George Lucas is indisputably the most important filmmaker of the last 30 years because his influence is absolutely everywhere in film. With the possible exception of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, for which Francis Ford Coppola intentionally used in-camera special effects techniques dating back to the dawn of film, there’s hardly a special effects film since 1977 that can’t trace its lineage back to Lucas, either directly through ILM or its alumni, or esthetically, due to the standards he established.
And it’s not simply visual effects. Sound design? Lucas’ crews invented modern sound design and basically shoved THX sound certification down movie theaters’ throats in order to make sure his efforts were rewarded. Computer animation? Pixar got its start under Lucas’ wing. The Summer blockbuster? Jaws was the soft lob establishing the idea; Star Wars was the hard spike that drove it home. Let’s not even talk about the concept of movie merchandising. Name me any filmmaker anywhere in the last three decades whose technical and marketing influence on the medium is even close to Lucas. You can’t do it. The only one you could possibly argue is Steven Spielberg, but I don’t think even Spielberg would suggest that he is more influential in the critical, below-the-line filmmaking categories. In short: as a filmmaker, George Lucas has made the medium what it is today.
As a director, he’s not a patch on Michael Bay.
And you know what? As a writer and director, he’s always sucked, and with Sith in the can, we can just come right out and say it. His one geniunely good film — American Graffiti — is looking more and more like a fluke, and even Star Wars (which, screenwriting and directing Oscar nominations aside, is neither well-written nor more than basically directed) seems entirely unrepresentative, if for no other reason than because it’s fun, which this latter trilogy shows is not Lucas’ strong suit.
George Lucas should not have been allowed near the business end of a script or a camera for any of these last three films, nor any other film in the future until the end of time. In Entertainment Weekly, Lucas says that he asked both Spielberg and Ron Howard to pick up the directing chores for him, and both said that he needed to do it himself. The only reason I can think of that they would have said such a damn fool thing is that they both must have seen the script of The Phantom Menace and have gotten severe stomach contractions at the mere thought of trying to navigate that crappy prose. Rumor has it that Tom Stoppard, of all people, was called in for a script polish on Sith, but let’s be honest and note that not matter how much you polish a turd, at the end of the day, all you’re going to get is a highly polished turd. Scriptwise, Sith is a turd which positively gleams.
Yes: Sith is substantially better than Phantom or Clones, but think about what we’re saying here. Phantom was a knife in the gut of Star Wars fandom; the only Star Wars fans who like that film are the science fiction equivalent to the Michael Jackson fans who mill about outside the courtroom of his molestation trial. You literally can’t ignore how bad it is, which was a first for a Star Wars installment. Mill it down to the pod race (taking care to yank out jake Lloyd’s audio track) and the final Darth Maul saber battle, you’ll have seen everything worth seeing there. Clones was marginally better dreck, but it’s clear that even Lucas was bored with it. To say a movie is better than either of these films is to damn with faint praise; just about every major science fiction release since 2000 is better than these (except The Chronicles of Riddick, which was ridiculouly overstuffed and baroque. But even that had better dialogue).
Lucas wasn’t bored with Sith, that much is clear — the performances are livelier, the action is more coherently presented, and the story actually has a narrative drive, which is to say it gets from point A to point B without taking another damn side trip to Tatooine. It’s a perfectly good and exciting film, even allowing for the crappy script, but as I was watching it the thing I was thinking was that this was the first film in the new trilogy that achieved the same baseline level of interest and excitement as the films in the first series; in other words, it’s as good as Return of the Jedi, which is acknowledged to be the weakest of the first three, and not just because of the Ewoks. I understand people are falling over themselves to praise this film, but again, that’s the magic of tremendously lowered expectations, isn’t it? My problem is that I can’t see why we needed three films to get back to Jedi-level competence. That’s where we left off.
Structural problems are all over this film. General Grevious is touted as a major nemesis without proper introduction and backstory (yes, I understand the character was introduced in the Clone Wars cartoon shorts. But unless one is a fanboy, one is outside that particular loop, and film viewers ought not be penalized for lack of fervor). The Wookiees are thrown in as an obvious fan sop rather than being an integral part of the story. Lucas wants to have slapstick and tragedy in his film but can’t handle the gradient between them, either as a director or a writer. The last several minutes of the film are all too obviously about going down a list and checking off details so Sith can conform to the continuity requirements of the original trilogy. None of this matters to the fans now, flushed as they are with gleeful relief that Sith doesn’t actively stink. But these problems are there, and they’re not going away.
Also not going away: Lucas’ basic and fundamental mishandling of humans in the writing and the directing. The Sith story is grand, operatic tragedy, and only Ian McDairmid, a theater-trained actor given an inherently ham-filled role, imbues his character with the sense of scale the story needs. Ewan McGregor comes close, but is underserved by his dialogue (which is sadly pocked with fan-pleasing throwaway lines rather than the meaty stuff he needs), and poor Hayden Christiansen, who can actually act, is saddled with a director whose idea of evil is wind-blown petulance. Hell, Lucas’ direction pounds flat Samuel L. Jackson — for the third time. It’s hard to imagine how that is even possible.
This film positively aches for Lawrence Kasdan and the magically exhumed Leigh Brackett to come on board and make the script what is so clearly wants to be; the film aches for even a competent journeyman director to connect the operatic dots. One of the cardinal rules of film criticism is that you don’t review the film as you want it to be, you review the film that is, but it’s hard to see how anyone with a sense of history of film — or even simply of Star Wars — can look at this preview trilogy and not see how much better they would have been with someone other than Lucas at the helm and at the keyboard. For Sith, two words for you: Ridley Scott. Yes, I know how cruel it is to put that in your mind. But now you see my point. Lucas is famously always going back into his films and changing fiddly details — one can only hope that his next revision he redoes all the writing and acting for the prequel trilogy (or perhaps hires Peter Jackson to do it for him). It’s amazing what they can do with computers these days.
But as I’ve said before, it’s George Lucas’ universe, we just get to buy the merchandise. The films are what they are. Do you know what I actually have high hopes for? The Star Wars TV series Lucas suggested is coming up. Lucas, who I think is well pleased to finally wash his hands of the Star Wars universe, is likely to have minimal involvement. That means there’s an excellent chance some good writers and decent directors will creep back into the Star Wars universe and make it finally live up to its potential. A new hope, indeed.