George Lucas: One (mega) hit wonder?

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It’s a phrase out of the music industry:  one-hit wonders.  Those bands that come out of nowhere, hit the top of the charts with a catchy – maybe even impressive – single, or have one chart-topping album, and then never seem to be able to hit that sweet spot again.  Anybody remember Boston’s second album?  Another hit single after “96 Tears” from Jay and the Mysterians?

But they’re not alone.  There’s not an area of entertainment where the phenomenon doesn’t exist.  Rod Serling never topped The Twilight Zone, and Chris Carter never came up with another series as good as The X Files.  Fitzgerald wrote a lot of impressive stuff, but never matched The Great Gatsby, and drank himself to death over it (well, Zelda being crazy didn’t help).  Michael Cimino copped an Oscar for The Deer Hunter (1978), and then began a long, spectacular flameout.

It happens.  And maybe it’s time to finally recognize George Lucas as a member of that club.

Early last year, I’d written a compare-and-contrast piece on Steven Spielberg and Lucas (“Titans:  George Lucas v. Steven Spielberg” posted 1/17/11).  I acknowledged that, of the two, Lucas probably has had the greater impact on the movie industry.  Hell, Lucas has probably had the greatest impact on the industry since Griffith!

The success of the first Star Wars trilogy created the template for the big-budget blockbuster franchise which expands and cross-pollinates its brand across a host of platforms, from TV to videogames to merchandising.  Star Wars moved Hollywood from the movie business into the brand name event business.  All of those monster hits which dominated the 2011 box office – from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 to Transformers:  Dark of the Moon and Pirates of the Caribbean:  On Stranger Tides – owe more to Lucas than to Spielberg (or anybody else for that matter).  For good or for ill, love it or hate it, in the 35 years since Star Wars opened, mainstream Hollywood has largely remade itself in Lucas’ image.

And there may be no other single person since Melies for whom the expansion of film technology owes so much as well.  From the original Star Wars on, Lucas has been a fearless pioneer in pushing back the physical limits of filmmaking.  Not only do the kinds of movies that dominate the marketplace owe something to Lucas, but so do the way they look and sound.  It might be an oversimplification to say it, but it’s not hard to make a case that movies are the way they are because of George Lucas.

Successful, influential, powerful, no doubt, and in many ways brilliant and a pioneer, but as last weekend’s release of Red Tails  highlights, as a creative force – as a filmmaker – George Lucas has also been a disappointment.  He may not quite be a true one-hit wonder…but he’s damned close.

*****

Lucas has had other hits.  Arguably, his best movie – certainly his most human movie — is the one whose success bought him the license to make Star Wars (1977); American Graffiti (1973).  Stung by the failure of his first feature, the visually striking but emotionally aloof and dramatically opaque sci fier TXH 1138 (1971), Lucas took mentor Francis Ford Coppola’s advice to try something more mainstream-friendly, and came up with Graffiti.  A bittersweet, warm-hearted salute to his own early 60s youth, Graffiti is easily one of the best coming of age films in the American canon.  It was also an enormous commercial hit and kicked off a ‘50s nostalgia craze that went on for years.

Lucas is also responsible for the ginormously successful Indiana Jones franchise.  Though Lucas friend Steven Spielberg helmed all four of the IJ films, and other writers penned the screenplays, Spielberg has always been open about saying (most recently in a lengthy interview in Entertainment Weekly) that the series is Lucas’ baby, and that he directs to Lucas’ vision.

Still, say “George Lucas” and the title that comes to mind — in big, bold letters, no less — is Star Wars.  It’s the franchise which launched the Lucas empire, and it’s still the realm’s cornerstone and main product.  For decades, he’s kept the franchise alive by recycling the movies through one big screen/home video release after another, in almost every possible configuration:  boxed sets, new added features, re-doing the special effects on the original trilogy, etc.  The film franchise has been the launch pad for toys, pricey collectibles, TV spin-offs (Cartoon Network’s animated Star Wars:  The Clone Wars; Star Wars:  Underworld currently in pre-production), and any number of videogames, like Lego Star Wars:  The Complete Saga, and Star Wars:  The Old Republic, released late last year and proving the brand to still be unflaggingly vital six years after the last Star Wars feature hit big screens.  Go into Lucas IMDB directing, writing, and producing credits, and once you take Star Wars-related projects out of the mix, the pickin’s get mighty thin.  Take out Indiana Jones, and you could make a case that Lucas is a borderline failure.

His producer’s portfolio outside of those two cash-cow franchises is a hodge-podge of art house ambition (Mishima:  A Life in Four Chapters [1985], Powaqqatsi [1988]) and utter misfires (Radioland Murders [1994], Willow [1988], Labyrinth [1986], Howard the Duck [1986]).  You can count the number of non-Star Wars/Indiana Jones feature successes on one hand – and still have fingers left over (neo-noir Body Heat [1981]; import Kagemusha [1980]; sugary animated feature The Land Before Time [1988]).

The knock on Lucas – as both a producer and a writer/director – goes back to the beginning of his career and even includes his biggest successes.  He’s either been dismissive of the human element in his films, and/or considers it secondary to the visual possibilities, and has been quoted as saying, “actors are irrelevant.”  Even on his most flesh-and-blood feature – American Graffiti – Lucas left direction of the actors to his dialogue coach, and on Star Wars the cast joked his idea of directing was simply to say, “Faster and more intense!”

