Archive for 7th May 2006

Who stole Star Wars?

To be honest, I’m not real sure why what brought this on. It may have something to do with playing Star Wars: Empire at War, the latest SW offering from Lucasarts. The game’s single player campaign takes place in the time leading up to (and into) the events in the original film. That means the creators had to come up with a narrative that fits into the known events of the movie (or movies) while not radically changing them. In some respects this is a creative challenge, but it can be limiting. Or there could be liberties taken: For instance, in this game’s story, Han Solo and Chewbacca perform some espionage for the Rebellion, meaning he had contact with the principal players of the larger story before his appearance in A New Hope. The assumption we made as fans was that Han did not get involved with the Rebellion at all until he picked up his troublesome passengers in the Mos Eisley Spaceport. It would certainly fit in with his persona; “I only look out for one person, me!” I thought then about the Star Wars franchise as a whole, and how it has evolved since the summer of 1977.

George Lucas has gotten really beat up by fans over the last 5 years or so. But why? To hear some hardcore fans of Star Wars you would think Lucas was skinning cats on live TV instead of creating movies. But I thought about something: This is Lucas’ creation. He not only owns the rights legally, but also emotionally: This is his baby, and really it is his choice to do with it as he pleases. So why is the fan community so outraged? Why is there constant criticism, and even verbal attacks against the creator and his crew? What gives them the right? Actually, nothing.

Yes, that’s what I said, fanboy. Clam up your freaking piehole! Star Wars is as much yours as it is anyone’s. Except for Geroge Lucas, because it is more his than anyone’s. No one says we have to like the movies he’s made in this decade, but none of us should say he is wrong, his vision is wrong, or his choices are wrong. These are his to make, like it or not, and you, fan, have no leeway to say so.

I’d say most average persons would agree. But the conviction folks have for their belief in Lucas’ errors made me try to understand why this is. I think the answer has to do with time.

Star Wars was by far the most significant cultural event of my childhood, just as it was for most folks my age. It was more than a movie. It was personal. With Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi we were drawn even further into the universe Lucas created. But then what happened? Nothing significant happened in the Star Wars universe year after year. And in the meantime, the people who were drawn in by the series began to adopt it for themselves. Lucas had said that he would revisit his creation, but as year moved on to year we began to treat it as a closed system. Then the fans began to create their own parts of the universe, adding to the mythology, extending it, adding new characters and new adventures for old characters. And, to Lucas’ credit, he embraced the community’s additions, making some of it “official”.

Then in the late nineties the word came that Lucas was revisiting the beloved franchise, creating the first three chapters that were hinted at. We as fans were excited, because we believed we would be taken back to our halcyon days, when Star Wars was more than a movie. We should have been more realistic.

The conventional wisdom has said that the reason the “new” Star Wars movies were critically received by fans was that our expectations were far too high for it to succeed. My thought is that in the time between the end of the first trilogy and the new films, the fan community assumed ownership of it. They really didn’t of course, Lucas had never given it up. But with all that the fans had done, they began to believe that it was theirs. So unless Lucas was to provide something that fit in with their view of what the franchise should be, then it was going to fail.

Lucas is not fully blameless in this: He seems to have not regarded what the fans had done in the intervening time. Lucas was not obliged to, but he could have included them more. Beyond the original Star Wars, the most highly regarded of the other five films was The Empire Strikes Back. Not surprisingly it was the one film Lucas had little to do with: not the director, not the screenwriter, his contributions were the story and producing. The lesson here is that sometimes letting others contribute can make a richer, more intriguing product. The greatest example of this is Star Trek: Gene Roddenberry created it, set down the ground rules, but he then turned it over to others to deliver it to us. Part of the genius of Roddenberry’s creation is that he knew to let it go, to let the community go with it. He was the architect of the universe, setting the plan for others to follow.

Here’s another analogy that seems appropriate: Lucas’ creation is like the child that is tended and coddled throughout its life. Its safe, and it comes out exactly as its creator wanted, but it never had the chance to grow, to become more through the additions of others. Whereas Roddenberry’s creation is like the child given the key lessons of life, then let loose into the world. There will be dangers, and there may be mistakes, and it may become something different than what the creator thought, but it will ultimately become something even more interesting than anyone could have anticipated.