The People vs. George Lucas doesn’t really present a case more than it does a forum. Filmmaker Alexandre O. Philippe delivers an admirable effort, culling interview material from the likes of Star Wars producer Gary Kurtz and various critics. Some of the material covered even manages a level-headedness that most of the committed geek hordes surrounding Star Wars (and all things Lucas) seem to lack. But for most of its running time, the film is a rant—a long-running, snowballing gripe to let off a mountain of angry, frustrated steam.
That’s a tough paragraph. There’s a chance someone could read that and think I’m trying to be insulting, so let me back up.
I’m a fan. I was duped much like those the documentary puts in front of the camera. I bought the THX remastered VHS copies, and I bought the DVDs when they were first released. I stood in line to see all three special editions. I saw The Phantom Menace multiple times to try and convince myself it was better than it actually was. All of this happened before I turned 25, before I had kids, and before other things had to take on greater importance. The movies remain a passion of mine, otherwise I wouldn’t have bothered to write this all down. I still enjoy Star Wars and everything it represents. There’s some truth to the legend of George Lucas and the creation of this playground we’ve all shared for two (going on three) generations now. Most of it, however, is a false narrative, one that Lucas could never have maintained, and the collapse of which probably has more to do with fans’ disappointment than anything else. It’s a legend the documentary only stops to dissect for single moments here and there, and it deserves more time before the jury. Instead, the court weighs heavily in favor of the angered fan base. Anger and fury only go so far, and that, I feel, is where the film fails.
The legend goes something like this:
After finishing American Graffiti, Lucas went to work on his space opera—a vast 200 page screenplay that he would never be able to film. So, he took out the middle portion, and he made that movie. He couldn’t really call it “Episode IV,” that would just look too out of place. So he called it The Adventures of Luke Starkiller. Changes were made. Aspects of the script were shuffled and adjusted. Starkiller became Skywalker, and the title became Star Wars. Lucas put his masterpiece before cameras, and after many struggles with the innovative special effects, he brought the film to the masses, and waited to hear the response. The cheers were deafening. A whole new universe was born, filled with exciting characters and space ships and robots. And after we left the theater, we could go to the toy store, buy the toys (or at least send away for them in the mail), and continue the story in our own imaginations.
The Empire Strikes Back followed, then Return of the Jedi. Lucas revealed this trilogy was really episodes IV, V and VI. He promised to go back, tell us how it all began in episodes I, II and III, then he’d go forward and continue the story with episodes VII, VIII and IX.
Eleven years passed. Lucas then decided to re-release the original trilogy to ramp up excitement for the “prequel” trilogy. That’s when enthusiasm really started to wane a bit. The changes in the special editions were odd—Greedo shoots first, Han steps on Jabba’s tale, etc. But we stood in line, we bought our tickets, and we cheered just like we did before because we loved this universe and the people who lived in it.
In 1999, we stood in line to see Episode I, The Phantom Menace. Even the title evoked a mix of dread and confused excitement. Lucas was a genius, we figured. Everything would make sense once we saw the picture. But the new film, it turned out, wasn’t very good, and neither were the two sequels, each punctuated by wooden characters and cringe-worthy moments, only stopping to pay lip service to the broader scope and universe of the story we thought we were paying to see.
And so it was the devoted fan base became an angry, vengeful people, full of distrust for the grand wizard who failed to reach the expectations he set himself up to achieve.
End of legend.
There’s some truth to all of that, but this is the myth that’s grown up over time. What the documentary fails to understand is that it really is just a myth. There’s too much time spent pandering to it, and too little time spent deconstructing it.
The documentary makes some good points, one being that one of Lucas’ most prescient decisions was creating the toy line. Star Wars was this vast playground, and Lucas invited everyone to come and play in it. It gave fans an enormous sense of ownership, and the documentary spends an inordinate amount of time unpacking the implications of that sense. Fans, therefore, feel rebuffed and insulted by Lucas’ refusal to make the original trilogy available in its unaltered form. (The bonus disc release of those originals doesn’t appear to count, and there’s a case to be made there too, but the film doesn’t spend a lot of time on it.) They’re upset because of the hypocrisy. After all, Lucas testified before congress on the importance of film preservation, and here he is refusing to preserve his films.
There are a few words to offset some of the angst, like a tacit acknowledgment that Lucas owns the films and he can do whatever he pleases with them. Kevin Rubio, one of the writers on the Star Wars: The Clone Wars animated series on Cartoon Network, makes an excellent point that Lucas has been very generous to the amount of fan participation in the franchise, like making a sound effects library available online for fan films.
One notable stretch of the film’s narrative acknowledges the abrupt shift in quality between the original trilogy and the prequels. There’s an interesting story there, and perhaps even some relief from all the anger. The fact is that Lucas never created anything in a vacuum until it came time to release the special editions.
Lucas has a solo writing credit on the original Star Wars. Lesser known is that Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck (who helped him out with American Graffiti, and, shudder, Howard the Duck) did a dialog wash on the whole script. Brian DePalma contributed to the opening crawl. Lawrence Kasdan, who wrote Raiders of the Lost Ark, has the final screenplay credit for Empire and Jedi, which were directed by Irvin Kershner (Empire) and Richard Marquand (Jedi). The truth, something the documentary mentions only in passing, is that Lucas collaborated with others whose talents could compensate for his weaknesses as a storyteller.
Once the special editions were underway, Lucas was still circling other writers to help him with the prequels. David Hare (The Hours, The Reader) was approached, as was Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile). Lawrence Kasdan was asked and said no. Eventually, Lucas decided to go it alone*. Lucas was never an artist that lost his talent; he was artist who knew how to collaborate with other talented people and, for some unknown reason, stopped collaborating.
No one, at least to my knowledge, has ever tried to learn why. Unfortunately, the documentary doesn’t seem to care. It makes some good observations, but there’s no real dialog or debate. It only wants to present the argument on behalf of the plaintiff. The defense never really gets a turn. That may be missing the point entirely, but it would have made a more interesting narrative, and a better story.
*For the most part – Jonathan Hales has a screenwriting credit on Attack of the Clones. IMDB lists that he was a writer on The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles.