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Sympathy for the Devil, or at Least Understanding for George Lucas…

Next week, George Lucas will release his complete six Star Wars movies on blu ray. Truth be told, I’m not sure that I’ll buy them. This isn’t a note of protest against the director’s seemingly incessant tinkering with the movies that helped define a generation, but just one of indifference. The franchise doesn’t feel essential any more, even though I can’t exactly put my finger on why, but I can’t help but feel that – were I to buy the complete set – I wouldn’t be getting the iconic films that marked a collective cultural experience, but George Lucas’ heavily revised notes on those films, which is something quite different. That said, I can’t bring myself to spew the type of vitriol at Lucas that most on-line fans seem to enjoy producing, if only because I can almost respect what Lucas is attempting to do.

Whatever happened to light entertainment...?

I think the big difference between the way fans see the films and the way that Lucas seems to perceive them is that Lucas doesn’t necessarily believe that each of the six instalments has its own unique identity or persona. Fans and movie critics are quick to point to individual films in the series – most, for example, would argue that Empire Strikes Back is the best film, and that A New Hope is a solid attempt at building a fictional universe. As such, we have our own particular preferences and ideas about them. We can easily, for example, opt not to watch The Phantom Menace, or concede that the second half of Attack of the Clones is much stronger than the first. In short, even the most affectionate of Star Wars fans tends to treat each of the six instalments as a separate entity.

If you look at the changes that Lucas has made to the film – ignoring those mandated to keep the age rating, like “Han shot first” – his changes are mostly built around consolidating the franchise as a whole. So Lucas sacrifices the individual integrity of one film to make it fit better with the others. For example, the Yoda in the new blu-ray release of The Phantom Menace will be rendered by computer-generated imagery, in order to sit better with his more action-orientated role in Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. Darth Vader’s cheese-tastic “nooooo!” from Revenge of the Sith will be superimposed over Return of the Jedi, in order to create a sense of symmetry.

George Lucas should quite cloning around...

These changes undoubtedly diminish the individual films, which is something that most commentators seem to note. However, Lucas seems to believe that it creates a greater sense of cohesion amongst the six films. It seems like they sit together a little bit better, for example, if Hayden Christensen is superimposed over Sebastian Shaw at the end of Return of the Jedi. It packs a greater emotional punch for the entire series, as a collective unit, if the ghost of Vader at the end of the six films, stands as the young man he was before he chose the Dark Side. Of course, while you can understand the logic, it still feels more than a little cold to completely cut Shaw out of that ending. Particularly if you grew up seeing Shaw like that.

I think part of the reason that people are reacting so strongly to these changes is because they serve to diminish the films that were widely loved, in order to retroactively validate the films that met with a less positive response. Lucas had his chance to sell his audience on the prequels while he was making them, so it feels more than a little bit cheap to undermine an entire generation’s cultural memory in order to grant the three prequels some hint of legitimacy. I can understand that position and, to be honest, I sympathise quite a bit.

Nobody's forcing you to buy them...

More than that, though, I can feel the anger stemming from the fact that all of this could have been avoided had Lucas planned either the original trilogy or the prequel trilogy better. He wouldn’t need to use a sledgehammer to provide this sort of linking continuity if he had incorporated it the first time around. I know that the franchise wasn’t entirely planned from the start, despite what Lucas or many might claim, but it’s hard to believe that Lucas couldn’t work with what he had. If he had had Vader shouting “nooo!” during the climax of Return of the Jedi, it wouldn’t be such a big deal right now. It would probably still be a bit cheesy, but it would have looking like Lucas was doing a bit more than tampering with the historical document to make it look like he knew what he was doing all along. Similarly, if Vader’s soul had originally been played by a young actor who looked anything like Christensen, I don’t think replacing him would have been such a big deal.

More than that, though, I can’t help but feel that the biggest divide between Lucas and fans comes over the question of who owns Star Wars. I mean, in any practical or legal sense, it’s clearly Lucas. But I think that the original films entered the popular consciousness in such a way that the public really latched on to them. I don’t buy into any of this “entitlement”nonsense where fans feel that creators owe them, because they don’t. On the other hand, sometimes it is nice to be nice, for lack of a better term. While I don’t believe Lucas has any moral obligation to do so, I can’t help but feel that he might have a better relationship with fans if he treated his custody of the franchise as something like joint custody.

Blast from the past...

When the Doctor Who restoration team do an update to a serial (whether adding special effects or doing some editing or extending or contracting), they are always sure to leave the originals on the disc as well. And the DVDs cost a hell of a lot less, as well. I know that it’s Lucas’ material and he can do whatever he damn well wants with it, but part of me wonders who it would have harmed to include the original movies, uncut and unrated, either as part of this box set or in their own release at the same time.

Still, money is money. A lot of people griping will still buy the box set, and a lot of people who don’t care one way or the other will also chip in. I suspect Lucas will make a fairly healthy return on his trilogy, and that will validate his own opinion. As I noted above, I’m somewhat indifferent to this whole thing, and I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest any of the edits “ruin” the films or anything (though I’m struggling to consider any an improvement). Hell, I might even pick up the box set myself.

8 Responses

  1. The fact that so many people are obsessed with these movies is the reason Lucas is so hated for making changes. If this was a smaller movie nobody would really care. I do think that he should have made the original version available though, just like Spielberg did with his newer version of E.T. (which removed guns for example)

    • hold on, spielberg changed ET? what the hell is wrong with these fake hippies changing the movies that made them stars? (OK jaws came first but my point still remains)

      • He replaced guns with walkie-talkies, but I think (like Greedo shooting first) it was done to avoid a higher age rating for the re-release.

    • That i can’t figure out. I don’t think it compromises his vision to release the uncut editions, although the way he eventually did on DVD was a slap in the face to fans, and seemed almost petty. “You want the original films? Here! Crappy tansfer, now routine restoration or digital remastering. Hope you enjoy!”

  2. Thanks for providing a more balanced view of this whole thing. As for me, I have the DVD’s that came out a few years ago, with both the original cuts of the first trilogy and the 90’s “special editions.” So I’m good for now. At any rate, nothing is perfect. This is a fact I’m slowly being reconciled with.

    • I’ve been slowly reconciling with that for most of my adult life…

      And, even after it’s the biggest selling blu ray of all time, I’ve yet to cave. Not on principle. Just I don’t have time to splurge over it yet. Maybe for Christmas.

  3. I guess my question would be, what good is symmetry if you’re connecting a series of good movies to a series of heavily reviled ones? I do respect the sense of continuity Lucas is trying to foster between each of his films, truly, but taken at face value he’s also mashing together two trilogies of very, very different quality (and with a huge gap in disparity between their cinematic value).

    I can’t really get too upset about this sort of stuff because none of it surprises me anymore. Lucas has long established that he’s completely lost it; when he does this sort of thing, it shouldn’t really come as a shock.

    • That’s a great point. But I never think Lucas will ever concede that prequel trilogy is weaker, because it’s the one that he personal crafted, after cultivating a legend on an original trilogy where he was just the lead singer in a chorus, rather than the solo act all night, if that makes sense. There’s more of him invested in the prequel trilogy, regardless of the quality, so it’s in his own interest to “big it up” as it were. But you’re preaching to the converted here.

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