Star Wars Films on Their Way to Blu-Ray

Luke Skywalker in the original Star Wars trilogy
Luke Skywalker in the original Star Wars trilogy

It may not be the most suprising news ever but according to IGN George Lucas’ team are officially working on giving the two STAR WARS trilogies the Blu-Ray treatment. At the Chicago Comics and Entertainment Expo (C2E2) Steve Sansweet, Lucasfilm ‘Director of Fan Relations’, updated the masses on the progress of the inevitable Blu-Ray releases:

“We have been at work for a couple of years working on—I won’t call it the Ultimate Set because we keep finding stuff—but, a very full set of all six movies on Blu-ray with lots of extra material. We’re finding all kinds of scenes from dailies that have never been seen before. Beyond all of those things that you know about… there are some real treasures”.

Although the ‘sudden discovery’ of these new special features smacks of cash grabbing (I don’t believe for a second that these will be the last they uncover) it’s good to know the films are definitely on their way to HD glory.
There’s no official release date yet but The Digital Bits say they’ve got insider information that the disks will hit shelves in October 2011.

Lucas Working on a Star Wars Comedy Cartoon

A still from the Robot Chicken Star Wars parody
A still from the Robot Chicken Star Wars parody

That’s right, not quite content to leave his favourite galaxy just yet, director George Lucas (INDIANA JONES, STAR WARS) is planning yet another entry for the STAR WARS franchise; an animated comedy series. According to The Hollywood Reporter Lucasfilm Animation have announced their plans to a air a new series based on an irrelevant and comedic look at the STAR WARS universe.

Rather ironically both Seth Green and Matthew Senreich (who both worked on ROBOT CHICKEN parodies of the original STAR WARS films), as well as Brendan Hay of THE DAILY SHOW, are to lend a helping hand in proceedings. Green says,

The ‘Star Wars’ universe is so dense and rich; it’s crazy to think that there aren’t normal, mundane everyday problems in a world so well-defined. What do these characters do when they’re not overthrowing empires?

With Senreich adding,

We’re going to pull back the curtain of some of those behind-the-scenes shenanigans.

Almost everything about this new series seems a bit off. Why bother working for Lucasfilm Animation in making a comedy STAR WARS when they’ve both already done a fine job at it already? Besides, do we really need more STAR WARS, comedy or not? After the prequel trilogy and the CLONE WARS series I can’t say the prospect interests me in the slightest.
There’s no word yet on when the series will begin but I’d be surprised if it didn’t end up being broadcast on Cartoon Network or Adult Swim.

Cybersurfing: Star Wars, 2001, and Modernism

In “Star Wars and the Modernism of 2001,” sculptor John Powers takes a look at the famous outer-space films made by Stanley Kubrick and George Lucas, examining their historical context (the moon landing, Civil rights movement, Femimism, the Vietnam war).
It’s an interesting piece, but it goes slightly astray in one way: Powers objects that Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY is too much a piece of optimistic boosterism that fails to reflect the cultural upheavals happening at the time. I would say that one of the film’s greatest strengths is that it does not seem embedded in the era when it was made (mid-to-late ’60s), achieving a sort of timelessness that has outlasted the intervening decades and allowed us to continue to enjoy it as a vision of the future, even though its very title now tells us that the story is set nine years in the past.

Cybersurfing: Clone Returns, 30 Years of Star Wars Technology

The Clone Returns Home
The Clone Returns Home

Daily Variety reviews THE CLONE RETURNS HOME, an arthouse science fiction effort from Japan:

Eerie twins and wayward clones provide double trouble, to enigmatic, haunting effect, in “The Clone Returns Home,” a Japanese oddity that should please arthouse auds and sci-fi cultists alike. Bewitchingly intense low-budgeter has few special effects but achieves a glossy sheen, thanks to excellent lensing and well-chosen architectural backdrops. Attachment of Wim Wenders as exec producer will act as pic’s passport to fests. Deliberate pace may deter those not already discouraged by the bland title, but careful handling may reap commercial prospects, especially from Asia buffs.

