I’ve long argued that some of Star Wars’ biggest fans are the ones who understand George Lucas the least as a filmmaker. Among the many complaints about the prequels is how they don’t “fit” with the other movies — at least the ones they like. The story, the tone, the style all seemed a bit… different. This was also a complaint against INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL — it was so “different” than the previous three. It had aliens, it didn’t travel the globe as much, it had a nuclear explosion.
What was Lucas thinking?!
Well, the same way he’s always thought.
I like to compare Lucas’ approach to that of a baseball pitcher. A good pitcher has a variety of pitches. They may have an excellent fastball, but their career is going to be pretty short if that’s their only pitch. If a batter is expecting a fastball, a pitcher might throw a slider or a change-up. The point is to keep the batter guessing.
Lucas has thrown a variety of pitches his entire career (and, yes, the occasional wild throw). When he made MORE AMERICAN GRAFFITI, he didn’t just make a continuation of the story set in 50s (1962, to be correct). He played with the entire structure and style. The counter-culture scenes were shot in split screens and a psychedelic haze. The Vietnam scenes were shot like a gritty 16mm documentary. He tried something new.
In the mid 70s, most Hollywood sequels were roman numeral rehashes of the original film. JAWS II, for example, was about another shark terrorizing Amity beaches. After STAR WARS (not yet A NEW HOPE), most people assumed the inevitable sequel would be “STAR WARS II”. What else would it be?
Lucas threw a different pitch.
STAR WARS II would be “Episode V” and instead of another lighthearted ‘rescue the Princess’ romp, it would be darker, more urgent and open-ended. Instead of a big explosion at the finale, the story would end with defeat.
It was a huge risk. Fans today agree (I know, an oxymoron) that EMPIRE is the best in the series and universally loved. It wasn’t always so. I remember the reviews, the commentary and discussions from that time. I remember another consensus that, while the movie was good and the special effects were amazing, the movie was no STAR WARS. It wasn’t as fun and… what’s with that ending?!
It was too… different.
After RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, people again predicted “RAIDERS II.” Instead, according to the inside story, Lucas met with Spielberg to plan the next movie and gleefully said it would be a “scary” adventure next time. Again, Lucas threw a different pitch.
Again, the fans responded that TEMPLE OF DOOM was too… different.
Flashforward to the late 90s. Enthusiasm for “EPISODE I” was red-hot. What’s it going to be about? What will it be called? How awesome is it going to be?!!!!!!
Seriously? It’s called “THE PHANTOM MENACE”? That’s so cheesy. Is it about ghosts? Shouldn’t it be called “DAWN OF THE EMPIRE” or “PRELUDE TO VENGEANCE” or something cool like that?! (Those are actual fan titles I recall from message boards at the time, by the way)
Of course, when the movie came out… yeah, it was different. Way too different for some people to handle. Red-hot enthusiasm quickly became red-hot hatred.
Fans should know by now that Lucas takes risks. He tries new things. He likes to mix things up. Yes, he often revisits old ideas and tries them again, but his desire to be unpredictable is part of his filmmaking persona. Unfortunately, some fans have trouble accepting that.