The Dangers of Second-Guessing: George Lucas vs. Robert Zemeckis

As I’ve discussed in other articles, I love George Lucas, and I know a lot of other people do, too. The original Star Wars trilogy will always have a special place in our hearts. However, it has lost some of its luster over the years, not because it keeps getting older and more dated, but because it keeps getting “improvements” and other makeovers to try to modernize it.

George Lucas believes that films are never finished but simply abandoned. This is not a healthy way to look at filmmaking. It leads people to live in the past and never be satisfied with their work rather than moving forward and trying harder in the future. That is why I would like to offer a contrast to Lucas in the form of fellow writer/director Robert Zemeckis. Zemeckis is arguably most famous for his Back to the Future trilogy. Despite some small flaws in those films, Zemeckis has never revisited them or come out with special editions with new special effects, restored scenes, or anything else. They are what they are, and there’s no need to change them.

I’d like to take a minute to talk about these two filmmakers because their opposing viewpoints on filmmaking fascinate me, and I think they have some helpful lessons for us, as well.

It Is Your Density

Alec Guinness and George Lucas on the Star Wars set in TunisiaGeorge Lucas and Robert Zemeckis created two different destinies for themselves through their careers. Lucas started out as a bright flame in a dreary decade. After his failure to find an audience for THX 1138, he made two of the best feel-good movies of all time: American Graffiti and Star Wars. He followed those up by co-writing and producing two Star Wars sequels and three of the best action films of all time with the Indiana Jones series. He knew what audiences wanted, and he did a superb job delivering on his promises. But then in the 1990s he returned to the Star Wars films and made unnecessary changes to them in an attempt to make use of new technology. This was a mistake of Coke 2 proportions. Fans preferred Lucas’ early, cruder attempts to put his vision on film. But Lucas couldn’t leave well enough alone and he made three prequels to rewrite his original trilogy’s history. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to move on to many other projects because he was stuck in the past.

Director Robert Zemeckis on the set of Back to the FutureRobert Zemeckis took a completely different path. He, too, started out making a few movies that performed poorly at the box office, but then he struck gold with 1984’s Romancing the Stone and parlayed that success into his opus Back to the Future. From there on, he never repeated himself but always moved forward into new stories and genres. Who Framed Roger Rabbit came next, and it rivals Mary Poppins as the best animated/live-action film of all time. Even the sequels to Back to the Future don’t just retread the plot of the first film. They find innovative ways to tell their stories that interact perfectly with what came before without seeming like a rehash. He took a turn into dark comedy with Death Becomes Her, made an effective drama with Forrest Gump, and so on. If he has one flaw, it’s that he seems to have gotten too caught up in the CGI movement with films like The Polar Express, Beowulf, and A Christmas Carol. But even that can’t diminish his reputation for doing something original and interesting with each of his films. He’s not afraid to try new things.

If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t FX It

It is a miracle that Star Wars – Episode IV: A New Hope was made. From its tight budget to never-before-tried special effects, this movie faced daunting odds every step of the way to its theatrical release in May 1977. Watching the original version today, I can’t help but feel a sense of wonder that it was made for so little money, but it still feels so grand in scope. It didn’t need modern special effects to produce that feeling. It pioneered the visual effects we see commonly used in films today, so to try to graft new ones into the old film doesn’t work and it takes away from the film’s achievement.

Marty McFly, the DeLorean time machine, and a bolt of lightningThe Back to the Future films have a surprisingly small number of special-effects shots. Even Back to the Future Part II, which has the most special effects, doesn’t overuse them. We see a whole lot at the start, but they’re servicing the story and creating a world that is a lot of fun to immerse yourself in. I’m so glad Zemeckis never saw a need to go back and add anything else to the visuals. The time travel is instantaneous, and it doesn’t need flashy warping effects to show us what’s happening. We just accept that the DeLorean can disappear and leave fiery tread marks behind. I think Marty sums it all up nicely after he recovers from seeing a giant CGI shark head leaping out to bite his head off as an advertisement for Jaws 19: “The shark still looks fake.” No matter how hard filmmakers try, viewers are always going to find little imperfections, so why bother going back and trying to perfect them? It’s better to just keep doing the best you can moving forward.

Diminishing Returns of the Jedi

If you go back and work on something you did a long time ago, you’re likely to simply ruin everything that made it great (e.g., Mel Brooks’ The Producers). Probably Lucas’ biggest mistake in revising the original trilogy is in failing to understand Han Solo’s character, and why people like him so much. In fact, the seeds were already there in Return of the Jedi when Han was given almost nothing to do, and he wasn’t able to act like a rogue or develop as a character. Back on point, the infamous change to the Han Shoots Greedo scene was both unnecessary and showed that Lucas has changed a lot over the years. That moment defined Han’s character for a lot of people because it’s the first awesome thing we see him do, and it shows his character’s disregard for rules and life, thus making his decision to help Luke at the climax all that more surprising and satisfying. To decide decades after the fact that that moment was inappropriate for children is foolhardy. Of course, everyone in our galaxy has already commented on the Han Shot First debate, so I’ll just leave it at that.

