An Appreciation of the Original Films and a Look at How Times (and George Lucas) Have Changed Them
When STAR WARS premiered in 1977, there had never been anything quite like it. Sure, the antecedents were obvious (everything from Kurosawa’s THE HIDEEN FORTRESS to Flash Gordon serials, not to mention Arthurian myth) but the elements were assembled in a way that made the results seems fresh and invigorating. Like a variation on a well-known melody, the very familiarity drew audiences in, while the variations amused and surprised.
More important than that was the way that the film established a pact with its audience that made it nearly critic-proof. Much of what happens in STAR WARS, EPISODE IV: A NEW HOPE is obviously corny and hokey, but the film works to earn good will on this count. Almost every frame says, “Yes, these are clichés, but they’re fun, and if you will give us the benefit of the doubt, we will use them to entertain you in the most magnificent way possible.” Thus, after a decade of contemporary, serious film, often reflecting a Watergate-inspired cynicism, it once again became possible to boo the villain and cheer the hero, to engage in a kind of simple but very primal action-adventure style excitement that had been long absent from the screen.
Of course, it didn’t hurt that the film had the sort of production values to pull off this coup. Although some contemporary commentators (e.g., late Frederick S. Clarke, founder of Cinefantastique magazine) railed against the film’s lack of content, they missed the point, which is that the formal execution was excellent. A well-played melody, even a simple one, can be as moving as botched virtuoso attempt. George Lucas’ film obviously lacked the profound grandeur of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, but on the basic level of simple entertainment it succeeded as well as any film ever has.
Much has happened since then. The trilogy has assumed its place in the cultural landscape with such stature and devotion that the aesthetic value of the films has almost become irrelevant. The films were reissued, in so-called Special Editions, in 1997. Although the opportunity to see pristine new prints on the big screen was compensation not to be dismissed lightly, tampering with the films resulted in controversy regarding the wisdom of altering something so beloved in the first place.
Ominously, some of the changes seemed geared toward making the old films fit better with the long-planned prequel trilogy. When the first two prequels emerged, STAR WARS, EPISODE ONE: THE PHANTOM MENACE (1999) and EPISODE TWO: ATTACK OF THE CLONES (2002), they were so bad that even many long-time believers started to lose faith. They also showed that Lucas was having trouble tying together the loose plot threads, raising more questions than he answered.
The next step in the de-evolution of the original trilogy was their release on DVD on September 21, 2004. Supposedly, back in 1997, we were seeing the original trilogy as George Lucas had always wanted it to be seen, had he the luxury of perfection the first time around. The evidence of the films themselves failed to bear out this claim, and the DVD release drives the point home even more clearly, because once again the films underwent revisions—some obvious, some subtle.
STAR WARS (1977), subtitled A NEW HOPE since the release of THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK in 1980, has aged a bit, mostly apparently in comparison to EMPIRE. The photography lacks the rich colors that later bathed the first sequel in layers of atmosphere. As a writer-director, Lucas obviously knew how to put together an entertaining package, but he does not necessarily have a great deal of finesse in either area. The dialogue is often fun, but sometimes it is downright clunky, and the performances he elicits from his cast are superficial. The three leads (Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford) seem to be play-acting at their roles, rather than really embodying characters; this has benefits, in that it makes the adventure seem fun and exciting, rather than truly dangerous, and it certainly makes it easy for younger audiences to relate to the characters. In fact, the only really strong character scenes inevitably involve the more seasoned performers, Peter Cushing and Alec Guinness. Still, the editing of the action scenes is invigorating: for example, the attack on the Death Star is not merely a great effects show; it is a well-choreographed space ballet.
On the other hand, seeing the film with its sequels and prequels in mind, it becomes obvious that, for all Lucas’s mythic aspirations, the biggest myth of all is his Master Plan. For example, Darth Vader clearly is the only member of the Empire who believes in the Force: “You are all that’s left of that ancient religion,” he is told, and the underlings of the unseen Emperor even diss the Force, preferring to put their faith in the power of the Death Star. This makes the depiction of the Emperor in the sequels and prequels, as a practitioner of the Dark Side of the Force, somewhat inexplicable.
The knowledge that Darth is Luke’s father alters A NEW HOPE in ways that are sometimes interesting and sometimes convoluted. For instance, there is nothing in the film to imply that Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru are not literally Luke’s uncle and aunt, which would make them Darth’s brother and sister-in-law, respectively. Since Darth’s minions are responsible for killing the elderly couple, it made Luke seem a bit niave in RETURN OF THE JEDI when he depended on familial affection to protect him from Darth’s anger. Of course, Lucas had to clear this up in the prequels showing that Owen and Beru are not really blood relative of Anakin Skywalker. However, there is no clearing up Princess Leia’s brother-sister relation to Luke. Overlooking the chants of “Incest!” that now erupt from audiences in response to any suggestion of romance between the two, there is also the question of Vader’s sensory powers—or, in this case, lack thereof. That’s right: Vader, who can detect Obi Wan and Luke long distance, never gets even a tingle of the force when face to face with his own daughter.
