Monday, April 20, 2020

An Ode to the STAR WARS Special Editions

by Rob DiCristino
Because every Star Wars is someone’s first Star Wars.

One of the defining aspects of Star Wars fandom is the eternal longing for clean, legal, HD editions of the unaltered Classic Trilogy. George Lucas has been tinkering with his magnum opus since the 1981 re-release of Star Wars (1977), when he added “EPISODE IV: A NEW HOPE” to the head of the opening crawl, and that tinkering has continued through each theatrical and home release of the series, including its recent upload to the Disney+ streaming service. All ten (then) available live-action films in the saga were given their latest round of color corrections and optical tweaks, tweaks that are likely to continue until long after we’re around to notice them. The truth is that we’ll never get those unaltered editions because Star Wars has gone beyond cinematic exercise. It’s gone beyond a production originating from a time or place. It’s now a cultural touchstone that will continue to evolve as an arbiter of our collective mythology. If Lucas has his way, it will never be stagnant or sacred. He’s not romantic about his creation. In fact, after selling Lucasfilm to Disney in 2012, he criticized the Mouse’s uninspired approach to 2015’s The Force Awakens: “There weren’t enough visual or technical leaps forward,” Lucas said. “There’s nothing new.”
“New” has always been the operative word in Lucas’ creative career. As the nerdy outlier of the Movie Brats clan, he’s long been the champion of the offbeat and the alien. As opposed to contemporaries like Spielberg and De Palma — filmmakers who use their creative gifts to process their hangups, fetishes, and existential conundrums — Lucas has stood at an emotional remove from his projects, manipulating actors and special effects artists like chess pieces in service of his own grand, experimental, and mythological vision. “In essence, films never get finished; they get abandoned. At some point, you’re dragged off the picture kicking and screaming while somebody says, ‘Okay, it’s done.’ That isn’t really the way it should work,” Lucas has said. “I think it’s the director’s prerogative, not the studio’s, to go back and reinvent a movie.” It’s worth noting, of course, that Lucas has only directed four of the pre-Disney Star Wars films (It would be interesting to know what Irvin Kershner and Richard Marquand think of his recent changes to their work), but his point is made. Barthes’ Death of the Author theory does not apply to Lucas; he retains ownership of Star Wars no matter what. It’ll never be ours, as far as he’s concerned. It’s his.

And who am I to argue? First turned onto the trilogy during its 1997 Special Edition theatrical release, I had no frame of reference for the films in their original form. I grew up with CGI Jabba the Hutt, with the “improved” digital dogfight footage, and with the alternate celebration song at the end of Return of the Jedi. Hell, I didn’t hear Jedi’s original song (“Yub Nub”) until high school, and I maintain that the Special Edition song is actually much more solemn and weighted, much better suited for the climax’s tone. It wasn’t until the 2004 DVD re-releases that I began to buck against another round of changes — Lucas’ desire to integrate the Classic Trilogy with his new prequels led to (among other capital offenses) Gungans and Hayden Christensen creeping into Return of the Jedi. That, to me, was too far. “The prequels are fine,” I thought, oblivious to my own lack of historical perspective, “but leave my originals alone!” I was feeling what many original Star Wars fans were probably feeling in 1997: Why mess with something that means so much to so many people?
Cut to this year, when I finally pulled the trigger on a physical set of Harmy’s Despecialized Editions (fan edits meant only for those who own copies of the Official Releases, etc., etc., cough, cough). Available online and through bootlegs for years now, they’re the last resort for fans who have grown tired of waiting for Lucasfilm/Fox/Disney to wise up and take their money. My particular set features a beautiful presentation of Petr Harmáček’s landmark restoration, with dozens of commentary tracks, documentaries, deleted scenes, and release-era (era) TV specials. It’s the single best Star Wars-related purchase I’ve ever made, and it’s given me an incredible appreciation for what these films were when they were still just films. Watching twenty-year-old Carrie Fisher hold her nose through interview questions about being the child of celebrities makes me wonder if she’d have preferred that to forty years of questions about being Princess Leia. Listening to Mark Hamill complain in 1985 that Luke didn’t go dark in Return of the Jedi makes me wonder why he was so against Luke’s disillusionment in The Last Jedi. For the first time, I have a real historical appreciation for the films that defined my childhood.
But even though these will be my primary Star Wars viewing copies from now on (and, God willing, the versions my son will grow up on), I find myself hesitating to disown the Special Editions entirely. Had they not been released in theaters, I wouldn’t have gotten into Star Wars when I did. Had I not grown up watching the VHS “Making of the Special Editions” featurettes, I wouldn’t have learned what optical composition, motion control camerawork, or scaled miniatures were until much later. Without listening to Lucas acknowledge the limitations of his youth and express his genuine desire to perfect his work, I might not have understood the alchemical blend of inspiration and hubris that drives filmmakers in their pursuits. As much as I may align myself with ‘77 Star Wars audiences and stand for the purity of cinema against its would-be corruptors (George Lucas included), the truth is that the Special Editions helped me appreciate the miracle of movies more than anything ever had before. I’ve long said that movies are my favorite art because they are All The Arts Combined, and the Special Editions were the first to show me just how messy and multifaceted that art could be.


