May the Force Be With You, and You, and You ...
Why fans make better Star Wars movies than George Lucas.
Good news, Star Wars buffs. There's a new movie out this spring—and it isn't by George Lucas. The 40-minute, fan-made Star Wars Revelations cost a mere $20,000. It's also just as good as—and often quite better than—the cringe-inducing Star Wars movies of recent years. Indeed, it's so artistically successful that it suggests a radical idea: Maybe Lucas should step aside and let the fans take over.
Our most cherished sci-fi franchises are in a creative trough. Lucas' movies have spiraled into unwatchability; Paramount has so exhausted its ideas for Star Trek that it's folding up its tent and going home. The fans, in contrast, still give a damn: The director of Revelations, Shane Felux, is clearly more knowledgeable about the strengths and weaknesses of the material than Lucas himself. Felux's movieretains the funky vibe of the original Star Wars, down to the kitschy, '70s-style wipes, the obligatory scene in an alien bar, and Darth Vader's throat-choking technique. Better yet, it jettisons Lucas' most loathed innovations—neither Jar Jar Binks nor any Ewoks make an appearance. Fans may be pointy-headed and obsessed with useless trivia, but they have excellent bullshit detectors.
The fans can also give Industrial Light and Magic a run for its money. When it comes to special effects, Revelations is nothing short of astonishing. Early on, there's a jaw-dropping chase scene in which the heroes' ship darts like a nimble fish through a cluttered space-yard, a fleet of TIE fighters in hot pursuit. Later, a stunning attack on an Empire Destroyer left me laughing in sheer surprise.
How could Felux produce scenes this good? Because desktop animation and editing programs like Bryce and Adobe Premiere Pro allow anyone to blow up a CGI spacecraft on a garage-band budget. What's more, Felux relied on the techniques of open-source design. Hundreds of people worldwide offered small bits of work, purely for the love of the project—and a chance to brag about their contribution. Felux wrangled free labor from over 30 CGI artists, including one supremely talented 16-year-old kid who lists his occupation as "being awesome." For live-action shots, Felux convinced unpaid actors and crew members to drive out to weekend shoots. When he needed uniforms for Storm Troopers and X-wing pilots, he borrowed them from fans who made their own.
Fan-made art is also easier to distribute than ever before. The proliferation of broadband in the past few years means that a movie doesn't have to open on 3,000 screens to get seen by millions of eyeballs. In only one week online, an estimated 1,000,000 people have already downloaded Star Wars Revelations. You can get the movie for free from various online sites or by using BitTorrent —don't worry, it's a legal download. BitTorrent in particular is so efficient in its use of bandwidth that I downloaded the entire 252-megabyte movie in around 12 minutes. (That's probably because 99 percent of the geeks who are into fan-created sci-fi are using BitTorrent.)
George Lucas has always encouraged Star Wars-inspiredfan movies, so long as the wannabe auteurs didn't try to make a profit. (That's the case with Felux—he isn't selling his movie or any associated merchandise.) Lucas should do more, though. Once he stops polluting the world with prequels, he should slap a liberal "Creative Commons" copyright license on the Star Wars franchise. That would explicitly allow any fan to remix an existing movie, or create a new one in homage, so long as there's no profit involved. Everyone wins: Movies like Revelations keep the fan base alive, and Lucas can continue selling figurines until the sun explodes.
This open-source method won't work for every defunct cultural property. Fan art works best when it feeds off of dweeby universes that are jam-packed with characters. It would be easy to create amateur, offshoot films based on Lord of the Rings or The Twilight Zone, and possibly even a show with a revolving-door cast like Law & Order. Shows or movies that rely on a single, charismatic actor—like Sarah Michelle Gellar in Buffy the Vampire Slayer—aren't as easy to replicate. But Buffy fans could simply create spinoffs, the way Buffy'screator churned out a series of comic books starring other teen slayers.
All fan-created movies still face two big stumbling blocks: scriptwriting and acting. Even something as polished as Revelations is occasionally marred by a boilerplate plot and wooden acting. (Though that might make the homage all the more authentic given the hollowness of Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman in Attack of the Clones.) The amateurs, it seems, cannot escape the artistic trap that ensnares big-budget sci-fi auteurs. When you fall in love with CGI effects, sometimes you forget how to deal with those quaint, un-animated properties we call "actors."
Clive Thompson is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and
a columnist for Wired.
Stills courtesy Shane Felux. All rights reserved.