I’ll be counting down the days until I see The Force Awakens with a series of remembrances and observations about the franchise. Today, everything old was new again, whether we wanted it or not.
It was January 31st, 1997, and we were crammed into a sold-out theater for a movie most of us had seen dozens of times already. The previews rolled by, then the lights dimmed, the Fox fanfare roared to life, the Lucasfilm logo glimmered — and no one made a sound. I remember my friend shouting, “Come on, people, get excited, this is Star Wars!” But the buzz in the theater was oddly muted. There was definite excitement, but also an air of waiting for the other shoe to drop. It was miles from I’d expected when the Special Editions were announced. And, if we’d been paying attention, it was an omen of things to come.
The build-up to the release of the Special Editions had been intense. We’d be getting one film a month for the first three months of 1997, kicking of Star Wars‘ twentieth anniversary year in style. The films hadn’t been shown theatrically — outside of a few special engagements — in almost fifteen years, and this would mark the first time many fans saw the films outside their living rooms. The ads for the Special Editions leaned heavily on that aspect, with a voice gravely intoning that “for a generation, the only way to see Star Wars was like this,” followed by a scene from the Death Star battle on a tiny TV screen with tinny audio that exploded into a full-on THX extravaganza. Even those of us who’s seen the originals in the theater had never seen them like this.
Then there was the promise of the additions, what was making all of this special. Rumors flew that we were going to get Luke’s boyhood friend Biggs Darklighter fully restored to his rightful place in film lore. Lucas talked about how he could finally make the films look the way he’d wanted, but had been unable to due to time and technology restraints. And the trailers teased that: a much more bustling Mos Eisley, more dynamic spaceships, a totally bad-ass Wampa, a Sarlacc that didn’t look like a toothy vagina. Yes, it was going to be different, but it was the man who’d created it all in the first place in charge of everything. Surely he knew what he was doing.
And yet there we were that opening night finding our anticipation tinged with dread. For most of the early part of the film, nothing had changed, except that it looked fantastic. Considering that I’d seen the original on a drive-in screen, at a bargain theater, and on home video, seeing this high quality presentation was mind-blowing. We didn’t get the introduction of Biggs, but we did get some new background shots of Tatooine and a new shot of the Jawa sandcrawler, subtle but noticeably different to those of us intimately familiar with the film. And I had to admit, it looked a little better, less constrained by ’70s-level special effects.
Then they got to Mos Eisley and the repulsor lifts fell off the landspeeder.
Yes, Mos Eisley now looked like a busy spaceport. So busy that we now had to spend several minutes watching how busy it was. And while it was technically impressive, it brought the pace of the film to a dead screeching halt for what amounted to a tech demo. “We’ll get right back to the story, but first, hey, look what we can do!” There were now giant CGI animals walking around and ships constantly taking off and landing and more aliens than you could shake a lightsaber at. All of it definitely new and shiny, but not necessarily better. Or special.
Then followed perhaps the most divisive moment in all of Star Wars fandom. Greedo confronted Han, and Greedo shot first. There’d been rumblings that it was coming, but nobody expected it to be carried out in such an awkward, unconvincing manner. All the CGI in the world couldn’t have made Han’s flinch look realistic, and what’s more, from a story standpoint, it was unnecessary and nonsensical. If Greedo was that bad a shot, then Han was never in any real danger, so what was the point of the scene? If it was to make us angry, well, mission accomplished.
Our bad mood didn’t help the restored Jabba the Hutt scene either. Lucas lost the scene because he couldn’t pull of the effects shots to create an alien Jabba, and, out of necessity, moved a lot of the exposition from this scene to the Greedo scene. Putting it back was not only redundant — we got the same info twice in practically back to back scenes — but the CGI Jabba was terrible, the kind of thing you would never expect to come out of Industrial Light & Magic. When Boba Fett nonchalantly walked into frame and practically winked at the audience at the end of the scene, you heard more groans than cheers.
After that low point, things settled down, and the film went on pretty much as we’d remembered. We finally got Biggs, showing up to reunite with Luke just in time to fly off and get killed. The new space battle scenes were undeniably impressive, even if I did find myself missing the ingenious simplicity of the original effects. And it was impossible not to get swept up in the climax of the film, and the soaring throne room scene at the end. We walked out in good spirits, but it wasn’t quite the exultant experience any of us had anticipated. It was Star Wars, yes. But it wasn’t.
The box office didn’t think so. It opened at #1 and stayed there for the next two weeks. It was still in the top ten when the Jedi special edition opened in March, and ended up as the eighth highest grossing film of the year, out-grossing James Bond and Batman. Somebody was definitely buying what Lucas was selling, even if some of us weren’t entirely convinced.
I of course went and saw the other two films. The Empire Strikes Back had the fewest changes, although again Lucas managed to completely kill the pace of the film with an oddly unnecessary sequence of Vader boarding a shuttle to leave Cloud City during the climax. For someone who’d earned so much praise for the breakneck pace and tight editing of these films, ol’ George sure did feel compelled to slow things down for no reason all of a sudden. As for Return of the Jedi, he tried and failed to save the musical number from Jabba’s palace, but managed to improve upon the singing Ewoks with an ending that actually felt like a real galactic victory. As the credits on the last film rolled, I thought that the entire Special Edition experience had been an interesting, if not always successful experiment. Lucas had been unafraid to try some new things, but at least we knew we’d still have the originals around too.
Oh we were so naive. Because as the years went by, it became clear that Lucas wasn’t just dissatisfied with the original films, he was clearly embarrassed by them. It was like they never existed. He wouldn’t let his alma mater show the theatrical cut of Star Wars as part of a retrospective of Seventies cinema; they had to show the 1997 version, totally undermining the point. He kept tinkering with the Special Editions on home video, finally getting Jabba right, but stubbornly blundering on with change after change to the Han/Greedo scene, something that didn’t need fixing in the first place. People clamored for the theatrical cuts on DVD, and Lucas finally gave them to us — as bare-boned unrestored bonus features. This from a guy who had spoken out against colorization of old movies and was a staunch believer in the preservation of film history. Yet he seemed to have no appreciation for his own history. He’d become his own Emperor, sweeping away the remains of the Old Republic.
Of course, it would be years after the release of the Special Editions before we’d realize this. Not only had we yet to see how he’d handle the home video release, but he offered us a pretty good distraction. Because it was revealed that these updated movies had been a sort of dry run to see where the stare of special effects were. And being satisfied with what he’d seen, Lucas had decided it was time to fulfill the promise made by “Episode IV.” It was time to tell the story of the fall of the Jedi and the rise of the Empire.
It was time for Episode I.
The Twelve Days of Star Wars