“Somewhere, somehow a beautiful thing was shattered—a single morality, a single set of standards. And now what’s good for a man may not be good for his company, and what’s good for his company may not be good for his country, and what’s good for his country may not be good for his world.”
—Stirling Silliphant (from “the Go Read the River” episode of route 66).
The Empire has won. The leader of the rebellion has sold out, and the rebels have been crushed. Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia, C3PO, R2D2, the Wookies, all of them, they’ve all been priced and sold into eternal slavery. They will now and forever be not action figures, but puppets, if you will, dangling from strings pulled by the Disney Empire. George Lucas has sold Lucasfilm to Disney for the tidy sum of $4.05 billion. Not that much to pay for the sellout of the century—make that two centuries.
This is incredibly disturbing news to any true fan of the original Star Wars movies. It should be disturbing news to any thinking person. For what this business deal represents is exactly what’s wrong with our society and our culture. There is nothing so sacred—not our ideals, our values, nothing—that can’t be sold for a price.
Let’s go back to the beginning. In 1977, a small, independent filmmaker named George Lucas, who had made one successful film, “American Graffiti,” and a less successful experimental science fiction flick called “THX 1138,” wanted to make a space opera epic based partly on ideas that had been swirling around in his head since he watched the Flash Gordon serials as a kid. He had a script that was filled with the excitement and thrills of the old Buster Crabbe episodes, but it was more than that. He created a story of an alliance of rebels battling an oppressive, tyrannical entity known simply as The Empire. With little to fight with but courage and brains, the rebels battle Storm Troopers and the high tech weapons of the Empire, including the ultimate killing device, The Death Star.
The rebels are clearly no match for this technology, but they have something on their side that The Empire doesn’t. They have Jedi knight Obi Wan Kenobi who teaches them the power of The Force, a power greater than anything The Empire can conceive. You all know the rest of the story. It’s a great story, but couched within the plot, whether he realized it or not, was much of Lucas’s own fight against the monolithic Hollywood studio system to be an independent filmmaker. Change The Empire to The Studio System, and Star Wars is basically a space opera retelling of Lucas’s own career.
Star Wars cost only $11 million to make, and it was a difficult film for Lucas to complete. Not only was money a problem, there were numerous production problems. So much so, that he ended up in the hospital suffering from exhaustion when the film was completed. But complete it he did. And in its opening weekend it made close to $36 million. Total gross box office for the film ended up around $775 million worldwide. A total triumph of the rebel against The Empire.
So successful it was, Yoda might say, that the seeds of its own destruction it sewed. The money the film made enabled him to build his own enclave, known as the Skywalker Ranch in northern California. He said he wanted to be free of restriction and influence from Hollywood, and do his own thing. And he did it pretty well for a while. With “The Empire Strikes Back,” the Star Wars saga reached a story telling epitome, partly because of the input of veteran Science fiction writer Leigh Brackett’s work on the original screenplay.
But at the same time that film, as good as it was, was the beginning of the end. Throwing in Freudian and Jungian subtext, by making Luke Skywalker’s greatest enemy, Darth Vader, turn out to be his father, Lucas raised the story telling to a new level, but at the same time began to turn the saga into something it was never intended to be. Lucas had begun to take the story and himself too seriously, and all of the following films, including “Return of the Jedi,” showed a steady decline in terms of excitement, enthusiasm, and a sense of wonder, which is the key element for successful space opera. Instead we got pseudo-mythological, Joseph Campbell-influenced ideas, and psychological meanderings that bogged the saga down. “Ponderous, man! Ponderous!” as Dennis Hopper once said.
Lucas had written himself into a corner, and of the next three films in the series, dubbed “prequels” showed the filmmaker running out of gas. The movies were paned by fans and critics, but they still made a ton of money. By now, Lucas had all the money he needed. In addition to Lucasfilm and Skywalker Ranch, he also owned Industrial Light and Magic, from which he made millions in special effects work created for dozens of other films. He had also created the Indiana Jones franchise with Steven Spielberg.
But anyone who dug the original Star Wars could see that Lucas had lost or forgotten whatever it was that got him started. Perhaps by being so successful, by essentially creating a self-sufficient empire of his own, he had become the enemy he’d started out fighting against. Insiders said he was a law unto himself, and the reason the prequels were so bad was because he had too much control. Nobody could tell him anything. He had himself become by this time like the Emperor, Darth Sith — but in his case he was a Space Emperor who had no clothes.
So maybe we shouldn’t be surprised to see one empire selling out to another. At this point, it’s all strictly business. What surprises me is the favorable reaction to this news in some quarters of the Science Fiction community. I’ve heard chortles of glee out there in geekdom. “Oh, calloo, callay! More Star Wars movies are coming from Disney!” This is good news? Have they forgotten John Carter so quickly? Have the forgotten how Disney took Tarzan, one of the greatest fantasy fiction characters ever created, and turned it into a mere cartoon for children? Have they forgotten the aim of Disney is mediocrity and that bane of all real creativity “family entertainment?” Star Wars joins ranks with “Pirates of the Caribbean,” and “It’s a Small World After All.”
Disney owns Marvel comics, Pixar, and the ABC television network. And now they own Lucasfilm. Why? You have to ask yourself? Why did Lucas sell out what was essentially his whole life? Why did he give in to the Dark Side of the Force and give up the rebellion and turn himself into a sideliner? Is it just the money? There have been rumors that Lucas is one of those who really believe that the Mayan prophecy that the world will end this year is true. Maybe he really does believe that and doesn’t care anymore. For some of us, it doesn’t matter. There can’t be anything worse than this sellout, not even the end of the world.