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Saturday, February 4, 2017

Force in Focus: The Star Wars Special Edition


This past week marked the 20th anniversary of the release of the Star Wars Special Edition, George Lucas' infamous release of a remastered edition of Star Wars (followed a month later by The Empire Strikes Back and a month after that with Return of the Jedi), which featured newly-edited and entirely new scenes relative to the original 1977 release (and subsequent prior re-releases). Though generally maligned nowadays, especially amongst online fandom, a direct line can be drawn from the Special Editions and the current pop culture dominance of Star Wars, as the releases were not only a successful way of gauging market response to more Star Wars, but also served as a proof-of-concept for the integration of CGI effects amongst live action actors, and thus in both ways opened the door for the Prequel Trilogy, and beyond. More importantly, for an entire generation of fans who grew up loving Star Wars but were only ever able to watch it on TV, via home video or televised broadcasts (including yours truly), the Special Editions marked the first opportunity to see the films on a big screen, in all their widescreen, THX-enhanced, stereo surround sound glory.

I have vague memories of seeing Jedi as a young kid, probably the '85 re-release when I would have been around four, but I was a sophomore in high school when the Special Editions were released, and I was running hot on Star Wars at the time. Timothy Zahn's novels of the early 90s had stoked the flames of my childhood fandom, introducing me to the Expanded Universe, and I'd devoured every entry in it since then. My still-young comic book fandom (and earning power) was expanding, and took in stuff like Dark Empire and the early Tales of the Jedi series. And Kenner's relaunched Power of the Force action figure line had hit the shelves a few months before the Special Editions, bridging my childhood fandom (when the vintage figures had helped me keep Star Wars alive in those dark post-Jedi, pre-Zahn days) with my current one.

So word of the Special Editions were met with rapturous glee from me, as I would finally, finally be able to see all three movies on the big screen (I was also at this time a budding cinephile, and already knew, in that smug way teens who just discovered a thing and then immediately become on expert on said thing knew, that the correct way to watch any movie is on the big screen, in its original aspect ratio, of course). Even better, that cut scene between Han Solo and Jabba the Hutt that I'd read in the novelization and read about in various making-of books, was going to be re-added to the film. On January 31st, 1997, I lined up with a group of friends at roughly 6 AM outside the movie theater inside the Mall of America (not only was the MOA's theater, at that time, still one of the premiere theaters in our area, it was also entirely indoors, an important consideration when waiting in line in Minnesota in January). We were by no means alone (the line stretched a fair ways back) but we had no issuse getting tickets, and at around roughly noon, the first showing began.

It was a transcendent experience, and I'm fairly certain my eyes teared up a little in the opening moments of the movie, experiencing for the first time, as intended, the raw power of that initial Rebel cruiser/Star Destroyer chase. The various changes made to the film, the subject of so much teeth gnashing online, had little impact on me at the time; I was simply excited to experience the whole thing on the big screen. I ended up seeing Star Wars three times in the theater, and each of the subsequent Special Editions at least once on opening day and three times in total (the Empire Special Edition, in fact, might have been my first midnight showing of any film).

As for those changes, as I've gotten older, they've certainly become more problematic. Greedo shooting first, of course, gets the most attention, but that's just because so many fans are angry that Lucas sanded a rough edge off their precious, precious Han Solo. Having always been a Luke guy, I've never been able muster up the outrage of so many fans over that change (call me a square if you will, but I like my heroes to not be killers. Subtly changing Han, one of the central heroes of the trilogy, from killing pre-preemptively to killing in self-defense, is a good change to me, not a bad one). The Jabba the Hutt scene, though, the one I was legitimately excited to see back in '97, is by far the most problematic aspect of the Special Edition. Not only does the CGI - groundbreaking at the time, of course - terribly date the film (resulting in constant tweakings to Jabba's look in all subsequent releases), but it robs Jabba of a lot of his menace, even before the painfully "comic" moment when Han steps on Jabba's tail. Most significantly, it's entirely unnecessary: it simply repeats information to the audience we already learned from Greedo in the previous scene. It not only adds nothing, but takes away from other scenes as well.

