I Am DB

September 16, 2011

A Long Time Ago, In a Galaxy Far, Far Away, I Actually Cared

Filed under: Movies — DB @ 7:16 pm

May 19, 2012: This post was originally published in September 2011. I temporarily removed it two months ago, and am now reposting it with its original date. In case you email subscribers are wondering why you’re getting it now…

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Today, the Star Wars Saga arrives on Blu-Ray disc. All six movies, available for the first time in high-definition. In addition to the movies themselves, the box set includes new special features, including a treasure trove of deleted scenes from the original trilogy, none of which have been officially released before. For those fans like me, who grew up in the 70’s, 80’s or 90’s watching these movies over and over again, this should be a great day. This box set should be a must-have. So it makes me pretty sad to say that I have no intention of buying it.

For any fan of my era, it should come as no surprise why. The versions of the original trilogy being released in this box set are the Special Editions which George Lucas created in 1997. You know…the ones where Greedo shoots first. Where the house band in Jabba’s palace has been given an overblown and dorky musical number. Where Jabba himself appears in a re-inserted deleted scene (skip to 1:00 mark), rendered in abysmally poor CGI (which was redone yet again in 2004, better but still not great). These versions have long replaced the ones that I grew up with, the versions as they appeared upon initial release in 1977, 1980 and 1983. And the movies have been released so many times on home video and DVD over the years that it comes as no surprise at this point that the originals are not being made available. But hey, that doesn’t mean it’s not still worth venting about.

I was incorrect, actually, when I said the originals are not available. They are. Lucasfilm tried to placate fans by releasing substandard prints of the unaltered films as “bonus features” on the 2006 DVD releases. Those discs, it should be noted, were made available for a limited time only and are no longer in the marketplace.

I was also incorrect when I said that these versions arriving on Blu-Ray are the 1997 editions of the films. They aren’t. Lucas has continued to tinker with them in the years since, making additional changes and moving them further away from the classics of my childhood. After the release of the prequel trilogy, Lucas made changes that would make the original films more consistent with the prequels (not exactly the direction one should be moving in, given their inferiority). Such changes included replacing actor Sebastian Shaw, who appeared as the ghost of Anakin Skywalker in the final moments of Return of the Jedi, with Hayden Christensen, who played Anakin in Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. Lucas also replaced the performer who played Emperor Palpatine in hologram form in The Empire Strikes Back with Ian McDiarmid, who played Palpatine in the remaining four films.

Now for this latest release, Lucas has made additional changes, and his choices grow increasingly inexplicable. In A New Hope, he has replaced Obi-Wan’s “dragon call” – used to scare off the Sand People – with a new sound that is, sadly, laughable. In Return of the Jedi, when Darth Vader picks up Palpatine and throws him down an abyss to his death in order to stop him from torturing Luke, his once-silent action is now accompanied by a hokey cry of, “NOOOOOOOOO!!” (mimicing a similar hokey cry from the end of Revenge of the Sith.)

Lucas has every right to make these changes. I don’t dispute it. These movies are his creations, they belong to him and he should be able to do whatever he wants to them. The frustration comes from the fact that he refuses to preserve the original versions of the films that existed prior to 1997, so that we have a choice. The new legion of Star Wars fans – those who grew up watching the 1997 (or later) versions – don’t know anything else, and so they can continue to enjoy these incarnations. But those of us who came before simply want the option of watching our versions of the Star Wars movies. And yes, they’re ours. They belong to us as much as they belong to Lucas. Not in any sense of copyright of course, but in our hearts and minds – and that’s a powerful sense of ownership that can’t be discounted. Everything Lucas has, he has because of Star Wars fans. We’re the ones who went to the theaters to watch the movies over and over again. We’re the ones who bought the toys, the lunchboxes, the trading cards, the storybooks, the bedsheets, the soundtracks and the innumerable other products. “Merchandising, merchandising!” chanted Yogurt, played by Mel Brooks in the actor/director’s 1987 Star Wars parody, Spaceballs. “Where the real money from the movie is made.”

And ain’t that the truth. One of the smartest and most prophetic things George Lucas ever did was negotiating, prior to the release of the first film, to retain all the merchandising and sequel rights. Check out this graphic, which came out about a year ago, depicting The Economics of Star Wars. The merchandise section accounts for movie tickets, video games and toys…but I’m not sure if  “toys” encompasses all the other products, like coffee mugs, cookie jars, Halloween costumes, shampoos, posters, etc.

