For the twentieth anniversary of his greatest accomplishment, George Lucas brought Star Wars (now known, for clarity’s sake, as Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope) back into theaters with new digital effects and a pair of deleted scenes restored. Christened the “Special Edition” and followed in subsequent months by the other films in the trilogy, this enhanced version of the cultural touchstone was, its creator assured the public, closer to his ideal vision than had been possible before. The trilogy in its original form had been given a new home video release in 1996, advertised as the last chance to get a hold of the untouched films before they were replaced forever by the Special Editions. Both attempts at squeezing more money out of old movies were phenomenally successful. The theatrical re-releases, in particular, enchanted a new generation of fans, priming the zeitgeist for Lucas’s bold CGI experiment, the second Star Wars trilogy. The rest is history — fairly tangled and sensitive history, at that.
Lift a rock on the internet and you’ll find an opinion about Star Wars and the extent to which George Lucas ruined it with his tinkering. The best that can be said, it would seem, is that maybe a handful of the tweaks made to sound and visual effects actually work to the film’s benefit. By and large, though, the grafting of 90s technology onto a scrappy, modestly budgeted 70s movie has been deemed a failure. What really gets people riled up is that the original film has not been preserved. Lucas has essentially dismissed it as an obsolete work print, but not many work prints, historically speaking, have earned millions of dollars and changed the face of Hollywood filmmaking for a generation or two. Passion for bringing back the movie as it once existed is so strong that more than one bootleg version of the “despecialized” film has been produced. Lucas, meanwhile, stands firm in his convictions and has even made additional alterations to his work over the years. Technically speaking, the specific version of the film seen in 1997 may itself be lost to time. And who will mourn for it?
I own the “Limited Edition” DVD from 2006 — which includes the Special Edition, only slightly altered from how it looked and sounded in 1997, and the original theatrical cut in a letterboxed, non-anamorphic format. That is to say that the best licensed edition of the original version of the film got slapped onto a supplementary disc, wasn’t restored or remastered, and has been presented so that on a widescreen TV it will appear as a small rectangle in the middle of the screen. It’s almost poetic. For the purist, watching the film this way is like catching a glimpse at the receding past.
The most successful changes made for the Special Edition are generally the most low-tech. A brief deleted scene between Luke Skywalker and his old friend Biggs has been simply restored to its place with no new digital effects at all. It’s an unassuming bit of character development. The dialogue is trite, but I have to admit that trite dialogue is quite common in this franchise. On the other hand, there’s a pretty good verbal joke added to another scene. With our heroes being pursued inside the Death Star, a stormtrooper orders that the blast doors be closed to cut off their escape. After they get through the doors just in time, another stormtrooper says, “Open the blast doors.” Only the second line can be heard in the original version. Besides these moments, the change I’m happiest about is the improved visual effects on the lightsabers. Unlike the slew of background CGI creatures and digital X-wing maneuvers, the lightsabers’ appearance doesn’t suggest “new and improved” so much as a restoration of what should always have been there.
The restoration of what should always have been there might be the best way of summarizing where I come down on the alterations. I can take Lucas at his word to some extent, and I can certainly respect the kind of perfectionism that insists on seeing every laser blast in its right place. Where I stop short is the suggestion that the huge gap in time and technology between the original trilogy and the prequels needed to be closed. Lucas’s efforts for the last two decades have primarily been about aligning them more and more, making the whole franchise as cohesive as possible. I don’t even hate the prequels, and I think those efforts are misguided. The CGI effects from the 90s are doubly awkward, primitive by today’s standards and garish in a film that originally relied on models, prosthetics, and matte paintings. One minute, we’re watching a lumbering dinosaur-like creature on the streets of Mos Eisley; the next, we’re watching old-school editing techniques obscure the moment when somebody’s arm gets cut off. George Lucas can do many things, but he still can’t insert an extra shot or two in which a digital recreation of Alec Guinness actually puts lightsaber to flesh. It’s possible that, in his heart of hearts, he dreams of a far-off future when computers can finally bring his film to a state of perfection. That dream would be at odds with those who appreciate art because it expresses something human, and flawed, and sometimes goofy.
Which brings us to the celebrated cantina sequence, source of the most potent symbol and rallying cry against the Special Edition changes. Say it with me: What happened to the Wolfman? All right, maybe there’s no big controversy there. In fact, I can’t say I noticed the change before I watched both versions this week. In the original cut, a werewolf creature with glowing red eyes can be seen in a couple shots. This fellow has no dialogue and no interaction with the main characters, so cutting him out of the new version was easy. The reasoning was very simple as well. Lucas’s vision for the scene was to pack the cantina with blazingly original creature designs. Somewhere along the way, with the scene being pieced together from shoots in two different locations, he compromised that vision slightly. Rick Baker designed the werewolf mask and a devil mask for another alien, but even he felt that they shouldn’t be used in the film. I’m not sure why Wolfman got taken out of the scene but Devil Guy was allowed to stay. The funny thing is that the excised character had, in the meantime, been given a name (Lak Sivrak) and an elaborate biography in ancillary Star Wars-related materials. From certain fans’ perspective, he’s part of the lore, while from the creators’ perspective, he was just a meaningless mistake. In the Special Edition, he’s replaced in the two shots by two different characters: bong-smoking Dinosaur Man and Elephant Man, also known as Melas and Ketwol. So, yeah.
The Special Edition of Star Wars is only a couple minutes longer than the original cut. Besides the Luke/Biggs conversation, the only new scene involves Han Solo confronting Jabba the Hutt. It’s not a good scene, plagued by redundant dialogue and a disastrous mishandling of one of the story’s villains. Without this scene, Jabba is a mysterious gang boss with assassins at his beck and call. With it, he’s a big slug oozing around a hangar, letting people step on his tail. (Whatever novelty that particular digital effect held in 1997 has, to say the least, worn off.) But the scene is over quickly. Most of this film is as it has always been. If I’m a little dissatisfied with the film as it currently exists, I have a feeling that Lucas is still a little dissatisfied with it, too. Perhaps all of us are more in love with the idea of Star Wars than with watching the actual film. The only certain thing is that the editing in the climactic battle sequence — starting on the line, “I’m gonna cut across the axis and try and draw their fire,” and ending with the Death Star going kablooey — is perfection. Nothing can change that.