A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away … there were decent Star Wars films that didn’t consume viewers with rage and disgust. Movies that purloined the best bits from boys’ own comics and adventure serials, then added pseudo-oriental mysticism for good measure. Films that used cutting edge special effects to imagine advanced technologies at a time when computers were still in their infancy, yet still looked more realistic than many of today’s pixel-fests. Then came the dark days of digital tinkering, CGI Jabba the Hutt and damn Jar Jar Binks. But now… maybe… there is a New Hope.
Observers may view the announcement that Disney has bought Lucasfilm, the company owned by Star Wars creator George Lucas, as a signal that the new trilogy of films due to arrive in 2015 will be a vapid confection. In reality, the $4bn purchase of the rights to the long-running space opera is the best thing that’s happened to Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker, Yoda et al in years for one reason alone: it potentially removes Lucas himself from the equation. Since delivering the iconic Star Wars trilogy (1977-83), the series’ creator has systematically unpicked almost all of the goodwill fans had felt for his universe. First came the decision to splatter the original films with spectacularly incongruous CGI that to this day comes close to ruining the experience of rewatching the trilogy. Then, just as we had forgiven him for giving the quite scary original Sarlacc (just a horrific gaping maw in the desert) a silly lizard monster occupant and allowing Han Solo to step on Jabba’s tale in a “brilliant” comic addition to the first Star Wars, Lucas delivered the horrible prequel trilogy.
Set in the years prior to the fall of the Republic and the downfall of Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader, it imagined a shiny new universe with lots of CGI planets populated by personality-free space zombies. While the new triptych delivered at the box-office, it devalued Star Wars as an entity so successfully that the subsequent 2008 animated film Star Wars: the Clone Wars could not even reach $100m at a time when some Pixar films were posting 10 times that amount. It also saw Lucas notably described as “the enemy of fun” by one US critic.
Disney’s announcement notes that Lucas will still be a “creative consultant” for the next Star Wars film and its sequels. But it has to be hoped that the studio will have the good sense to recognise that he long ago lost sight of what made his own creation special, and began pumping it ruthlessly for cash. The suspicion has always been that the film-maker is more obsessed with keeping the guys at his special effects unit busy than in picking the right kind of design for the right kind of movie.
Star Wars has the potential to soar once again. There are kids even now who are seeing the earlier trilogy for the first time and loving it. But another movie which fails to capture Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back’s perfect storm of awe, atmospheric dread and operatic exhilaration would surely sound the death knell for the series as a serious proposition. Star Wars VII desperately needs somebody to take it on who can wrench themselves from the saga’s decades of canonical gravy and reimagine the series for a 21st century audience.
Disney has the clout and the contacts to recruit directors with the vision to take audiences into a new era of Jedi Knights, Sith Lords, lightsabers and Death Stars.