Gilbey on Film: Disney saves Star Wars from its creator

George Lucas was always the franchise's worst enemy.

It’s been a long time since the words “Star Wars” caused me to experience anything resembling excitement. But the news this week that Disney has plonked down $4.05bn for Lucasfilm, and the rights to make further instalments in the series, prompted from me an unexpected and boyishly shrill bleat of delight. I gave up long ago on the prospect of this franchise producing anything of cinematic worth. With the exception of the excellent second episode, The Empire Strikes Back (yes, yes, chronologically it’s the fifth in the story), the series has zoomed straight from drab (Star Wars, Return of the Jedi) to disastrous (The Phantom Menace), leaving in its wake millions of disillusioned fans—such as the actor Simon Pegg, who has spoken widely of the crushing disappointment of the second trilogy, and of the mistakes made by its creator, George Lucas:

He’s so distrusting of everybody around him; he only trusts himself. That’s a damaging thing for an artist, or for someone who works in a collaborative medium like film. You need to collaborate. Even if you’re an auteur, you still work with other people. In the first three, he clearly had to collaborate. And that’s why those films are better than the last three, when he did it on his own. No one would question him in the end - everyone was frightened of disagreeing with him. When really, he needed someone to say, “Hang on. No, this is a terrible idea.” And he needed to listen to those people. And he just didn’t. So I see it as a bit of a shame; I don’t see him as a villain.

Well, that’s the wonderful news about the Disney buy-out: it removes Lucas from the director’s chair. Lucas was always the Star Wars films’ worst enemy. I realise that without him, they wouldn’t exist. But he was also the man responsible for squeezing the life out of his creation; he lost touch quickly with Star Wars as entertainment and began to prize it only as collateral. And that’s long before we even get around to contemplating his cavalier selling-off of its characters to advertise electrical appliances and mobile phone networks.

With Disney in charge of Star Wars, there is, suddenly, a new hope. Lucas will still serve as creative consultant on the subsequent movies in the series - the first of which will be released in 2015, with more to follow every two or three years. But with the presidency of Lucasfilm handed over to Kathleen Kennedy, Steven Spielberg’s producer for 30 years, the field is open for some original and adventurous talents to collaborate on the unthinkable: a watchable, even thrilling new Star Wars film. I believe Disney and Kennedy will be mindful of the widespread criticisms levelled at the last three episodes, and will seek to reinvigorate the franchise with a complete talent transplant. There’s no danger of tarnishing the brand - the brand is creatively defunct. Now is the time for the sort of boldness that led Lucas to launch Star Wars into a sceptical marketplace the first time around.

It can’t be a coincidence that The Empire Strikes Back represented one of only two occasions on which Lucas entrusted the series to another director. (In that case, it was Irvin Kershner; the less successful Return of the Jedi, which erred just the wrong side of the movie/toy commercial divide, went to Richard Marquand.) Empire also benefited undoubtedly from other, more playful hands at the typewriter: Leigh Brackett (whose credits included The Big Sleep, Rio Bravo and The Long Goodbye) and Lawrence Kasdan (who also scripted Raiders of the Lost Ark and Return of the Jedi, and made his own directing debut with Body Heat).

The resurrection in recent years of Batman and James Bond has demonstrated that the reboot approach can pay dividends, artistically and commercially. If Disney has any sense, it will set its sights on pulling off the same species of reinvention, bringing back to the fold the old fans and their children (and grandchildren). I probably don’t need to say that there’s no place in the new Star Wars for Jar-Jar Binks. But now I’ve said it anyway just to be on the safe side.

George Lucas (right) with Disney CEO Bob Iger (Photograph: Getty Images)

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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The Wood Wide Web: the world of trees underneath the surface

Mycorrhizal networks, better known as the Wood Wide Web, have allowed scientists to understand the social networks formed by trees underground.

