The Blog

. . . So Be It, Jedi

Why George Lucas has every right to alter his films, and why we have every right to be mad at him for doing so.

12:17 AM, Oct 4, 2004 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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THERE MUST BE A NAME for people like me, people who are caught in a terrible, interminable inbetween. We were too young to see the original Star Wars trilogy when it first came out in movie theaters, but not quite old enough to escape its spell. I didn't exist when Star Wars opened in 1977, nor when the evil Empire struck back in 1980, and was too small to go to the movies when Return of the Jedi opened in 1983. Yet I wasn't so small as to be immune to marketing. After Jedi's release, I soon had dozens of action figures and model ships and playsets. My third birthday party had an Ewok theme. Looking back, I realize now that at the time, the films were only an afterthought; if I saw them at all, it was on television or BETA cassettes or early VHS tapes. What was important were the toys and the Happy Meals and other souvenirs. I was caught, in other words, in a cultural backwash.

That changed. Years passed, and one lost interest in the toys, but never the movies, which you could watch over and over again, and which always seemed epic, even on the small screen. And they were always on the small screen: George Lucas didn't rerelease his original trilogy in movie theaters until 1997, by which time I was well into adolescence, and by which time, of course, he had also changed the films irrevocably.

But did that really matter? Did the fact that Lucas toyed with his creations somehow diminish the originals? Certainly I thought so in 1997. Seeing the movies for the first time in a dark and crowded theater, I raised a weary eyebrow and snickered at Lucas's alterations: These aren't the films I know, I thought. And yet, settling in my couch last week to watch the Star Wars trilogy on DVD, I found I wasn't bothered by Lucas's 1997 revisions, nor his further revisions. In fact, I liked a few of them. Sort of.

What occurred to me was that I had never seen the films in their "original" versions. So why complain? When I first saw the movies, after all, they were on videotape. This meant that I saw the "Pan & Scan" versions, which meant, in turn, that I saw only a small corner of each original frame. It meant, too, that the images were dulled; it meant that the (monophonic) sound quality varied; it meant that you could pause in the middle of the story and rewind and fast forward. Already Lucas's trilogy had been altered--mostly for the worse.

But no longer. These new Star Wars DVDs are in letterbox. You see the actual images that Lucas shot. They are in THX, so the sound and picture quality are outstanding. They are in stereo, which means that if you have the right equipment (I don't), you can have theater-quality sound in your living room. All of which are alterations performed on the original movies. But clearly they are alterations for the better.

AREN'T THEY? Not to Lucas's critics, who focus intensely on the special-effects "improvements" he's made. He has added scenes in Star Wars and Return of the Jedi, for example, and has played with the backgrounds in all three films. Originally these backgrounds were matte paintings or small outdoor sets in Tunisia or indoor soundstages in London backlots. Technology has advanced so far in the twenty-seven years since the first film was released, however, that Lucas says now he can produce the effects he had always wanted. There is no question that such changes make the films look different. What Lucas is doing is giving twentieth-century films a twenty-first century veneer.

And in some cases it works. In Star Wars, for example, there is a scene in which Han Solo, trying to escape from the Death Star, chases down a column of Storm Troopers, turns a corner, finds even more bad guys waiting for him--and promptly turns around and flees for his life. It's a funny scene. In the film's original version, Solo turns the corner and sees maybe 10 Storm Troopers before scurrying away. In the new version, Solo turns the corner and sees hundreds of Storm Troopers and regular Imperial troops, all training their blasters at him. He has even more reason to run for his life, screaming.

Here is another example: In The Empire Strikes Back, Han Solo, Chewbacca, Princess Leia, and C-3PO travel to Cloud City, a huge, bustling gas-mining colony. Except that in the 1980 version, Cloud City isn't bustling at all. Most of the streets are empty. So are most of the skyways. Nothing seems to be going on. Watching the 1980 version, you begin to think the only citizens of Cloud City are Lando Calrissian and that bald guy with the piece of metal wrapped around his head who follows Lando all over the place. In the new version, however, Lucas and his special effects teams have gone in and added new life to what once seemed like a necropolis. There are trams and crowds and space ships. The result: Cloud City's pearl white corridors feel less like a movie set, and more like an actual, lived-in space.