explore and discuss, and his universe has captured my imagination and fired my creativity for most of my life. I love Star Wars, I still love the Prequels, and I will always love The Bearded One. In addition to my gratitude for the world he created, I’ve distilled my admiration down to three contributing factors.

First, he’s one of us. George Lucas is a bona fide film nut, as well as a pop culture aficionado on a massive scale. He loves stories and the emotions that good storytelling can evoke. He was a visitor to Disneyland on the second day that it was open for business back in 1955, and the experience helped to shape him into the guy who would one day think up Han Solo and Indiana Jones. Lucas was mesmerized by his immersion into fantasy and adventure on those rides at Disneyland, and he recreated those thrills into his own future films when he grew up, making them seem like roller coaster rides and never forgetting the power of storytelling.

This translated into a love of comic books and art in all its forms. In the early 1970s, Lucas and his friends would pore over the work of artists like Frank Frazetta, Alex Raymond (the creator of Flash Gordon), and Disney comics legend Carl Barks, occasionally having the opportunity to meet and rub shoulders with them. Lucas even co-owned a New York comic store in the 1970s, Supersnipe Comic Art Gallery, named after a 1940s comic book about a kid who read so many comics that he turned into a superhero himself. To this day, Lucas owns an extensive collection of comic art, vintage posters, and rare paintings. In fact, Lucas has been working on a 300-million-dollar Museum of Narrative Art to open in Chicago in 2018, which will celebrate everything from Norman Rockwell’s work to children’s books. George Lucas is no hipster: he just loves stories. It was big news earlier this year when he stopped into New York’s Midtown Comics in Times Square. He wasn’t there for a photo op; he was there to buy comic books.
Most of his movies are artistically experimental, but they’re also steeped in the stuff that he grew up loving. Star Wars was a revolutionary movie in 1977, but not because it reinvented the wheel. There’s actually very little that is new in any of the six Star Wars films; what Lucas did do that was new was take all the stuff that he was passionate about, from the serials of his childhood, the westerns of Sergio Leone, the characters he loved from Akira Kurosawa films, and bound them all together in the common shared themes of various religions throughout the world. Lucas has always been clear that Star Wars isn’t a science fiction saga, but a fantasy. You have wizards and knights and sorcerers. He took all the threads of entertainment and pop culture from the 50 years leading up to Star Wars and tied them all together in one greater mythology. That’s the work of a real fan.

The second reason I love George Lucas is because he’s a rebel and a maverick. He’s always done things his own way and followed his inner compass, despite the naysayers, even when it’s been to his own detriment. You think he didn’t know that the Prequel Trilogy was unconventional and wasn’t what people were expecting? He knew what he was doing, and he was determined not to tell a story that everyone thought they already knew. He added twists and turns and explanations for things that divided fans (midichlorians, anyone?), but that also expanded the Star Wars Universe beyond what fans thought possible.

From the very beginning, Lucas has surrounded himself with the best. When he was still working on his early films such as THX 1138 and American Graffiti, he became friends with fellow directors Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, Steven Spielberg, John Milius, and Francis Ford Coppola. After showing an early version of the 1977’s Star Wars to them, Spielberg famously loved it, while De Palma reportedly said “what’s this Force sh*t?” Yet, think of all the fantastic movies we have because of that group of filmmakers. These guys literally changed how movies were made forever and influenced everything that came after them, and they’re still friends. When it came time to hire people to work on his movies, Lucas always sought out the best. Guys like Dennis Muren, Ben Burtt, Ralph McQuarrie, and John Williams elevated the work and contributed to making Star Wars something truly revolutionary. When you want the best, you surround yourself with the best.
Lucas has always pushed the limits of storytelling and technology, usually pushing the entire industry forward with him. He did this in 1977 by creating Industrial Light and Magic to oversee special effects that were then impossible. He continued to revolutionize filmmaking with the foundation of his computer graphics department, The Graphics Group, a team that would eventually become Pixar. He did it again in the 1980s with THX surround sound, and he was still doing it over 20 years later when he led the digital revolution by pushing theaters to have the best audio and visual presentations possible and refusing to let them show his film if they didn’t.