In 1854, Henry David Thoreau published Walden, an extensive rumination on his two years, two months and two days spent in a cabin in the woodlands near Walden Pond. It was situated on a plot of land owned by his friend, mentor and noted transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Thoreau’s escape from the city was a self-imposed experiment - one which sought to find peace and harmony through a minimalistic, simple way of living amongst nature. Voicing his reasons for embarking on the rural getaway, Thoreau said, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life.”

Walden cemented Thoreau’s reputation as a key figure in naturalism; his reflections have since been studied, his practices meticulously replicated. But in the knowledge that Thoreau’s excursion into the woods was a means to better understand how to integrate into society, curious minds are left to wonder what essays and aphorisms Thoreau would have produced had he known what the botanists of today know of nature’s very own societal networks.

As scientists have now discovered, what lies beneath the ground Thoreau walked upon, and indeed beneath the ground anyone walks upon when near trees, is perhaps the most storied history and study of collaborative society in something which is now known as the mycorrhizal network or the “Wood Wide Web”.

Coined by the journal Nature, the term Wood Wide Web has come to describe the complex mass of interactions between trees and their microbial counterparts underneath the soil. Spend enough time among trees and you may get a sense that they have been around for centuries, standing tall and sturdy, self-sufficient and independent. But anchoring trees and forestry everywhere, and therefore enjoining them into an almost singular superoganism, is a very intimate relationship between their roots and microbes called mycorrhizal fungi.

Understanding the relationship between the roots of trees and mycorrhizal fungi has completely shifted the way we think about the world underneath them. Once thought to be harmful, mycorrhizal fungi are now known to have a bond of mutualism with the roots – a symbiotic connection from which both parties benefit.

Despite the discovery being a recent one, the link between the two goes as far back as 450 million years. A pinch of soil can hold up to seven miles worth of coiled, tubular, thread-like fungi. The fungi release tubes called hyphae which infiltrate the soil and roots in a non-invasive way, creating a tie between tree and fungus at a cellular level. It is this bond which is called mycorrhiza. As a result, plants 20m away from each other can be connected in the same way as plants connected 200 metres away; a hyphal network forms which brings the organisms into connection.

At the heart of the mutualistic relationship is an exchange; the fungi have minerals which the tree needs, and the trees have carbon (which is essentially food) which the fungi need. The trees receive nitrogen for things such as lignin – a component which keep the trees upright, and various other minerals such as phosphorus, magnesium, calcium, copper and more. In return, fungi get the sugars they need from the trees’ ongoing photosynthesis to energise their activities and build their bodies. The connection runs so deep that 20-80% of a tree’s sugar can be transferred to the fungi, while the transfer of nitrogen to trees is such that without the swap, trees would be toy-sized.

It’s a bond that has resulted in some remarkable phenomena. Suzanne Simard, an ecologist at the University of British Columbia, has researched into these back and forth exchanges and has found that rather than competing against one another as often assumed, there is a sort of teamwork between the trees facilitated by the mycorrhizal fungi.

In one particular example, Simard looked at a Douglas fir tree planted next to a birch tree. Upon taking the birch tree out, there was a completely unexpected result: the fir tree – instead of prospering from the reduced competition for sunlight – began to decay and die. The trees were connected underground via the mycorrhizal system, transferring carbon, nitrogen and water to one another, communicating underground, talking to each other. As Simard says in her TED talk, “it might remind you of a sort of intelligence.”

It has been documented that trees share food not just with trees of the same species, but with trees of all kinds of species, forming a social network which some have come to describe as a socialist system. Growth rates are positively affected while seedlings face greater chances of survival. There is in fact a group of plants – the mycoheterotrophic plants of which there are around 400 species – which wouldn’t survive without the mycorrhizal network. These plants are unable to photosynthesise and are therefore heavily dependent on other plants for carbon and minerals.

Over the years, Thoreau has had his fair share of critics who deemed his trip to the woods nothing more than an exercise in self-indulgence and narcissism. Perhaps if Thoreau had the chance to head back to Walden Pond with the knowledge of the Wood Wide Web at hand, he would fully understand that no one man is an island, as no one tree is a forest.