The Lord of the Light Side
Sunday, August 10, 2008
He may go down in history as American cinema's master mythmaker, but George Lucas still can't tell a story.
Three years after concluding the epochal "Star Wars" franchise and very publicly retreating to his sprawling Skywalker Ranch in Marin County, Calif., to make "my own little movies," Lucas has reverted to form. Earlier this summer, he produced and co-wrote yet another installment of the lucrative but creatively exhausted "Indiana Jones" adventure series. Friday marks the release of "Star Wars: The Clone Wars," an animated spinoff that Lucas executive produced and that looks like precisely what it is: a television show that has been puffed up into a feature-length advertisement for itself.
Taken together, the two movies represent a dispiriting if predictable move, as if the man who reinvented movies -- changing how they're made and marketed, even their collective meaning -- is still incapable of reinventing himself.
Lucas, 64, has become such an ingrained presence on the cinematic landscape, such a brand unto himself, that he's attained the pop-culture equivalent of elemental status. To question what he does and how he does it is tantamount to questioning the air we breathe or the water we drink: George Lucas just is. But what, exactly, is he? Visionary? Businessman? Gearhead? Showman? All those things, and probably much more. But it's time to admit it: He's not a storyteller. For all of Lucas's command of myth, symbol and sweep, the nuances of narrative still elude him.
Lucas's vision and fierce independence have led him to be compared to such visionaries as Walt Disney and Orson Welles. But those comparisons only demonstrate how wildly Lucas's career has been misunderstood. Indeed, in terms of his influence on filmmaking, the movie business and the culture at large, the figure Lucas most closely resembles is Thomas Edison.
Edison is credited with helping to create the rudiments of cinematic grammar with his early short films, but they were created not to tell stories but to demonstrate the cameras, sound recorders and other equipment he was inventing. Like Edison, Lucas has used his movies more as software to demonstrate or advertise his visual effects, sound, game, TV and animation businesses. Lucas founded the visual effects company Industrial Light & Magic in 1975 in order to create effects for his upcoming "Star Wars" movie. Not only did ILM create dazzling and revolutionary computerized imagery for that movie, but "Star Wars" served as a nifty demo for a company that quickly became a major effects provider for non-Lucas films. (Want to stage a dogfight on your very own Death Star? We can make it for you wholesale!) Similarly, Lucas used the 1983 film "Return of the Jedi" as a debut of his THX sound system, a novelty that went on to become standard-issue equipment in theaters around the world.
This isn't to suggest that Lucas is cynical: He's never been all about the Benjamins, or he would have taken his billion-dollar business, Lucasfilm, public years ago. And he's made some confounding business decisions: In 1986, jammed financially by a divorce, slow licensing returns on "Return of the Jedi" and the Lucasfilm flop "Howard the Duck," he sold his digital animation division to Steve Jobs for a paltry $5 million. That company, called Pixar, would later be sold to Disney for $7.4 billion. But even more important, Pixar would make movie history with such family classics as "Toy Story" and "Finding Nemo," defining the artistic gold standard not just for digital animation but for cinematic narrative, period.
Which makes this weekend's release of "The Clone Wars" all the more poignant, even fraught with pathos. Following the wag-the-dog pattern he perfected with "The Phantom Menace," "Attack of the Clones" and "Revenge of the Sith," Lucas is again using a "Star Wars" spinoff less as a story that needs to be told than an advertisement for some other Lucasfilm business -- in this case, its new digital animation division, an upcoming program on the Cartoon Network and merchandising tie-ins with Toys R Us and McDonald's.
Reportedly, "The Clone Wars" was never supposed to be a feature film. It was planned as a TV show that Lucas insisted be released theatrically after he saw it. (This outing was directed by Dave Filoni and written by others; Lucas executive produced.) But one need only consider "The Clone Wars" alongside its cousin "WALL E" to grasp how far Lucas has fallen behind some of the artists and technicians he once employed. A hectic, often incoherent pastiche of plotty dialogue and frantic battle action, "The Clone Wars" is populated by stiffly animated versions of such prequel characters as Obi-Wan Kenobi, Padmé Amidala and Anakin Skywalker. But for warmth and pure heart, they're not nearly as human as the little trash compactor whose life and loves drive "WALL*E." In the latter, the stakes are high -- for the protagonist and the planet he loves. In "Clone Wars," the only thing at stake is whether Lucas will be able to take yet another bite of a thoroughly consumed apple. And viewers are left hungry.
