“Luke, you do not yet realize your importance. You have only begun to discover your power. Join me, and I will complete your training. With our combined strength, we can end this destructive conflict and bring order to the galaxy.”
Return with us to the tail end of the greatest decade in American cinema, 1977. Specifically, May. One of the year’s top movies at the box office is released this month, Smokey and the Bandit. Elsewhere, some theaters are still showing a holdover from last month, Annie Hall. The aging drive-in theaters are showing Too Hot to Handle, or Breaker! Breaker!, or Day of the Animals, or The Car (with a plot that we’d think we already heard when a book named Christine hit the stores a few years later). You might be able to catch Sam Peckinpah’s Cross of Iron somewhere, or John Waters’s Desperate Living, if any theaters outside Baltimore are daring enough to book it.
Meanwhile, a low-budget sci-fi film, Star Wars, opens to little fanfare. A few social misfits love it, but anyone else who sees it is bewildered. Its dialogue is embarrassing, its story puerile. Is this the vision of our future? Where’s the quiet contemplation and positive outlook of 2001: A Space Odyssey? It becomes a minor footnote on the year 1977, buried low on the list of top movies of the year along with forgettable Disney movies, yet another Bond sequel, and various WWII dramas. Another sci-fi flick later that year, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, fares slightly better. Audiences loved Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, and they’re willing to give this story a chance. But, with no chest hair or gold medallions, audiences aren’t in a sci-fi mood. It’s a minor success for the young director.
For the cast of Star Wars, it’s difficult to find work. Mark Hamill’s follow-up is a low-budget sex comedy, Corvette Summer. The scars from a car accident just prior to shooting that film make it difficult for him to find roles in front of the camera. He turns to performing voice characterizations for cartoons. Carrie Fisher does a few made-for-TV movies and a horrible comedy named Under the Rainbow. She becomes another in the cavalcade of children of stars who tried acting, and failed miserably. Harrison Ford was on his way out of acting when Star Wars was casting. After a small role in a Vietnam film directed by a guy for whom he built some cabinets, he makes the transition back to a quiet life, becoming a carpenter in Montana. Alec Guinness looks at it as an embarrassing role in a long career.
Science fiction will make a grand reentrance, but in unlikely places. In 1979, Fox cashes in on the renewed interest in horror films and makes one with a sci-fi twist: Alien. But, its spaceship setting is ancillary to scaring the crap outta people. Meanwhile, Paramount resurrects a cult TV series from the 1960s with Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Now, this is what a sci-fi film is supposed to be like! It’s quiet, contemplative — just what audiences expect. Its positive outlook on the future is just what the country needs, and it becomes the pattern for numerous sequels and an eventual return to television.
Speaking of 1979, Spielberg makes his follow-up to CET3K: a WWII comedy starring the guy from Animal House. It’s a resounding flop. After two films in a row that failed to perform like Jaws, he has a hard time finding directing gigs. He turns to producing. He does comedies — Continental Divide, Used Cars, Fandango. He does a couple scary films — Poltergeist, Gremlins. When a script crosses his desk that combines comedy with sci-fi, he remembers a friend from his early days, George Lucas, and brings him in as director. When the two can’t land their first choice for the role — darn it, but teen heartthrob Michael Fox can’t get away from filming Family Ties — they stick with their second choice, Eric Stoltz. Unfortunately, Lucas does not have a way with actors. While the car race through the town square (his addition to the script) was a lot of fun, he can’t bring the sharp timing to the dialogue that comedy needs. Back to the Future flops. Lucas returns to running the special effects company he founded after that Star Wars mess. Spielberg continues producing, and nearly a decade later makes a return to directing with a very personal film about the Holocaust. Audiences and critics alike are blown away. The film sweeps the Academy Awards, and Spielberg continues making serious historical dramas.
