Film Review: The People vs. George Lucas

Despite the provocative title, this <i>Star Wars</i>-themed documentary is less effective as a legal brief than as a portrait of contemporary fandom.

When should control of a fictional universe pass from the hands of its creator to its devoted fanbase? That’s the potent question at the center of Alexandre O. Philippe’s cleverly assembled but ineffectively argued documentary-cum-cinematic trial, The People vs. George Lucas.

As the title indicates, the accused is none other than George Lucas, the Modesto, Calif.-born filmmaker who dreamed up the most enduring blockbuster franchise in cinematic history. It’s worth noting that Lucas himself declined to appear on camera, leaving Philippe to construct his testimony from archival interviews on news shows and behind-the-scenes documentaries. (To be fair, Philippe does recruit several artists to argue on Lucas’ behalf, most notably author Neil Gaiman—himself no stranger to the madness of fans—and Kevin Rubio, director of the hilarious Star Wars spoof, Troops.) On the other hand, he had no trouble recruiting witnesses for the prosecution; the movie is packed with plantiffs ready to accuse Lucas of all manner of malfeasance, among them filmmakers (including Mark Altman, writer and producer of the 1996 cult favorite Free Enterprise), movie critics (including Chris Gore, Joe Leydon and Glenn Kenny) and, of course, fanboys…lots and lots of fanboys.

A number of different charges are flung at The Bearded One during the course of this 93-minute hearing, but the core of the prosecution’s argument is that the mind behind Star Wars has knowingly and deliberately diluted the power of the franchise, first through tinkering with the original films via those new-fangled “Special Editions” and then by producing three subpar prequels. (Although in this reviewer’s opinion at least, the third prequel, Revenge of the Sith, ranks as one of the best entries in the entire saga, at least equal to Return of the Jedi, though not A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back.) The specific examples they give for Lucas’ poor decision-making will be familiar to anyone with even a passing connection to Star Wars fandom. To wit: Han shot first, not Greedo; Midichlorians are a stupid way of explaining The Force; the amount of ancillary Star Wars merchandise has gotten out of control, even for a franchise that once produced an R2-D2 cookie jar and a disco album; and Jar Jar Binks is the single worst character conjured into existence in the history of any medium. (If all of that sounds like gibberish to you, move along—this isn’t the layman’s movie you’re looking for.)

Most of these complaints come across as typical fanboy grousing (c’mon guys, let’s get over Jar Jar already), but Lucas’ critics do make a few points that resonate, beginning with his decision to effectively remove the pre-Special Edition versions of the original trilogy from circulation. (The last time they appeared were as bonus features on a line of limited edition two-disc DVDs from 2006; tellingly, they won’t be part of the series’ upcoming Blu-ray release.) It seems a tad extreme to completely restrict access to those cuts, even if the director—who, back in the days when Hollywood studios thought it was a good idea to colorize their back catalog, testified before Congress about the importance of making unaltered versions of classic films available to the public—regards them as somehow inferior or unfinished. Also, shouldn’t the effects wizards who helped Lucas make the original movies have some kind of say before he alters their groundbreaking practical F/X work with digital trickery? Sure, Tatooine, the Jedis and even the Ewoks sprang from his head, but he couldn’t have translated those ideas to screen back in the pre-CGI age without their help. And, again, if Lucas himself seems to have little interest in preserving the integrity of his films, why shouldn’t fans take it upon themselves to keep Star Wars safe for future generations of freaks and geeks?

All intriguing arguments, but here’s the central problem with both the plantiffs’ case and the movie as a whole: It’s unclear what exactly they expect Lucas to do. Because as unhappy as they may be with how he’s handled the franchise in recent years, none of them sounds eager to see him close up shop and disappear into the Skywalker Ranch forever like Willy Wonka. Star Wars—and by extension, George Lucas—is too much a part of their lives; even those folks who complain about bleeding their bank accounts dry in pursuit of all the tie-in merchandise still admit to lining up to purchase the latest toys and DVDs. They also don’t seriously expect or even necessarily want him to turn over the keys to Star Wars to a horde of fans, all of whom have their own specific ideas about what stories should and should not be told in this universe. More than anything, it seems that all they’re really hoping for (apart from easy access to the untouched original trilogy) is some sort of acknowledgement from Lucas that he understands their concerns and perhaps even feels sorry about the mistakes they feel he’s made. Small wonder that The People vs. George Lucas feels vaguely pointless as it draws to a close—all that sturm und drang when no one interviewed expresses any serious intention of quitting Lucas or the franchise he created for good.

If The People vs. George Lucas wouldn’t hold up in a court of law, it does succeed at presenting an up-to-the-minute portrait of what 21st-century fan culture looks like. A long time ago in an America far, far away, the assembled talking heads would only have been able to share their enthusiasm for Star Wars at conventions or meet-ups in their parents’ basements. Thanks to the Internet, though, they can debate the finer points of Jedi etiquette on message boards and upload their homemade films, music-videos and spoofs to YouTube for the world to see. As a curator, Philippe has done a great job selecting a wide range of Star Wars fan vids, from claymation versions of Luke and Obi-Wan to a grindhouse parody entitled Don’t Go in the Endor Woods. All of these films display a creativity and passion for Star Wars that speaks to how the franchise continues to spark the imagination of aspiring filmmakers. And as several of the amateur directors interviewed here point out, Lucas has encouraged artists to play around in his universe, even organizing an annual contest to find the best fan-made movies. In that way, it’s clear that the man behind Star Wars recognizes the saga has evolved beyond him. Complain about George Lucas, Jar Jar and Midichlorians all you want, but through the enthusiasm of fans new and old, The Force will be strong with Star Wars for decades to come. Case closed.