Ok, I’ll admit, this whole Star Wars Day thing is pretty stupid. The “May the 4th be with you” pun is a groaner at best, and I understand that a lot of you don’t have much patience for the kind of nerd-twee that promotes these holidays (see also Pi Day, Talk Like a Pirate Day, etc), but apparently there are people who actually need some kind of excuse to sit down and watch Star Wars. So if that’s you, settle in and accept the fact that this may be the best excuse you’re gonna get for a while. It doesn’t need to be a big deal, though. You don’t even need to tell anyone that you’re watching Star Wars on Star Wars Day. Many people prefer to just observe the relevant traditions quietly in their own homes.
Sady, in recent years it has become obscenely difficult to watch Star Wars, despite movie viewing in general becoming easier than ever. The Star Wars trilogy is conspicuously absent from Netflix, Amazon, and even iTunes. You can get a Blu Ray or DVD copy if you’re so inclined, but the experience may not be…quite the way you remember it.
Unless you’ve hung on to your old VHS or Laserdisc players, the only legal way for you to enjoy the Star Wars saga without the endless tweaking and unnecessary revisions made by certain parties who really ought to know better is to somehow get your hands on the “bonus” disc that was available in the 2006 DVD release. This was the last time that the unaltered version of Star Wars was made available for purchase, in a half-assed attempt to appease people who thought that all the changes George Lucas started making back in 1997 weren’t a very good idea.
Which is to say, everyone in the world except for George Lucas.
Sadly, like a poorly-phrased wish granted by a spiteful genie, the movies look exactly the way they did when they were released on VHS, with quality so lousy that even calling them “DVDs” is a bit disingenuous. The nicest thing that you can say about them is that they don’t look any worse than your old VHS copies did. And since they are now long out of print, they will probably be significantly more expensive.
Obviously, if your relationship with the modern world gives you room to be more flexible when dealing with people who refuse to accept your money for things you want to buy, you can easily download copies of these DVDs from the usual places.
But can’t we do better than this?
It turns out, we can! At some point, someone sat down and thought to themselves, “Why not take all the HD-quality footage from the Blu Ray release, then remove just the parts that have been changed and replace them with enhanced and cleaned-up footage from the low-quality DVD release? It’d be like the best of both worlds!”
Later on, someone went even further than this, going over the HD footage and digitally compositing out all of the junk that had been digitally composited in, frame by frame, by hand.
If you’ve ever thought that Star Wars fans are unfairly stereotyped as obsessive nerds, this should clear that up for you.
This effort eventually grew into a years-long collaborative project known, appropriately enough, as the “Despecialized Editions”
And the result is nothing short of amazing. Is it perfect? Not quite. An official Disney/Lucasfilm release would still be (potentially) better if and when they decide that artistic integrity, goodwill, and money are more important than George’s ego. But until then, the Despecialized versions are head and shoulders above any other way of experiencing Star Wars. If you’re a fan, this is the only version you need. If, somehow you’ve never seen Star Wars before (or if you now have children) then I would urge you to begin here, and eventually get around to dealing with the Blu Ray versions the way they deserve to be treated: misguided historical novelties, and a cautionary tale of what happens when an artist doesn’t know where to stop or when to let go.
But don’t take my word for it. If you have any interest at all, see for yourself what’s possible with the help of people who genuinely care about something, not just the people who own it.
For reasons known only to him, George Lucas is not content with having created three of the greatest movies in the history of film and has been bound and determined to continuously “improve” them for over 30 years. Most of these “improvements” are minuscule technical fixes that would likely go unnoticed by any but the most obsessive viewer.
But many of them are glaring and unnecessary, adding pointless visual noise for no apparent purpose
And then several of them are just egregious attempts at changes to the established tone and storyline. These are the ones that step over the line and become downright offensive.
Jabba, you’re a wonderful human being
This is one of the more justifiable alterations, since it is essentially restoring a scene that was written and filmed during the original production of Star Wars, but wound up on the cutting room floor. This isn’t some afterthought that was slapped together 20 years after the fact, this is part of the original design for Star Wars. Having said that, the scene has absolutely no business being in the movie. Much like the famous “Jaws effect” the fact that the production team lacked the resources to pull off everything they originally intended actually works in the movie’s favor. The less you see the animatronic shark, the more menacing it becomes, and the less you see a computer animated slug crawling around, the more menacing he becomes. Jabba, much like the Emperor, is a character who was frequently referred to during Star Wars and Empire, but who stayed off-camera and never interacted directly with the main characters. When the big reveal comes at the beginning of Jedi, it’s the payoff for waiting two whole movies to actually see the face of the cruel and powerful gangster who has been driving Han’s story arc forward this entire time. All of this tension is neatly defused by having the character show up for a friendly chat five minutes after the audience is introduced to Han. No mystery. No anticipation. No payoff.
Add to this the technical issues with trying to go back and apply Jabba’s final character design on top of this unused footage. Back in 1976, Jabba the Hutt had not yet been established as an enormous lethargic slug monster, so instead the role went to a stout man from Belfast wearing a fur coat.