If it seems like I’m moving away from my original point, I’m not. I’m speaking about the power of Star Wars fans; a power that, according to the chart, equals over $22 billion dollars. So yes, Star Wars belongs to us as much as it does to Lucas. And yes, everything Lucas has, he has because of Star Wars fans. It’s our money that allowed him to build Skywalker Ranch, his secluded retreat initially comprised of 2,500 acres purchased in 1978. It’s our money that allowed him to build a facility in San Francisco’s Presidio to house Lucasfilm Ltd., Industrial Light & Magic and LucasArts. It’s our money that has put his kids through school, paid for his home and afforded him every luxury he enjoys. It’s our money that has kept him on Forbes list of the 400 richest people in America (at the time of this post, he ranks 97th). I’d say we deserve to be heard, our opinions valued.

True, we aren’t always easy. Fans so passionate and committed can be harsh. To say that those of us raised on the initial trilogy were disappointed in the prequels is something of an understatement, and we were vocal in our disappointment. The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones each have a few things going for them (Darth Maul is a kick-ass, if sadly underdeveloped villain, and I’m a big fan of the rain-soaked fight between Obi-Wan and Jango Fett), but for the most part these are just terrible films. It pains me to say it of anything Star Wars, but it’s true. Revenge of the Sith was certainly an improvement, but was too little too late. Lucas would say that the prequels could never meet the expectations fans had built up for them over the years, and that may well be true. It doesn’t change the fact, however, that the prequels – the first two, especially – are poorly written and directed. Our complaints were largely valid. Yet they seemed only to harden Lucas’ resolve. It’s almost as if he became determined to upset the fans; as if making them angry actually gave him some sort of thrill. Perhaps it does. That might be the only way to explain some of the changes he has made to the films. Really, compare Obi-Wan’s original dragon call to the one newly created for this DVD release:

How could anyone think this is an improvement? The new call sounds like the melting Wicked Witch of the West crossed with a victim being mutilated in a Saw movie.

And here is Vader’s outburst as he stops Palpatine from torturing Luke:

Are we really to believe that this has been bothering Lucas all this time? Are these really the thoughts that weigh on his mind? Not a single change he has made to the trilogy since beginning this fiddling in 1997 has been an improvement. Some of the changes may have been innocuous – expanded vistas outside of the Cloud City windows, for example – but nothing he’s done has made the movies notably better. Even some of the changes on these Blu-Rays are harmless enough (here’s a rundown of all of them). Okay, so he widened Jabba’s palace door and made the Ewoks blink. Necessary? No. But not terribly troubling either. More often than not though, the updates have ranged from bad to dreadful. Compare the original performance by Sy Snootles and the Rebo Band from Return of the Jedi to the new version he added in 1997.

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Even when Lucas made Jedi in ’83, he was already showing signs of the juvenile humor that was found throughout the prequel trilogy. The original musical number is already kinda dumb. But seeing what he replaced it with lends the original a gravitas on par with The Beatles playing The Ed Sullivan Show. Dare I say, the original version actually has some subtlety. The song is pretty dopey, but it’s primarily there to set the scene and establish Jabba’s palace as a cool hangout for a ready-to-party crowd of intergalactic riff-raff. In the ’97 version, the musical number becomes the focus of the scene, and is just…obnoxious.

A less abhorrent but still ill-advised change Lucas made is the aforementioned replacement of Emperor Palpatine’s hologram in The Empire Strikes Back. Replacing the original actor with the one who plays Palpatine in the prequels isn’t so bad an idea, but as the comparison clip below illustrates, there are four different versions of the scene, the last of which adds clumsy, superfluous dialogue about Luke’s identity.

Four versions. Why? Does Lucas have nothing better to do? Defenders of the dialogue-heavy update could argue it was added because Vader isn’t aware that his children survived their mother’s death…but since that version of Empire came out in 2004 and Episode III came out in 2005, might it not have been smarter to have Palpatine relay the information to Vader in the new movie, after informing him of his wife’s fate?

Again, Lucas making changes isn’t really what bothers the fans. Two things bother us. One, they’re bad changes. He takes things that are completely fine as they are, and makes them worse. His instincts as a filmmaker are long gone. If his changes were at least well-conceived, then we might not mind so much. We’d probably still be annoyed by his continued messing with the movies, but maybe it wouldn’t be anything to get our lightsabers in a twist over. The greater offense – the thing that really bothers us – is that he makes these changes without offering the original versions as an alternative. Like I said, Lucas has every right to muck with the movies to his heart’s content. All we ask is that he gives us a choice.

In 1988, a well-known filmmaker testified before Congress on the subject of film preservation. “It will soon be possible to create a new ‘original’ negative with whatever changes or alterations the copyright holder of the moment desires. The copyright holders, so far, have not been completely diligent in preserving the original negatives of films they control…In the future it will become even easier for old negatives to become lost and be “replaced” by new altered negatives. This would be a great loss to our society. Our cultural history must not be allowed to be rewritten.”

