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Editorial: Star Wars - Return of the Visionary
by Joe Tracy, Publisher of Digital Media FX Magazine

In 1998, before Lucas had completed or titled The Phantom Menace, I had granted an interview to Screenwriters Utopia Magazine. One of the questions they asked me was:

How has the making of "special effects" changed since Lucas and Star Wars? Is technology the only consideration?

My response was as follows:

"I believe that Lucas is going to bring back to the screen what the majority of today's science fiction movies lack and that is a real vision of the future. If you are writing a movie about tomorrow then why are you using the weapons, tactics, strategies, and environments of today? That is a major downfall in science fiction writing that I've taken to task in my trilogy. If you are telling a story of tomorrow then make sure that every aspect of your script reflects a society of tomorrow. Shows like Space: Above and Beyond failed because it was a series about tomorrow that never left today. Technology shouldn't be the only consideration although it is the most recognized. The costuming, development, acting, environment - everything - should be a consideration."

I have always been a big fan of Lucas because of the strong futuristic vision he presented in the original Star Wars trilogy that was light years ahead of other movies. Like millions of other Star Wars fans, there was never a question in my mind that the new trilogy would be just as visionary and strong as the original. I even had a quote from Lucas to fall back on. In that same interview, Screenwriters Utopia asked me the following:

With the success of non-character driven stories where the "special effects" are why people see them, such as Jurassic Park, is screenwriting as an art form going to become secondary to the computer?

Here was the first sentence of my response:

"Absolutely not! At least I hope not. It's important to remember what George Lucas has said for many years, which is 'an effect without a story is just an effect.'"

Apparently Lucas forgot that quote because when The Phantom Menace was released in 1999, it seemed to be all about effects. The strong story, conflict, and strategy from the original trilogy were replaced with bathroom humor (Jar-Jar stepping in poop and big creatures farting), weak strategy (boy gets lucky, accidentally blowing up the main enemy ship), and a weak story (no real motive for Darth Maul character, which also lacked screen time and character development).

This was not the same George Lucas I had highly praised in 1998.

After The Phantom Menace was released, the criticism of the movie was harsh and quick. But this time it wasn't uneducated critics throwing out the harshest criticisms - it was Star Wars fans like me. The number one complaint was how an uncoordinated, stupid, and hard to understand character (Jar-Jar) was allowed to run amuck throughout the movie, ruining it for many people. This character lacked the "charm" of a Chewy or the innocence of the Ewoks. His main motive in life seemed to be to annoy other characters and the audience at the same time.

I waited for a public apology from Lucas when the outburst from fans hit. It never came. Instead of accepting the criticism and blame for Jar-Jar, Lucas appeared to blame the fans and critics, then followed it with an announcement that Jar-Jar would return in Episode II.


So what went wrong with The Phantom Menace? How is it that one of the greatest sci-fi visionaries of all time could ruin the first part of the new trilogy? It's not like his vision had completely vanished; there are great moments in The Phantom Menace. In fact, the first 10 minutes of the movie was well written, executed, and showed signs of that great visionary who did the original trilogy. The worlds created were awesome and inspiring.

As a great visionary, Lucas may have suffered from taking on too much responsibility in an attempt to control all aspects of the production. And, frankly, it's his right to do so since it is his story. But I've noticed that the best work from Lucas seems to come when he has help with the script and other areas that he can staff with other visionaries. In fact, Lucas seems to have done more delegating for Episode II, which allows him to focus more on his strengths and leaves me with A New Hope that we may yet see that vision played out in Episode II and Episode III. I'm ready to see the Return of the Jedi visionary and I hold high hopes that Lucas won't be a continuing Phantom Menace to die hard Star Wars fans.

I'm not holding my hopes too high, though, as there still are signs of trouble (i.e. the name of Episode II - Attack of the Clones) and the fact that Jar-Jar will still be given a few minutes of (hopefully mute) screen time. Then there was the whole controversy of N'Sync appearing in Episode II until Lucas heard the cries from fans and promptly announced they had been removed from their non singing background Jedi roles.

It's important to remember that visionary stories avoid typical movie humor related to things like farts and characters stepping in poop. Lucas never had to rely on this type of bathroom humor in his original trilogy. He didn't have to try to force humor through the use of annoying characters or The Three Stooges tricks (i.e. running into objects). Visionary stories are original, relying on new ideas and techniques to grab and hold the interest of the audience.

Visionary stories also have a strong sense of strategy. This is apparent in some scenes of The Phantom Menace involving the ground fighting. However, the space attacks in The Phantom Menace are another story. A refresher course may be in order for Lucas from a great visionary in space strategies - Babylon 5's J. Michael Straczynski. Just watch his recent Babylon 5: Legend of the Rangers movie to see how strategy (versus luck) is used to defeat the enemy. Of course, Lucas doesn't really need to rely on Straczynski for his space battles because he has shown us his own great strategies in the original trilogy.

Most important, however, is the following: Make us care about the characters.

Let's face it - I'm not in position to give George Lucas advice. After all, I have not written a Star Wars caliber trilogy of my own (almost there, though). However, as a die-hard fan of the original trilogy and a person who has publicly upheld Lucas as a great sci-fi visionary, I would like to offer the following quote that was once said by a great visionary who I still have a lot of respect and hope for - "an effect without a story is just an effect."

May the force be with you, Lucas… always.

Click here to discuss this story in the Digital Media FX Forums.

Joe Tracy is the publisher of Digital Media FX and he still holds a deep respect for George Lucas and the amazing ability of Lucas to transport viewers to interesting new worlds and conflicts. Tracy is the author of four books and former editor of the visual effects print magazine, NewTekniques. He is also a visual effects columnist for The Hollywood Forum and has been writing an original sci-fi trilogy for several years that he hopes to have fully completed by 2003.

Here's another quote about sci-fi, originally from Tracy's Screenwriters Utopia interview:

What advice do you have for Science Fiction writers?

"Be original. Look at the stories out there - they are all the same! An evil alien is loose on Earth trying to kill everyone and all aliens are hideous looking. So what do people do? They write more of the same movies. But it's not the same type of movie that will attract an audience - it is the original movie that will attract them. Be bold. One of my favorite movies this past year was Contact, but what was suppose to be the climax - the meeting of the alien - became the most anti-climatic part because all we saw was "just another human". Yet apparently the script originally called for an angelic looking alien and to me that would have been awesome to see. The audience would have been in more of an "awe" than just looking at good old "dad" explain the virtues of the Universe.

If you want your screenplay to stand out amongst the hundreds of thousands of scripts, you must be original. Why not create a beautiful alien for a change? When you think about it, an alien that is full of beauty can actually be more dangerous than one who people expect to be bad and frightening. Why not have Earth attack an alien planet (unprovoked) versus aliens always attacking Earth? Why even have aliens all the time? The key to originality is to look at everything out there and take an opposite approach to see if it might work.

Finally, always remain passionate and never give up on your dream. Accept constructive criticism as a great teaching aid and every time you get a rejection letter, improve your product and resubmit it! Most of all, be satisfied with what you are writing and ask yourself if your final product makes a positive contribution to society and entertainment. Star Wars did!"

All editorialized columns, including this one, that appear in Digital Media FX are not necessarily reflective of the opinions of Digital Media FX, its partner sites, and its advertisers.

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