Are you sick of it yet? We are drowning in a tidal wave of promotion pushing Star Wars: The Force Awakens. It’s everywhere you look, and the premiere set for next Friday, December 18, is the anticipated film opening in history.
Things weren't always this way, though. Creator George Lucas was so sure that the original Star Wars film would tank that he went to Hawaii on vacation instead of sticking around Los Angels for that premiere. But he was definitely in touch with the zeitgeist. By 1977, the Baby Boomers had had enough of war and protest, corruption and cynicism. Evidently, they were also tired of the complexities and ambiguities of American New Wave film as practiced by the likes of Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese and Robert Altman. They wanted adventure and heroes to root for, and black-and-white distinctions between good guys and bad. And Lucas provided them, in spades. The final battle sequence in Star Wars is based directly on the vintage World War II movies that Boomers grew up on.
Now the epic fantasy-film series gets a new lease on life under the auspices of the franchise’s new owner, Disney, and Star Trek resuscitator and director J.J. Abrams. Lucas was reportedly disgruntled at Disney’s lack of interest in input from him regarding the prequels’ plots or characters. But that’s how it goes with beloved imaginary universes – they take off and persist, borne along and worked on by the imaginations of others. And future Star Wars installments will probably work out all right.
Besides, Lucas nearly drove the franchise into the ditch several times, all by himself. Patton Oswalt’s classic rant about killing Lucas before he can initiate the prequels is a must-listen:
Need more proof? Here are the biggest sad-clown moments from the Star Wars films to date, in ascending order from perturbing anecdote to franchise-endangering misstep.
10. On Halloween the year Star Wars came out, the stores were full of costumes from the movie for little trick-or-treaters. “It turns out that all the kids wanted to be Darth Vader, and nobody wanted to be Luke Skywalker, wanted to be me,” Mark Hamill said. “You have no idea how depressing it is to go the store and see racks and racks of – your face.”
9. Great English actor Alec Guinness, who played Obi Wan Kenobi, hated Star Wars. Justly proud of his already extant lifetime of award-winning work on stage and screen, he scorned the Star Wars fans, throwing away all their mail to him — without opening it, if possible. Still, he was made immensely wealthy by virtue of getting 2.25 percent — and even convinced Lucas to kill Obi Wan. “What I didn’t tell Lucas,” he said, “was that I just couldn’t go on speaking those bloody, awful banal lines.”
8. CGI Yoda. As technology accelerated animation at a pace unimagined by its initiators at Industrial Light and Magic, a company Lucas formed simply to solve the technical problems posed by the original Star Wars, it became possible to stretch the fantasy film farther than ever before. Starting with Attack of the Clones, Yoda went digital. It’s cool that he could then go all crazy like a ninja and deal some whoopass at last, but . . . dammit, we love that little cross-eyed puppet. It’s just different. With the puppet, you get Frank Oz, not only a brilliant comedy writer and director, but the original Miss Piggy, Grover, Bert, Fozzie Bear and Cookie Monster. Oz knew how to inhabit a character — literally. “There . . . is . . . aNOTHHHERrrr . . .” C’mon, you can’t do that with pixels.
7. The mystery of the midi-chlorians. Say whaaat? These tiny creatures were found in high concentration in the blood of young Anakin Skywalker, the future Darth Vader, in The Phantom Menace. Supposedly they reinforce his mentor Qui Gon’s (Liam Neeson) feeling that Anakin is a Messianic figure, destined to save the universe. (Ouch! Bad call. BAD CALL.) Lucas refers to the midi-chlorians as a “race” that mediates energy flow between the Force and all beings. Okay, George. He’s also said anybody can be a Jedi through training. But the Skywalkers seem to have this souped-up biometric, making them superJedi. This was brought to light for a momen,t then dropped. What the hell?
6. The Star Wars Holiday Special was so, so painful, like slamming your fingers in the drawer, over and over again, until you pass out. This 1978 monstrosity was broadcast only once on CBS, but lives on in bootleg immortality. Using practically the entire original cast, and including Special Guest Stars such as Bea Arthur, Art Carney, Harvey Korman, Jefferson Starship (we're not making this up, folks) and Diahann Carroll, this wacky, corny, tuneful little electronic escapade is a sour, decaying Yuletide treat. And — Carrie Fisher sings the "Life Day Song."
5. Hayden Christiansen. Not your fault, dude. George, you‘ve got to take the heat for this one, too. Dialogue was always Lucas’s weak point, so it’s hard to build a character like Anakin Skywalker out of it. But, George, couldn’t you cast someone with palpable darkness, a bad-boy ambiguity? Not a creepy, pouty, Aryan surfer kid.
4. "Greedo shot first" and other improvements. Okay, there’s this scene with Han Solo in the original Star Wars in which he shoots the bounty hunter Greedo before he can be shot himself. Big deal. Lucas has re-edited the scene THREE TIMES for three subsequent releases, attempting to make Han seem less callous. Relax, George. He also went and back-CGI’ed the earlier films, filling in a Jabba the Hut scene, elaborating backgrounds here and there. It’s purty, but here’s the dilemma: Tinkering with your work can be an endless game, and it’s a fair question as to whether issuing new cuts is perfectionism or just another opportunity to generate revenue.
3. The tragedy of Jake Lloyd. Playing the young Anakin Skywalker in The Phantom Menace was apparently a very negative experience for the young actor from Fort Collins. He was bullied in school, taunted for the film’s relative lack of success, even referred to as Mannequin Skywalker. He quit acting, and has since struggled with mental and legal issues. What seems like a worldwide celebration of Star Wars can only be painful for him.
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2. The Ewoks were supposed to be Wookiees. Wouldn’t that have been cool? Big, giant Wookiees in Return of the Jedi kicking Stormtrooper ass. But no, we had to go small, go cute. This is where the Star Wars narrative always goes south – when it tries to scoop up a merchandising opportunity. Ewok dolls, Ewok TV movies, Ewok animated series. Unfortunately, no one believes they could take down Imperial troops; a kid could beat them to death with a baseball bat. We bet they taste great roasted.
1. Jar Jar Binks and other questionable characters There is no excuse for such a profoundly irritating, pathetic comic-relief character as Jar Jar Binks. He's so remindful of the lazy/stupid/cowardly comic “negroes” of early American film that it’s patently offensive. Also, The Phantom Menace’s Neimoidians are crypto-Asian cowards and schemers, and pawn-shop owner Watto was modeled on, of all things, Alec Guinness’s performance as the Jewish criminal Fagin in David Lean’s Oliver Twist. It’s frightening — and endlessly disappointing — that elements of racial stereotyping keep creeping into Lucas’s fantasy world.