George Lucas Essay - Critical Essays

Lucas, George


George Lucas 1944–

American director and screenwriter.

Although critics have yet to evaluate Lucas's overall contribution to the cinema arts, box-office returns have unquestionably rendered a favorable judgment of his work. His American Graffiti and Star Wars have drawn more viewers than the life work of most filmmakers.

Lucas grew up in Modesto, California, which later served as the prototype for the teenage dreamworld portrayed in American Graffiti. His formal education in film began at the University of Southern California where he developed a bias for the visual rather than the narrative aspects of film.

As a graduate student at USC Lucas was granted a scholarship by Warner Brothers to observe films being made in the studio. It was under this auspice that he met Francis Coppola. Coppola served as artistic counselor to Lucas and supported the young director's future film projects.

Lucas's first commercial film, THX 1138, displays his early concern with technical proficiency, but its abstract handling of stock themes from science fiction evoked only a halfhearted response from critics and audiences. The script for his next film, American Graffiti, was rejected by several companies. Coppola's offer to produce the film lent the project economic credibility, and Universal Pictures consented to finance the new director. The success of American Graffiti surprised many, for the odds were against the acceptance of a film without a traditional narrative plot line. This story of coming of age in the early sixties flourished in an era of nostalgia, but the formal expertise of the film testifies to its value beyond the demands of popular culture.

Lucas's greatest financial success thus far has been Star Wars, a film for which he served as writer, director, producer, film editor, and cameraman. In contrast with the alien dystopia of THX 1138, Star Wars represents a technologically superior universe that is the battleground for a traditional and familiar conflict between good and evil. "I wanted to do a modern fairy tale, a myth," states Lucas. The elements of myth blended together in Star Wars have indeed led many critics to see Lucas as an adept handler of both mythical archetypes and modern cinematic technique. Lucas's most recent contribution to the cinematic field is The Empire Strikes Back, a sequel to Star Wars, for which he served as executive producer. Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back are the central episodes of a projected nine-part space saga in which Lucas proposes to develop the epic potential of his fictional universe. Although he plans to remain solely in the capacity of producer for the series, it is expected that his artistic vision will inform the entire project. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 77-80.)

Stanley Kauffmann

[THX 1138] is a classic instance of what is right and wrong with many US film-school graduates. Lucas has good eyes, if no original vision, and he knows a lot about film technique; but what he does with it all is thin. He has acquired a lot of skills but not much self.

Would you believe one more story about the dehumanized future, where people have numbers instead of names, where Big Electronic Brother watches all, where everyone wears the same white uniform and all heads are shaved, where the unseen State disposes as it will, and where the great sin is—hold on, now—love? The script by Lucas and Walter Murch almost has an arrogance toward the need to have a fresh idea.

Lucas has clearly made his bet on his cinematic display, and to his credit, he sustains interest on that score for about fifteen minutes. Disregard the collegiate jape of beginning with a Buck Rogers clip and then having the credits roll downward—as if this departure from rolling them upward made a particle of difference—and then we get a pretty good initial display of splintery quick editing, with blue filters, white-on-white figures, computer printouts, wall-size TV, capsule meals, robot policemen, and so on. All this is somewhat entertaining for a while, despite the derivations from 2001, despite the mimicking of Alphaville by using modern structures (garages, vehicular tunnels) as buildings of the future.

But Lucas would have to be one of the great geniuses of film history to hold us this way for 90 minutes, to keep us from discovering that he really doesn't have a clue as to why he made this picture, other than that he wanted to crack the whip at this cinema circus, and that he's patched together this old story as an arena. (pp. 24, 31-2)

"Shut your mind and open your eyes," films of this type suggest. "Nuts," is what I suggest in return. A great many good films ask us to keep our minds and eyes open; so why should we put up with this latter-day fiddle? (p. 32)

Stanley Kauffmann, "Films: 'THX 1138'" (reprinted by permission of Brandt & Brandt Literary Agents, Inc.; copyright © 1971 by Stanley Kauffmann), in The New Republic, Vol. 164, No. 15, April 10, 1971, pp. 24, 31-2.

