The George Lucas produced WWII flick Red Tails is released in the US this weekend. Because of this, he has been doing the press rounds. As you might expect, those who have spoken to him are just as, if not more, keen to ask about the future of Star Wars, Indiana Jones etc. Several bits and pieces have come out of this, but the most significant revelation came in an interview Lucas did for the New York Times. Apparently, after the struggles Lucas has had getting Red Tails made over the past several years, as well as the fan backlash to his recent Star Wars activities, the beardy filmmaker has decided to retire from making blockbusters.
He didn’t go into great depth on the subject, and the implication is that he will work only on smaller, more personal projects from now on. He is executive producer on Red Tails, and has not directed since 2005’s Revenge of the Sith. He has not written for the big screen since 2008’s Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. It isn’t clear if he means as Director, Writer, Producer, or some combination thereof, so quite what impact this will actually have on the industry is open to speculation. The majority of the reaction to this has been a resounding ‘good riddance’, most movie-goers having felt let down by his Star Wars prequels.
Based on what are perceived as his greatest weaknesses as a filmmaker, however, this would seem to be precisely the worst thing he could do. The criticisms most often directed at Lucas, aside from his persistent tinkering with his Star Wars movies, are his inability to write dialogue, or work with actors. For the past two decades, Lucas has worked with CGI and green screen as much as he has with human beings, and is well versed in the processes involved with pulling a big effects based action film together.
Or is it really wise, then, for him to try changing direction, making films that rely on great acting, and rich dialogue to make an impact? Take the special effects away from his Star Wars prequels, and you are left with very little. By making movies based around his weakest areas, he risks becoming an industry joke. The name of George Lucas still brings with it a great power, but he is living on past glories. A string of poor melodramas will put the final nail in his reputations coffin.
Or is this unfair? The Star Wars prequels may have done a great job of hiding it, but they did contain some very interesting meditations on love, honour, brotherhood and politics. George Lucas was not born a blockbuster filmmaker. In fact, it was small, dramatic movies that gave him enough pull to even begin production on his first epic space opera.
THX 1138 was Lucas’ first feature film. Released in 1971, it had a science fiction premise, and its biggest strength was its distinctive visuals, but it also had a very human story about government and freedom of choice at its heart. Lucas followed this up with his personal slice of Americana, American Graffiti. A massive hit with critics, it told the personal stories of a group of 60’s teens, as they enjoyed the last days of their adolescence, before having to come to terms with their transition from boys to young men. This was exactly the kind of small, personal dramatic film that Lucas is talking about.
He has proven, in the far past, that he is capable of this type of filmmaking. Several decades have buried it deep in our memories. We have to hope, however, that the many years Lucas has spent in the synthetic wilderness have not dulled his ability to produce this kind of film. Unfortunately, Red Tails does not seem to be a good starting point. Lucas’ comments came because he had struggled to make Red Tails the way he wanted to, as a personal, dramatic movie. He felt forced into making it more of a cloud pleaser, a blockbuster action pic. Reviews have not been great, with the usual criticisms of Lucas, two-dimensional characters, clunky dialogue, being levelled at the film. Remember, though, Lucas neither directed the film, nor wrote it. Yes, he presumably gave the script the thumbs up, but in the end, it wasn’t the way he wanted it done.
Has Lucas lost his early ear for dialogue? Has the artificial nature of the Star Wars world he has created destroyed his ability to craft compelling characters? Does anybody even care anymore? I’m interested to see what, if anything, Lucas does do next. If he does move onto a small, dramatic character driven project, and if he either writes, directs, or both, I will be genuinely interested. Maybe not optimistically, but he definitely deserves a chance.
If he fails, then we can justifiably write him off as a dinosaur. If he is successful, however, a lot of people will be eating their words. As always, I hope he does well. He deserves credit for having the courage to try, when he could just as easily bang out another trilogy of Star Wars movies, and see even more money rolling in.
Barry Steele – You can follow me on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MrBarrySteele