Betrayed by George Lucas
The first time I ever felt betrayed by George Lucas was the 1984 Raiders sequel, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Temple is a mess of a movie that tries and mostly fails to duplicate everything that worked about the first movie. Everything is amplified just a bit bigger to the point where none of it works anymore.
People complain that Temple is too dark and it is undeniably darker than the first movie. But I don’t think that is really the problem. Raiders had a terrific script that resulted from brainstorming sessions between Lucas, Spielberg and Kasdan. Temple took discarded ideas from those brainstorming sessions and had them worked into a movie by Lucas’s old friends, Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz. The screenwriters weren’t up to the task and the movie suffered as a result.
After Return of the Jedi, Lucas had proclaimed that Star Wars was done. He left the door open to return for prequels and sequels somewhere down the line. But we were told not to expect them any time soon if at all. While there weren’t any new movies on the horizon, Lucas wasn’t completely done with Star Wars. After being stung by the Holiday Special in 1978, Lucas returned Star Wars to the small screen in 1984.
This time, Lucas oversaw production of a TV movie about the Ewoks. This does seem to support the theory that George wanted to sell some teddy bears, does it not. He followed up the first movie with a sequel in 1985 and then an Ewoks cartoon that ran from 1985-1987. Around the same time, Lucas also allowed a Droids cartoon about the adventures of C-3P0 and R2-D2.
I suspect most of us original Star Wars fans might have felt betrayed by these blatant attempts to sell toys, cartoons and breakfast cereals to kids younger than us. But following Jedi, most of us had moved on. We weren’t interested in Ewoks and Droids, so they weren’t on our radar. Apparently, they weren’t successful enough to continue more than a couple of years so George Lucas moved on to other projects as well.
Lucas’ success from 1977-1983 had a lot of people comparing him to Walt Disney. At a time when the Disney company had become largely irrelevant, Lucas and Spielberg had tapped into the youth market that used to be owned by Disney. So it’s not surprising that Disney and Lucas joined forces in the mid eighties. Lucas worked with Disney on a Star Wars-themed attraction called Star Tours and he produced a 3-D Michael Jackson music video called Captain Eo.
Captain Eo was at the time the most expensive movie ever produced in terms of dollars per minute. It was directed by Francis Ford Coppola and starred the King of Pop. In short, it was a big deal. But the collaboration of Disney, Lucas, Coppola and Jackson ended up producing a long music video that felt more like the Holiday Special than Star Wars.
It’s nobody’s best work. But Captain Eo has legions of nostalgia-crazed fans despite its questionable quality.
Lucas spent the late eighties looking for his next Indy or Star Wars. Having hit two home runs back to back, there was every reason to believe that Lucas would use his magic touch to deliver more beloved pop culture in the latter half of the decade. Instead, he produced the Golden Raspberry winner, Howard the Duck in 1986.
Howard the Duck was a notorious flop and a sign of things to come. Lucas was going to struggle for relevance as long as he stayed away from his two tentpoles. 1986 also saw the release of Labyrinth which teamed Lucas with another creative genius, Jim Henson. Once again, the results were disappointing.
In 1988, Lucas produced the Ron Howard-directed fantasy film, Willow. Expectations were understandably high that Willow could be the next Star Wars. But instead, it was largely written off as a blatant Tolkien ripoff. When the movie disappointed, the plans for sequels were quietly cancelled.
Fortunately, Lucas still had Indiana Jones to fall back on. In 1989, Lucas, Spielberg and Ford agreed to end the film series with Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. That movie included a sequence in which River Phoenix played Indy as a young man. This lead Lucas to develop a TV series about the early adventures of Indiana Jones.
The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles ran from 1992-1996 if you include the series as well as a few TV movies. As an Indy fan, I tuned in but quickly lost interest. In a decision that predicted The Phantom Menace, Lucas devoted several episodes to Indy as a ten-year old. George, let me speak for everyone when I say that no one is interested in seeing their favorite heroes or villains in elementary school.
The show has its fans, but I am not among them. It felt like a pretty weak attempt to cash in on Indy’s popularity. I didn’t necessarily feel betrayed by George Lucas, but I quickly realized that this Indiana Jones was not for me.
After the cancellation of Young Indy, there were rumors that Lucas was returning to Star Wars. By this point, Star Wars had been dormant for quite a while. Unless you were a fan of the kiddie shows of the mid-to-late-80’s, there hadn’t been much activity on the Star Wars front since Return of the Jedi in 1983.
Lucas dipped his toe into the Star Wars pool very slowly. It started with the rerelease of the original trilogy on VHS and LaserDisc in 1995.
This release was billed as the last chance for fans to see and own the original trilogy in its unaltered form. And it turns out, Lucas was true to his word. In the twenty years since, Lucasfilm has refused to release the original versions of these movies.
Instead, there have been several released of the Special Editions. In 1997, Lucas rereleased all of the original Star Wars movies back in theaters with alterations. Some of the changes were simple and welcome. Old special effects were fixed. Other changes were more noticeable and some stood out like a sore thumb.
Originally, Jabba the Hutt had appeared in Star Wars. Lucas cut the scene because all of the information the audience needed had already been conveyed in Han’s showdown with Greedo. The Jabba scene was unnecessary. But the Special Edition version of the movie reinserted the scene with a sloppy-looking CGI Jabba.
Young George Lucas knew that the movie flowed better without the scene. But old George Lucas couldn’t resist putting it back in with the use of new special effects. In a sign that old George Lucas had lost touch with what made Star Wars work in the first place, the scene ends with a bit of slapstick as Han steps on Jabba’s tail.
But for many fans, myself included, the Jabba scene is the second-most upsetting change to the original film. For us, “Han shot first” is a rally cry.
In the 1977 version of Star Wars, Han Solo seems like a pretty shifty character when we meet him. He is a smuggler with a price on his head. He shows us what kind of guy he is when he shoots a bounty hunter preemptively. Han is acting in self-defense as the bounty hunter in question, an alien named Greedo, fully intends to kill him and has made his intentions known. But what we learn in the original version of the movie is that Han is the kind of character who shoots first and asks questions later.
Older George Lucas, the one who raised kids and made a buttload of money selling toys, decided he would rather Han not be that kind of guy. So he reedited the scene to make Greedo fire the first shot. This obviously does Greedo a great disservice. He is now portrayed as a bounty hunter so inept he can’t shoot a target sitting in the booth across from him. But it doesn’t do Han any favors either. Han’s arc from scoundrel to rebel leader has been lessened. Now he starts off as the kind of guy who waits for a trained killer to take a shot at him before he reacts. It may seem like a little thing, but it’s not. Han Solo needs to shoot first, dammit.
The Special Editions reflected Lucas’ new aesthetic which he would fully realize with the release of the Star Wars prequels. Star Wars was always dense with details that made the world we were viewing feel lived in. But Old Man Lucas decided that “more was better”. So he used his new CGI toys to fill every inch of the screen with robots and creatures he could no afford when he first made Star Wars. The problem with this line of thinking is that the new additions don’t contribute to the overall story and often detract from the main action of the movie.