Then there’s the fact that the movies themselves are incredible experiments in filmmaking form that take all sorts of risks. If you haven’t researched journalist Mike Klimo’s investigation into Star Wars Ring Theory, you’re really missing out. Klimo presents dozens upon dozens of examples that appear to irrefutably prove that Lucas patterned all six Star Wars films into one structural ring in which components of each chapter are reflected on their exact opposite on the wheel. Each film is balanced and counter-balanced time and time again in a cyclical structure, including everything from the plot to the color palate. Movie 1 is reflected in Movie 6, Movie 2 in Movie 5, and so on, over and over again, throughout each act of each film. They’re big rings composed of smaller rings that line up with each other over and over again. There’s simply no way to do any justice to it here, but you can study it (I do mean study; it’s over 25,000 words) at Some of it is speculative, but most of it is proof that Lucas never stopped making the experimental films he created while in college; he just learned how to hide it inside a blockbuster.

Let’s not forget that the way George Lucas earned his billions was by being a risk-taker. After the success of American Graffiti, Lucas was a director on the rise, and was entitled to a 300% salary raise as a director. When he pitched his film Star Wars to 20th Century Fox, he offered to pass on the raise if he could keep all the sequel and merchandising rights to Star Wars. When the movie became one of the biggest box office hits of all time, the merchandising revenues from bed sheets, action figures, C3P0 tape dispensers, t-shirts, and breakfast cereals were unprecedented. Lucas made his money by taking a chance; his plan could just as easily have failed, he’d have passed on his raise for nothing, and we might not be discussing him today.

Signs of Lucas as a rebel are everywhere in his films. Buried within the story of the Galactic Empire are the lessons he learned when the peace and love generation of the 1960s failed to stop the war in Vietnam. His Original Trilogy shows the overthrow of an oppressive dictatorship by the people, while his Prequel Trilogy shows how that totalitarian government came to have so much power in the first place. The real-world ramifications are there, and he’s sharing the lessons he learned during his youth. Lucas has always said that he was taught never to trust anyone over 30, and that he still believes this, even though the group that shouldn’t be trusted now includes himself. We can’t forget that Lucas accomplished all that he did largely outside the studio system. He’s the most successful independent filmmaker of all time. He did it his way.
The last reason I love George Lucas is that he has always given back to the community and is one of the biggest humanitarians in existence today. If he had done nothing beyond the establishment of the technologies we see in use everyday or the construction of the Museum of Narrative Art, he’d have already made a bigger impact that most, but he has done way more. In 1991, he established the George Lucas Educational Foundation, which seeks to promote outstanding education and innovation in American classrooms using technology and effective teaching. He donated $175 million to the University of Southern California for expansion of the film department and another million dollars toward the creation of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial in Washington, D.C.

A more recent story shows what kind of person Lucas really is. He’d spent years planning an expansion of Lucasfilm, which would have been located in Marin County, north of San Francisco on a plot of land called Grady Ranch. The plan was to create a new digital studio on the grounds, which has all but been confirmed as the spot where he was planning to film Episodes VII, VIII, and IX, as well as a live action Star Wars series he’d been working on since 2005. After years of development, the wealthy citizens of Marin County voted against allowing George Lucas’ expansion at Grady Ranch, frustrating his plans to build the studio. Unable to immediately move ahead, he decided the land that he owned should be used for affordable housing so that the less-fortunate nurses, teachers, and public servants of Marin County can live within the county they work in. Mere months after his studio plans collapsed, Lucas decided to retire and sold his company to Disney for a sum of four billion dollars, which he vowed to donate entirely to education. How can you not love this guy?

George Lucas has now left Star Wars, his greatest creation, and aside from his notebook of ideas that Disney now owns, has no input in the expanding saga. I’m very torn on this: the only Star Wars project we’ve seen so far that didn’t involve Lucas is Star Wars: Rebels, which is oozing with love for the universe and is really fantastic. Still, it feels weird knowing the man who dreamed this whole thing up has no say in where things are going. At any rate, while public opinion of Star Wars has wavered over the years, things are looking good. I truly believe the era of bashing Star Wars is coming to a close. While I’m sure haters gonna hate, hate, hate, I’m just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake it off, and I think a lot of other people will, too. All those fans who were left cold by the Prequel Trilogy now have the promise that they’ll once again see TIE fighters and X-Wings zipping across the galaxy, and will once again see Luke, Han, and Leia at least one more time. In the ten years since Revenge of the Sith, we’ve all had time to adjust to the changes and expansions that Lucas made to the saga, and now it all just feels…well, like Star Wars. I believe that Disney and J.J. Abrams will be drawing from everything that’s come before as we move forward. Just like the later Star Trek movies incorporated elements of all the different shows and movies that had come before, the future of Star Wars will build on everything we know, rather than ignore what we learned in the Prequels. It’s all Star Wars, and it all has its place.
If you ask me, there has NEVER been a better time to be a Star Wars fan; starting this December, we’ll have new Star Wars adventures on the screen every single year, and they’re being written by people who love the movies as much as we do and who themselves grew up as fans. That’s why I’ll be writing about Star Wars each and every month between now and December, counting down to the best Christmas present ever, Episode VII: The Force Awakens. Next month I’ll take a deep, super-duper-nerdy look at Episode I: The Phantom Menace in a celebration of all the cool characters and themes found within the film, and I’ll look at how it expanded and changed what we knew about the galaxy far, far away. I have nothing but love for that movie. Hey, she may not look like much, but she’s got it where it counts, kid. After that, we’ll work our way through the rest of the saga month by month, all the way up to The Force Awakens. This is the year of Star Wars! The best is still ahead, and I hope you’ll come along for the ride.