When Jaws was released, cinephiles feared that filmmaking would turn into a purely commercial endeavor, fueled by summer hits and massive box office takes. Star Wars was released with the intention of being a summer tentpole. Fortunately, that was not to be. Lower budget films continue to be a profit center for the studios. Special effects have not supplanted story or talent as the primary draw to films. Sure, there are still films that appeal to the masses — has it not always been a panacea, a way to escape from reality? — and studios still try to wow us with major spectaculars, but people are still satisfied with simple stories told simply. If Star Wars had succeeded, who knows what would’ve happened?
That jolt back to reality always hurts. Ouch.
Look, we all know that back in 1977, Star Wars was most certainly not a flop or (usually) mentioned in the same breath with Pete’s Dragon and The Spy Who Loved Me. Truth is, it wasn’t just the cultural touchstone of 1977, or of the 1970s. For the children of that era, it was the big thing. We had Star Wars toys — it almost single-handedly made action figures the powerhouse they continue to be. We had Star Wars clothes, and bedsheets, and lunch boxes. We lapped up the two films that followed, and the cartoons, and the Ewok TV movies. We probably didn’t see the Holiday Special, but we most certainly saw Luke and the droids on The Muppet Show. We gathered around the radio to hear the adventure told on National Public Radio. We were the characters on the playground. We all grew up, but for many of us, there’s still a love in our hearts for that galaxy far, far away that nothing can extinguish.
I don’t think it’s far-fetched to say that Star Wars had as big an effect on filmmaking as my “what-if” makes it out to be. While science fiction has never been cool, and probably never will be, Star Wars redefined how we thought about it. Would Close Encounters have been a big success if it hadn’t been a few months on the heels of another major sci-fi film? Would Star Trek: The Motion Picture flopped as spectacularly as it did if it hadn’t seemed so damn boring compared to Star Wars? Would Spielberg have made E.T., which was the biggest moneymaker of all time for 15 years? (And then was supplanted by a major film made by a filmmaker who was successful due to the ’80s surge in popularity of sci-fi.) Or for that matter, would Indiana Jones have seen the screen, or Harrison Ford left acting altogether? Star Wars did more to shape film than Citizen Kane, Gone With the Wind, and The Godfather put together. Want to deny it? You can’t!
But, there’s a disturbance in the Force, a major problem with its legacy. It all began in 1997, twenty years after its original release. Or should we say it began in 1981? Because that’s when the seeds would be sown. When Star Wars was re-released prior to its sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, it received its first change: The opening crawl was altered to include “Episode IV: A New Hope.” Granted, that’s not as huge a change as changing the Bible to say Jesus’s mother was named Louise and lived in Brooklyn Heights, but what would come in 1997 was, at least to millions of Star Wars devotees, equally blasphemous. Greedo shot first. Whoa, whoa, whoa, back up. You mean the biggest, baddest mothertrucker in the galaxy far, far away, who had his blaster pulled under the table and was ready to get the drop on this slimy piece of bantha poodoo no-good bounty hunter didn’t shoot first? Dude, WTF? First, it doesn’t make any sense. If Greedo blasts Han and leaves him for dead in a bar, Jabba gets no money, which I’m pretty sure won’t win Greedo a fruit basket. Second…come on, it’s Han Solo! Okay, I promise, no more geeking out. The tweaks to A New Hope (as it was now known, at least in subtitular form) went far beyond the timing of blaster shots. They re-typeset the opening crawl, cleaned up special effects shots, added new special effects shots, replaced characters in the cantina scene, reinserted a deleted exchange between Jabba the Hutt and Han Solo, made blaster shots less graphic, changed how planets exploded, and more or less completely replaced the Death Star attack. Is it the same film? Well, yes…and no. Han’s willingness to kill in cold blood aside, the spirit and story are basically the same, but it looks like a movie made in 1997 with 1977 hairstyles. Then, Lucas did it again, re-releasing The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi with similar tweaks. Those films didn’t suffer the same degree of alteration, though the ending of Jedi was wholesale replaced.
The indignities to fans didn’t stop there. Lucas declared that the original versions of the films were all but destroyed. When the trilogy was (finally!) released on DVD in 2004, it was the 1997 editions only, now with even more changes, like inserting Hayden Christensen into the ending of Return of the Jedi. Lucas said the originals would never be released again. They did not exist.
