Pop Culture at its Best

When ‘Star Wars’ Changed

star-wars-1997-rereleaseI could barely contain my excitement. Star Wars, a film I had probably watched maybe 20 or 30 times was going to be re-released theatrically. My parents weren’t big movie fans, but my uncle had offered to take me and my best friend to see it. A fitting choice considering it had been my uncle who introduced me to the Star Wars universe. He gave me the trilogy box-set after I had watched his copy of Batman (1989) so many times that I could quote lines by heart. As much as I loved Batman, Star Wars completely overwhelmed my five year old self. I loved movies already at a young age, but this was a phenomenon that the entire world could tap into.

A New Hope was now dubbed the “The Special Edition” and the picture was rumored to have millions of dollars in special effects added following it’s 20th anniversary. The inspiration to re-release the trilogy came after George Lucas saw what Industrial Lights & Magic had done with computer-generated effects for Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park. Digital effects had finally caught up with the stories filmmakers wanted to make. Now was the right time, Lucas felt, to use ILM to create his original vision for Star Wars. What these changes could add to the film was a mystery in my mind, but I already loved A New Hope, so new digital effects could only be an improvement. Right?

The January 31st release date was still days away, but I was counting down the seconds in my head. My friend Jesse and I would have to wait until Saturday to catch the release though, making the wait seem that much longer. We spent the rest of the week battling with lightsabers re-enacting all of out favorite scenes. To say that it was the most excited I had ever been would be putting it lightly. Saturday afternoon rolled around and my uncle picked us up to head to the local cineplex. A large crowd was expected, but when the mall doors were opened the ticket line was packed with hundreds of fans, spanning from the theatre to the food court four-store lengths down.

Fans were decked out in costumes that would rival the enthusiasm of a Rocky Horror Picture Show midnight showing. I expected to see this kind of dedication on Friday night, but certainly not Saturday morning. Fortunately, our group arrived with hours to kill before the first showing of the day. We wouldn’t have to wait until a second showing. As the line dwindled down and the audience filed into the theatre it became apparent that no seats would be left empty. Only the first several rows in the front were available, so we sat down.

Shortly after the lights dimmed and the Fox fanfare popped up onscreen. I knew that I was sitting close, but it was when the screen filled up that I realized how big it was all going to be. John William’s instantly recognizable score began and yellow text scrolled down the screen, but viewers already knew the words by heart. A hush fell over the crowd as the text gave way to the film and it was a moment that I hadn’t experienced in a theatre before. Sure, kids would be in awe of what was playing in front of them, but adults very rarely ever reacted in that way. Viewers young and old alike were there to be mesmerized.

A majority of the digital additions were largely superficial, filling the background with sights that wouldn’t have been possible to do decades earlier — Mos Eisley in particular was much more populated city with creatures storm trooper. Small things like the Sandcrawler and Obi-Wan’s hut were also touched up to look better. For the most part the tweeks went unnoticed by me. They were there, but I was more concerned with letting the movie unfold before me on the big screen. Such changes were largely unnecessary, but none of them had been prominent enough to warrant comment.

Then it happened. A change that was so distracting it took nearly everyone present out of watching. The scene in question had played through fans’ memories thousands of times: A tense exchange occurs between bounty hunters Han Solo and Greedo. The chat appears to be polite before Greedo threatens to kill Han to collect the handsome bounty on his head. Han draws and kills Greedo before that thought can go any further and he goes about his business. Or at least that’s how it should have gone, except this time Greedo shoots (and misses) at Han before being shot himself.

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Greedo’s inserted misfire didn’t pass by audience members without comment, but conversation didn’t last long enough to derail the showing. Shortly thereafter a CGI’ed Jabba the Hutt corners Han outside the Millennium Falcon demanding the money he’s owed. It made sense that Lucas would want Jabba to appear the same in A New Hope as he did in Return of the Jedi and his inevitable appearance in the new prequels, but the exchange was handled awkward visually. Han’s eyes weren’t quite lined up to meet Jabba’s and one couldn’t shake the feeling that this would look much worse in 20 years than simply ignoring the continuity issues.

For as rough as that patch was, I still enjoyed the re-release. The same chill ran through my spine when Luke was handed his father’s lightsaber. Obi-wan and Darth Vader’s duel was just as riveting as it was when I first watched the film. Despite the digital effect botch-ups earlier, the new X-Wing dogfights looked fantastic in the new edition. Star Wars would hardly seem dated to young fans, but even crowd members who saw it in theatres in 1977 nodded in approval of those scenes. Still, the aftertaste from the Cantina gunfight left some soured on the experience.

Heated comments about new changes were heard aloud in the lobby. Teenagers and twenty-somethings were still saying “Han shot first” as they filed out of the mall. The change drew a lot of heat opening weekend, but hardly anyone thought that the tide turning against George Lucas would become a tsunami.  Without being overly dramatic, it was the beginning of the end for Star Wars fandom. Episode I was still looming two years away, but the special editions were an indicator of what was to come. The tapes containing the theatrical version of the 1977 film became unavailable for anyone who wanted them. Lucas’s digital tinkering wouldn’t end with Greedo. The prequels eventually gave the director cause to add Hayden Christensen as Anakin’s ghost for Return of the Jedi. Not to mention Vader’s comical “No!” that plagued the blu-ray releases.

Seeing Star Wars in theatres was supposed to be the coolest event of my young life, but I walked out of the theatre feeling a little disappointed that day. The version of the film I grew up watching wouldn’t be the same for future releases. It was the first instance of nostalgia I encountered without even knowing what nostalgia was. Star Wars would never be as popular again as it was then. I understand why George Lucas felt the need to keep his films relevant and looking state of the art digitally, but there is a charm to letting films stay untouched by time. That so many still hold out hope for releases of the original trilogy in their unedited theatrical versions speaks to the charm of what Lucas originally created. One small fan still hopes for it.

3 Comments
  1. Edgar Chaput says

    Man, this article took me back. Oddly enough, despite being a really big Star Wars fan as a child and young teen (my fandom has waned a bit since then), I somehow didn’t see A New Hope Special Edition for a few weeks and actually ended up seeing Empire Strikes Back first on opening weekend. Much like your description of going to the theatre to see A New Hope, the theatre was jam packed for Empire. Lots of fun.

    I don’t think it dawned on me at the time what the value of the original films in their original form was and still is. To me it was kind of cool seeing the movies I knew and loved with new cgi wizardry inserted. A naive view, yes, but I was young. Today, there is no question that what Lucas has done to the films in their original form is just plain weird. He can manipulate the movies however much he likes and offer them to the public (although I still contend that tampering with episodes V and VI is odd given that he didn’t direct them), but to withhold the original versions so obsessively…that’s very off-putting.

  2. Colin Biggs says

    Thanks, Chris.

    That’s my main problem with the special editions, they are the only versions available and no one can purchase earlier ones. If we could obtain the originals then no one would really care about the changes after the fact.

  3. Chris S. says

    Nice article. I wouldn’t mind the changes if Lucas made the original versions more readily available rather than pretending they don’t exist. You can still see the original cut of Apocalypse Now, after all, and not just Redux.

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