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 conflict in Yemen is a Civil War by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood