The Fandom Menace
Fewer film franchies are as big, bold and beloved as STAR WARS. George Lucas tapped into something very primal with his story of heroes and villains set "a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away", something that sparked a flaming torch that fandom not only embraced but spread. But as with all things, the clamor for MORE lead the flames to become a full blown forrest fire, and now threaten to splinter and destroy the very fandom that started the blaze to begin with.
Few franchises are as big, bold and beloved, as STAR WARS, and few are as belittled, battered and embattled.
First, some back story: George Lucas was an up and coming film student fresh out of USC in 1968. He was part of the bumper crop of filmmakers that included Walter Merch, John Milius, and Steven Spielberg. He interned with Francis Ford Coppola and later made his first two films, THX-1138, which was not successful for Warner Bros. but earned him a shot with Universal to make AMERICAN GRAFFITI.
The latter was a huge hit for the studio, and Lucas began developing a space story of his own, being unable to acquire the rights to remake the old FLASH GORDON serials he enjoyed as a child. He was paid a mere $150,000 for writing and directing STAR WARS, and while friends encouraged him to renegotiate for more money, he settled with the studio instead for licensing and merchandising rights to the film. 20th Century Fox was more than happy to allow it, not knowing the firestorm that would latter erupt around the eventual toy line, the first time in history film merchandising became big business. STAR WARS went on to become the highest grossing film of all time (upsetting his friend Steven Spielberg's hit JAWS, and was eventually re-upset by Spielberg again with E.T.) But the film's success was only kindling for the merchandising of lunch boxes, action figures, playsets, towels, bedsheets... if it could be branded with STAR WARS, it was. Upset with the way Warner Bros. and Universal handled his first two films, Lucas determined to never again be at the mercy of a studio. He parlayed the funds into founding his own studio, Lucasfilm LTD, and kept the special effects department from the film intact, founding ILM.
Two more films created a trilogy, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and RETURN OF THE JEDI, but Lucas wasn't done recapturing his youth. He paired up with Spielberg with the idea of a swashbuckling archeologist who fought Nazis. RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK and it's sequels INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM and THE LAST CRUSADE cemented him as one of the premier storytellers of our generation.
Fandom embraced each nugget that came down the pipe with a... well, fanatical approach. It wasn't enough to buy the merchandise, you had to buy ALL of it. Anything and everything you could get your hands on. It wasn't enough to have seen the movies, you had to have watched them hundreds of times. That galaxy may have been far, far away, but it was a bonafide religion here on Earth.
And then the announcement... Lucas wasn't done with STAR WARS. The films were not what he wanted, were in essence, released unfinished. He planned on touching up the films, improving the special effects and making various tweaks. The new special editions would be rereleased on the big screen, the first time in 20 years they could be seen in that format. One look at the eye-popping magic served up before us and we were all hooked, all over again.
But that's where things start to fall apart. For Lucas, the Special Editions became the "official" definitive versions of the films. For most of his fans, a mistake had been made. They didn't mind most of the new effects, they enjoyed the additional scenes cut into the film, BUT--and they will yell this from the rafters... HAN DIDN'T SHOOT FIRST! I myself don't mind any of the changes in the original trilogy except for that one. Lucas argues that because Han is a good guy, he shouldn't gun down Greedo in cold blood. I (and most of fandom) disagree. By having Greedo shoot at Han from across the table (and miss horribly) two things happen. One, Greedo is now officially the worst bounty hunter in the galaxy. I mean his target is across the table from him. What, like two feet!?! And we're not talking something small like a death stick, we're talking a full grown human, two feet away. But Greedo misses, his blast careens back and to the left like JFK in the Zapruder film. Two, Han no longer gets to have the defining character arc of becoming a good guy, because of this whole "do not fire until fired upon" idea. Never mind that he is a smuggler (and its implied running drugs for Jabba The Hutt,) but he can't shoot first? George, WTF? While still reeling from this change, another bombshell is dropped: The Prequel Trilogy. Films 1, 2, and 3 in the franchise will explore the origins of Darth Vader, how he turned to the Dark Side, and finally give some answers to that mythical period time called the Clone Wars.
This will be A-W-E-S-O-M-E! More STAR WARS!?!? YES!!! May 19, 1999, THE PHANTOM MENACE hit theaters and there was a collective joygasm from fandom that quickly soured the morning after into a feeling of "oh-my-god-did-I-really-just-wake-up-next-to-THAT?"feeling. You've heard of Coyote Ugly? Yeah, it was kind of like that. But we went and saw it again, just to make sure we understood it. I mean, this was STAR WARS right? It just couldn't... suck. Could it?
Two more films followed, ATTACK OF THE CLONES and REVENGE OF THE SITH. And once the collective dust had settled, Fandom bared it's ugly teeth and went to work chewing up George Lucas for the mistakes he's made. A fourth Indiana Jones film, KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL managed to polarize things even further. Fans cry out at the absurdity of Indy fighting aliens, and surviving a nuclear blast inside a fridge. They were already out for blood, and when South Park did an episode claiming "George Lucas raped my childhood," it became the rallying cry heard round the galaxy.
