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The Big Picture PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

Seclusion Has Left Lucas Out of Touch

May 21, 2002|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

Just before George Lucas reissued his "Star Wars" movies to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the original film's 1977 release, I flew up to his Skywalker Ranch for a rare audience with the publicity-shy filmmaker. It was a gloomy winter day, and I remember sitting in his office, waiting for him to arrive, studying a painting that depicted, in elaborate detail, the enmeshed gears inside a clock. For Lucas, the painting represented the triumph of craftsmanship.

"I guess that's what fascinates me," he said. "The way a 16th century clockmaker would build a complicated clock. I'm a person who makes things that are intricate. Whether you're a clockmaker or a filmmaker, that's what you do--you create things that work."

I thought of Lucas' painting after seeing his new "Star Wars" prequel, "Episode II Attack of the Clones," which like its immediate predecessor, "Episode I The Phantom Menace," is a bitter disappointment for anyone with an abiding affection for Lucas' original trilogy of futurist fantasies. Like the painting, Lucas' new movies are packed with meticulous visual detail. But they are a forlorn triumph of mechanics--they have no spirit or soul. Even worse, they look like the work of a director who's used the miracle of modern computer technology to wall himself off from the messy unpredictability of the outside world.

It's what happens when an artist works in creative isolation. Success is often the worst thing that can happen to a filmmaker. The brash self-confidence that artists use for emotional support often mutates into an arrogance that cuts them off from their audience--and themselves.

Millions of fans have already seen "Attack of the Clones," (it grossed $110.2 million in its first four days) lining up, as the New York Times' A. O. Scott put it, "out of habit and compulsion, like weary Brezhnev-era Muscovites." But something has gone horribly wrong. What has drained the new movies of their magic? Sad to say, the fault lies not in the stars, but with their creator.

Lucas should never have directed the movies himself. After "Phantom Menace" arrived with a thud, the filmmaker's defenders said he was simply rusty--he hadn't directed a movie since the original "Star Wars." Things would be better next time. Well, they aren't. Like its predecessor, "Clones" is missing what we crave from great films--vibrant storytelling, narrative clarity, compelling drama and good acting (with exemptions granted to Ewan McGregor and Christopher Lee).

For all its state-of-the-art technology, "Clones" has an air of musty nostalgia; it lacks the emotional intensity of "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" or the playful verve of "Spider- Man." Outside of a few inspiring action sequences and a crowd-pleasing light-saber duel between Yoda and the evil Count Dooku, the movie has no sense of pacing. It's slowed by endless plot exposition, portentous foreshadowing and a series of hapless romantic encounters between Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman.

To be blunt, "Star Wars" doesn't need Lucas behind the camera any more than the James Bond series needed original 007 director Terence Young to survive. The second and third "Star Wars" films did just fine in the hands of journeymen directors Irvin Kershner and Richard Marquand. The new movies would've benefited from independent-minded younger directors who might have challenged some of Lucas' cobwebby creative impulses.

Lucas' best work was made with strong collaborators: Lawrence Kasdan, for example, wrote "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and was a co-writer on "Empire Strikes Back" and "Return of the Jedi."

As he proved in the "Indiana Jones" movies (Lucas produced them along with director Steven Spielberg) and in the development of Industrial Light and Magic, the industry's top special-effects company, Lucas' talents are probably better suited as a conceptual thinker and producer than director. He's never liked directing anyway. Harrison Ford said that when he was shooting "Star Wars," the only direction Lucas gave him was, "OK, same thing, only better" and "Faster, more intense."

Editing was Lucas' first love. As his old friend film editor Walter Murch once told me: "George only became a director so he could have better material to edit."

The 'Random Chaos' of Filmmaking

Murch, a buddy from Lucas' film school days who probably understands his psyche as well as anyone, is convinced that Lucas turned his back on directing for more than two decades because he abhorred what Murch calls the "random chaos" of filmmaking.

"If you told George you'd invented a marvelous new machine where you could attach a set of electrodes to your temple lobes and simply think the film into the machine, and it would come out exactly the way you imagined it in your head, he'd buy it and get rid of everything else in an instant."

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