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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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times