These remarks were made by George Lucas.

While the full statement primarily speaks to the rights of the creator of a work of art, Lucas is clear that the public also has rights. The public has the right to view a work of art in the form and context in which it originally existed. “The public’s interest is ultimately dominant over all other interests,” he said. “And the proof of that is that even a copyright law only permits the creators and their estate a limited amount of time to enjoy the economic fruits of that work.”

This is all Star Wars fans want. We want to watch the versions of the movies we grew up with, and we want Lucas to acknowledge their importance – and our right to them – by taking care to preserve them properly, with the same high-definition remastering he has provided for the Blu-Rays. He claims that to do this would be prohibitively expensive, but nobody’s buying that from a guy who, according to the Forbes article referenced earlier, is worth $3.25 billion. His position is not only an insult to the fans, but to the hundreds of crew members who worked on the films and whose efforts are often eliminated through the changes. Remember, Lucas didn’t direct The Empire Strikes Back or Return of the Jedi. Of course he wrote the stories and owns the rights and technically can do whatever he wants to the films, but is it not a sign of disrespect to directors Irvin Kershner (Empire) and Richard Marquand (Jedi) to alter their films? Lucas may have been frustrated by the technological limits at the time the films were made, but they should continue to exist as records of that time, of the hard work poured into them by dedicated crews and of the countless childhoods spent immersed in them.

Look, it’s easy to dump on George Lucas. He makes it easy. And I suspect he even enjoys it, in a way. For many fans, the prequel trilogy and the revamped versions of the original trilogy have soured them on Star Wars altogether, but they shouldn’t allow these later crimes to sully what was once a pure source of joy and inspiration. I love Star Wars. I’ve always loved Star Wars. I always will. The title of this post proclaims that I no longer care, but of course I do. I wouldn’t be writing all this if I didn’t. Fans wouldn’t be commenting about the newest changes all across the internet and Twitterverse if they didn’t care. And for as much as Lucas has been a source of frustration over the past nearly decade-and-a-half, it was his fertile imagination that drew millions of us, tractor beam-like, into the Star Wars universe. He created an amazing world filled with beloved characters and unceasingly cool weapons, vehicles, creatures, etc. Okay…then he created Jar Jar Binks. But that doesn’t negate everything that came before. And let’s not forget that  Lucas has done a tremendous amount for the art and craft of filmmaking. With his THX system, he championed the importance of presenting movies in digital sound. With Skywalker Sound, he created a haven for directors and sound designers to create rich aural landscapes. With Industrial Light & Magic, he helped change the state of visual effects. Without Lucas, there would be no be Pixar, which began life as a small group within ILM. Beyond his contributions to film, Lucas is a generous philanthropist, who has long supported education efforts through his George Lucas Educational Foundation and who has signed onto The Giving Pledge, an effort led by Warren Buffett and Bill Gates to encourage the world’s wealthiest people to give the majority of their money to philanthropic causes. Just this week, Lucasfilm and Stand Up 2 Cancer unveiled a partnership involving a line of Star Wars/SU2C T-shirts.

My point is, the guy’s not the Dark Lord of the Sith we tend to take him for these days, and with all the vitriol he receives from disappointed fans, there is still good in him. So perhaps, just as Darth Vader was redeemed through the tough love of his son Luke Skywalker, Lucas will eventually have the change of heart that we, the fans – a collective Luke Skywalker, if I might be so bold – desire and deserve. As The Digital Bits editor Bill Hunt pointed out today in his review of the the Blu-Ray release, if Lucas wants to mine any more money from releasing these movies on DVD (and going back to the VHS days, there have been at least six releases of the Star Wars trilogy on home video), remastered versions of the original trilogy may be the last thing left in his bag of tricks to make it worthwhile for consumers. For while this Blu-Ray set will surely sell like gangbusters – with a treat like the long-sought deleted scenes inspiring even disgruntled fans to fork over their cash – what else is left that will be exciting enough for fans to pay yet again? It’s not the upcoming 3D conversions, I can tell you that.

So on this day that should be cause for unanimous celebration amongst Star Wars fans everywhere, comparable to the elation experienced by the destruction of the second Death Star, let those weary and disappointed among us continue to hope that Lucas will recognize the importance of preserving the original versions of the original trilogy and will remember his own words that illuminate their significance as cultural artifacts. That will be a day long remembered, and a day when Lucas can, in one stroke, win back the love and respect of disappointed fans.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to see if I can track down someone who bought the Blu-Rays so I can watch the deleted scenes.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

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