Monday, May 11, 2009

A Tale of Two Revisits Part 1 - Star Wars - A New Hope

Back in 1997 George Lucas decided that it would be a good idea to revisit his Star Wars trilogy and do some clean up. This was done to save the 1977 film which had deteriorated much more than anyone had expected. But it also gave Lucas a chance to fix some of the things that had always bothered him about the movie. Because of budget and time constraints (not to mention inventing and perfecting special effects to make the movie work), several things about the film just never worked for him. A perfect example is Luke's landspeeder. In the original, you could clearly see the mirrors and even the smudging that was needed to hide the wheels under the vehicle. In the Special edition, he was able to digitally remove the wheels, mirror and smudging that had been jokingly called "the force field" to give the illusion that the landspeeder was hovering over the sands.

But George also had another motive in mind. He was planning for his prequels and he wanted to see just how much he could alter a film with special effects and have the audience accept it. He knew his new movies were going to have scenes were nothing on the screen was real - basically animation. And if he was going to mix these scenes with actual footage of real people on real sets or on location, he wanted it to be accepted.

So he dug up his old unfinished footage of Han and Jabba meeting. He added some more scenes to Mos Eisley. He replaced aliens in the cantina. He reworked Han's confrontation with Greedo. He practically redid the entire end battle with computer generated starships.

The results were a mixed bag with most fans. Some people felt that "their childhood was raped" by the changes. The most hated change was the whole Greedo vs. Han exchange. Others felt that the movie gained much from the upgrades, and felt that the overall effect was a good one. Newer fans felt it was a vast improvement, feeling the old 70's effects were looking pretty bad.

My opinion? I thought that the overall idea was a sound one. I didn't mind most of the little technical changes that added to the film. I didn't like Greedo shooting first, and I think the updated effects in that scene still look bad (they were cleaned up a bit for the DVD release). I'm not disavowing Lucas because of the change, but I didn't think it was necessary. I didn't like the new scenes with Jabba and or the added moment with Biggs. Both weren't needed to tell the story and the Jabba scene feels like it was forced in (especially with Mr. Fett's knowing look at the camera). As for the revamped space battle, I think it is an improvement. The ships have more motion, and it generates more excitement. In addition it’s easier to follow what’s going on, especially Wedge's maneuver to save Luke. For the longest time I never knew what the hell happened in that scene - the Special Edition clears it up.

Still many fans were more than angry, they were infuriated. Hatred for the new version of the classic film was boosted by other changes in "Empire" and "Jedi, not to mention the release of the prequels. Many of these angry fans are old timers, like me, who grew up with Star Wars and hold it close to our hearts. I held on to my old Laserdisc version to be able to watch the unchanged version of the movies - but I bought the Special Editions as well. Eventually Lucas offered an olive branch to the pissed off fans with an untouched copy of the original films (even going so far as to release the cut with the opening crawl, minus the episode number). Still some fans are angry that these original versions are not in anamorphic widescreen. You can't please everyone Mr. Lucas - don't even try.

I know many people who are convinced that the Special Editions were one hell of a cunning marketing scheme. Lucas got to release his existing films, tinker with some scenes for a minimal amount of money and then release them to cash in. All the old timers will see them for nostalgia reasons and bring their kids along (20 years later most of us old timers have kids), and start the cycle fresh again - just in time for "The Phantom Menace" in theaters in 1999. If he made a few people angry - who cares. He got them to see the movie didn't he?

I'm sure some of that mercenary thinking went into the decision, but I think that Lucas was frustrated with some aspects of Star Wars. Even in old interviews he's lamented some of the failings of the “cutting edge for 1977” effects. In that vein, I don't mind him going back and cleaning up the movie a bit. But when you start tampering with character motivations, and basic storytelling - it's bound to make some fans unhappy. Add to it the fact that tampering with the movie inspired other tampering to occur (Spielberg’s changes to "ET" are one of the bad side effects), and that Lucas can now make little tweaks to all his films and release them again and again and again - just leaves a bad taste in this fan's mouth. It's one of the reasons I really stopped calling myself a Star Wars fan. I enjoyed the classic films in their classic form, and while I do watch the Special Editions from time to time, I’m glad I can watch the versions I remember from my youth. Because for me, Star Wars makes me feel like a kid again.
What did you think of the Special Edition Changes Lucas made? Do you think fans made angry by the changes need to get a life, or do they have valid points? Do you have a problem with a creator going back and tinkering with his creation (especially when it comes to movies and books)?


Anonymous said...

The changes to the death of Greedo and the inclusion of Jabba the Hut is atrocious. Will never watch these versions again.

Roman J. Martel said...

I really didn't like the changes either. From a character point of view, the fact that Han shot Greedo first never bothered me. Han has a gun pointed at him and Greedo threatens his life - seems perfectly logical that Han would shoot the jerk.

And the Jabba scene is just not needed. The effects were cleaned up a bit for the DVD release and Jabba looks much better than he did in 97, but the scene still feels hollow.

I get the feeling that Mr. Lucas will continue to tamper with the films for many years to come... oh boy. :-(