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Pray He Doesn't Alter Them Any Further . . .

Why the Star Wars DVDs are bunk and George Lucas has destroyed his own mythology.

12:00 AM, Oct 4, 2004 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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"I've got a bad feeling about this."

--Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia, various Star Wars films

THERE ARE many substantive reasons to dislike the new Star Wars trilogy DVD set. Despite boasting of a total remastering of the original movies, the color timing is off during the opening scenes on Tatooine in Episode IV. In spots, the dialogue is not perfectly clean. And, as sound obsessive John Takis noted recently, the rear-channel music score is flipped throughout A New Hope, resulting in what Takis observes is "essentially a 124-minute audio glitch."

Yet these are mere quibbles beside the terrible narrative and symbolic failures of the Star Wars DVDs. More than anything else in the last 30 years, this four-disc set is a sign that George Lucas hates you.

Let's begin with the Star Wars DVDs' raison d'être. Why has Lucas decided that now is the moment to bring the original trilogy to DVD? He has avoided bringing these movies to the digital platform for years, often citing piracy concerns. DVD piracy hasn't gone away. And, with the final installment of his prequels due in theaters next summer, this isn't an obvious moment for a look back at the originals. It would have made more sense to release these movies on DVD in 2006, after the final prequel had come to disc.

The problem with that, however, is DVD technology. The first high-definition DVDs will rollout next fall. By putting out the Star Wars DVDs now, Lucas gets two bites at the apple: He'll sell a boatload of conventional DVDs now, and then will be able to resell them to the same consumers in a couple years as the HD DVD standard takes hold.

If that sounds like a paranoid distrust of the Lucasfilm commercial juggernaut, consider this: Today, "ewok" is a household word, is synonymous with Star Wars, and is part of the national consciousness. Yet, as Film Threat notes, the word "ewok" is never uttered even once in any of the Star Wars movies. We know it not because of the film, but because of the toys, the t-shirts, the cookies, and all the other claptrap Lucas used Star Wars to sell.

No, these new DVDs are nothing more than a chance for Lucas to make a fast buck from the old digital format before it's put out to pasture.

OF COURSE, the movies now out on DVD are most likely not the Star Wars movies you remember. They have been edited and altered into a special-edition-director's-cut amalgam that weakens the originals in almost every way.

The catalogue of changes Lucas has imposed on his original Star Wars movies is exhaustive, and shall not be reproduced here. It is enough to note that the changes range in scale from altering how a villain is affected when shot by a laser-blaster, to music cues, to the changing of looped dialogue, to the insertion of entirely new scenes. These revisions demonstrate no consistency of purpose: Some were made to compensate for technological shortfalls. Some were made to alter the narrative structure. Others were made just because.

For purposes of understanding George Lucas, it is worth considering two of these changes in some depth: The introduction of Jabba the Hut in Episode IV and the treatment of Anakin Skywalker in Return of the Jedi.

THE 1997 SPECIAL EDITION release of Star Wars included a new scene where Han Solo encounters Jabba the Hut on Tatooine. Solo owes Jabba money, and has just killed a bounty hunter sent after him by the Hut. Running into one another in a hangar, Solo and Jabba banter and eventually reach an agreement whereby Jabba lets him go on the condition that Solo repay him with hefty interest.

This seems like a small change, but it sets off a chain reaction which undermines the basic arc of Han Solo's character: Throughout the Star Wars series, Solo is on the run from an implacable gangster who wants him dead. This deathmark influences his decisions and is what makes him a skittish, mercenary scoundrel. Solo is the type of guy who has to look around every corner. But now that he has a deal with Jabba the Hut, none of that makes sense. Han isn't being chased by bounty hunters and can go square with Jabba any time he likes. As a result, his character loses a good bit of danger and romance.

(As an aside, it's worth noting that this new scene also manages to confuse the character of Jabba himself. When the great Hut made his first appearance in 1983 in Return of the Jedi, he is a crass, stupid bully. In the Special Edition scene grafted onto the original Star Wars, he's a smooth-talking, genial Mafioso. Will the real Jabba please stand up?)