  1. Worth noting: Star Wars fans don't have just a binary choice between the original theatrical release restorations by Harmy (and others) and the various officially sanctioned "Special" editions on disc and streaming. There's also Adywan's "Revisited" project, which gives the Original Trilogy a digital polish with subtle tweaks and additions (holographic displays, repainted saber blades and blaster fire, enhanced explosions, etc.), as opposed to the in-your-face "Special" changes of added monsters and Gungans, the Jabba scene, and Vader "Nooooos"... and, of course, "MacClunkey." :P

  2. The Special Edition were still tolerable, but every other edition added more and more stuff that was absolutely not need

    The Harmy edits are a nice alternative, but i became aware of them only recently. Still not the best option because of the size of the file, which makes them hard to transfer to friends at the moment. And i'm not going to buy a blu-ray burner just for that. I'll always prefer a dosc, but i'm setup to play files on my tv

  3. I cannot explain how excited I was for the Special Editions. I have two older brothers that were born in the mid-late 70s that got SOME (obviously too young to get all) of the original release excitement, and by the time I was old enough to sit through a movie in the mid 80s, Star Wars was passé, but that didn't stop my brothers from getting me into it. VHS was my only avenue. I knew every flaw of the first movie's SFX- the vaseline lens under the landspeeder, the bizarre graininess of Luke and Obi Wan's conversation at Obi Wan's hut, the jump cut to have the lightsaber blade ignite on the Falcon, the matte boxes in space.

    I was unspeakably excited for the Special Editions. I feel like I read a dozen articles about what Lucas did and how he did it, in EW and People and USA Today and the ancient internet. My dad and I went on weekend afternoons (much cheaper), and the theaters were packed. It's the first time I can recall cheering in the theaters. When Luke and Obi Wan had their chat in the cleaned up footage, I was so amazed. I completely and utterly enchanted by the whole experience on those three weekends in the winter of 1997. I recall, in my mind, that I overlooked the changes I didn't care for (CGI Jabba and Jedi Rocks) and loved a lot of the improvements (I was all in on the CGI space scenes, new Wampa footage, and cleaned up footage).

    In retrospect, I of course prefer the original versions I grew up with, and wish we could go back to those as the definitive version. But I also have that warm spot for these versions because I can never have that theater experience again at that age.

  4. I think the artist has to walk away from the work at some point. Let it be a product of the time and reflect who the artist was in that time. Why obsess and tinker with the past when you can create something new?

  5. I have a soft spot in my heart for the SE because I got to see the original trilogy in a theater. A New Hope was like a nerd rock concert. It was one of the top movie going experiences of my life