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George Lucas

Architect of the Modern Blockbuster

I recently began writing two successive blog posts that were essentially extended rants about the aesthetics of the modern blockbuster. So far I haven't been able to finish them, perhaps because deep down I suspect they contribute very little to the current discussion beyond clinging to an imaginary standard that never really existed. The crux of each post is tangentially related to the look and stylisation of the Hollywood blockbuster as typified by the contemporary films of the Walt Disney studio, and by extension, its ever ubiquitous Marvel subsidiary.

My main issue with these films - beyond their derivative nature, questionable moral subtext and obvious cash-grab mentality - is that, in their over-reliance upon green-screen technology, motion-capture imagery and elaborate computer generated effects, they seek to mimic the artificial look of the modern video game, but without the interactive, immersive aspects that make video games so compelling and multi-dimensional in their storytelling capabilities.

While I will attempt to finish these posts at some point in the not too distant future, the subject matter nonetheless got me thinking about George Lucas. Lucas is someone whose work I appreciate only in fragments, but nonetheless he's a filmmaker I find myself coming to the defence of whenever he's criticised for spurious reasons. Like Fritz Lang before him, Lucas could be described as the architect of the modern blockbuster. Countless filmmakers, from Griffith to Godard, Eisenstein to Hitchcock, could be charged with having changed the course of the popular cinema, but Lucas has the rare distinction of having changed it twice.

George Lucas on the set of Star Wars, circa 1976-77 [photo-credit: Lucasfilm]:

With the release of the original Star Wars (1977), Lucas would build on the populist run of earlier 1970s blockbusters - including, most prominently, The Exorcist (1973), Jaws (1975) and Rocky (1976) - to create a film that placed the emphasis squarely on spectacle, engagement and escapism. In doing so, the success of the film and its subsequent shift in focus towards marketing and merchandise, brought to an end a short-period in American moviemaking where the watchwords were introspection, cynicism and ambiguity.

While earlier films of this period, such as Midnight Cowboy (1969), Easy Rider (1969), McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971), One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) and Taxi Driver (1976) to name a few, had centred on the perspective of drop-outs and anti-heroes, the theme of America's loss of innocence and the realities of male prostitution, poverty, drug abuse, the Kennedy assassination and the war in Vietnam, Star Wars would instead bring fantasy and mythmaking back to the popular cinema with a story intentionally aimed at the largest possible demographic. As such, it was devoid of anything that might prove to be too challenging, experimental or mature. While the techniques and special effects were groundbreaking for the period, extending as they did on the innovations of Stanley Kubrick's great masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), the storytelling and characterisations - that theme of good against evil - were intentionally retrograde; closer in fact to a 1950s western or science-fiction serial than to a contemporary work such as The Passenger (1975), All the President's Men (1976) or 3 Women (1977).

Star Wars would prove to be a genuine cultural phenomenon. It spawned a billion dollar franchise, a host of native and international imitators, and changed the way subsequent filmmakers and studios thought about genre, merchandise and special effects. Tellingly, it's a story that is still being told to this day, with five additional "Star Wars" movies finding their way to the multiplexes during the last five years and at least another five planned for the coming decade. This longevity makes Star Wars arguably the most influential film of the twentieth century.

Star Wars [George Lucas, 1977]:

Two decades after Star Wars, Lucas would reshape the cinema once again with the release of Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999). While not as fondly remembered as the first film, or even its immediate sequels, The Empire Strikes Back (1980), directed by Irvin Kershner, and Return of the Jedi (1983), directed by Richard Marquand, I would still argue that the success of The Phantom Menace solidified the modern infatuation with the "brand" in popular cinema. Outside of the James Bond series, The Phantom Menace was a film that proved to Hollywood executives that an intellectual property with enough brand recognition could transcend the generations; that a self-contained film that already had a clearly defined beginning, middle and end could still be mined for more content, so long as such content was marketed as a genuine event.

In the same year that original works like The Blair Witch Project, The Sixth Sense and The Matrix were establishing a cultural identity for their own era, The Phantom Menace was appealing to nostalgia. It was a throwback movie, specifically manufactured to bring in the now adult audiences that grew up with the original trilogy and the young audiences that had discovered the series more recently through repeat showings on television or re-branded "special-editions" on VHS. The Phantom Menace provided the blueprint that studio executives have followed ever since: find an old property with a built-in fan base and create a follow-up that also functions as a thinly-veiled remake. In its construction, The Phantom Menace was designed to satiate the appetite for a new Stars Wars movie, but it was also intended as a way of re-introducing the franchise to a new audience. It presented a mirror image of the original narrative - with its young hero taken under the wing of a Jedi master to learn the ways of the force, who meets a series of colourful, mostly non-human supporting characters, and then gets to grapple with the lure of the dark side - but with enough minor cosmetic changes to appear new.

In its success - $1 billion at the worldwide box office to date - The Phantom Menace inadvertently created the precedent for later franchise reboots such Batman Begins (2005), Casino Royale (2006), Alice in Wonderland (2010), Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), Fast Five (2015), Jurassic World (2015), Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), Ghostbusters (2016), Ocean's Eight (2018), Halloween (2018), and so on. The brand became king.

