Today, columnist Matt Goldberg published analysis and criticism of a quote from George Lucas about why he is not involved in the new Star Wars trilogy. By now, this is a fairly old story. Many Star Wars fans have had a dim view of creator George Lucas ever since the first prequel was released. Criticism of that trilogy and of Lucas, himself - who had absolute control - is fairly well-deserved. Yet his explanation for not being a part of the new films, beginning with The Force Awakens, hinges upon his perception that Disney neither liked nor agreed with his insistence that Star Wars is ultimately a soap opera about family. For better or worse, I believe that sums up the prequels fairly succinctly... or does it?
Mr. Goldberg disagrees and criticizes Lucas for his ongoing disregard for what fans want and like about the franchise he created. By itself, it's a valid criticism. The audience's wants and needs SHOULD be any filmmaker's first concern. Thus, Lucas' comment comes across as petty and self-pitying. However, expounds upon this with what I see as a blindly crude and short-sighted rebuttal:
"If it weren’t 'about the spaceships' then why do the prequels fill the screen with spaceships and throw an ungodly amount of other visual effects wizardry at the screen? It’s disingenuous to say it’s about family problems and then give your actors wooden dialogue and hollow relationships."
I believe that reaction distorts what should be obvious and is fundamentally unfair to a man without which there would be no Star Wars. Setting aside Lucas' right to define his creation any way he wishes,the fact that there are a lot of space ships and special effects indicates HOW a story is told. It does not change what that story is or the themes within. A New Hope is all about Luke Skywalker's quest for meaning and purpose through adventure and discovery. Only the tragic murder of his adopted parents frees and motivates him to embark on that quest, which is made more meaningful by the Empire's ties to his... wait for it... FAMILY!
The galactic battle to defeat the Empire is all a matter of plot, which is boiled down into actions the characters take in order to find, keep, retrieve, or achieve something in each movie - what Hitchcock famously called the MacGuffin. In A New Hope, it's the Death Star blueprints. For the next two films, the most important so-called MacGuffin is Luke's allegiance as either a Jedi or a Sith, especially since his choice is what ultimately determines the success or failure of the Rebellion in Return of the Jedi.
Similarly, the prequels follow Luke's father Anakin on a quest to find his own path. We can argue about overall quality, but the theme of family is strong in the prequels, as well. Part of Anakin's confusion and misdirection stemming from his need for familial connections with people that understand him. Obi-Wan becomes like an older brother, but when Anakin doesn't feel understood by either him or the Jedi - or even Padme, for that matter - he turns to Chancellor Palpatine as a very obvious father figure that, however evil, does understand Anakin in ways nobody else can or does.
The "wooden dialogue and hollow relationships" were explained, if not excused, from the beginning in both commentary and the press. Superficially, at last, Lucas made the prequels as a far too literal homage to the cheap, quickly-made science fiction movies of the 1950's. Another excuse for the "wooden dialogue and hollow relationships" might be that if the prequels' underlying story took place in the real world, you'd essentially have three movies whose central characters grew up and lived as warrior monks that go out of their way to avoid being part of and participants in the larger, mainstream world they try to protect.
That suggests characters who are so culturally and even socially isolated within a strict and fairly exclusive group that their attempts at relationships with people outside of the group are naturally going to awkward and ill-fated. Despite his growing resistance to Jedi rules and scrutiny, someone like Anakin is naturally unprepared to deal with relationship complexities not inherent to those within the group BECAUSE of that group's philosophies and restrictions. Whether entertaining or just annoying, it goes further in explaining Anakin's childish reactions and behavior than fans give it credit for because they didn't like how it manifested onscreen .In contrast, Luke is pretty much grown before even hearing about the Jedi, then learns his skills courtesy of more balanced teachings from Yoda without having a Jedi Council to basically run his life.
Had reaction to the prequels been more positive, Lucas would probably still be involved. Nobody would ask the question and I suspect fans would be more forgiving of similar remarks were they made by someone they perceived as taking rightful ownership and credit for something that did not disappoint on such a large scale. As it is, I've always felt that the real issue isn't how well Lucas tells his story as much as it is about what story he chooses to tell. Fans seem to have expected something more more familiar from the prequels in which Anakin becomes a great Jedi warrior whose turn to the dark side has more to do with choices of galactic consequence than his own neediness and insecurity. What we got is a character study of someone that has been trapped in what amounts to an acceptable religious cult. While the film series as a whole is mostly about the Skywalker family, in particular, the prequels are about about how the rigidity and relative isolation of the Jedi's cult-like family makes it and members like Anakin as vulnerable to corruption and manipulation as the Republic it serves.