SXSW Review: The People v. George Lucas

By  · Published on March 14th, 2010

You don’t have to be a child of the 70’s to understand the phenomenal impact of Star Wars. From those first three films, sprang an immeasurable empire that still thrives in countless mediums and merchandising to this day. Moreover you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone unfamiliar with Indiana Jones. The career of creator George Lucas has been nothing short of mercurial since the release of the first Star Wars film in 1977. He was touted as an innovator, a genius, and even a demigod by the more devoted fans whose lives became inextricable from the world he created. But as the years passed, Lucas made a series of decisions that, well, to say these decisions upset fans would be a massive understatement.

The first was the re-release of the original trilogy with material added that Lucas claimed he always envisioned being a part of the films; material that did little beyond insultingly deflating the quality. Next came the notoriously awful prequels that systematically flabbergasted and enraged fans. Suddenly Lucas became public geek enemy number one but made no effort to make restitution to the fans. In fact, he followed up the abysmal prequel trilogy with an equally terrible fourth installment to the Indiana Jones series. Personally, I was far more aggrieved by Kingdom of the Crystal Skull than the Star Wars prequels as I had a stronger connection with the Indiana Jones series. But I understood the outrage of the Star Wars fanatics because of my own acquired distaste for the man. That said, I was interested to see if the documentary The People v. George Lucas would tell both sides of the story and possibly offer mitigating circumstances.

The People v. George Lucas is an amazing piece of documentary film making. The interviewees range from film critics and musicians, to regular people and filmmakers. The commonality shared by every person interviewed is that they are all massive Star Wars and/or Indiana Jones fans. The commentary they provide on the passion they have for the original fare is powerful and inspiring and makes you proud to be a film geek of any ilk. Conversely, the articulating of black-bile hatred for the newer films and the re-releases is subversively hysterical. I think my favorite part of the film was that it paid very specific tribute to the breadth of this fandom by using nothing but fan-made versions of familiar scenes interstitially. These clips originate from the hearts of fans all over the world and employ several different animation methods and film styles to recreate their most cherished cinematic memories. Regardless of varying technical proficiency, these clips are fascinating to watch.

The factual information provided by both documented events and testimony from people who have worked with Lucas was often shocking. Granted, I may be more naive of the depths of Lucas’ misdeeds than the average Star Wars fanatic but I still found the evidence pretty damning. For example, I had no idea Lucas spearheaded a campaign against Ted Turner’s attempts colorize old black and white films because he championed the idea that classic films should not be subsequently altered. Really Lucas? Really?!! There are moments in this film when I was physically angry at both his arrogance and his apathy toward the fans that made him so immensely wealthy and powerful.

Lucas demonstrates a selfishness that extends beyond the bastardizing of his own universe and speaks to transgressions against film itself. What kind of ego-maniacal douchebag destroys original negatives of a monumental American film (something already registered with the National Film Archive)? News flash: a piece of art as important to our society and culture as Star Wars reaches a point where it belongs to the people as much as the filmmaker. In this way, The People v. George Lucas establishes a case against the man that rejects the argument that all the indignation is predicated on fanboy backlash. Lucas has done things that de-legitimize film as an art form.

Ultimately the biggest triumph of the film also serves as its biggest failure. The director/writer spends the first 2/3 of the film providing incontrovertible evidence that Lucas is a film making war criminal and succeeds in definitively crucifying him. But then the last part of the film is clearly designed to be the counterpoint wherein the interviewees laud him for the world he created in 1977 and how it has unalterably impacted their lives and who they are as adults. But the problem is that attempts to absolve him by pointing out he made Star Wars and wrote the original Indiana Jones films are a impotent when compared to the case against him they’ve already presented. It feels more like backpedaling than a gesture of respect.

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Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.