"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?)
INFINITELY WORSE is the end of the new DVD version of Return of the Jedi, which has been altered so that when Luke looks over at the ghosts of Obi-Wan Kenobi, Yoda, and Anakin Skywalker, the actor who played Anakin in the original trilogy, Sebastian Shaw, has been replaced by Hayden Christiansen, the actor who portrays Anakin in the prequels.
Again this seems a small matter, but on closer inspection it nearly unravels the entire Star Wars universe:
(1) Hayden Christiansen is 23 years old. When he filmed Return of the Jedi, Shaw was 78.
(2) This creates a timeline problem for Lucas: If Anakin Skywalker is in his early twenties when he becomes Darth Vader, and Star Wars introduces us to a Luke Skywalker who is also in his twenties, that means that (a) When Darth Vader dies, he's only in his forties; and (b) the reign of the evil Empire has been barely 20 years--not nearly long enough for all the drastic changes we're led to believe have happened since the Emperor took over. For example, after only 20 years, would people already be regarding Jedi knights and the Force as "old wizards" who practice a "hokey religion"?
(3) Making Anakin Skywalker younger runs counter to everything Star Wars had told us about his character. In Episode IV, Obi Wan tells Luke that Anakin was "the best star fighter pilot in the galaxy and a cunning warrior." In Jedi, Obi Wan says that Anakin was "a good man" before he turned to the Dark Side. To hear Obi Wan tell it, Anakin was a grown man when he suddenly turned evil, which is dramatically interesting. Now, Lucas is saying that Anakin was simply an adolescent who went bad. Not a particularly epic theme. After all, when people are young and irresponsible, they're young and irresponsible.
(4) Forget the epistemology: At the end of Jedi, Mark Hamill is 32 years old, so he's now looking on beatifically at his 23-year-old father. Even worse: At the end of Jedi, Luke removes Vader's mask and sees the face of his father for the first time. This face belongs to actor Sebastian Shaw. So when Hayden Christiansen appears as Anakin's young ghost, Luke wouldn't have any idea that this kid is his father.
(5) By inserting an actor from the prequels, Lucas has made it philosophically impossible to separate the original trilogy from his weaker and less interesting work. After seeing The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, some Star Wars fans believed that they would be able to stick their heads in the sand and continue to enjoy the originals by pretending that the new installments never happened. George Lucas has now denied them even that cold comfort.
THERE IS MORE, if you care. Much more. Originally, Han Solo shot Greedo first in the Creature Cantina. In the 1997 release, Lucas made Greedo shoot first. Now the two of them fire at the same time. Vader has been made to appear as if he didn't know he had a son. After the Emperor has been assassinated, we see scenes of celebration on several planets, including one quick cut to Naboo, where a Gungan shouts, "Weesa free!"
These changes, counterproductive as they are, should be endurable. After all, George Lucas created these movies. He has the right to wreck them if he wants. But Lucas isn't just putting out newer, flawed versions. He is embarked on a campaign to create The One True Version of the Star Wars mythology. You see, every time Lucas tinkers with one of his movies, the changes becomes the official version. The older versions are then quietly and efficiently erased from the public record.
If you want to see the Star Wars movies as they once were, tough luck. You'll need to go to eBay or the black market and pay hundreds of dollars for the 1993 laserdisc set, or find a bootlegged DVD of the same. The early, unscarred VHS editions are all aging and deteriorating and besides which, were mostly in pan-and-scan full screen.
In a few years the original versions of the Star Wars trilogy will be vanished completely. Many filmmakers put out director's cuts of their movies, which are sold alongside the theatrical versions. George Lucas, on the other hand, is so obsessed with airbrushing history that at the end of the day, only Jar-Jar Binks will be left seated on the couch with Rick McCallum.
DOES ALL OF THIS complaining missing the forest for the trees? Perhaps so. DVD Journal's always reliable Alexandra DuPont calls the overall presentation of the films "unimpeachably great." Which is true--the Star Wars trilogy has never looked better.
But it is a measure of the deleterious effects of Lucas's tinkering (and the awfulness of the prequels) that it is difficult to care about Star Wars anymore.
Twenty years ago that would have sounded like heresy. People growing up in the 1970s and '80s committed Star Wars to memory and developed a cult around the movies (for instance, the band which performs the theme song to Buffy the Vampire Slayer is called "Nerf Herder," an epithet Leia uses to describe Han in Empire). Strangely enough, the cultural space Star Wars occupies has shrunk in recent years. People who were weaned on the originals have become disenchanted, and Lucas's revised versions aren't minting many new fans.
It is a bizarre relationship Lucas has with his audience. He is the sole keeper of the gospel and he goes to great pains to show that he, and not his audience, is the arbiter of what is or isn't changed in the Star Wars universe. But like any high priest, he has need of his lowly followers. Maybe some day, when enough of his audience has checked out, George Lucas will have the good sense to change his movies back.
Jonathan V. Last is online editor of The Weekly Standard. In 2002 he wrote The Case for the Empire defending the integrity of Darth Vader's Galactic Empire.
See also Matthew Continetti's defense of the Star Wars DVDs.