‘A Film for a 12-Year-Old’: How Star Wars Could Be Killing Cinema

The trailer for Star Wars: The Last Jedi, also known as Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi, has come out and the galaxy will never be the same again. This is the reaction that fans and believers of the happenings in a galaxy far, far away have every time something new happens in the Star War cosmos.

While most films acquire newer audiences with the passage of time, Star Wars would be the only series in the history of cinema that enjoys the same obsession among generations of filmmakers. Like fans, some of these filmmakers who, in the own right have been identified as trailblazers, refuse to let go of their ‘inner child’ and merrily hop on to the bandwagon to 'relive' their childhood fantasy in the form of making a Star Wars film.

There have been reams dedicated to the hidden meaning of the battle between the good and evil in Star Wars, the plots have been analysed and the actions of each and every character, minor or significant, has been dissected and debated. This comes as a surprise because in the end, Star Wars, as defined by its creator George Lucas, is essentially “a film for a 12-year-old.”

Even when he made the first Star Wars film in 1977, Lucas was very clear about who he was making the film for. He was a part of a group that included the likes of Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, John Landis, and Brain De Palma. And despite making an impressive debut with THX 1138 (1971) that was produced by Francis Ford Coppola and failed at the box office, he was the least talked about guy in the lot.

Lucas then made the successful American Graffiti (1973), which allowed him to pursue his dream of developing a story set in space. When he finally showed an initial cut that was still to feature some special effects and the iconic John Williams’ score to his friends, no one understood why Lucas would even attempt anything so infantile.

It is said that Scorsese didn’t get the film, De Palma told him that the crawl at the beginning was too long and gibberish (he helped him re-write it later), and simply didn’t get the whole ‘may the force be with you’ business. It was Spielberg that told Lucas that his film would make more than his own Jaws (1975), the film that created the summer blockbuster genre.

A still from Star Wars (1977).

He felt it could even possibly outdo the sci-fi that he was making at the time, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). Later to keep his friend’s spirit intact, Spielberg agreed to put his money where his mouth was and traded 2.5 per cent points of Close Encounters for 2.5 per cent points of Star Wars and in the bargain, made almost $40 million from the success of Star Wars.

In hindsight, it is understandable why Lucas’ contemporaries would react the way they did. Here was a bunch that was changing the very face of American cinema, pushing the envelope when it came to mainstream films. They were in many ways making the regular highbrow and the highbrow regular enough to play at cinemas across the world.

Between films such as Mean Streets (1973), Taxi Driver (1973), The Godfather (1972) and the sequel, The Godfather: Part II (1974), The Conversation (1974), Sisters (1972), Carrie (1976), Duel (1971), The Sugarland Express (1974) and Jaws to name a few, one of them was letting the inner child have a field day.

Even after 40 years, Lucas maintains that Star Wars was his interpretation of a 12-year-old about to enter the real world. In his own words, Star Wars was about “You’re moving away from your parents. You’re probably scared, you don’t know what’s going to happen. Here’s what you should pay attention to: Friendships, honesty, trust, doing the right thing. Living on the light side, avoiding the dark side.”

Star Wars might have been the only winning card in the hand that life dealt Lucas and while he might not have any more stories to tell or art to create, there is definitely more to Lucas. Lucas is not considered a visionary for making Star Wars but what he did with the unbridled success that followed. Although he never directed another film for decades, he went on to produce the two films of the original trilogy [A New Hope (1977) and Return of the Jedi (1983)] and the Indiana Jones series and also started Pixar, the future animation giant before selling it to Apple.

(From left) Directors Spielberg, Lucas and Abrams at an event. (Photo: Reuters)

He also co-founded THX, the company that does theatrical sound and also Industrial Light & Magic, the revolutionary sound and visual effects company behind E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Back to the Future (1985), Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), Total Recall (1990), Jurassic Park (1993).

In the last few years after Disney bought the rights to Star Wars, a whole new world of possibilities opened up and sure enough it attracted a bunch of young filmmakers to interpret the galaxy far, far away. While Lucas not making any other is not hurting anyone, could the decision to make new Star Wars films be extracting a great cost?