As hilarious as it would be to just reinstate this scene as-is, with no explanation, that’s not really Lucas’s style. So instead we get a computer animated Jabba superimposed over the human actor, and all the corresponding dialog dubbed over in Huttese. This raises all kinds of problems above and beyond even the issues in storytelling that arise from having Jabba appear two whole movies early. In order to fit in the frame properly, Jabba is reduced to about one quarter of the size of his iconic appearance in Jedi, and is casually slithering alongside Han under his own power. Obviously you can explain away the change in appearance as part of some unexplained Hutt lifecycle (or just poor diet and exercise) but it still just looks super weird. In addition to this, there’s a logistical issue that comes up when Han nonchalantly walks behind Jabba mid-conversation. When they’re both shaped like people, this is innocuous. When one of them suddenly has a giant tail, it…well…
It’s stupid. This is stupid. It might get a laugh when you see it the first time, but it’s just…it’s just stupid. This is one of the early warning signs that came with the special editions about the kind of broad slapstick humor that was going to be pervasive in the prequels now that creating computer-animated characters was quickly becoming cheap and commoditized. When Han casually stomps on the body of the character who is so vengeful and intimidating that Han spends two movies running from him in undisguised terror, the only response he gets is Computer-Jabba pulling a goofy face and making a goofy noise, both of which would not be out of place in a Tex Avery cartoon. Not only does it instantly shatter the tone of the scene, it completely deflates Jabba’s character, and by extension Han’s character as well. Not content with showing us what Jabba is two movies too soon, this sequence insists on also showing us that he is essentially harmless, and that Han can literally walk all over him with absolutely no consequences.
Let me see you with my own eyes
David Prowse, who provided the imposing 6’6” figure of Darth Vader, was famously never told that his voice was going to be dubbed over by James Earl Jones before the release of Star Wars. He only found out when he went to see the movie and heard Jones’s resonant baritone in place of his own heavy Bristol accent. Six years later, when Vader’s helmet finally came off in the emotional climax of Return of the Jedi, Prowse found himself snubbed again, this time in favor of classical stage actor Sebastian Shaw.
Like Jabba, this was the payoff for YEARS of mystery and speculation. No one knew what Vader’s face looked like under that helmet until after he had redeemed himself and shown that there was still someone worth saving underneath it all. When the big reveal came, it ended up being a moment of quiet tragedy. Afterwards, when you see Anakin alongside Obi Wan and Yoda, it was reassuring to both Luke and the audience to see that he had managed to find peace.
For 16 years, Shaw was Anakin Skywalker. To whatever extent that Anakin was a separate entity from Darth Vader, his face and his voice were 100% Shaw. To those of us who grew up wondering about what the Star Wars galaxy was like before the start of “Episode 4” it was easy to picture this man alongside Alec Guinness, adventuring across space as Jedi brothers-in-arms. While this shot was no longer the one and only image of Anakin once the prequels started to come out, it still works fine in context. The apparitions that show up at the rebel victory celebration are clearly there for Luke, so much so that it’s doubtful if anyone else can even see them. And while we may have seen Anakin Skywalker as a grumpy Canadian teenager, Luke never did. It only makes sense for him to appear with the face that Luke would recognize.
Instead, we now get to see “prequel Anakin” showing up at the party. Although Obi Wan and Yoda both look just as they did when they became one with the Force, which also happens to be the way they looked when Luke knew them, Anakin has inexplicably reverted to his early 20s. Sure, you could argue that this is the last time that Anakin was truly Anakin, before he fell to the Dark Side, but this really undermines the significance of the redemption he has before his death. The whole point of the unmasking scene and Anakin’s final words is that in the end he died as Anakin, not as Vader. Downplaying the significance of this is a slap in the face to the most moving scene in the entire trilogy.
It also doesn’t help that while Obi Wan, Yoda, and Sebastian Shaw’s Anakin all look very serene and affectionate, Hayden Christensen is making creepy sex eyes at the camera.
Max Rebo and the Max Rebo Band
A lot of these non-technical changes are justified as bringing the films more in line with George’s “original vision” for the story, freed from the technical constraints of the time. Others are explained as maintaining consistency between the storyline established in the prequel trilogy and the references to the past that already existed in the original trilogy. Subjectively, I don’t find either of these ideas particularly compelling, but they do at least sound broadly plausible. Some of the edits, however, don’t really seem to fit into either of these categories. There are some things which seem like George was just goofing around in an editing bay, trying to see what he could get away with. In some cases even going so far as to doodle with his electronic crayons over the top of a film directed by someone else.
Of course, you may wonder why there needs to be a big musical number in the beginning of Return of the Jedi at all, but this scene does serve an important function. Without actually showing us the Rancor, we learn that there is something menacing underneath the floor in Jabba’s palace, and that he won’t hesitate to drop someone down there if they happen to displease him. The members of the Max Rebo band and the rest of Jabba’s friends and associates are largely just a chance to show off puppeteering and costume design for the sake of atmosphere. Like a scaled-down version of the Mos Eisley cantina, they’re memorable but never upstage the actual storyline.