John Lasseter – the man behind Pixar Entertainment, creators of WALL-E – made it to #35 on Newsweek’s list of “The Global Elite.” The accompanying profile proclaims, “Pixar’s animation guru dominates the global box office, even in tough times.”
Network World explains “How 30 Years of STAR WARS Technology Changed Lives Forever.” The article is based on an exhibition at Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum, featuring a collection of STAR WARS memorabilia contrasted with real-life technology that covers similar terrain.
Inspired by the disappointing new version of THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, Brian Trent of offers a list of “Three Sci-Fi Remakes Actually Worth Seeing.” The list includes John Carpenter’s THE THING, David Cronenberg’s THE FLY, and Philip Kaufman’s INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS. offers up an interview with Howard Berger of KNB effects, who offers up some opinions on the current state of the horror genre:

Horror films have changed drastically. I consider films that are scary to be horror films, not this torture, mutilation garbage. To me, that’s not horror. It’s just offensive. I know that horror fans will get upset at me for saying that. … Horror needs to be redefined. … We’ve worked on a fair amount of stuff and I just can’t watch any of it. … But Greg has other sensibilities that are different from mine. He’s not as big a fan of the fantasy stuff. If we could do zombie movies all the time, he’d be happy. He loves getting bloody. … The Spanish have it covered now. Those movies are the best horror movies being made. They’re artistically and technically perfect. They’re beautiful movies. It doesn’t need to be all that convoluted, crazy crap. It’s not about murder; it’s not about rape; it’s not about mutilation. It’s about an awesome, scary kid in a mask, and I love that.

The Times-Picayune offers a series of articles that take you behind the scenes of filming THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON. Begin with Day One.
Matt Paprocki of Blogcritics magazine reviews the DVD release of LATITUDE ZERO, the rarely seen Japanese-American sci-fi co-production starring Cesar Romero, Joseph Cotton, Akihiko Hirata, and Akira Takarada. The double-disc presents both the English-language version and the Japanese dub of the film, of which Paprocki opines:

Latitude Zerois an odd, weird, cartoonish international production that’s almost too bizarre to explain. Shot in Japan yet entirely in English with both American and Japanese actors, this is supposed to be a spectacle. Instead, it’s a strange fantasy film that is amongst the weirdest to ever come from the usual team that handled the Godzilla series.

Star Wars – The Clone Wars (2008)

This computer-animated entry in the STAR WARS franchise is every bit as synthetic as the trailers implied, but in its own way THE CLONE WARS is quite an achievement: it almost perfectly synthesizes everything that has been wrong with the films since… oh, well – RETURN OF THE JEDI. You get the unnecessarily convoluted storytelling, the painfully bad dialogue, the mechanically rendered action sequences, the pandering to geeky fans, and best of all – the mythic pretentiousness contrasting with the juvenile approach to characterization. The chief distinction is that, being animated, CLONE WARS feels indemnified against accusations of childishness; in fact, it proudly embraces the sub-adolescent aspects of the series. After all, only the darkest, most irredeemable Sith Lord would complain that a cartoon was targeted at the “younglings.” In an odd way, it may even be a savvy career move on the part of George Lucas: with one swift stroke, he has driven the prequel trilogy out of the running for “Worst Star Wars Film Ever” and hit such a career low-point that any subsequent work is bound to appear like a major comeback. Continue reading “Star Wars – The Clone Wars (2008)”

Star Wars, Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005)

Picking up from the disappointing ATTACK OF THE CLONES, this film finally showed audiences the only plot development that made the prequel trilogy (including THE PHANTOM MENACE) interesting: how Anakin Skywalker turned to the Dark Side of the Force and became Darth Vader. Despite some quibbling, the critical consensus emerged that this is the best of the three prequels, even if it fails to live up to the glory of the original STAR WARS trilogy (particularly the original and its first sequel THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK).
Interestingly, on top of the expected wave of media attention focused on box office receipts and fan adulation, the film even generated some fairly high-profile political controversy, due to the perception that George Lucas had inserted some not-so-subtle Bush-bashing, with the film interpreted as a thinly-veiled commentary on the war in Iraq. Lucas himself partially disavowed this connection, insisting that the real parallel is with the Vietnam War, which was much on his mind when he first conceived the saga back in the 1970s. Nevertheless, Lucas admitted that the “parallels between what we did in Vietnam and what we’re doing in Iraq now are unbelievable.”
Of course, being the best STAR WARS film since EMPIRE STRIKES BACK isn’t saying much, when you consider what came between: RETURN OF THE JEDI, THE PHANTOM MENACE, and ATTACK OF THE CLONES. EPISODE III: REVENGE OF THE SITH is better because it lacks, for the most part, the egregiously annoying elements that marred the intervening episodes: there are no Ewoks, no Jar-Jar dialogue, no tiny tot version of Anakin blasting the bad guys like something out of a bad Disney kiddie flick. Unfortunately, there is still romance — and it’s still terribly bad; fortunately, there’s not as much of it.