Stanley Kauffmann

[When artists use their young years as subject matter,] they have to prove that their young years can be fascinating to others. Broadly speaking, there are only two ways to do this: by showing that your young years were extraordinary or by finding depth and form that illuminate and preserve the commonplace. (p. 218)

George Lucas has tried for the latter. He has taken some familiar bull right by the horns and has wrestled it into a reasonably good film. A couple of years ago … Lucas made a "future" film called THX 1138 in which he lavished impressive cinematic skills on material so trite that he made me feel he had "an arrogance toward the need to have a fresh idea" [see excerpt above]. This new script—by himself, Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck—still has no new ideas as such. But working close to what is apparently his own youthful experience, Lucas has so integrated methods and material that he finds some of the depth and form mentioned above; and, to some degree, he transforms the banalities of TV situation comedy into a small epiphany of a period. (pp. 218-19)

But the story is not the film—only its means of coming into being. (Which is what Lucas attempted, less successfully, in THX 1138.) The weakest parts are those that try to beef up the script, in plot and literary "theme" terms, like the mysterious blonde in a white T-bird who weaves symbolically through the film taunting one of the boys…. [The] pleasures of the picture are in the way it was made. There is no mere springboard of accurate decor, as in Summer of '42, which got all its details right, then wallowed ahead into syrup: the milieu, so to...

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Michael Dempsey

[In American Graffiti] Lucas and his fellow writers, Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck, manage to be serious without portentous symbolism or heavy underlining. They slip on an end title which they should have let the audience write for itself but, otherwise, their poise is flawless; the car crash at the end, to take the most obvious example, has not been inflated into an apocalypse. Despite its crowded sound track and its mesmerizing flow of images, American Graffiti is a low-keyed, unpretentious movie. Yet it cuts to the heart of something serious and entangling in American life….

Lucas has been amazingly thorough and technically dazzling in conjuring up this "last year of the fifties." Except for the final two sequences, the whole movie takes place after dark. Aided by his creative cast and camera crews supervised by Haskell Wexler, Lucas has spliced bits of San Francisco, San Rafael, and Petaluma into a ghost-dancing, iridescent nightgown, a galaxy of pranks, games, thrills, and lights through which the gaudy cars weave and cruise like phantoms. Maybe, after THX 1138, locking us into enclosed worlds is turning out to be a Lucas specialty, but American Graffiti has no trace of the earlier film's tired ideas and visual clichés out of tritely doom-laden student epics. It captures the humor and verve of youth that can, at least briefly, transform pop-schlock trash into an amusing, stylish constellation of codes and rituals. At the same time, it also finds some surprising emotions lurking behind them: each characterization catches us off guard with unexpected quirks and depths…. American Graffiti is not just a checklist of fifties memorabilia; it uses them to recapture the attitudes of the period, particularly the innocence that Vietnam, Oswald, hard drugs, birth-control pills,...

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Pauline Kael

Using women (and not only women) as plot functions may be a clue to the shallowness of many movies, even of much better movies—American Graffiti, for example. The audience at American Graffiti appears to be ecstatically happy condescending toward its own past—how cute we were at seventeen, how funny, how lost—but for women the end of the picture is a cold slap. Set in 1962, American Graffiti compresses into one night the events from high school graduation to the opening of college in the fall. At the close, it jumps to the present and wraps up the fates of the four principal male characters—as if lives were set ten years after high school!—and it ignores the women characters. This is one of those bizarre omissions that tell you what really goes on in men filmmakers' heads and what women—who are now, for the first time in movie history, half the moviegoing audience—bitterly (or unconsciously) swallow. (p. 193)

Because of the energy of the performers, Laurie and Carol stay in the memory more vividly than the boys, but that chilling omission at the end is indicative of the limited male imagination of the picture. I don't think the director, George Lucas, who also worked on the script, ever wondered whether Laurie, who wants her boy-man Steve so fiercely and wants nothing else, could sustain the giving over of herself or whether her intensity would sour into neurosis. Was Steve really enough for her, and could he...

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[American Graffiti] imports more than mere nostalgia for a past: it explores the consequences of technology upon an age that still has the need to understand experience through a mixture of epic, myth, and romance patterns. American Graffiti's achievement—or near-achievement—is that it gives us a chance to satisfy this need, to find these patterns, in a mundane, all-too-familiar mechanized world.

The mythic land of American Graffiti is a country of city streets under the false day of relentless lights, of youths who live on wheels, where even the waitresses are on roller-skates and where all are electronically linked through the pulsating beat of their radios. The music (of...

(The entire section is 1690 words.)

Stanley Kauffmann

George Lucas has made three features: THX 1138, which was about the future; American Graffiti, which was about adolescents; and now Star Wars, which is a "future" film for adolescents. Neither of the earlier pictures was distinguished for novelty or depth, but THX 1138 tried to compensate with visual and technical ingenuity, and American Graffiti found some good objective correlatives, in cinematic method, for its study of small-town teen-agers. Star Wars … doesn't have the technological cleverness of his first, and it's about nothing more than what it seems to be about.