The rest of the changes are mostly cosmetic or background related (I have a hard time getting worked up about CGI dewbacks, either) or the result of changing chronology (removing references to Luke's father which will soon be contradicted by the Prequels). Star Wars is definitely the film that received the most additions and tinkerings; Empire the least, and as a result, it's the easiest of the Special Editions to watch (aside from a few minor scene extensions and a change to the Vader/Emperor conversation - which was changed again on the Blu-ray - it's mostly just background stuff getting tweaked); Jedi similarly gets away with few changes, outside two significant musical numbers which sort of balance each other out: the reprehensible "Jedi Rocks", replacing "Lapti Nek" in Jabba's palace, and the final celebration music that replaces "Yub Nub" (along with some new check-ins across the galaxy, including the first-ever appearance of Coruscant); as much as I love "Yub Nub", it's probably not the most dignified song on which to end what is, essentially, a six-movie Wagnerian operatic arc.

Of course, the other chief complaint of the Special Editions, and the one to which I'm more sympathetic, is the way that George Lucas not only tweaked the original films, but refuses to acknowledge any but the Special Editions as the official versions of the film, for the most part unwilling to release the original cuts in any official way, shape or form (an edict thus far held to by LucasFilm post-Disney acquisition). I have no objections to George Lucas going back to tinker with his creations, as is his right as a creator, and I have no issue with him saying "well, as long as I'm tinkering, I may as well see if anyone will pay money to see my tinkered versions", as is his right as a businessman. But his strict embargo on the original cuts bothers me, not so much because I absolutely prefer the originals to the Special Editions, but because of film history.

The Star Wars films are benchmarks in film history, for the way they influenced blockbuster filmmaking for decades to come, for their advances in special effects, for the way they changed, for good and bad, how Hollywood views and markets its products, and they deserve to be preserved, as they were originally presented at their respective moments in time, for the sake of that history. The Special Editions can exist alongside them, and I have no regrets about having paid money to watch and own them (in far too many forms). But I do wish Lucas had also seen fit to offer the originals in a properly remastered, properly preserved format, warts (real or perceived) and all, just for the sake of history, so that some day historians can look back and say "this is what audiences saw for the first time on that day in May in 1977".

I can (for the most part) go back and watch the Special Editions, and be reminded of seeing Star Wars for the first time on the big screen on that cold January morning twenty years ago. But choice is important, and so is history, and it's a shame that the one experience exists at the expense of the other, that I can't also put in a copy of the original, non-Special Edition version of Star Wars, and be transported back to my earliest days of VHS viewing, or to get a taste of what it was to experience the film for the first time on opening day in 1977.

12 comments:

  1. Knowing that they were essentially f/x audutions for the prequels makes the changes in the Special Editions easier to understand (and subsequently easier to watch,) but I agree: Lucas can make all the alterations he wants, but the original forms should be preserved. If fans had embraced the Special Editions, would Lucas maybe be more willing to acknowledge the originals (especially if there was money involved?) Maybe.

    Until then, fans should check out the DeSpecialized Editions floating around online. They're huge files, but are absolutely gorgeous reconstructions of the 77, 80, and 83 versions of the films.

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    1. I've long been puzzled by the lack of a proper un-Special Edition trilogy simply because doing so would be money in the bank - everyone who hates the Special Editions would buy it, and pretty much everyone else would buy it too. At the end of the day, I do think Lucas genuinely put what he believed to be his artistic integrity ahead of money (which is easy to do when you're a bajillionaire already).

      Of course, now Disney owns them, and there's never enough money for a corporation, so I wouldn't be surprised if we get them in some form at some point.

      Until then, fans should check out the DeSpecialized Editions floating around online.

      I know Amazon has something similar available for purchase/rental, but they're based on the old Laser Disc editions, and thus, not anamorphic; are the DeSpecialized Editions similar?

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    2. The DeSpecialized can only be described as a true labor of love:
      https://youtu.be/mGrXO2RDzLg

      Essentially, they used several different sources to recreate the closest possible approximation of what people saw in theaters in 1977. It looks fantastic.

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  2. I saw a showing of STAR WARS at a local theater in probably seventh or eighth grade, but the Special Editions, which released when I was a high school senior, were my first time seeing EMPIRE and JEDI in theaters.

