Dark Side of the Force

Illustration by Travis Falligant; Designed by Matt Alsup

Columbia Free Times | September 17, 2004
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away at a sleazy cantina in Mos Eisley spaceport on the backwater planet of Tatooine, a smuggler named Han Solo has just scored a gig hauling an old man, a kid and two 'droids to Alderaan. "This could really save my neck," Han says to his co-pilot, a hairy Wookie named Chewbacca.

But before he can take off in his rickety space freighter, the Millennium Falcon ("The fastest ship in the galaxy," Solo protests), the smuggler finds himself cornered by a scaly, green, blaster-wielding bounty hunter named Greedo.

"Going somewhere, Solo?"

There's a price on Solo's head. It seems he was forced to dump some of crime lord Jabba the Hutt's cargo when Imperial cruisers came sniffing. Ever the cool customer, Solo slouches in a booth and explains with a distracting wave of his left hand that he was just on his way to pay off Jabba. Meanwhile his right hand, concealed under the table, unbuckles the blaster in his hip holster.

Solo shoots Greedo dead. He then tosses some cash on the bar, apologizes for the mess and saunters into film history as everyone's favorite rogue in search of redemption.

And redemption he finds. Over the course of three of the most popular movies of all time — Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi — Solo evolves from self-interested criminal to heroic Rebel general and lover of the beautiful Princess Leia. His blasé slaughter of Greedo makes his ultimate redemption only sweeter.

Illustrations by Travis Falligant

But to George Lucas, creator of Star Wars, Solo was a mistake. When the filmmaker revamped Star Wars for a 1997 theatrical run — the so-called "Special Edition" — he digitally altered the cantina scene to make Greedo shoot first.

It's a sloppy effect. There's a computer-generated (CG) blaster bolt from Greedo's weapon. The film is edited to make it look like Solo literally ducks under the bolt. Only then does the smuggler fire his own blaster. Thus Solo is no longer the murderous rogue in need of redemption. He's just a grumpy guy who kills in self-defense.

Lucas' edits didn't end there. Over 25 years, multiple theatrical releases, various VHS box sets and laserdiscs, Lucas has gradually altered his first three Star Wars films to reflect his own growing discomfort with their content, to the point that in 2004, it's increasingly difficult to find the originals in any format. And with the DVD editions of the first three Star Wars films scheduled for release on Sept. 21, fans are bracing for even more changes.

"Don't fix it if it ain't broke," says Pierce Cook, a USC undergraduate and aspiring filmmaker. "The original films certainly were far from being broken."

The computer-generated Jabba from the Special Edition of Star Wars

The same scene from the upcoming DVD edition


Greedo shooting first isn't the only change Lucas inflicted on his original Star Wars trilogy, which includes Episode IV: A New Hope (better known simply as Star Wars), Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back and Episode VI: Return of the Jedi. The Special Editions of the three films, which had brief theatrical runs in 1997 before being released on VHS, feature numerous changes from the originals.

"There have always been examples of films that have been released in multiple versions, Carl Theodor Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc being the most interesting example," says USC film scholar Joe Milutis, referring to a 1928 film that was thought to be lost in a fire, re-shot, then released in several versions — after which, one of the original prints showed up in a closet somewhere. "So now we have the luminous original, but even then, there is a version with a new score and one without," Milutis says.

Between various theatrical re-releases before 1983, foreign versions, TV versions, laserdisc editions and VHS sets, there are literally dozens of incarnations of Lucas' original trilogy — some with unique scenes, different dialogue and altered titles.

But recent changes to the Star Wars films are neither accidental nor incidental, nor are they driven by destruction of original prints or even a desire to experiment. Instead, Lucas seems to be on a mission to permanently replace the original versions of his old films with versions he considers definitive — and make a little coin while he's at it. Even as he releases Special Editions and DVD editions, he has taken the original versions of the films out of print. In other words, hang onto that Star Wars trilogy VHS box set you got for Christmas in 1995, because you can't buy it new anymore, and Lucas says there won't be authorized DVDs of the originals. Starting Sept. 21, the only versions of Star Wars in print will be the Special and DVD editions.

Which wouldn't be objectionable if Lucas' changes weren't so radical — to purists, at least.

Most insidious is Lucas' toning down of the violence in the original trilogy. Where in older versions, Lucas showed the effects of laser blasters hitting people — a tiny explosion, a cauterized wound — in the new editions the shots are edited to remove blaster impacts. Now you see the blaster bolt approach the victim. Then you see the victim fall. But no explosions. No wounds. It seems the kind of naturalism that embraces violence and death is too much for Lucas' new fairy-tale conception of Star Wars.