Take the case of Rian Johnson, the writer-director of the upcoming The Last Jedi (2017) and the man behind the mesmerising school noir Brick (2005) and the hypnotic Looper (2012). For Johnson, directing a Star Wars film is a childhood dream coming true and as someone who grew up “not just watching those movies but playing with those toys”, the first movies that he was making in his head were set in this very world.

In many ways for Johnson or for that matter also for JJ Abrams, who directed the first of the sequel trilogy, The Force Awakens (2015), the experience is an automatic jacking back into childhood in a weird way and that makes helming a Star Wars film a difficult offer to refuse. This is also what happened with Gareth Edwards, who directed Rogue One, the first of the Star Wars Anthology Series (2016).

Edwards' debut Monsters (2010), a sci-fi thriller had impressed the late Roger Ebert to a such an extent that he not only gave it a great review but also praised it for its focus on “characters, relationships, fear and mostly unseen menace" rather than its visual effects.”

The success of Monsters didn’t do as much for Edwards as the directing job on Godzilla (2014), which immediately attracted the Star Wars producers and the next thing you know Edwards was directing a film for his filmmaking hero George Lucas. The 1977 Star Wars was the reason he became a filmmaker.

For this writer, Abrams directing a Star Wars film is a no-brainer; in a career spanning five films, he has made only one ‘original’ film – Super 8 (2011) and had directed two Star Trek reboots (Star Trek [2009], Star Trek Into Darkness [2013]), one Star Wars and one Mission: Impossible film - Mission: Impossible III (2006). But Edwards not being able to further his own unique vision is surprising.

For someone like Rian Johnson, whose debut feature, Brick was hailed for its originality of vision and even won an award at the Sundance Film Festival, directing a Star Wars is, in the manner of speaking, a step-down. In just two films – Brick and Looper - Johnson showed enough promise. And just when the going was about to get interesting, he went sideways for the sake of his inner 12-year-old self.

In an interview that Johnson conducted with filmmaker Terry Gilliam (Brazil), the latter learnt about Johnson writing and directing the upcoming Star Wars installment and asked him what it feels like to take over something that was made famous by another filmmaker and if he felt free. Johnson replied that he was having the most fun he ever had while writing but it was only because this was his childhood fantasy and added, “ask me again in a few years and we’ll be able to talk about that.”

There is a great lure in the universe that Star Wars created. The trials that young Skywalker faces and the effort to fend the ‘dark side’ is also reflected in the way filmmakers, writers and actors deal with the franchise.

Alec Guinness with George Lucas on the sets of Star Wars. (Photo courtesy: Twitter/ @andreasgrabe)

Alec Guinness was one of the most respected actors in the world and liked the moral attached to the film, but being Obi-Wan Kenobi, the one role that brought him worldwide recognition by a new generation, was excruciating. He hated the dialogue but more than enjoyed the money - rather than an upfront fee, he opted for two-and-a-quarter per cent of the profits. At the time of his death in 2000, he’d earned £56 million from the franchise. Harrison Ford, famously said of the film’s writing that “You can write this s***, but you sure as hell can’t say it”, and even though he had wanted his character Han Solo, whom he called Ham Yoyo, to die in the Return of the Jedi, he returned to play him again in The Force Awakens for a $20 million paycheck.

Perhaps there is nothing wrong with Johnson then choosing to make a Star Wars film for this would surely make him enough money (The Force Awakens was only the second film after Avatar to gross over $2 billion) and this might earn the freedom to do something that he truly wants to.

But many times the success of a film, and that too a Star Wars is no guarantee for the future. Rogue One made over a billion dollars at the box office and Edwards is still to announce his next project. In the end, the truth is that Star Wars today is a toy that many filmmakers grew up playing with and directing it simply allows them to be 12-year-old again and who doesn’t want to be a 12-year old again?

After all, both Lucas and Spielberg famously kept their inner 12-year-olds intact and have been laughing all the way to the bank.

(Gautam Chintamani is a film historian and the author of the best-selling Dark Star: The Loneliness of Being Rajesh Khanna (2014) and The Film That Revived Hindi Cinema (2016). Twitter @GChintamani)

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