Live with the Past, Not in It

The point of all this is to say that everyone makes mistakes and does things they’re not proud of. But we have to accept our imperfections and move on, rather than fantasize about going back and making it right. We’re not Marty McFly, after all. It’s fitting that the Back to the Future films are about fixing problems that happened in the past to improve the present  because the filmmakers themselves never tried to go back and fix any perceived problems in those films. They got pretty much everything right the first time, so there’s really no point in going back. Everything turned out just fine in the end, and that’s how it should be left.

With any luck, now that George Lucas is no longer calling all the shots on Star Wars it will be revitalized with fresh talent coming up with exciting adventures for the heroes to encounter. Even though the Star Wars films happened “A Long Time Ago in a Galaxy Far, Far Away,” their future has never looked brighter. May we also look to the future and not second-guess ourselves.

This is the Deja Reviewer bidding you farewell until we meet again.

All images are the copyright of their respective owners.

About Robert Lockard, the Deja Reviewer

Robert Lockard has been a lover of writing since he was very young. He studied public relations in college, graduating with a Bachelor’s degree in 2006. His skills and knowledge have helped him to become a sought-after copywriter in the business world. He has written blogs, articles, and Web content on subjects such as real estate, online marketing and inventory management. His talent for making even boring topics interesting to read about has come in handy. But what he really loves to write about is movies. His favorite movies include: Fiddler on the Roof, Superman: The Movie, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Back to the Future, Beauty and the Beast, The Fugitive, The Incredibles, and The Dark Knight. Check out his website: Deja Reviewer. Robert lives in Utah with his wife and four children. He loves running, biking, reading, and watching movies with his family.
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5 Responses to The Dangers of Second-Guessing: George Lucas vs. Robert Zemeckis

  1. Robert – great article, and I love the comparison between Lucas and Zemeckis. While I completely see your point of view on this, I can’t say that I totally agree, but it’s given me a lot to think about.

    I’m a huge Star Wars fan (I even read the books… habitually). I don’t mind the ‘touch ups’ at all, in fact I quite enjoy them. As George has said, he has taken the opportunity to harness new technologies to make the movies match his original vision. Certainly, I have to imagine, that his vision has changed over time – perhaps ten years after a movie thinking ‘wouldn’t it be great if we added *this* to the background of a scene?’. I believe he simply wants to make the movies better. He’s the only film creator I can think of that has a regular habit of going back to his movies and making changes. Is it wrong that he does this? If so, why? Or is it simply that it’s unorthodox annoys us fanboys? For as big a fan as I am, I really don’t care who shot first – although in this particular example I’m not sure why he made that change. But, philosophically, is it for us to criticize? They are, after all, his movies. I suppose a lot of it is about perspective. How do we view film? It’s art, correct? But who does it belong to? Does it belong to the person(s) who made it or does it belong to the people who admire it. The fine print would say that it legally belongs to Lucasfilms – but I’m speaking in a more philosophical sense. Obviously there wouldn’t be much of a debate if there was no fan base.

    I suppose that once art is presented, it belongs to both the creator and the viewer. The viewer certainly has the right to be critical, especially when they contribute to the box office, or post box office, successes. But does the creator not have the right to make changes to their own artwork?

    You touch on a psychological aspect of things which I find fascinating: Lucas’ apparent inability to let go of what he has created. In a way, he isn’t following a guiding principle of the Force: Always be mindful of the present. But consider that we, too, are having difficulty letting go of what was. Just as George wants to make changes, we don’t want him make those changes. Why is that? Maybe it’s because we can’t let go, either.


    • Tim,

      I think you deserve commenter of the year. Thank you for bringing up so many thoughtful points that I didn’t consider while writing my article. I think that watching films is a little different than making films. I still enjoy Casablanca and other classic films, even though they’ve been around for a long time, and I would hate to see that film colorized or given new elements because it’s great in its current form. It is a product of its era, but it somehow has universal themes that still speak to audiences today: lost love, redemption, and sacrifice. If someone wanted to remake that film, then that would be fine, but it’s unnecessary to try to change the original.

      I think it’s the same with the Star Wars films. The fact that they still speak to audiences today means they transcend the era in which they were made, and so it’s not necessary to try to modernize them in any way. They’re already universally loved. George Lucas got everything just right the first time. I know that the creative process is messy and filmmakers wish they hadn’t been forced to compromise in certain areas to bring their film in on budget and on time. But such constraints have led to some of the best films of all time, as I discussed in another article:

      The bottom line is that George Lucas may have creative control over his films, but he needs to be more prudent in picking his battles. Rather than make touch-ups on old work, I wish he had moved forward with telling other tales. He’s so talented, I feel sad that we didn’t get to see more of what he had to offer.

      Thank you again for your wonderful comment. You gave me a lot to ponder, as well.

      Robert Lockard


      • Robert – my pleasure! The point I completely agree with you on is wishing that George could have created more. I’m glad that he’ll be behind the scenes for Disney’s foray into the Star Wars universe.


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