This is Lucas' tribute to Flash Gordon, and is now enthralling all those who feel that...

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Richard A. Blake

"Star Wars" is original and surprising. It is witty, not only in its comic dialogue, but in its ability to spoof itself and the science-fiction genre without going for the cheap laugh….

Pointing out the "message" of such an avowedly entertaining film is to risk the humorless pomposity that plagues film journals. But even the most entertaining film can propose a message and, in fact, the message may even heighten the entertainment, as it does in "Star Wars."

Basically, the film is an expression of mid-20th-century romanticism, an act of faith and hope in the eventual triumph of old-fashioned humanity over the technology that surrounds it. The young actors are all rather dull...

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Robert Hatch

Star Wars belongs to the sub-basement, or interstellar comic-strip, school of science fiction; Terry and the Pirates with astro-drive. The main participants are a princess in mortal peril, a splendid young Four-H type who is fated to rescue her, an irreverent free enterpriser with a space ship for hire, an aged mystic possessed of "the Force," and a gaggle of villains who, when they are not entirely encased in elegantly fitted plastic armor, look very much like extras borrowed from scenes of the Wehrmacht general staff plotting Hitlerian strategies. The princess … is spunky and in both manner and hair style somewhat resembles the Gish sisters; the young knight … is not quite bright but adroit with...

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Robert G. Collins

[A] film such as Star Wars proves anew that the descriptive capability of the camera can be effective, as words cannot, at a certain level of generalized and popular experience. (p. 1)

[Taken for what it is, Star Wars] functions as magic. With incredible audacity, it combines the stereotypes of modern pop literature and cinema with the Arthurian romance. Lucas deliberately and obviously steals from such movie antecedents as the original Wizard Of Oz, from the classic movie and pulp westerns based on the frontier tradition, from the old World War I and World War II flying battles. In fact, it is done so deliberately that a second considerations forces one to drop the word "steal"...

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Arthur Lubow

If you want a loyal friend or a lethal weapon, try a machine. But when the revolution is sliding down the incinerator chute and there's only five seconds left to save it, you had better rely on the Life Force.

That's the unexpected message of Star Wars, a movie which manages to slap technology's face while celebrating the glories of gadgetry. This double-jointed maneuver gives the film its springy bounce. An anti-modern message in an ultra-modern wrapper: what could be more stylish? What could be more fun?

Much of Star Wars' success is simply the overflow from its excesses. Loaded with enough special features to equip a dozen lesser vehicles, hurtling along at a...

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Terry Curtis Fox

[The survival chances of Star Wars] are slim. The film defeats serious consideration. No matter how one looks at it, George Lucas has not only made a movie which is mindless where it would be mind-boggling, he has made a movie which is totally inept.

Never mind special effects. If you've seen one plastic starship you've seen them all. As for midgets in cute-suits, who remembers the amputees in Soylent Green? Consider instead the laser-sword which Lucas painfully spends forty-five minutes defining as an elegantly human weapon, emblematic of the life-sustaining Force. Not only is there nothing elegant, much less exciting, in the light-sword fight between Lord Darth Vader … and...

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Pauline Kael

The loudness, the smash-and-grab editing, the relentless pacing drive every idea from your head; for young audiences "Star Wars" is like getting a box of Cracker Jack which is all prizes. This is the writer-director George Lucas's own film, subject to no business interference, yet it's a film that's totally uninterested in anything that doesn't connect with the mass audience. There's no breather in the picture, no lyricism; the only attempt at beauty is in the double sunset. It's enjoyable on its own terms, but it's exhausting, too: like taking a pack of kids to the circus. An hour into it, children say that they're ready to see it all over again; that's because it's an assemblage of spare parts—it has no emotional...

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[THX-1138] works at a near-abstract level. Its premise is classic in science fiction: an individual asserting himself against the social machine. Its first sequence is a quote from a Buck Rogers serial, with Our Hero "exploring the wonderful world of the twenty-fifth century." Its theme encompasses the same crushing of identity that is central to William Cameron Menzies's Things to Come. But Lucas works by different methods. The camera is often literally distanced from the action, to establish the weirdness and aridity of the underground world. Only for lovemaking does the camera close in on individuals; and then, it is in soft focus. The paraphernalia of the future world is voyeuristic, full of cameras...

(The entire section is 1465 words.)