    It's weird; being someone who tends to wallow in nostalgia, occasionally to unhealthy extremes, you'd think the Special Editions would bug me, but they really didn't. Lucas changed them, they're the versions he's released ever since, and I've never felt any particular need to go back and see the non-Special Editions again. He made them official, so that's what they are as far as I'm concerned.

    As for the specific changes, I liked a lot of them at the time. Like you, Han not shooting first doesn't bug me much -- but the really awkward CGI "head slide" does. It looks awful.

    The Jabba scene looked amazing at the time, but by the mid-00s it had dated poorly and I was glad when Lucas updated it with a more advanced CG model. I do agree that the inclusion of the scene adds nothing, but I crack up every time Han steps on Jabba's tail (even if that CG movement also looks jerky and unnatural). I love slapstick (I have a much higher tolerance for Jar Jar than many fans, too), and I also think it legitimately adds a bit to Han's character -- he's pretty much the only guy in the galaxy bold enough to do something like that to Jabba.

    My only real problem wiht that scene, though, is the inclusion of Boba Fett. Talk about pandering to the fanboys! He even stops to stare directly at the camera on the way out of the hangar!

    I also liked the battalion of stormtroopers waiting for Han in the cargo bay on the Death Star. That bit adds nothing to the movie, but it feels like something Lucas put in specifically to mess with longtime fans and for no other reason. When I saw the SE in a theater, a lady in the audience shrieked at the sight of them, so that kinda made it worth it.

    The rest of the movies -- I like actually seeing the Wampa in EMPIRE. I love the expanded Cloud City exteriors. Though it didn't come until years later with the Blu-Rays, I heartily approve of replacing the holographic emperor with Ian MacDiarmid (I can never get enough of his Palpatine). I agree on the finale of JEDI; I really like the "Victory Celebration" music. I also like "Jedi Rocks" -- it's tonally out of place, but it's a really catchy tune.

    Again, though, it's ruined a bit by numerous shots of Boba Fett, including one bit where he's apparently hitting on Jabba's dancers. Sheesh.

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    1. Yeah, all the extra Boba Fett stuff is annoying, but like Han, I've never been a huge Boba Fett fanboy anyway.

      I too love the extra Stormtroopers on the Death Star. Adds a little something to the great gag about Han running around the corner and then running away the opposite direction.

      I like the Wampa in EMPIRE too, and the Cloud City exteriors just make the whole place seem more like a city, and less like a series of halls that Han, Lando and Leia walk down.

      "Jedi Rocks", on its own, as a song, isn't terrible. It just doesn't fit very well into the movie, either tonally, or visually (CGI Jabba in ANH worked, in part, because he was surrounded by regular people. Jon Ywoza or whatever his name is, sticks out, because he's CGI amongst space Muppets, and that makes both him and the Muppets look bad).

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  3. I agree, a lot of the changes were cool at the time, and I think the intention behind some of them are legit--the expanded Wampa scenes, the Death Star trench run, etc. My problem with them is just how bad many of them look now, coupled with how often they're useless or distracting. Why change Vader's terse "bring my shuttle" to "prepare my shuttle for my arrival?" (Or whatever he says.) Why have the one creature walk in front of the camera when Luke and Ben arrive in Mos Eisley, drawing attention to how it would be physically impossible to fit them there? Why did anyone think Jedi Rocks was a good idea, or necessary?

    Replacing the Emperor in Empire is understandable, but I do miss the ambiguous, creepy nature of the original--being unsure of who is "playing" who in their conversation, the creepy visuals, etc. Ian MacDiarmid long since seemed to go headlong into "camp" territory.

    For me, the VHS copies that came out in the early 90's were the definitive versions. I'd watched them so many times in college with friends, I nearly have them memorized, word-for-word. So every change, even 20 years after the Special Editions hit theaters, is STILL jarring to this day. Like you said--I support Lucas's right to change what he wants, but why must it be almost impossible (except through less legal means) to see some of my favorite movies as I remember them? Especially when I'd be happy to pay for it, and even if it's done for the sake of history and nothing more.

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    1. I thought I read somewhere that the "cut in front of Luke & Ben at Mos Eisely" addition was needed to cover up a bad cut or something like that, but I can't for the life of me remember exactly what it was.