As for the additional footage, it’s mostly a bust. Jabba the Hutt’s scene was rightfully cut during the initial release time, because it is redundant, merely repeating what has been established in the preceding scene with Greedo, the bounty hunter whom Han shoots. The only reason for the presence of Jabba now is as a kind of CGI stunt: his appearance does not improve the film; it merely impresses with the ability to slap a special effect monster on top of what was originally meant to be an actor. And Jabba is far too nice: he seems more disappointed with than angry at Han; he’s just too far away from the disgusting, vengeful slug we later meet in JEDI and the prequels.
Apparently, Lucas himself was not satisfied with Jabba’s appearance in A NEW HOPE. The DVD version redoes the CGI work to make the character look more as he does in A PHANTOM MENACE. This is a bit like slapping a new coat of paint on a car because the engine needs a tune-up. Also tinkered with is the shoot-out between Han and Greedo: they’re shots come closer together now, but Greedo still fires first. (Han—a mercenary always looking out for number one—shot first in the original 1977 version. In order to make Han look more like a conventional goody-two-shoes hero, Lucas had Greedo shoot first in the 1997 Special Edition; Lucas claimed that Greedo had always shot first—it was just harder to see in the old prints—an assertion undermined by a frame-by-frame look at the laserdisc release.)
Even worse were some of the other additions, such as the moving dewbacks and the expanded city of Mos Eisley. The stationary dewbacks in the original STARS WARS typified the film: it seemed to take place in a complete world, filled with things we did not have time to stop and see; they merely passed before our eyes in tantalizing glimpses. Well, no longer: the added effects are not tantalizing but distracting, especially an annoying flying probe that accompanies the storm troopers. Likewise, the tour of Mos Eisley merely slows things down before we get to the next important scene. The CGI effects clash badly with the original look of the film, and the shots have no point of view: it’s not as if we’re seeing things through the eyes of young, naive Luke, who might be impressed by all this grandeur—and it is an awful lot of grandeur for the backwater planet that Tattoine is supposed to be. (This sequence has been somewhat improved in the DVD release, with smoother CGI work that makes the characters look a bit more believable as their vehicle zooms past the camera.)
THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK came across better in its 1997 Special Edition, because there were no missing scenes to be intrusively reinserted. A couple of additional shots of the Wampa (that abominable snowman thing that captures Luke at the beginning) were the most obvious addition, and they actually helped, by increasing the creepiness and sense of danger that pervade the rest of the film. A lot of transparent space ships and obvious matte lines were cleaned up, but there was still some woefully obvious blue fringing around Chewbacca’s face in one shot. The cloud city was more impressive, thanks to views added through windows in the sets. When seen from the sky, however, the new footage bears suspicious resemblance to Tattoine, if not in architecture, then in the geometrical arrangement of the buildings.
Unfortunately, although EMPIRE escaped the Special Editions relatively unscathed, it has fared less well in the DVD set. The previous depiction of the Emperor (played by an anonymous actress under heavy makeup, with a voice supplied by Clive Revill) has been replaced by Ian McDiarmid, who played Senator Palpatine/Darth Sidious in the prequels. And bounty hunter Boba Fett’s voice (previously supplied by Jeremy Bulloch, the actor inside the suit) has been overdubbed by Temuera Morrison, who plays Jango Fett in ATTACK OF THE CLONES. (This makes a kind of sense, since Boba is supposed to be a clone of Jango and therefore should look and sound exactly the same.)
Despite these changes, and an unresolved storyline that paves the way for its dismal sequel, EMPIRE remains in many ways the best (indeed the last good) STAR WARS film, thanks to some matured acting on the parts of Hamill, Fisher, and Ford, not to mention improved writing (courtesy of Lawrence Kasdan and the late, great science fiction author and screenwriter Leigh Brackett) and improved direction from Irvin Kershner. Kershner may not be the sort of creative artist who could have conceived something like the STAR WARS saga in the first place, but when it comes to the basic craft of staging action and working with actors, he is a seasoned pro who took Lucas’s material and did a better job than Lucas himself could have.
The same could not be said about helmer Richard Marquand in RETURN OF THE JEDI. That film, of course, is such a dud that no amount of reworking could have saved it. (Let’s just say that the Sci Fi Universe cover story entitled “50 Things We Hate about RETURN OF THE JEDI” could as easily have been “150 Things.”) The little new footage only increases the problems, particularly a ridiculous and inappropriate song-and-dance number of embarrassing quality. As before, we’re left wondering why bounty hunter Boba Fett is hanging out with Jabba’s entourage instead of running around hunting for bounties (of course, it’s so he can be conveniently killed off). The question is exacerbated by his presence in the restored Jabba scene in STAR WARS: the character looked like a free-lancer when introduced in EMPIRE, but now he seems to be on Jabba’s permanent payroll.
