Star Wars Episode VII: Return of the Empire or Revenge of the Consumer?

Zev Burrows

It’s been almost a year and a half now since multi-billionaire and film executive George Lucas sold his production company, Lucasfilm Ltd., to the Walt Disney Company for an estimated $4.06 billion, as the 69 year-old executive approaches what seems to be his retirement. His last involvement in any sort of film was as executive producer on the 2012 box-office bomb Red Tails. He has claimed that he wants to turn away from big-budget blockbuster filmmaking and move away from the business.Of course, upon Disney’s purchase of the company behind the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises, news of production on three sequels to the original Star Wars trilogy was almost immediately revealed. At first, I noticed that most of the responses were entirely negative, due to the reception of the Star Wars prequels released between 1999 and 2005 and due to Disney’s taking over. (I even joked that the new film was going to be an animated film with singing mice shooting blasters and wielding lightsabers). But as I looked more into the project, I’ve found that there are two sides to every story.

The most recent change regarding Star Wars Episode VII has to do with the actual screenplay itself: earlier this week, director J.J. Abrams revealed that the script by himself, Michael Arndt (screenwriter of Toy Story 3), and Lawrence Kasdan (writer of The Empire Strikes Back, considered by many to be the best of the Star Wars movies) is indeed finished. Lucasfilm and Disney have plans to shoot the new entry beginning in May of this year, with a targeted December 2015 release date. Reported to return are sound designer Ben Burtt, lead actors Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher, and composer John Williams.

With most of the loved mainstays of the original franchise returning, at first thought the new entry could potentially be the best Star Wars movie since Return of the Jedi. But there are some reservations. The biggest problem with doing a new Star Wars movie is that there are standards and expectations to please fans of the franchise. For the first two films, Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, there were no expectations, and the writers could do whatever they wanted. But by the time of Return of the Jedi, something had gone terribly wrong. Lucas had begun to let the outside world influence his writing. And by the time of The Phantom Menace, the evidence was clear.

Star Wars, for a few years, was just a movie with one excellent sequel. But by 1983, it had become a brand and a product. Lucas knew that he couldn’t make any more of those movies for just one audience, and thus his writing suffered. This is a problem that plagues Hollywood today. While there are exceptions, too many writers, producers, and studio executives are too afraid of taking chances to be intelligent. Instead of creating new, engaging material, their blockbusters are very safe, marketable, and only geared towards toys and video games.

Part of the reason why the prequel trilogy is almost universally despised by audiences and critics alike is that it not only failed to live up to the original trilogy’s legacy, but that the writing was very limited. The truth is that George Lucas’s ability as a screenwriter has suffered. His more recent scripts lack engaging characters, good dialogue, and cohesive plots. This is not true of the George Lucas of the 1970s: both American Graffiti and the first Star Wars are great films, written and directed by a very talented filmmaker. But after Star Wars, Lucas didn’t direct another film until 1999’s The Phantom Menace, generally regarded as the worst entry in the saga. (I disagree, and would give that slot to Attack of the Clones).

By taking this long break from directing and screenwriting to focus more on visual effects, Lucas lost his keen eye and attentive ear and was drawn to what computers do. He became a harsh, angry businessman, only looking for opportunities to make more commercial products rather than art.

That said, this is a great opportunity for Disney to do something extraordinary with the legendary film franchise. The people working at the Mouse House aren’t naïve, and they of all people should know the panned reception that Lucas and the prequels have received over the years. At one point, Lucas was on record saying, “If I don’t have complete control, I will never direct another Star Wars film.” As former Disney executive Peter Schneider has often said, “You can’t create art without great chaos.”

Within the prequel trilogy, Lucas would often fire people who disagreed with him on certain aspects of the films, turning himself into a dictator rather than a collaborator. But now, serving only as a creative consultant on the sequel trilogy, he will have neither directorial nor screenwriting input. Given the technical and musical aspects, the new Star Wars trilogy is likely going to succeed. But even with Lawrence Kasdan writing the script, I have my doubts. Disney is a company that mostly uses film as a springboard for toys and other merchandise, unlike what Roy E. Disney (nephew of Walt himself) once said: “the real heartbeat of this company was, is, and will always be the film business.” I think getting Hamill, Ford, and Fisher to reprise their roles is a sleazy marketing move. These actors need to move on to other projects. (Fisher joked that the gun-wielding Leia would be in the space equivalent of an old folks home.)

I cannot claim to know what the new film will be about. The sequel trilogy is likely to disappoint millions, but it is also likely to delight millions. That remains one of the curious aspects about art: you’re never going to please everyone (I know people who don’t like Fantasia and Hitchcock’s Vertigo). But you can attempt to do your best work. With all the resources Disney will dedicate to the project, the new film could be quite good. But we must always fear the dark side of limitations in writing. Disney is still a corporation, and corporations tend to be very safe. Will the Force be with the sequel trilogy? It’s anyone’s guess. I have a bad feeling about this.