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  4. I could've sworn a thread on the John Byrne forum around 10 years ago, after an announcement of the original 1977 version being released on DVD. Byrne posted a message after its release saying something to the effect of "Not the Original After All..." because there was a dialogue exchange that didn't match his precise memory of the original. (I think one of Uncle Owen's lines.)

    One of his fans speculated that Byrne saw a regional print in '77, and not the one that went to the rest of the country.

    I've since wondered if I dreamed this, because I've never heard any other reference to the 1977 version being released in any form. Maybe some of Byrne's fans pointed him towards one of the Amazon bootlegs and that's what he bought?

    I didn't even know that some of the dialogue was changed to fit the retcon that Vader is Anakin. It's amazing to me that Lucas was able to get away with that one. Only a tiny percentage of the public seems to know that this was a retcon at all.

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    1. Is there any (non-anecdotal) corroboration for Byrne's claim that the dialogue he heard was different? Byrne's a terrific artist and storyteller, but he's also human, and human memory is strikingly fragile. It's imperfect, and can be retroactively influenced by outside sources.

      Example: at some point in the early 90s,I had seen Empire Strikes Back easily a dozen times, but not for at least four or five years. I clearly remembered Luka asking Yoda if his friends would die if he stayed on Dagobah. My memory was dead on for Yoda's "always in motion is the future," but I could have sworn that Luke pressed the issue and got Yoda to finally say, "yes, they will die." Then the VHS 3-pack got released and I was stunned to not hear that line. I brought it up to some friends, and sure enough, a few said, "yeah, I remember that too."

      But they didn't. It's just something that sounds like it could have been there, and my insistence probably helped sell it in my friends' heads (not to mention in my own.)

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    2. I've never seen or heard of any verifiable proof that there were different cuts of the film (regional or otherwise) at any time. I really do think it's just a matter of peoples' memory playing tricks on them, like the people who insist they saw the "Episode IV - A New Hope" in the title crawl well before it was actually added to one of the subsequent re-releases, or the people who swear they got a "To Be Continued" at the end of BACK TO THE FUTURE the first time they saw it in theaters, even though that wasn't added until the home video release, after it was decided there would be sequels (something that wasn't intended from the beginning, and which took a fair amount of cajoling to get Zemeckis & Gale on board for).

      I didn't even know that some of the dialogue was changed to fit the retcon that Vader is Anakin. It's amazing to me that Lucas was able to get away with that one. Only a tiny percentage of the public seems to know that this was a retcon at all.

      What's funny about the change (which basically cut a bunch of dialogue from the scene between Luke and Red Leader, shifting the justification for Luke joining the squad from "I knew your father" to "Biggs vouches for him") is that it really wasn't necessary; there's nothing that says an older pilot couldn't have known and flown with famous Jedi Anakin Skywalker; plenty of Imperial officers and whatnot were around for the Clone Wars, why not this particular Rebel?

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    3. Okay, this is what I remembered from 10 years ago:
      https://youtu.be/mGrXO2RDzLg?t=305

      The original versions, taken from a laserdisc transfer, were included as limited edition special bonuses on the 2006 re-releases. Apparently, fans weren't happy with the quality, which is why efforts are still underway to present hi-def versions of the originals.

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  5. I saw A New Hope — many times, the first at 6½ years old — during its initial release(s), when it was of course simply called Star Wars. By the time the Special Edition came along, though, I hadn’t seen it in theaters since the 1981 rerelease, so catching it on the big screen at 26½ (what passed for a grownup… newlywed even) was exciting just in theory as well as, for the most part, reality. The opening with that Star Destroyer coming into view overhead as it chased the Rebel ship in crisp focus totally had me feeling like a kid again. I agree with John F that many of the changes are useless or distracting, though, like crowding up Mos Eisley with various bits of business, and I have to disagree with Matt that the CGI Jabba looked amazing at the time; he totally looked inserted via digital effects, in addition to being too small (out of necessity, sure, but only because Lucas wanted to get the scene in there), and his mugging when his tail is stepped on is eye-rolling. While I did pop in the Special Edition DVDs when rewatching the original trilogy before The Force Awakens, purely because it was easier, I very happily still own the previous versions on VHS.

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