Defending George Lucas

“When you do a movie like this, a sequel that’s very, very anticipated, people anticipate ultimately that it’s going to be the Second Coming. And it’s not. It’s just a movie. Just like the other movies.”
–George Lucas on Indy IV

My post today is in response to CinemaBlend.com’s Editorial: Play It Again, George.

With a new Lucasfilm release on the way later this month (Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, in case you have been living under a rock), George Lucas bashing has begun in full force. The excellent CinemaBlend.com site yesterday released the above editorial by Rafe Telsch, assistant editor, which claims that Lucas is a “menace to fandom.” I encourage you to read the entire editorial before reading my response, which includes snippets from Telsch for clarity.

Telsch: “While Lucas is a fantastic idea man, most of his decent contributions have been to filmmaking as an industry rather than as a filmmaker himself. Take away Star Wars (the best of which came from other writers and directors) and Indiana Jones (which Lucas produced and came up with story ideas for, but didn’t actually write), and you’ve got a very small library of films Lucas is responsible for.”

Telsch wants us to buy into a number of huge assumptions here. Did the “best of” Star Wars really come from other directors? There have been exactly three directors in the live-action Star Wars movie universe. Lucas directed four of the six films. Irvin Kershner directed The Empire Strikes Back (1980), while Richard Marquand directed Return of the Jedi (1983).

Many fans, and I count myself among them, consider The Empire Strikes Back the best Star Wars movie. For me, it is almost too close to call versus the original Star Wars (1977), directed by Lucas. For Telsch’s point to be true, however, Richard Marquand’s Return of the Jedi must also be better than the original Star Wars. That race isn’t even close.

The Empire Strikes Back is always brought out as an example of Lucas’ Star Wars concept working better in the hands of others. Yet, many of the same people who want to give Lucas none of the credit for The Empire Strikes Back want to give him all of the blame for the perceived problems of Return of the Jedi.

Did the “best of” Star Wars really come from other writers? No matter which Star Wars movies you consider the best, the answer is no.

Lucas wrote the original Star Wars. Lucas wrote the story for The Empire Strikes Back, while Lawrence Kasdan provided the main screenplay. Lucas wrote the story for Return of the Jedi and co-wrote the screenplay with Kasdan. Telsch apparently counts Return of the Jedi as part of his unnamed “best of” Star Wars, since it is one of only two movies that Lucas did not direct, so Lucas’ contribution to both the story and the screenplay is notable.

Lucas wrote The Phantom Menace (1999). Well, nobody’s perfect. However, even The Phantom Menace has some good stuff in it, overlooked by those obsessed with hatred for Jar Jar and young Anakin Skywalker. I don’t think any fan counts this film among Star Wars’ best, though, so we’ll move on.

Lucas wrote the story for Attack of the Clones (2002) and co-wrote the screenplay with Jonathan Hales.

Lucas wrote Revenge of the Sith (2005), considered by many fans to be the best of the prequel trilogy.

So, where are Telsch’s mysterious “best” Star Wars movies that Lucas did not write?

With a wave of his hand, Telsch then dismisses the entirety of Lucas’ contributions to the Indiana Jones franchise. Apparently coming up with the story of each of the films is not “writing” in his eyes.

Telsch’s suggestion that we simply ignore ten of Lucas’ biggest contributions to movies, the Star Wars and Indiana Jones films, is ludicrous. That is like saying, take away the Pietà, the statue of David, and the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and Michelangelo did little for art. Or, take away all of his recording sessions, concerts, and TV appearances, and Elvis Presley did little for music.

Telsch: “Sure, there are some classics in there like Willow and American Graffiti, but you’ve also got the independent studio killing THX-1138, Radioland Murders, and Captain EO to contend with.”

Telsch’s argument begins to make even less sense here. For Willow, Radioland Murders, and Captain EO, Lucas “only” wrote the stories and executive produced, but these movies apparently count in the Telsch world while the Indiana Jones films, for which Lucas made similar contributions, do not.

Telsch: “Basically, if Lucas hadn’t been responsible for Industrial Light & Magic, his name would be considerably less legendary. You can’t deny the industry effect his special effects company has had, but most of that is because of the artists involved with that, not because of Lucas directly, but only as the guy who hired the right people.”

Again, Telsch’s ease of dismissal here is fascinating. Now we must ignore six Star Wars movies, four Indiana Jones movies, and Lucas’ groundbreaking special effects company to comply with the narrowing parameters of his argument. As a contributor to one of the best movie news sites on the net, Telsch should know that great films are all about hiring the right people.

