Director continues saga...for better or worse

GEORGE LUCAS, I wish you knew how to quit us.

An oft-cited aspect of the “Star Wars” legend involves the director’s foresight in claiming sequel and merchandising rights during that far-away time before the movie world was awash in them. Yet increasingly, Lucas’ “Wars” appear to drag on (and on) largely to keep the wheels on his own vast empire churning, sort of like that droid-producing factory in “Attack of the Clones.”

Granted, Lucasfilm would hardly be the first enterprise to benefit from transforming movies or TV shows into “products” for the express purpose of peddling toys and videogames, so why pick on them? you’d like to think that Lucas — with his Force-gotten gains and thinly veiled disdain for the current movie business — would feel less encumbered by strictly commercial calculations. He’s spoken more than once over the years about quietly retreating to make small, personal films. Or maybe he should take up a hobby, like his contemporary Francis Ford Coppola, who funneled his spare time into a vineyard.

This came to mind after seeing the latest addition to “Star Wars” lore, “The Clone Wars,” which landed in theaters with a $14.6 million domestic opening — more than respectable for an animated movie conceived to introduce a TV program scheduled to premiere on Cartoon Network in the fall.

While critics rightfully derided the storytelling, one suspects those shortcomings will be significantly mitigated in the series. Presented as a weekly half-hour (actually about 21 minutes minus commercials), the producers needn’t worry overly much about plot or character development and can get straight into showcasing the impressive animation and blowing stuff up — the less distractions from clunky dialogue, the better.

NEVERTHELESS, even many committed “Star Wars” fans (count yours truly among them) view these brand extensions with ambivalence. We winced through the uneven, at-times-dreadful writing that characterized the recent trilogy, which often looked to be killing time — and threatened to do the same to Hayden Christensen’s promising career — until the third installment, when Anakin Skywalker finally donned that Darth Vader mask.

Yes, film is a visual medium, but Lucas has seemingly become so preoccupied with gadgetry — that is, what can be accomplished digitally — as to have lost all interest in niggling matters like performance, script and plot, the better to rush actors, animated or otherwise, from one green-screen backdrop to another.

Given that track record, the prospect of a live-action series that Lucas speaks of producing is enough to send a chill up the spines of anyone with fond memories of seeing “The Empire Strikes Back” in a theater 28 summers ago.

Among its biggest fans, “Star Wars” has always been something more than just the movies. Still, for those who steadfastly defend later incarnations — insisting that Jar Jar Binks was hilarious or the hokey scripts were perfectly OK — as Triumph the Insult Comic Dog observed while interviewing die-hards on “Late Night With Conan O’Brien,” “Here’s a spoiler: You will die alone.”

EVEN WITHOUT new permutations, it’s not like “Star Wars” is ever going away. Indeed, it’s remarkable how well the first three chapters hold up, which explains why the Spike cable net can endlessly rerun them.

Without new product, though, it’s fair to say that kids wouldn’t be clamoring for Clone merchandise, especially since those traitorous bastards will ultimately turn on the Jedi. The challenge is finding fresh ways to sustain the material — a threat to which “Star Trek’s” TV voyages eventually succumbed. Paramount is hoping director J.J. Abrams’ movie prequel can relaunch that gravy train.

Lucas has always seemed to identify more with the values of “THX-1138″ and “American Graffiti” than the blockbuster mentality “Star Wars” came to represent, offering hope that he might either allow others to reinvigorate the franchise or let it bow out gracefully.

Barring that, it’s tempting to try playing a Jedi mind trick on him, subconsciously planting doubts that would enable “Star Wars” to sunset — if not on a creative high note, then with a touch of dignity.

So let’s collectively channel Alec Guinness’ mellifluous voice and mutter under our collective breaths: “You don’t need to see any more spinoffs. These aren’t the projects you’re looking for. You can go about your other businesses. Move along.”

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