The irony here, is that Lucas wanted so hard to fight against the studio system, to do things his way and stand up against the "evil empire", that he became his own evil empire, trapped inside a studio system of his own devising. And the fans have become so quick to leap to the attack, spitting venom and ire, they're like the Sith Lords so despised from the myth they claim to love. That's how you can tell who the "real" STAR WARS fans are. They're the ones who HATE the series.
So now what? Lucas sits in his crystal palace overlooking the empire, supposedly looking to retire from the biz all together. Has the loyal dog bit the master? Did the very people that supported and built Skywalker Ranch wind up abandoning their god? Or did he pull a Zeus and abandon them first, no longer concerned with the fate of mere mortals, content to live out his life on Olympus?
I'd like to offer my own two cents on the matter for both sides...
To the fans:
Regarding CRYSTAL SKULL: 1) You didn't get it. The Indiana Jones movies were based on (and in some ways, parodied) the old serialized adventure flicks of George's youth. These films were over the top, action packed, and not in the least believable which is what we get throughout RAIDERS, TEMPLE and CRUSADE. When it came time to do the fourth film, 19 years had passed, and Harrison Ford said he had to play Indy at his current age. Okay, so we move the film 19 years beyond CRUSADE. In the real world, if we moved 19 years beyond the pulp serials, what do we find was popular in the 50's? Science Fiction films with aliens like THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL and EARTH VS THE FLYING SAUCERS, followed closely by the ones that prayed on the public's fear of atomic radiation, THEM, THE GIANT GILA MONSTER, etc... So we put all of that together in a blender to create the action set pieces for this film. Big deal. I can live with that. 2) To you guys out there screaming at the top of your lungs about how unbelievable and unrealistic aliens in an Indy flick is, and I point to TEMPLE OF DOOM and quietly remind you a guy had his heart ripped out of his chest... while still alive... and lived in that one. 3) As far as the infamous "nuked the fridge" reference that has now become pop nomenclature in the same way as "jumped the shark", again, I disagree. Evidence from the scientific community suggests with a lead lined fridge, as long as he didn't break his neck on impact the survival rate is 50/50. Those, my friends, are better odds than Indy faces most of the time.
4) And let's be honest. You're not really pissed over this film, you're pissed over STAR WARS and looking to take it out on this film.
Regarding STAR WARS at large, but specifically the prequels: You know what? No, these films aren't what you remember from your childhood. They come from a different time, portraying a different time. "A more civilized age" according to Obi-Wan. I enjoy the political maneuvering that brought Palpatine to power, I like the feel of the more formal, stilted dialogue that would have preceded this great galactic upheaval. No, the films aren't perfect, yes there are things that I would have done differently and wish had been. But I can still enjoy them. I wish you could too. But name calling and claims of "George Lucas raped my childhood" are not only hurtful and mean, but blatantly false. George gave you your childhood.
To George Lucas:
George, we love you, but you make it really hard. I understand your compulsive need to recapture these films from the public at large and make them yours again. I get it, I really do. It's the studio thing all over again. You never felt STAR WARS was finished, but the public got it, and loved it, and you kept yelling inside "but that's not the way it should be!" As an artist and a writer, I am NOT going to tell you you can't change your work. It's your baby. And I understand we, the fans have not been as... delicate in presenting our argument against those changes as maybe we should have been. But you knew about the controversy, you knew we were upset, and then you ran around in a "Han Shot First" T-shirt without fixing the issue. Kinda a dick move, George.
You said in 1997: "There will only be one. And it won't be what I would call the 'rough cut', it'll be the 'final cut.' ...The other versions will disappear... To me, it doesn't really exist anymore... A hundred years from now, the only version of the movie that anyone will remember will be the DVD version [of the Special Edition]"
But you yourself argued against the colorization of old films in 1988 saying:
"In the future it will become even easier for old negatives to become lost and be "replaced" by new altered negatives. This would be a great loss to our society. Our cultural history must not be allowed to be rewritten."
George, we agree with you. Alterations to classic films is dangerous, wether through colorization or editing. You've done the equivalent of Leonardo Da Vinci taking the Mona Lisa off the wall of the Louvre, and "finished" her with a fresh coat of paint, oh, and fixing the smile, cause that was never right. We respect your artistic vision, all we're asking for is a BluRay release of the original films remastered to that quality. Include it with the special editions. Hell, give us a box set with the originals, the special editions and the new 3D jobs. We'll pony up the cash for that, George. We have before. It's not that we don't like the Special Editions, we'd just like to have the option so that we don't feel like our cultural history, our childhood was rewritten.
That decision would go along way toward healing the rift between you and your fans.
Hopefully it will happen before the fires of fandom burn the place down... <>