We do have to give the Special Edition some credit, for eliminating one of the more amusing gaffs: On your old laserdiscs or videotapes, watch the first set of tie fighters in the shot just prior to the Emperor’s arrival on the new Death Star; keep your eyes glued to them—no matter how many other ships zip in front to distract you—and eventually you will see them blink out of existence just before the shot ends. The Special Edition simply cut the shot before the mistake.
Never one to leave well enough alone, Lucas has made new changes for the DVD. In some cases, these are minor things noticeable only to hardcore fans; for example, buildings seen in the prequels have been added to exterior special effects establishing shots, and actor Sebastian Shaw’s eyebrows have been digitally airbrushed away for the scene when Darth Vader’s face is finally revealed. The biggest change, however, will be obvious to everyone. At the end, when Luke sees the ghosts of Obi-Wan, Yoda, and Anakin Skywalker smiling at the victory celebration, Anakin’s ghost is no longer portrayed by Shaw. Instead, we see Haydin Christiansen, who played the young Anakin in ATTACK OF THE CLONES and REVENGE OF THE SITH. This is supposed to make a kind of sense: restored to a stage of grace, Anakin appears as he did before his change into Darth Vader. Nevertheless it is an odd choice, because Luke has only seen the older, badly scarred version of his father. You have to wonder why Luke is not asking, “Who the hell are you – and where is my real father?”
Since JEDI was never very good to begin with, these changes did not seem to be worth getting upset over; however, they did point in a bad direction. Lucas was retrofitting his original trilogy to match up with the prequels; unfortunately, the prequels almost make JEDI look good by comparison, so the changes tend to degrade the originals down, rather than lifting them up. With REVENGE OF THE SITH completing the prequel trilogy in 2005, one had reason to wonder whether Lucas had finally closed the book on the old films – or would there be a new round of “improvements” for whatever the next new viewing format turns out to be – the iPhone trilogy, maybe?
The answer turned out to be that Lucas was planning to convert all the STAR WARS films to Digital 3D, a strategy announced at Showwest in March of 2005. At the time, Lucas did not commit to a specific schedule, but he did suggest that he would have A NEW HOPE ready in time for its 30th anniversary in 2007, with the intention of subsequently releasing one STAR WARS film per year. The digital 3D process can convert any conventional 2D film. It was successfully used on Tim Burton’s A NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS in 2006; however, 2007 passed without a STAR WARS 3D release.
Overall, the original STAR WARS trilogy (at least the first two films) were great entertainments that sacrificed a certain depth and ambition in favor of old-fashioned action-serial story-telling delivered with zeal. STAR WARS, especially, was not simply the hyperthyroid version of FLASH GORDON that critics tagged it. It was not so much the movie we all imagined we had seen as kids; rather it was a sequel to the movie we imagined we had seen—a sequel to our universal cultural consciousness. That’s why the story could start in media res. That’s why a mere paragraph opening crawl could establish all we needed to know—because on some level, we knew already. That’s why we could relate to characters and situations drawn so broadly.
Unfortunately, that connection was slowly eroded as George Lucas worked out his alleged master plan. With each piece of the puzzle he added—either by revising the old films or by making new ones—he took something away from us, some part of imagined memories, that we had invested into the film. What was once a kind of interactive process of a very gratifying kind has degenerated into a sort of forced-fed pseudo-religion. None of that is enough to detract completely from the entertainment value of A NEW HOPE and THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, when viewed on their own, but the larger phenomenon has gone a long way toward diminishing the sheen.
STARS WARS, EPISODE IV: A NEW HOPE (1977). Written and directed by George Lucas. Cast: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Alec Guiness, Peter Cushing, ,Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, peter Mayhew, David Prowse.
STAR WARS, EPISODE V: THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980). Directed by Irvin Kirshner. Written by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan, story by George Lucas. Cast: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams, Anthony Daniels, David Prowse, Peter Mayhew, Kenny Baker, Frank Oz (voice), Jeremy Bulloch.
STAR WARS, EPISODE VI: RETURN OF THE JEDI (1983). Directed by Richard Marquand. Written by Lawrence Kasan and George Lucas. Cast: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams, Anthony Daniels, James Early Jones (voice), David Prowse, Peter Mayhew, Kenny Baker, Frank Oz (voice), Warwick Davis, Jeremy Bulloch.
Copyright 1997 Steve Biodrowski; revised version copyright 2004. revised again in 2008. The original version of this article appeared in the June 1997 issue of Cinefantastique.