After Star Wars, Lucas threw his DGA card away, but came back after 21 years to direct the franchise’s second trilogy.  After the childlike exuberance of Star Wars, Star Wars:  Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999), Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002), and Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005) – despite being box office monsters – were emotionally disappointing.  The application of CGI technology was awe-inspiring, but the heart of the films, well, it’s like the old Gertrude Stein line about Oakland:  “There’s no ‘there’ there.”

And sadly, Red Tails fits all-too-well into the Lucas canon.

*****

Twenty-three years ago, an aviator friend of Lucas’ told him the story of the Tuskegee Airmen; an all-black Air Corps unit fighting in the segregated military during WW II.  Their feats of valor were legendary in quality, but criminally ignored for decades.  Telling their story became a passion project for Lucas, and when he could find no studio backer for Red Tails, he cracked open his own checkbook and forked out $58 million for the production, and another $35 million for marketing.

If only the end product matched his obviously heartfelt commitment.  Reviews have been almost unanimously negative and in agreement.  Mark Jenkins of The Washington Post used words similar to so many of the major appraisals when he wrote, “The African American fliers’ great achievement merits a great movie.  Red Tails isn’t it.”

In many ways, Red Tails is typical Lucas.  Unsurprisingly, the man who exhilarated the first generation of fanboys with the outer space dogfights of Star Wars provides an aerial spectacle second to none thanks to CGI.  As he recently told Charlie Rose, “…this is one of the first films where we actually were able to create the dogfight the way it really would be, and get you right into the seat and get you right into the action…”

But on the ground, the film has all the grace of a concrete ping-pong ball.  Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman caught the critical consensus in his review writing, “As long as it stays in the air, Red Tails…is a compelling sky-war pageant of a movie.  On the ground, it’s a far shakier experience:  dutiful and prosaic, with thinly scripted episodes that don’t add up to a satisfying story.”  The film’s Rotten Tomatoes rating is an abysmal 33% positives among all critics; just 25% among major reviewers.

You would expect more after 23 years of development.  On the other hand, as The Star-Ledger’s Stephen Whitty pointed out in his write-up, “How many scriptwriters’ hands has this project passed through?  How many drafts have been written, rewritten, thrown out, resurrected and then thrown out all over again?…whatever the original inspiration was, it’s been lost under layers, like a house’s once-nice, now painted-over paneling.”

Ironically, Red Tails was released the same week as another airwar epic, the Blu-ray refurbishment of the silent 1927 WW I classic – and first Best Picture Oscar-winner – Wings, and looks even more dramatically anemic in comparisonWhereas Red Tails deflates every time it hits the ground, William Wellman’s 85-year-old flicker still packs an emotional punch.  According to one DVD reviewer, “Wings has it all – romance, drama, humor, action.  And what action.”  Even the dogfight scenes have a dramatic heft missing from the admittedly spectacular combat sequences in Red Tails, because in Wellman’s movie, they were about as close to being real as possible without using live ammo.  No CGI, no green screen:  that’s actually stars Buddy Rogers and Richard Arlen at the controls of their biplanes, putting their aircraft through such violent maneuvers that Rogers – who learned to fly for the film – sometimes vomited as soon as he climbed out of his plane.  In the end, what comes through in Wings, even after eighty-odd years, is what’s missing not only in Red Tails, but so many Lucas projects:   fleshed-out, three-dimensional human drama.

Red Tails is Lucas’ first big screen project outside of his two big-dollar franchises since the 1994 flop Radioland Murders, but he’s long been taking flak for his faulty storytelling even within his signature work.  His last three Star Wars installments were all rapped for what seemed an obsession with creating alien civilizations, grand-scale action sequences, and even entire characters through the magic of CGI, but a consistent inability to make us care about any of it.  Even the last IJ installment – Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) — was considered a let-down, an emotionally hollow exercise after the rich storytelling of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989).

Every filmmaker has his bad day, but Lucas has had an awful lot of them, and usually for the same reasons.  And it may be that even his fanboy base is growing tired of his constant re-tweaking/recycling of the six Star Wars films that are the fuel rods for the whole Lucas enterprise.  Last year’s Blu-ray release of the original trilogy included changes die-hard fans furiously claimed changed entire relationships and meanings in the films.

Lucas, who has always tended to be a bit prickly over criticism, reacted by essentially saying he was taking his marbles and going home.  “Why would I make any more (Star Wars movies) when everybody yells at you all the time and says what a terrible person you are?” he told The New York Times, and then went on to make noises about backing away from the business.

But Lucas has said that before.  He said it when he gave up directing after the first Star Wars.  He has also several times said – as he told Charlie Rose recently while promoting Red Tails – “…there’s the intellectual side of me that wants to do more experimental films which I haven’t done since I did my first film, THX, and my student films.  And I – that’s now where I’m going is to try to get back to that.”

Yet Harrison Ford told MTV News late last year that a fifth Indiana Jones is “on George’s plate,” and there’s TV series Star Wars:  Underworld in development.

The financial maintenance of Lucas’ vast empire requires this kind of constant franchise stoking.  One of Lucas’ problems is he may very well be trapped by what’s needed to keep Lucas Inc. going.

But another truth may sit out in plain sight in THX 1138.  It’s a hypnotic piece, unlike anything Lucas has made since.  The antiseptically white-on-white visuals and a plot and characters only hinted at, suggested more than stated, offer a cold experience for the viewer.  Lucas was, even as a student at UCLA – and remains – a technological virtuoso. But for all of his effects skill, for all his command of the medium, Lucas hasn’t been able to get that most basic requirement of memorable moviemaking onscreen since the first Star Wars thirty-odd years ago:  heart.

– Bill Mesce





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