Today is the day, twenty years ago, that Lucasfilm released the Special Edition of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope in theatres, and so I thought I’d ramble on for a bit about these controversial versions of the three movies, because that’s the sort of thing I do!
Back in 1997, I was what I suppose I could call a Star Wars fan, but probably nowhere near how much of a fan I became once I’d discovered the wider expanded universe a couple of years later. A bunch of friends and I had made plans to go see the films when they were released in the cinema, but the vagaries of trying to wrangle a group of 14 year old nerds into this was evidently more trouble than any of us had expected, and in the end, we missed out, and I retained my tired videos for my Star Wars fix. However, when they were eventually released on VHS back in 2000, my mum totally made up for that heartache by buying me the boxset at Easter-time. During the two weeks’ school holiday, I think I watched each movie at least five or six times, and it’s for this reason that Easter retains such a strong connection to the original Star Wars trilogy for me!
Of course, I was aware of the changes that had been made to these films – who couldn’t be, with the nascent internet going crazy over the whole Han shoots first controversy. But I have to say, I think that the overall reaction can sometimes be out of proportion. Let’s take a look at the differences made by these Special Editions, and I’ll try to explain what I mean.
A New Hope (re-released 31 January 1997)
There are a lot of changes made to this movie. Lucas apparently spent $15 million of his own money on the Special Editions, $10 million of which went on episode IV. We have a lot of almost-pointless establishing shots and background-fidgeting, most noticeably in the scenes where the stormtroopers discover the droids’ presence, and as Luke and the gang arrive into Mos Eisley. The original A New Hope does have a very vibrant feel to a lot of the Tatooine scenes, I think, but there are a number of moments that do have a bit of a static look, as well. The dewbacks in particular were massive models with stormtroopers perched on top, and amounted to little more than set-dressing at the time. For the Special Edition, that set-dressing is now moving, at least.
Of course, Han shoots Greedo first in the original version, but for the Special Edition, Lucas decided to make Han “a good guy” from the very beginning, and had some very jerky animation that made the Rodian bounty hunter shoot Han and miss from about three feet away, before Han almost-instantly fires back. A lot of fans have raised issue with this, so I’m not going to rehash these arguments, but suffice it to say, they’re not wrong in my book! The scene that offends me the most out of the entire Special Edition, however, is this one:
Jabba the Hutt was originally just a name that hung over Han’s entire story across the trilogy, before we finally met the big guy in Return of the Jedi, and despite feeling a little like a Muppets movie at times, there is nevertheless a real sense of danger in Jabba’s Palace. Seeing Jabba at the beginning of the trilogy – and especially seeing Han’s disdainful interaction with him – removes a lot of that threat. Of course, these movies are how George wanted them to be all along, as demonstrated by the fact this footage with the young Harrison Ford clearly dates from the time, though again there’s some jerky animation as Han walks behind Jabba. During filming, a stand-in was used while they intended to superimpose Jabba’s final image, but that proved too costly and hence the scene was cut. Since Jabba was shown to be a big worm in Jedi, he now had a tail in the way, so Han was moved up and down like some kind of puppet.
All of these things aside, though, the CG of Jabba himself is just bad. He looks kinda watery, and when Han is presumably stroking the Hutt’s face while asking for a little more time, there’s a complete lack of interactivity. It’s just bad, and lets the movie down so much.
But there are a lot of small improvements that have been made to the movie. The superimposed blur under the landspeeder has been removed for a smoother look, and the Death Star has had a lot of its corridors lengthened to create a more labyrinthine experience. We also have the Luke and Biggs reunion before the briefing on Yavin, which I do believe is something that definitely adds to the film overall. I mean, Luke talks about Biggs on Tatooine, and there’s a fighter pilot called Biggs in the battle, but no connection is made between the two otherwise, you know?
Overall: despite the harm the changes to do Han’s character, and some flaky CGI effects, the film could be worse.
The Empire Strikes Back (re-released 21 February, 1997)
Empire arguably suffers the least from the Special Edition changes. Indeed, most of the new footage consists of establishing shots on Cloud City, along with more made of the Wampa attacking Luke. We also get to see precisely how Vader got back from Cloud City to his Star Destroyer, using a combination of alternative footage from Return of the Jedi (look closely – Moff Jerjerrod greets Vader when he gets back…)
Director Irving Kershner had intended for the whole movie to show a transition from the blue of the Hoth tundra to the red of Cloud City at sunset, but this overall effect is largely negated by the lack of any meaty Cloud City shots in the latter portion of the film. Establishing shots were therefore created, including following the Falcon onto the landing platform, and essentially creating windows in a lot of the corridor scenes to show the cityscape more fully. While a lot of this really is quite arbitrary, it does create a nice effect in this sense of colour.
Back in the day, starwars.com put a series of articles up that showcased the different changes they’d made to the film, which also talked about the fact that they’d considerably cleaned the negative of the film, resulting in a much better visual experience. It’s probably something that would go unnoticed by a lot of people, but is perhaps one of the most important things to happen to the film overall.
Return of the Jedi (re-released
Much like A New Hope, Return of the Jedi has seen quite a few changes made, some of which are quite as controversial as those in the earlier movie. To start with, we have that bloody song-and-dance number in Jabba’s palace, Jedi Rocks. I mean, sure, I get the fact that Lucas wanted a musical item in the movie, and it replaced the pretty shaky Lapti Nek, though the new piece is vastly out of place in the scope of the original, and kinda derails the movie at this point. I mean, the focus of Jabba’s palace is supposed to be the danger and whatnot, and we’re getting a lot of build-up as we slowly see the major players manoeuvre into position in order to free Han, but the new musical number obnoxiously shoulders its way into the plot for no other reason than to have some unnecessary comic relief.
Speaking of musical numbers, we also have a new end celebration. In the original, we’re firmly on Endor, with the fireworks over the trees transitioning into the vaunted “Yub Nub” song that is a decidedly weird way to end the trilogy. This was re-composed by John Williams as a much more peaceful celebration theme, and extended by a montage showing Mos Eisley, Cloud City and Coruscant liberated before the dancing Ewoks close out the movie (including a scene with Luke and Wedge hugging). I actually prefer this version, predominantly because I like the way the montage really draws the three movies together. The music somehow also fits with the triumph of the little people over the galactic dictatorship of the Empire – we don’t get some bombastic victory celebration, but something much more along the lines of a weary, “we did it”. It really just fits well, I find.
It’s also important to note that, while not identified as Coruscant until 1999’s The Phantom Menace, this was the first instance we have of Lucas being influenced by the expanded universe – the name “Coruscant” was invented by Timothy Zahn for Heir to the Empire. The more you know!
We also get a new Sarlacc pit, which is less hole-in-the-ground and more weird alien thing. Not sure if it was a necessary change or not, but it’s largely a cosmetic thing. There are also some very minor changes that are made, such as adding CG rope around Han’s legs as he hangs above the pit, which seem a little… unnecessary? But Lucas is of course renowned for obsessing over minor details, so I guess why not.
Overall, I think the Special Editions are perhaps mired by the fact that we have the infamous Han shot first, or Jedi Rocks, which overshadow some of the more important things, such as cleaning up Empire, or even the increased scope of the ending of Jedi. The CGI is still a bit too ropey, however, as shown in the washed-out/watery Jabba and that singing Yuzzem, to name but two instances, but it’s nice to see how Cloud City has been expanded upon, and the Death Star does feel a lot bigger this time around.
Unfortunately, we’d have to wait until 2004 and the DVD releases before Ian McDiarmid would replace the weird monkey/woman composite for the Emperor in episode V….