Let’s just consider that for a second. The film that ignited a cultural phenomenon, that made giant effects spectaculars de rigueur, that was known and loved for twenty years, ceased to exist in 1997. Oh, sure, there was this other movie that pretended to be Star Wars, with the same plot and actors, but it wasn’t the real deal. Unless we wanted to watch it on moldy VHS or Laserdiscs, either our memories would have to suffice or we’d have to accept these spiffy new doppelgangers. It’s a modified version of that “what if” scenario, except we live in a world with Star Wars, just not the same Star Wars. To extend one of my points, it’s like Back to the Future Part II — it’s the same time and place, but everything is horribly different.
I suppose “horrible” is too strong a word. I’d be hypocritical if I didn’t admit that I kinda like the special editions. The new special effects are pretty cool, especially the revamped Death Star battle in A New Hope — it was exciting enough before, but now the visuals match the story’s excitement. And, I’ve always hated the matte lines around the Rancor, and I’m glad that the DVD version of Return of the Jedi finally removed them. I’m not pragmatic enough to say that if the originals were never available again I’d be okay with it. It’s that, on a philosophical level, part of my childhood has been digitally altered and replaced. That’s what bothers me. From as early as I can remember until I was a teenager, Star Wars was the sole driving force behind my playtime (that and Legos, but I used my imagination and made those about Star Wars too). I wasn’t in to Masters of the Universe or G.I. Joe like other kids — Star Wars was it. It was only when I was too old to play with toys or pretend to be Han Solo that the love subsided, replaced by collecting baseball cards. I had half a mind to make this entire review my memories about how much into Star Wars I was…and this review would be equally long, and the point would be the same. George Lucas has every right to tinker with his creations, to make them “better” in some way, to fulfill the vision that he had in his head but couldn’t recreate on celluloid. What he has no right to do is withhold from the faithful the films that made them love his universe in the first place.
“Look sir, droids!”
Oops, I mean, “Look sir, DVDs!”
Yes, we no longer have to feel like our childhood has been swept out from under us like Jeff Lebowski’s rug. Star Wars has seen its first double-dip (and I have a bad feeling it won’t be the last), and we now have “Limited Edition” releases of the trilogy. All three films are available as separate two-disc DVD releases. The first disc of each includes the 1997/2004 Special Edition, and it’s virtually identical to the previous DVD: same menus, same bonus features (a commentary track and DVD-ROM link to starwars.com), same audio-video quality. Even the disc art is the same, except there’s now that huge FBI Warning of Doom. If you want more details, check out our previous review. Where it’s different is the second disc, which contains the original theatrical version of each film. And when I say “original theatrical,” it’s the truth — this is the first time on any home video release that A New Hope has been presented without the “Episode IV” section in the opening crawl. Sweet! However, what’s not sweet is that they present all three films in non-anamorphic widescreen, and with 2.0 Surround audio. On one hand, this preserves the original audio fidelity, and in a certain sense makes them look like the old VHS video quality (except uncropped; it wasn’t until the ’90s that they were available in widescreen on VHS — which I owned, of course). On the other hand…come on, Lucas, you can’t go to the effort of an anamorphic transfer? Video quality isn’t bad, for what it is. Any imperfections add to the nostalgia, and there are imperfections aplenty. I just hate that it doesn’t look as good as it could on my HDTV. The second disc also includes an Xbox demo of Lego Star Wars II. That does me no good, as I don’t own an Xbox, but hey, I also already own the game.
I think I’ve said enough. There’s one reason, and one reason only to pick up this release: If your sense of nostalgia compels you to own the Star Wars trilogy as you remember it, before the Special Editions, before the prequels, before any of this other nonsense. Personally? Unless I had received them for review, I would’ve stuck with my 2004 DVDs. My son, who is currently four years old, watches them more than I do, and all he cares about is that Darth Vader is in them.