May the Force be with you!


  1. Its nice to hear someone expressing their love for the prequels. Bashing them has become this cool thing to do over the years and defending them gets to be exhausting. I got into a a very heated (and admittedly drunken) argument with a friend about a month back concerning the order in which to watch all six. He recommended something called the machete order which completely omits the Phantom Menace, it didn't fly. I recognize its flaws, but goddamnit if I wasn't blown away in that theatre in 99. Granted I was about eight years old, and nostalgia is definitely a factor, but I still love it and the other prequels. No way I'm gonna marathon and skip one because you think Mr. Plinkett is the authority on what a good Star Wars movie is. Seriously tho, fuck Mr. Plinkett.

    1. The thing that frustrates me most about that Plinkett video is that I think it begins from a really strong place, where he compares Ep. I to the original series by pointing out weak characterization. That test, where he asks people to describe characters without using their job as a defining trait, is really interesting (and a LOT of movies fail that test). From there, though, it devolves into a lot of "Everything Wrong With" nitpicking.

    2. Exactly. I do think think the beginning is interesting, the OT characters are obviously far more developed. They could've dwelled on those issues a bit longer and put up a serious argument. Even tho I think McGregors Obi-Wan is great, particularly in Revenge..But yeah, it quickly turns into the worst kindof fanboyism. I feel like you can do that to almost any movie and get similar results. My main gripe isn't really with the Plinkett video itself tho. Its more that its become this sortof go-to for militant fans. I see people throw that video up as their argument against the prequels all the time. Rather than their own well thought out opinion.

    3. Why form opinions when somebody else has already done it for you? Seems like that time is better spent seeking out other movies to complain about and the people who can do it for you.

    4. Maybe Phantom Menace was made for 8 year olds but I never have been so disappointed leaving a theater after Phantom Menace. It was god awful & made me never get my hopes up again for movie. Fuck Lucas for making those 3 awful prequels. Heck, the best Star Wars movie is Empire & he didn't even direct it.

    5. I hate to disagree here, but I actually think the Plinkett reviews are very well thought out and pretty accurate. While RLM does indulge in some nitpicking and hyperbole (which is part of the joke), most of their main complaints are about what they see as flaws in the storytelling. I haven't watched the Phantom Menace review in some time, but I did watch their review on Revenge of the Sith a few weeks ago, and almost all of the point he made were about weak characters, poor directing choices, clunky dialogue or poor visuals. Maybe it's because I'm not emotionally attached to Star Wars (I've seen Empire a ton of times, but will probably never watch the prequels again), but I actually think RLM gives a fair review of the prequels. I never thought such an intelligent review would contain so many dick and dead hooker jokes.

  2. I'm not a huge fan of the prequels, but I think Phantom Menace is definitely the best one. There's a moment in that movie that proves Lucas did not completely lose his touch. In the saber duel, Qui Gon and Darth Maul are briefly separated by an energy barrier that operates on a timer. So they have to wait before they can continue the fight. Qui sits down calmly and meditates, while Maul paces restlessly back and forth. That one moment says more about the difference between the light and dark sides of the force than any bit of exposition, and it's freakin' brilliant.

    1. YES. And what does Obi-Wan do in that moment when he can't get to Qui-Gon or Maul? Qui-Gon is at peace with the Force and is meditating. Obi-Wan, meanwhile, is trapped behind these RED (the color of the Sith) barriers. When he finally makes it through, he sure does seem to be attacking out of anger and fear. Is Lucas telling us that Obi-Wan is tapping into the dark side when he defeats Maul? Red is a such a major component of that scene, and I don't think it's a coincidence.

