Being a Star Wars fan of original vintage is like being a member of the world's largest battered women support group. They endure the abuse because the good times were just too damn good. The problem, as suggested by the reverent, resigned interviewees in The People vs. George Lucas, is that the good times effectively ended in 1980 with the release of The Empire Strikes Back, the creative high point in the Star Wars series. Director Alexandre O. Philippe's documentary contends that the rise and fall of Darth Vader is nothing compared to the emotional peaks and valleys of those influenced by the increasingly tech-obsessed and money-driven Star Wars creator, George Lucas. Philippe's movie, with its awkward organizing device and cluttered parade of talking heads, is not exactly a work of scholarship. Viewers will find its emotional arc obvious and familiar, although the summoning of those emotions is where the movie derives its power. It catalogues and recalls events so vividly that it will become a communal experience for those with conflicted feelings about Luke, Han and those stupid, furry things from Episode VI. Obviously, this is all very niche. Appeal will be rabid and limited.
Nowadays, every studio movie is expected to perform like Star Wars. In 1977, no movie had ever performed like Star Wars. Written and directed by Lucas when he was still traumatized by the corporate interference that occurred on his earlier films THX-1138 and American Graffiti, Star Wars wasn't just a rollicking, Oscar winning good time. Nor was it merely the first gargantuan marketing juggernaut and, along with Jaws, the opening salvo of the blockbuster era. It was, most crucially to Philippe, the primordial soup from which millions of future fanboys would spring. L.A. Film Festival associate programming director Doug Jones, one of Philippe's only interview subjects with any serious pedigree, notes that the first film contained "the essential building blocks of who I am." The movie spawned a home-grown industry of fan films belatedly and begrudgingly embraced by the Creator. Kids armed with consumer-grade cameras and an imagination activated by Lucas honored and spoofed the Star Wars universe. Philippe gathered hundreds of hours of such films and, in what could not have been an easy task, whittled them down into brief (sometimes too brief) snippets he employs as B-roll or as transitions between scenes. Even the worst clip chosen by Philippe and his hardworking editor Chad Herschberger is a joy to watch. Animation, Claymation, porn, needlepoint, there is no artistic pursuit that can't be lovingly utilized to create a Star Wars tribute.
Philippe doesn't skimp on the adulation because he's priming the pump for the heartbreaking fall. What Lucas didn't realize, understand or care about, was that the success of the original trilogy (Star Wars in 1977, The Empire Strikes Back in 1980 and Return of the Jedi in 1983) wasn't just monetary. The saga and its every detail were becoming baked into the culture. Take the novelization of Star Wars and bury it for 100 years and it'll probably be treated as a religious text. In broadening his concerns, Philippe asks at what point a piece of art becomes so revered and culturally ingrained that it belongs to the millions who've embraced it. More specifically, did Lucas have the right to spiff up the visuals for the 1997 re-release of Star Wars? The answer, of course, is that Lucas can do whatever the hell he wants with Star Wars. Whether he should do whatever the hell he wants with Star Wars is a question easily answered by considering his motives for creating the special edition: his increasing interest in emotionless CGI hocus pocus and his increasing interest in money. As Philippe tells it, this is where Lucas and his disciples part ways. The Star Wars re-release was particularly unkind to Han Solo, whose roguish charm was diminished by laser-blasting Greedo in self-defense (the "Han Shot First" controversy). Then he was the unwitting accomplice in the resurrection of a superfluous scene that unceremoniously replaced the actor portraying Jabba the Hutt with CGI.
Disappointment in the special edition is keenly registered by Star Wars producer Gary Kurtz, who has become the franchise's highest-profile apostate. The inevitable conclusion is that the special edition was Lucas's opening move in an effort to bury all traces of the 1977 cut of Star Wars. Lucasfilm went so far as to answer angry letters with the egregious lie that Lucas permanently altered the original negative to create the special edition. Such incessant, poorly-considered tinkering also goes against Lucas's own testimony to Congress in 1988 regarding the colorization of black and white films. Philippe throws Lucas's hypocritical claim that "our cultural history must not be allowed to be rewritten" right back in his face.
The shame is that Lucas wants to rid the world of the very thing fans fell in love with and replace it with something they didn't ask for and don't like. Not coincidentally, devotees also have to pay for the privilege of seeing their childhood memories corrupted, a financial and emotional fealty to the series that became almost untenable with the 1999 release of Star Wars: Episode 1: The Phantom Menace. One can argue that no film could satisfyingly continue a story that had been embedded in the DNA of admirers for over two decades. One can better argue that any film about trade routes and Jar Jar Binks was destined to be awful. Philippe wrings seriocomic indignation out of the pitchforks-and-torches level of disdain for Jar Jar, a character clearly created to introduce a young generation to the idea of buying lots of Star Wars merchandise. Philippe throws a number of children in front of the camera to profess their love for the embarrassing, possibly-racist Gungan. Maybe their love is genuine. More likely, they have no idea they're being pandered to by a filmmaker who, in a disheartening turn of fortune, now has way more money than respect. That's a trade-off he made years ago and one he cannot rescind, especially considering the colossal missteps he made in the writing of The Phantom Menace (if you want to make a Star Wars buff cry, whisper the word "Midi-chlorians").
The People vs. George Lucas will not teach, empower or add information to a story and a phenomenon that have plenty written about them already. It will, however, stir up the blood and reopen the wounds that Star Wars fans have come to wear so proudly, like the scars that might result from hugging someone who's trying to steal your wallet. Philippe's documentary is messy, cathartic and admirably balanced, something that will remind fans why their love for George Lucas will always be tempered by their scorn for him.
Oh, well. We'll always have Endor.
Distributor: Wrekin Hill
Director: Alexandre O. Philippe
Producers: Anna Higgs, Robert Muratore, Vanessa Philippe, Kerry Deignan Roy
Running time: 84 min
Release date: May 6, NY