And then this happened.
Finding the creative efforts of Phil Tippett and Simon Williamson somehow lacking, George has gone back over this entire sequence, apparently just to make it bigger and louder for the sake of being bigger and louder. Admittedly, there is no impact on the plot or any of the main characters, since nothing of importance is actually in this scene, but that’s just the thing. This takes something that was basically just scenery and turns it into an obnoxious spectacle. The degree of self-satisfied pointlessness is grating. If these revisions are supposed to work in the larger context of the movie, you need to be able to experience them without being taken out of the movie. Additions like this one stick out like a color character in a black and white film. They may represent a superior technical accomplishment, thanks to the advances made in the intervening years, but they look so out of place that you’ll never be able to see past them. Every second that they’re on screen is a second that the audience spends thinking about the fact that the movie has been altered, and not about the movie itself.
Greedo Shoots (First)
And of course, finally, the most infamous of all the revisions to the original Star Wars trilogy. Quite possibly the most infamous revision to any film ever released. There’s nothing I can say about this that hasn’t already been said a thousand times over, but it genuinely makes me furious so I’m going to go over it again anyway.
This scene from episode 4 does two jobs, and it does both of them very well. First, we establish that Han is under the gun from someone named “Jabba” who is clearly someone to be feared and someone who is in a position to send other people to do his dirty work for him. Mere moments later, we then see that Han has no problem with callously murdering someone if that’s his way out of a tight spot. These two points form the cornerstone of who Han Solo is. He’s perpetually in trouble, but shows no shame or remorse about his lifestyle. This amoral, self-serving beginning is what gives weight to the noble turn Han takes later on.
I’m going to go ahead and say that there’s really nothing wrong with character arc of Han Solo. Of all of the things great and small that one might theoretically “correct” in the Star Wars trilogy, this wouldn’t just be at the bottom of the list, it would miss the list entirely. Nonetheless, Mr. Lucas has taken time out of his busy schedule to adjust this sequence, presumably with the intention of setting Han on a higher moral ground.
In the original version of the scene, Han subtly distracts Greedo while Greedo makes his threats, then surreptitiously pulls out a handgun under the table. When the moment is right, Han lets fly one last sarcastic remark and then incinerates Greedo. In the “reimagined” version of this scene, Han still pulls the gun out under the table and makes his comment, but then at the last possible moment Greedo fires off a shot at him. This shot misses Han’s head, inexplicably, from a table’s length away. Han then instantaneously fires back and Greedo slumps over, dead and burnt.
What’s the point of this, exactly? You tell me. Either way, Han kills Greedo in self defense. Greedo seems to make it perfectly clear that he intends to shoot Han. A couple of minutes prior, we saw Ben (a character with a much less ambiguous ethical code) dismember someone as soon as he felt threatened. The idea that Han would then wait for Greedo to actually fire a gun directly at his face before taking action is just laughable.
Piling on to the baffling nature of this change is the fact that the actual edit is just comically inept.
What is even happening here. Greedo, a bug-eyed green alien monster who shoots people for a living, is now somehow incapable of hitting a stationary target five feet in front of him. Even in a film that is notorious for antagonists with pathetically lousy marksmanship, Greedo somehow manages to distinguish himself. Meanwhile, Han decides that now would be a good time to dislocate his neck, stretches his right arm out to be about four inches longer, and fires off two shots which head vaguely in Greedo’s direction but could also be intended to set his boot on fire.
This looks like it was photoshopped by a child.
Of course, all of this would be forgivable if these computer-assisted manglings of classic films had been released as a novelty, for people to take or leave as they liked. An interesting historical aside demonstrating the kinds of things that could be done if the people who made Star Wars had access to more advanced visual effects technology. I’m sure some people would still complain, but most of us would probably be fine with that. Unfortunately, Lucas has been adamant about making sure that his new and more artificial-looking versions become the only versions that anyone will ever be able to see again. For a long time, the official word from on high was that the masters of the original version of the films had all been destroyed during the creation of the special edition, and therefore could never be made available again. The unaltered theatrical versions were eventually released on DVD once, for a brief period in 2006 (and have been getting steadily more expensive ever since but even this version was a sloppy, half-assed digital transfer that looks basically the same as the bootleg copies that were already available. Rubbing salt in the wound, these discs were encoded as non-anamorphic widescreen, meaning that on a modern television the picture is both letterboxed and pillarboxed at the same time, which has the charming effect of making it look like you’re watching the movie through a tiny window in the middle of your TV.
As of 2014, this, this is the highest quality version of Star Wars that a person can buy. Yes, there are DVDs and Blu Rays with “Star Wars” written on them, but these are fundamentally not the movies that you saw when you saw Star Wars for the first time. They have been soiled, with a mixture of callous indifference and childish ineptitude.
And that sucks.
I could go on for days how reprehensible I find it that someone has smeared this garbage all over my favorite movies and gone on to pretend that they can’t give me a clean copy for any amount of money, but plenty of more articulatepeople already have. Out of everyone, though, I think there’s one person who sums it up best.