If the original Star Wars had helped to change the way movies were marketed, promoted and sold to an audience, then the innovations of the Star Wars prequel trilogy also helped to define a new language that subsequent blockbusters have taken to imitate, almost as a standard. Over the course of their production, Lucas would move away from location filming, relying instead on having his actors perform scenes in front of a giant green-screen, with the backdrops added-in digitally during post-production. By the second instalment he was no longer shooting on 35mm film, but pioneering the use of high-definition digital cinematography, which is now commonplace.

To this day, the stylisation of the Star Wars prequels is a point of contention among fans. Compared to the original trilogy, The Phantom Menace seems garish and artificial. For all of its pioneering effects work, the original Star Wars was a modestly budgeted adventure film that still showed the influence of Lucas's work on his earlier, "new Hollywood" movies, THX 1138 (1971) and American Graffiti (1973); markedly more grounded, even gritty films. The special effects of Star Wars may have been a little more elaborate, but it wasn't a film without precedent. One could recognise its aesthetic in everything from the aforementioned 2001: A Space Odyssey, to films like Silent Running (1972), Logan's Run (1976) or the television show Star Trek (1966-1969). By point of contrast, who else in 1999 was making films that looked like this?

Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace [George Lucas, 1999]:

Images taken from:

Flash-forward twenty years later and it's difficult to think of a mainstream blockbuster that doesn't look like this. From Sin City (2005) to 300 (2007), from The Last Airbender (2010) to A Wrinkle in Time (2018), from The Avengers (2012) to Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), from Jupiter Ascending (2015) to Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017), to Black Panther (2018) and beyond, the visual language of The Phantom Menace has become ubiquitous. That it now represents the absolute aesthetic criterion for all big-budget Hollywood and international cinema makes it easy to forget that this particular style had no real visual precedent prior to Lucas's film. For all of its faults and shortcomings, The Phantom Menace was a genuine game-changer.

While analogous blockbusters, such as The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) and Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (2001), would employ green-screen technology and extensive CGI, the result was still somewhat closer to '90s era blockbusters like Jurassic Park (1993) and Independence Day (1995), or a then contemporary film like The Matrix (1999), where, despite the reliance on computer generated manipulation and digital world-building, there was still an actuality to the images; a sense of real actors interacting with "real" locations and comparatively more naturalistic lighting. In those films, the special effects were mostly being added into live action environments. By contrast, The Phantom Menace went all-in, creating fully realised digital worlds that its real-life actors could explore and interact with. It was taking the CGI world-building of Pixar's work, such as Toy Story (1995), and bringing that technology into the conventions of the live action cinema.

The subsequent films of Lucas's trilogy, Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones (2002) and Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith (2005), would only push the visual aesthetic even further. By the time the third and most visually sophisticated of the three films was eventually released, Hollywood had finally caught up. Even Peter Jackson and the Wachowski's were now following in the same direction with their subsequent efforts, King Kong (2005) and Speed Racer (2008) respectively. The language of these films was being translated; the standard was being set.

Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith [George Lucas, 2005]:

Images taken from:

King Kong [Peter Jackson, 2005]:

Images taken from:

Speed Racer [Lana & Lilly Wachowski, 2008]:

Guardians of the Galaxy [James Gunn, 2014]:

While I'm no great fan of this particular style of filmmaking, one has to concede that it's now a recognisable part of the language of the modern blockbuster. Audiences are able to accept visuals of this nature as the new normal, while for me they still feel alien to my conception of cinema based on the kind of films I grew up with. However, with the subsequent release of every new modern blockbuster, from the aforementioned Black Panther, to Aquaman (2018) or Alita: Battle Angel (2019), or to the more directly related Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018), the technical and aesthetic influence of Lucas and his prequel trilogy is plainly felt.

And yet, Lucas is not a reference point for modern-critics when they rhapsodise about this kind of cinema. The negative perception of the prequel trilogy means that the kind of heightened imagery and CGI stylisations that Lucas helped to normalise are not a part of the filmmaker's current narrative. For many, the prequel trilogy was unnecessary and remains a black mark in the history of the franchise. For older critics, Lucas's innovations are tired to his success and his success remain in the past; for younger audiences, the modern cinema has taken its current shape simply because the available technology has enforced a kind of designated user-model. Maybe such opinions hold truth. But the fact remains it was Lucas who made that first great leap into this kind of new-digital aesthetic, which Hollywood (and elsewhere) has eventually followed.

In the same way that a filmmaker like M. Night Shyamalan receives nothing but scorn and derision from the mainstream American film culture, even when hugely successful and acclaimed works like The Dark Knight (2008), A Quiet Place (2017), Us (2019) and the upcoming Midsommar (2019) are plainly modelled on (if not derivative of) the style and themes of his own films - specifically Unbreakable (2000), Signs (2002) and The Village (2004) respectively - so too has Lucas's legacy been intentionally diminished.

I think there's an element of spite in each of these instances. Since Lucas and Shyamalan both made films that became successful enough to be considered a "cultural phenomena", their historical significance was assured. As such, it's been important for the establishment to ensure that this early success is the only thing these filmmakers are known for; even if it means sabotaging the reception and reputation of their subsequent work. To wilfully deny any filmmaker their obvious influence on more acclaimed cinema is, culturally speaking, shameful.


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