    2. One more thing: I think there's a lot of evidence all throughout the prequels that many of the Jedi are much closer to the dark side than they realize. So much of what they do is driven by control and power. But then again, Jedi were mean to be peace keepers, rather than soldiers...

    3. Keep in mind that both the Jedi AND the Sith have the same goal, unbalancing the force in their favor. Remember that Luke balances the force (with help from dad!) by rejecting both the Jedi's (Ben, Yoda) and the Sith's (the Emperor) commands to kill Vader, finding a truly morally good path somewhere in the middle.

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    5. So yeah, I think the Jedi are just as bad as the Sith

    6. ...from a certain point of view...

  3. I really love this article. I share many of the same sentiments when it comes to Star Wars and George Lucas in general.

  4. Heath, you’re preaching to the choir with me on this one too. I am sure history will side with you on this. Preach on!

    (The funniest part about the prequels to me is thinking back to 1999, no one even considered the fact that the movies might NOT be the greatest. Such a different time...)

  5. Great article, Heath. I love Star Wars. All of it, unabashedly. It drives me nuts when people nitpick the prequels to death. I just rewatched all three last month, and while I cringe at some of the dialogue and chuckle at some of Hayden's wooden delivery, I'll be damned if I didn't still enjoy every single one of them. They're fun movies, just in a different way the original trilogy are fun movies.

    And you certainly can't fault Lucas for trying to repeat himself. I've read the Ring Theory (in fact, Heath, you're the one who introduced me to it, thank you very much), and for all the times the two series mirror each other, they're really nothing alike. I love that.

    1. I think most of the problems with the prequels are in the execution, rather than the concept, and I think that's because George Lucas is such a visual director. I don't think he's all that concerned with characterization; instead, I think he's focused on iconic imagery. He's said for years that he wants those movies to make complete sense even if you watch them without any sound at all. The visuals tell the entire story. All the great stuff like character development and compelling dialog that many of us love about the original trilogy doesn't seem to be that important to him.

  6. I love everything about this article, Heath. These days all you read is vitriol regarding Lucas because people don't like his changes to the OT or the prequels as a whole, while completely disregarding all of the wonderful things we've enjoyed over our lives that simply wouldn't exist without Big George in one way or another.

    Really excellent piece, sir. Well done.

  7. Nice peace Heath, while I just cant get behind you on prequel love I do agree that George is a very good idea man. I've used this quote before about CGI and blue screened sets but I'm always reminded of John Hammond from Jurassic Park "This time I didnt want to creat a illusion, I wanted to create something I could reach out and touch" I never felt I was really in the world at any moment during the prequel trilogy.
    In a way George reminds me of Walt Disney, a great storyman and guide but not a great director of indivdual scenes (Check out Walt's only directorial credit on animation, a King Midas short to see what I mean about ho hum directing). Still all that being said its nice to have new Star Wars coming up and cant wait to hear more thoughts on the force.

  8. I have to agree with Heath that part 1 is also my favourite of the new films, part 2 my least favourite, and part 3 I thought they worked hard and got a lot of stuff right but I find part 1 the most rewatchable even with a few small quibbles

    Ps the new 2nd Trailer for The Force Awakens is online now , you actually get to see Han and Chewie!

    Damn im gonna be a wreck by the time Dec 18th comes along and these new columns are gonna add to the hype too ;)

    1. I saw the new trailer as well - I'm already drooling.

      "Chewie, we're home." The perfect line for fans everywhere.

    2. Oh goodness that new trailer is wonderful.

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  10. The new trailer has surpassed 10 million views on youtube in 10hrs, ;)

    I predict its gonna beat box office records in December,

    1. Not that long ago, particularly after the title of the movie was released and even after the first teaser trailer, I was pretty sure that there was going to be a big backlash. Now, after the near-universal excitement from yesterday, I'm pretty sure that Disney, JJ., and K.K. have found a way to make everyone happy. There will always be a contingent of people that will never be happy with anything, but I think you're right. It's going to be big business. Plus, they assure us that the best is yet to come. Time will tell, but I actually believe them.

      Seeing the entire cast come out on stage together yesterday (with the exception of Harrison, who I guess is healing up) felt really special. There's definitely a torch being passed, but somehow, it doesn't feel like a door is closing on the old fans at all. Instead, it feels like we're all going through a new door together. Almost everyone is excited, which I can't believe. Immediately after the first teaser last November, people were picking it apart and talking about what was wrong. I've seen none of that this time around. It's like 1977 all over again, and this is a franchise that is 38 years old. It's just amazing! What an exciting time this is.

