With Revenge of the Sith, is it possible that Lucas risked his merchandising empire for his own paternal legacy?
Many people have attempted to define what "independent film" means in today's filmic universe. Does it have to do with studios? Does it have to do with money? Does it have to do with artistic integrity? During the production of the new Star Wars trilogy, George Lucas grappled with none of the usual hindrerences placed on nearly every other filmmaker. Thanks to the overwhelming financial success of the first three films in the series, the still trend-setting work being done at Industrial Light and Magic, and Lucas' other business and technology ventures, money was no object at all in the creation of these films. Because he was more or less spending his own money, there were no studio suits to answer to. Lucas not only had final cut, he had final budget. Every single frame of each of these films has been composed, shot, processed, and edited together exactly the way Lucas intended. This level of artistic independence with budgets this large has probably never been seen before.
These are prequels, and from a storytelling standpoint the question audiences bring to a prequel is not "what's going to happen?" but "why did what I already see happen." My own affection for the original films burned out a while ago so my question going into these new films was never, "How exactly did Anakin become Darth Vader?" but "What does George Lucas want to do with all of this artistic freedom? What is his motivation for making these films?"
|With Revenge of the Sith, is it possible that Lucas risked his merchandising empire for his own paternal legacy?|
That question weighed on me when I saw The Phantom Menace (1999), but it was not the only question. I was curious how he would present a universe so racked by internecine strife that it would slip into civil war. These would have to be fairly sophisticated and complex political situations, and in this regard, the film disappoints. The opening crawl mentions trade disputes, but Lucas makes no attempt to give his audience any bearings on the political machinations at work. The audience sees the Galactic Congress tending to business, but there is no understanding of how it works -- the viewer is not given a handy Robot's Rules of Order. My disappointment at Lucas' inability to present a coherent narrative was exacerbated by the prominent use of Jar Jar Binks and Jake Lloyd, as well as the pointless and interminable pod race sequence. The Phantom Menace felt like a film designed for seven-year-olds. Getting back to my overriding question -- why would Lucas make these films? -- the answer seemed to be only to expand his own financial empire. The film seemed rigged to hook a whole new generation of kids into buying many of the products available in the Star Wars merchandising universe. Considering the film's intended audience, it was not much of a surprise that old-school fans of the original trilogy complained loudly about the film. I would not say that Lucas had contempt for these long-time fans, but it is safe to assume that he knew no matter how bitterly they complained they would continue to follow this story wherever he chose to take it.
Attack of the Clones (2002) contained just enough political weight to make me reconsider my opinion that Lucas' intentions were strictly financial. The ever-savvy Lucas aimed this film at 10-year-olds, and the differences are notable. Now when Hayden Christianson's Anakin Skywalker and Natalie Portman's Padme declare their love for each other (in the most pedestrian dialogue imaginable) they also discuss such basic concepts as "dictatorship," "democracy," and "freedom." While their brief conversation on the relative merits of governmental systems will never be confused with essays in The Nation or The Weekly Standard, they do plant the seed in a 10-year-old brain that important ideas are being discussed. With this film, the audience should begin to see how Lucas has been waiting for his intended audience to grow up with the films.
With Revenge of the Sith (2005), Lucas trusted that his intended audience -- now 13 and living in a country actually facing serious political discussions about democracy, dictatorships, and freedom -- is ready to confront these issues on a personal level. In Anakin's struggle, a young teenager is able to see how one's desire for safety and security can ultimately lead to evil and corruption. These concepts have certainly been the stuff of drama for centuries, but Lucas may be able to drive these points home to an audience that is just considering them for the first time. Throw in Yoda expressing that the dark side thinks only in "black and white," and it dawns on the viewer that for the first time in any of the six films Lucas is presenting pointed political and social commentary.
Having never offered a single moment of topical commentary in any of the previous Star Wars films, one can only believe that there is some very personal motivation for this sudden change of course. Considering his initial work on these films began in the mid-'90s, such a commentary on the current administration could not have been his original intention. The question grew in my mind, why would Lucas use his artistic independence to make such a pointed commentary at this point in the series? If his goal for these films was primarily monetary, why would Lucas take such clear swipes at the current administration and risk offending a large chunk of his audience? The answer to this question and a few others may be found in the fact that Lucas' son Jett was born in 1993, making him just about the age Lucas seems to be aiming for when each of these new films was released. Perhaps Lucas felt so strongly about the need to teach his child a lesson about the dangers of hubris and ceding freedom in order to gain security that he was willing to alter his most famous work to do so. Perhaps it was more important to Lucas at this point to win over the heart and mind of his son than it was to win over the imaginations and pocketbooks of a new generation.