In short, the film is watchable, though often ponderous and dull. The outstanding feature of the original STAR WARS was that it was fresh and energetic. At the time, Lucas’ ambition fell well within his grasp: a child of the movie-going era that yielded cynical ’70s paranoid thrillers like THE PARALLAX VIEW and ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, Lucas turned back the clock to a simpler time when movies were exuberant fun. His inspirations were clearly old-time serials like FLASH GORDON, which he dressed up in modern technology, using skilled craftsmanship to make the material seem new and invigorating, even though it was all very familiar.
After Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers, in their famous PBS interview, cited the original STAR WARS as an example of archetypal mythic story-telling, Lucas gradually fell prey to a grandiose ambition that did exceed his grasp, and to a large extent that reaches its climax in REVENGE, which plays out like a Wagnerian operatic tragedy — with a humorless, heavy hand guiding the proceedings.
As if this weren’t bad enough, Lucas cannot abandon his silly kiddie pandering. The early scenes in the film are filled with ridiculous comic relief, including Keystone Cops-style droids that speak in silly voices and say things like “Uh oh” before falling beneath the Jedi sword. R2-D2 doesn’t fly this time, but he does pop up into the air like a spring-loaded practical joke.
What partially redeems the film is that its position in the saga allows for some actual suspense, with a sense of inevitable doom as all the things we have been expecting finally come to pass: the Jedi are wiped out, and Anakin Skywalker finally turns into Darth Vader. In effect, this is the only film of the prequel trilogy that tells a story worth telling.
The special effects are terribly overdone, all flash and noise instead of clean and clear. Some of the battle scenes are nicely staged, and the confrontation between Obi-Wan and Anakin/Darth Vader actually carries some measure of dramatic weight — something sadly lacking in the series since EMPIRE.
As for the alleged political subtext, it is clearly there, and just as clearly it is not specific to Iraq and George W. Bush. In the film, the Republic gives up freedom for security — didn’t Benjamin Franklin have something to say about that centuries ago? Chancellor Palpatine uses the continuing war as a pretext to manipulate popular opinion so that he can maintain and strengthen his hold on power — not too dissimilar from what happens in Orwell’s 1984. Anakin says, “If you’re not with me, you’re my enemy” — echoing a statement that harkens all the way back to the New Testament.
The only moment that feels thrown in as a contemporary dig is when Obi-Wan responds to Anakin’s statement by saying, “Only the Sith deal in absolutes.” This is clearly inconsistent with the whole STAR WARS saga, which has always been a fairy tale world of Good and Evil painted in the most absolute terms. We can either chalk this up to bad writing on the part of Lucas, or we can see it as being intentionally thrown in as a comment on the current political situation, in which the absolutist views of the current administration have led to an unprovoked war that has cost thousands of lives.
Surprisingly, amidst all the talk of politics, it seems that most (if not all) commentators have missed the homo-erotic subtext permeating the film. The love story between Anakin and Padme never generates any sparks, but the seduction of Anakin to the Dark Side by Palpatine does. During a relatively early confrontation, the chancellor croons seductively, “I can feel the Force in you!” Later, when Anakin finally turns evil, a prostrate Palpatine lets out an almost orgasmic sigh of ecstasy. (One waits in vain for him to ask Anakin, “Is that a light saber in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me.”)
Bottom line: REVENGE OF THE SITH is no masterpiece, and it comes nowhere near recapturing the glory of STAR WARS and EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. But it is a decent, if unduly serious, summer popcorn movie, filled with enough good moments to make it worth viewing, in spite of the clunky dialogue (like the use of the word “younglings” for “children,” which occurs three times and sounds more absurd each time). It’s not a total embarrassment, and discerning audiences should be grateful for that.


In spite of the entertaining action, REVENGE OF THE SITH is flawed in a variety of fairly fundamental ways. Most obviously, on a narrative level, it falls prey to a series of plot absurdities, many of them caused by contradictions in the previous films that were left untied until this final episode. For instance, we’re clearly told that C-3PO has his memory erased (to explain why he recognizes no familiar faces in the original trilogy), but it’s not clear that the same is done to R2-D2, leaving viewers to wonder whether he does indeed recognize Yoda, et al, when they show up in Episodes IV-V.
A couple other curious omissions and/or credibility gaps:

  • Anakin and Padme supposedly keep their marriage a secret. Two problems with this: 1) She is obviously pregnant, a fact everyone simply seems to ignore until near the end. 2) She shares an apartment with Anakin with a panoramic upper-floor window, easily viewed by hundreds of flying vehicles. (Apparently, there are no snooping paparazzi in a “galaxy far, far away.” Can’t you just imagine the tabloid headlines: “Princess Pregnant – Jedi Mind Tricks, or the Dark Side of the Force?”
  • Late in the film, Padme tells Anakin that Obi-Wan has come by to ask about Anakin’s well-being. Two obvious questions: 1) If Padme’s marriage to Anakin is secret, why did Obi-wan come to ask her about Anakin? 2) Why didn’t the increasingly suspicious Anakin ask Question #1?
  • At the conclusion, Yoda and Obi-Wan want to ensure the safety of Padme’s two newborn children. They wisely give the daughter up to adoptive parents who will raise her under their name (Organa), thus concealing her identity. But poor Luke retains his familiar “Skywalker” surname. Even worse, pondering where the boy will be safe, Yoda opts to leave him with his “family” (i.e., the step-family that Anakin met in CLONES, whom we will see in A NEW HOPE) . In effect, Yoda puts Luke on the one planet in the galaxy — Anakin’s original home! — where Darth might conceivably think of looking.

STAR WARS, EPISODE III: REVENGE OF THE SITH(2005). Written & Directed by George Lucas. Cast: Hayden Christensen, Natalie Portman, Ewan McGregor, Ian McDiramid, Jimmy Smitts, Samuel L. Jackson, Frank Oz, Christopher Lee.
Copyright 2005 Steve Biodrowski

Star Wars, Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002) – Science Fiction Film Review

This is the second film in the STAR WARS “Prequel Trilogy.” Unfortunately, it suffers from many of the flaws that plagued THE PHANTOM MENACE: slow pacing, weak storytelling, muddled exposition—all wrapped up on cartoon-like computer-generated effects that are supposed to overwhelm any reservations about the uninspired narrative. Despite being touted as a major comeback, STAR WARS, EPISODE TWO: ATTACK OF THE CLONES emerges looking as bad as if not worse than its 1999 predecessor, thanks to the lame romantic subplot, which is so badly written, directed and performed that it easily surpasses both Jar-Jar Binks and Jake Lloyd as the all-time low point in the series. Continue reading “Star Wars, Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002) – Science Fiction Film Review”

Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace – Film Review

STAR WARS EPISODE I: THE PHANTOM MENACE is the first film in the so-called “Prequel Trilogy,” which provides the back story of how Anakin Skywalker turned to the Dark Side of the Force and became Darth Vader, the cybotic villain seen in the original STAR WARS trilogy. Unfortunately, the film is marred by the fact that its very existence is unnecessary: nothing in it tells us anything we need to know in order to appreciate STAR WARS (1977) or THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980) or even the lamentable RETURN OF THE JEDI (1983). The story seems padded out from a few scraps of ideas, with little significant exposition, and the little information given seems contradictory to what was established in the earlier films. Overall, more effort seems to have gone into juicing up the film with a handful of special effects highlights (the pod race, the three-way light saber duel) and with reintroducing familiar characters (the droids, Obi-Wan, Jabba the Hutt, Yoda) whether or not the film needed them.
Clearly, there is something wrong with a film, when the loudest applause occurs as the curtain goes up, in anticipation of, rather than response to, what is being seen. That is the case with STAR WARS, EPISODE I: THE PHANTOM MENACE, the highly hyped prequel that gives 1998’s GODZILLA a run for its money as an over-anticipated disappointment. The audience (after a masterfully orchestrated promotional campaign, after months of trailers and weeks of commercials and cover stories, after waiting in line for days to buy tickets and for hours to get a seat) has been led to expect that this is the major event of the year. With that kind of build-up, the excitement in the theatre is almost palpable as the lights go down. There is only one problem: the film has to deliver.
THE PHANTOM MENACE falls short in this regard. It is not a completely terrible film, at least compared to the disaster that was RETURN OF THE JEDI. But in a classic case of the tail wagging the dog, more creativity has been lavished on getting you into the theatre than on pleasing you once you get there. The story starts well, with the Trade Federation’s blockade of planet Naboo; for a time, it seems as if Lucas is taking a page from Frank Herbert’s Dune, with his handling of political machinations in a science-fiction context. Soon, however, trouble arises from the fact that the audience is well ahead of the characters. We already know that Senator Palpatine is the “phantom menace” of the title, manipulating the Federation to his own ends — despite the fact that Lucas keeps his face hidden when he appears as a Sith Lord to his Federation stooges.