In other words, "WALL E," like every Pixar movie, hews to the company's famous motto: "Story is king." And story has never been king with Lucas.
Consider "American Graffiti," his 1973 coming-of-age comedy. The film, which spawned night-in-the-life imitators from "Dazed and Confused" to "Superbad," was in large part based on Lucas's own car-obsessed youth in Modesto, Calif., in the 1950s. But unlike the best movies it influenced, "American Graffiti" plays like little more than a series of vignettes, featuring generic teenagers who don't resemble actual human beings as much as Characters Who Stand for Something. A soundtrack-driven pastiche of pranks, petty crimes and stiffly choreographed set pieces, the film was a big success, not because of its intrinsic worth but because it so shrewdly manipulated baby-boomer nostalgia. To the extent that the "Indiana Jones" movies succeed as old-fashioned yarn-spinning, that's no doubt due to the instincts and fluency director Steven Spielberg brought to Lucas's otherwise hackneyed scripts. As one critic remarked earlier this summer, "How many variations are there of 'We meet again, Dr. Jones'?"
Similarly, the "Star Wars" space opera consistently demonstrated Lucas's limitations as a storyteller, even as it tapped into the mass audience's most fundamental hunger for archetype and myth. As refreshing as the initial 1977 installment was -- an escapist, retro thrill ride in the midst of a grittily realist era -- the "Star Wars" movies were more about plot than story, with Lucas far more interested in mechanics, spectacle and marketing than capturing the beat of the human heart. (Although the difference between plot and story may seem arcane, it's quite crucial: The plot is merely a sequence of events, whereas a story limns those events' deeper motivation and meaning. The plot gets characters from point A to point B; the story makes us care.)
One need only watch Hayden Christensen awkwardly declaim in Lucas's last directorial outing, "Revenge of the Sith," to be reminded of how important actors like Harrison Ford and Alec Guinness were to giving the famously leaden "Star Wars" dialogue even a shred of believability. Once "Star Wars" became a multi-billion-dollar economy unto itself, when the movies increasingly served not "the story" but the games and the sound systems and the effects business and the lunch boxes, Lucas's weakness became his greatest strength. Who needed story when the audience would be satisfied with spectacle? He got rich, and we got Jar Jar Binks.
Still, along the way, even Lucas admitted some ambivalence about the "Star Wars" juggernaut. When he finally concluded the series in 2005, he also opened a new business and digital facility in San Francisco. Granting a seemingly unprecedented number of interviews, the notoriously reticent Lucas told his interlocutors that, with the visual effects, gaming, marketing and merchandizing businesses safely ensconced elsewhere, he would stay at Skywalker Ranch where, among other things, he would make small, personal movies "that nobody wants to see."
The movie he mentioned most often in that context was his debut film, the futuristic thriller "THX 1138." Set in an antiseptic dystopia of regimentation and consumerism, the film starred a young Robert Duvall as the title character, a drone who bucks societal conformity and tries to escape. The film, a flop when it was released in 1971, clearly demonstrates Lucas's genius for resourcefulness (he made particularly canny use of San Francisco's half-built rapid transit system), as well as his gift for creating, through sound, composition and framing, a starkly vivid sense of atmosphere. True to Lucas's roots as a USC film student, "THX 1138" bears the visual references and arty self-seriousness of a man who's read his share of Joseph Campbell and seen lots of movies, from "Buck Rogers" to "Breathless."
But even the film that was probably Lucas's most personal plays like a cerebral, academic exercise of a filmmaker more interested in creating effects and exploring intellectual notions of totalitarianism and free will than deepening character or connecting with the audience. Like every movie Lucas would make later, "THX 1138" brims with arresting imagery, especially in his use of white, empty space. But his is an airless, hermetic world, devoid of pulse. With his blank stare and impassive, almost totally silent performance, Duvall's THX is a singularly unengaging hero. Unlike "WALL E" director Andrew Stanton, who created so much expressive emotion and sympathy for his robotic protagonist in essentially the same story, Lucas in "THX 1138" is content to let his characters function as ideas. He doesn't do flesh and blood.
Will story be king with Lucas once he returns to making the "little movies" of his past? If "THX 1138" offers a clue, probably not. Then again, we may never know: After all, there's a live-action "Star Wars" TV show that will no doubt need a theatrical-film promo, and it was recently reported that Lucas is considering rereleasing the entire series in 3-D. Unlike THX, who eventually finds the courage to break out of his prison, Lucas has chosen to remain in his comfort zone, dreaming up new ways to repurpose the movies that that have enriched and constrained him for 30 years.