  11. Im with you all the way, this film has not been rushed, it has been done right, they have chosen the best Director for the job, i mean damn, JJ admitted he was not a massive Star trek fan when he made those films and look what he did there, he is a Star Wars fan!

    This is not a film, I agree it feels special, its an event, and I love it, im gonna be a quivering wreck by the time December comes, your right the reaction to this trailer is better than the teaser, the first Teaser I could slightly agree it felt like fan service but this feels like an insight into the actual film.

    It great to be excited about a movie ;)

    It okay Heath, we're Home....

  12. I was just thinking. Damn what a year 1977 was for movies
    Star Wars
    Close encounters of the third kind
    Saturday night fever
    Smokey and the Bandit
    Annie Hall
    The Spy Who loved me
    The hills have eyes
    Black Sunday
    The Kentucky fried movie
    Sinbad and the eye of the tiger

    And sorry I gotta metion it

    The Excorcist 2 The heretic

    what a year!

  13. Great article, Heath. I just read "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls" and it had a mixed effect on my feelings for George Lucas - on the one hand it gave him a lot more street cred as a real artist than I realized he had; on the other, it showed a money-hungry side of him I didn't really like and it seemed like he turned his back on friends like Coppola in a lot of ways after his success with Star Wars. It also gave me reason to think that the success of Star Wars as a movie was largely a fluke (though that can be said for a lot of great movies; e.g. Jaws) and more in spite of Lucas than because of him. That picture you put in the article with Guinness and Lucas looking kind of uncomfortable - they probably were - Lucas was/is notoriously bad at working with actors. On JB's recommendation I just picked up the BFI book on Star Wars so maybe that will provide some information that works in Lucas's favour.

    All that being said, I give him full credit for all the positive things you mention and I certainly don't bag on him for raping my childhood or any such nonsense - I do think he created something wonderful and it's great he ran with it for so long. I do find the (arguably objective) mistakes made in the Prequel Trilogy baffling though and I dislike more about them than I like, but I'm keeping an open mind and look forward to your in-depth articles about them - maybe I'll see the light!

    Question for ya: As I look at my 4-month old son and think about his Star Wars future (because I'm a good dad), I struggle a bit with what order I will show him the original 6 movies (and when? 3? 4?) - I feel the OT spoils almost all of the PT while the PT only really spoils the "I am your father" and "sister-kissing" stuff. Still though I lean towards a OT-PT viewing because I really want to see his little face for that big reveal. Your thoughts?

    1. When I showed my daughter the movies in 2011, she was five and a lot of it went way over her head. She forgot between Episode III and Epsiode V that Luke was Vader's son, even though she'd seen Luke be born. Looking back, I think that she thought Anakin and Luke were the same guy. Choosing the order to watch them in was a big decision, especially since she'd seen part of A New Hope on TV at someone's house. In the end, I went with 1-6, in order, which is what I think works the best. It flows better story-wise and you can see the decay the Republic moves into the Dark Times and all the things that led to the rise of the Empire. Still, though, she couldn't keep up with the finer plot points. Our most recent re-watch happened when she was 9, and she got a lot more out of it and even has some ideas and theories of her own about The Force Awakens. But you know, the order you go in is really up to you. If you love the OT, go with that first.

      This past weekend, we watched the Star Wars Celebration live streaming coverage in its entirety, which was something like 30 hours over four days, and THAT seemed to educate her more than the movies ever did. By the third or fourth time they showed the trailer, she was reciting the dialog with Luke. The way things have worked out around my house is that it's my own fandom that's influenced my daughter more than the movies have. Going Star Wars toy shopping and having books and comics all over the house has given her a familiarity and comfort level with the universe as a whole that she doesn't get from the movies alone. Of course, once The Force Awakens is out, Star Wars will be everywhere, every year, and kids will be exposed to it even more than we were. Your son's first Star Wars movie might not be any of the first six. Crazy world, right?

    2. Geez, yeah, if they stick to schedule the entire third trilogy will be out when my son turns 5 - I hadn't really thought of that, heheh. I can't very well do 4-6, 1-3, 7-9 right?! Patrick's head would explode! And I really need to be mindful of how I experienced movies at that age, I mean, shit, I remember thinking Han was killed in TESB, I didn't really know what was going on, I was just reacting to images. I keep expecting my son to be freakin' preschool Ebert and was thinking we could have a meaningful watch of these when he's like 3. Slow down there Pappy!

      Thanks for the sage advice and yeah, it really is a crazy world, I don't know how much kids appreciate it, but us aging nerds have it made!