Telsch: “But Lucas does have Star Wars as a huge accomplishment, although it’s probably not too much of a stretch to assume that someone could eventually have come up with something similar.”

Telsch finally gives a bit of begrudging credit to Lucas for his masterpiece, but then claims someone else “could” have done the same thing “eventually.” No matter how Telsch spins it, there would be no Star Wars without George Lucas. Star Wars provided inspiration for countless others as well, and there is no real way to measure Lucas’ influence.

Telsch: “Sure, they may not have had the radical approach of capitalizing on the franchise’s merchandising – something Lucas pretty much originated. Unfortunately, that same approach quickly led to movies that were more about generating characters to cash in on instead of solid storytelling.”

First of all, I don’t blame Lucas for making as much money as he can off of Star Wars and anything else he creates. Just because we bought lots of tickets does not mean we own the franchise or the man. I, for one, am glad for all of the Star Wars merchandising from when I was a kid. Star Wars action figures, playsets, and other toys were part of the experience for me.

Second, exactly which movies is Telsch referring to here? His implication seems to be that the first Star Wars movie had solid storytelling (oh wait, but Lucas wrote and directed that one), while its merchandising success quickly led to a focus on cashing in by The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. I thought The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi were Telsch’s “best of” Star Wars movies, though, since they are the only two Lucas did not direct?

Telsch: “You may have noticed solid information on Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is hard to come by. Even rumors seem to disappear quickly from the Internet. This is no mistake, my friends. This is the long arm of Lucas stretching out and attempting to remove anything that may spoil his film before it has its day. [. . .] Meanwhile, rebel websites who try to run anything unofficial are threatened with being shut down (been there, done that).”

Finally, the real motivation behind Telsch’s attack begins to appear. Telsch is annoyed that there is not enough official information being released about the new Indiana Jones movie to satisfy him. He is also upset that Paramount and Lucasfilm protect their interests by going after sites that release unsanctioned images, footage, and information.

Telsch does not like the “keep the details secret” marketing approach of Indy IV, so he wants to tear down someone he just told us had little to do with the franchise. Lucasfilm and Paramount do not “owe” entertainment sites or fan sites anything about this movie. How Lucasfilm and Paramount choose to handle marketing of the film is up to them.

Telsch: “Lucas has already started making his apologies, stating in interviews with Steven Spielberg that everyone is bound to be disappointed because the expectations surrounding the film are so high.”

I concede that Lucas does seem to have become rather gun-shy after being roasted for The Phantom Menace. No matter who you are, not every movie you make can be a winner. However, if your name is George Lucas and you make a mediocre to good movie that disappoints vocal fanboys, watch out! Even Lucas cannot be totally immune to the unfortunate hatred spewed at him over The Phantom Menace. I am sure the over $430 million it raked in at the box office in the US alone helped ease his pain, though.

If Lucas takes on a “they will be disappointed” stance as a defense mechanism prior to the release of Indy IV, I can forgive him.

Telsch: “Just in case Kingdom of the Crystal Skull has what it takes to please fans, Lucas is keeping a witch hunt going for anyone who might spoil his picture.”

So, is Indy IV Lucas’ picture now? Why do I have a feeling if Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull turns out to be a great movie, Telsch and those like him will give all of the credit to director Steven Spielberg? However, if Indy IV turns out mediocre or worse, they will shift the blame to Lucas. And, again, why shouldn’t Paramount and Lucasfilm protect their interests?

Telsch: “Our inquiries have led to the possibility that this machine wasn’t just the typical studio wheels grinding, but a Lucas-led hunt to keep information off the net [. . . ].”

Secret “inquiries”? Finding a “possibility”? Who’s leading the witch-hunt now?

Telsch: “If Lucas truly wanted to keep his movie a secret, there are ways to go about doing that. [. . .] Michael Bay managed to keep a lot of spoilers about Transformers off the Internet without too much cyber-bullying [. . .].”

Oh really? Then why did CinemaBlend’s own Josh Tyler complain about Paramount’s legal tactics regarding Transformers leaks? For instance, see:

http://www.cinemablend.com/new/Rant-Hollywood-Kills-What-It-Can-t-Control-5142.html

and

http://www.cinemablend.com/new/Look-Optimus-In-The-Eye-4344.html

Lucas was not involved on Transformers, so the common denominators for it and Indiana Jones are Paramount and Spielberg. Telsch needs to rethink his arguments.

Meanwhile, I’ll continue enjoying Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and George Lucas’ other contributions to the art of filmmaking.