Despite this built-in predictability, the film maintains initial interest thanks to Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor, who make as dashing a pair of Jedi Knights as one could wish. But after they sneak the Queen off of her besieged planet, the momentum drags. The problem is that Lucas now has to tie these events into the storyline of the original trilogy, so he spends time introducing characters (R2D2, Jabba the Hut, C-3PO, and of course Anakin Skywalker) who contribute little to this new story. (In a rare surprise, C-3PO turns out to have been created on Tattoine by Anakin. So why doesn’t he recognize his home planet when he lands in STAR WARS? Presumably Lucas will offer an explanation later, about as convincing as Obi Wan’s “I was telling you the truth” speech in JEDI.) In effect, the plot becomes a mere prologue, relying for its impact not on anything exciting in itself but on the connections to STAR WARS. Thus Obi Wan promises to train Anakin as a Jedi, and Palpatine promises to keep an eye on his progress — trivial scenes that are supposed to resonate deeply because of the story we already know.
But lets face it: no one expected great drama; we wanted all the exuberance of flying through space and battling evil that $100-million could buy. In this regard, the film delivers — at intervals. Space ships and interstellar travel are portrayed to excellent effect, but the momentum never builds, thanks to a screen time padded past two hours and ten minutes — a lethargic pace that lags behind the original’s quick tempo.
Elsewhere, the ubiquitous computer effects are meant to be impressive for their own sake: as each new creature appears, we are supposed to react in awe: “Look, another digitally created character!” However, these animated actors look too much like what they are: computer-generated cartoons. It’s as if ANTZ and A BUG’S LIFE were trying to pass off their outtakes as part of a live-action film. Aggravating matters, these technical marvels strike a decidedly juvenile tone that falls far short of Lucas’ alleged mythic aspirations. The villains are mostly robots, so no one will be offended at seeing them blown up by a little boy. And Jar Jar Binks, the film’s equivalent of Chewbacca, is merely exasperating, his comedy relief gibberish supposedly funny just because it is gibberish. As with Chewbacca, this saves Lucas from having to write coherent dialogue. We always knew what the Wookie was saying, however, thanks to Han Solo’s responses. With Jar Jar, we are left shaking our heads, even when we do catch the occasional recognizable phrase.
Having not directed since STAR WARS, Lucas has lost whatever touch he had with actors. With solid professionals (including Terence Stamp, wasted in a bit), this causes no problem, but the younger cast suffers. Jake Lloyd is a stiff. Natalie Portman is regal in her Queen regalia but lifeless when posing in her alter ego role as the Queen’s handmaid. (And what’s up with those ridiculous outfits that suggest not a galaxy far, far away but a Halloween drag parade in West Hollywood?)
Not surprisingly, the film comes to life mostly when characterization takes a back seat to action. Highlights include Anakin’s triumph in the pod race (a science-fiction update on BEN HUR’s famous chariot race); and the final light saber against Darth Maul is outstanding. But even the visuals are often derivative: for the second time, the devilish villain falls to his death down a bottomless tunnel; and for the third time the climax involves an aerial attack that explodes a massive enemy target in outer space. Even the exciting moments (and there are a few) fail to lift the film above mid-level quality. The applause as the curtain goes down has an obligatory air, as people try to convince themselves that they have not been too disappointed. But they deserved much more than they got. They deserved a great movie designed for the ten-year-old in us all, not a film designed for ten-year-olds.
STAR WARS, EPISODE ONE: THE PHANTOM MENACE (1999). Written and Directed by George Lucas. Cast: Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Jake Lloyd, Frank Oz, Anthony Daniels.
Copyright 1999 Steve Biodrowski

Cybersurfing: Cloning Star Wars

STAR WARS: THE CLONE WARS explores the STAR WARS time line between episodes II and III. 

In anticipation of the Augst 15 theatrical release of STAR WARS: THE CLONE WARS, New York Times offers a profile of George Lucas, who muses on returning to a galaxy far, far away. Although not overtly negative, Dave Itzkoff’s article expresses a certain skepticism about revisiting the STAR WARS franchise, in light of Lucas’s expressed desire to make smaller, more personal films. Basically, there were no takers for 22 completed episodes of a computer-animated CLONE WARS television show – until Lucas opted to produce a feature film version to launch the series. Lucas is also developing a live-action STAR WARS TV series. Continue reading “Cybersurfing: Cloning Star Wars”

Star Wars: The Original Trilogy – Science Fiction Film Review

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.