Perhaps the worst changes to the original trilogy are in Star Wars. In addition to Greedo shooting first, Star Wars features CG creatures inserted into several scenes and a revamped climactic battle.

The original movie's climax, where outnumbered Rebel fighters stage a suicidal attack on the Empire's planet-killing Death Star space station, is an iconic scene in film history, having been recreated in dozens of video games and copied in countless lesser films. The scene is choppy, frenetic and not a little confusing — as befits a suicidal attack on a planet-killing space station — but where it lacks clarity it has sheer visceral impact to spare. But Lucas was never satisfied with it. So for the Special Edition he inserted new CG effects to smooth out the flow of the scene. The result is a much more coherent and thus much less effective climax.

Return of the Jedi also suffers from the Special Edition treatment. Where in the original film Jabba the Hutt is serenaded by a ragged band of tired aliens playing strange instruments, in the Special Edition his entertainment is a CG alien pop band. Against the murky, slimy horrors of the Hutt's environs, the pop band looks like a Saturday morning cartoon. Gone is the tension, the terror, the revulsion that the original scene conveyed.

These are only two of dozens of major changes to Star Wars between 1977 and 1997. Rumors persist that the DVDs will feature still more changes: additional and "improved" CG effects, new edits, new music. Beyond the DVDs there is talk of an "ultimate edition" that Lucas might release after Episode III: Revenge of the Sith completes its theatrical run in 2005. It's hard to imagine that a second DVD edition wouldn't include still more revisions.

Jealous Fans

But why would anyone care? After all, they're just movies, right?

Wrong, Star Wars is much more than that, says one fan. "Lots of philosophers and critics believe that the Star Wars mythos has replaced religion for many people," says Mitch Frye, a USC graduate student. "In our society, organized religion is discredited in more than a few circles as being nothing more than popular fiction. Well, here's Star Wars — a work of science fiction that takes place in a fully-realized universe and boasts a mythology simpler and more exciting than most religions of our real universe. It's a fan of escapism's dream come true. I'm not saying that fans are all secretly born again Jedi, but Star Wars provides a system of faith, morality and mysticism that simultaneously rivals and echoes 'genuine' religion. It rings true in the secular brain. Plus, light sabers are cool."

It's this combination of moral appeal and coolness that has made Star Wars such a lasting success and inspired the loyalty of generations of fans. Nowhere is this more evident than at Dragon Con, a convention for fans of comics, science fiction and fantasy. Held in Atlanta every year since 1987 and currently drawing more than 20,000 visitors, Dragon Con features lectures and panels by writers, filmmakers and actors as well as scores of vendors selling rare comics and merchandise, books, bootleg DVDs of obscure films and everything else a geek could ever want. The 2004 convention ran Sept. 3-6. Panels and lectures this year addressed topics as diverse as allusions to myth in Star Wars and how to build your own Star Wars-themed costumes.

Oh, the costumes. It's a Dragon Con tradition to dress as your favorite character from science fiction and fantasy, and with 15 years of tradition and refinement, fan costuming has become a science and an art. Attending this year's Dragon Con were fans dressed as Han Solo, Princess Leia, Chewbacca and almost every other major character from the five Star Wars films. There were dozens of Jedi with brown robes and replica light sabers. And there were scores of stormtroopers — those white-armored minions of the Empire. The stormtroopers marched around the convention hotels with plastic blasters and flowing capes. They posed for photos. They stood in line for coffee and muffins. They stepped outside for cigarette breaks. Many of them belong to a fan club called the 501st Legion, an international organization of stormtrooper wanna-bes based in Columbia with thousands of members all over the world.

Shopping for comics alongside a sweaty stormtrooper and an overweight Wookie or waiting at an Atlanta crosswalk with a serene-faced Jedi — the Zen knights of Lucas' universe — makes it clear that Star Wars is more than a film franchise. For many, it's a way of life. For those devotees, the Star Wars films are canon. And anyone messing with canon is a blasphemer, even if it's George Lucas himself.

"Fans certainly have a lot invested in films like Star Wars," Cook says. "Fans have made Star Wars as big as it is for a reason...so it's hard to say who owns what and who owes whom."

In other words, George Lucas may own Star Wars in the strictly legal sense, but he owes its success to its fans. And to change such beloved films against the wishes of its most dedicated fans is like biting the hand that feeds you, or slapping your lover in the face.

"When an artist creates a work of art, he or she lets it go, allowing it to stand up against interpretation alone and without authorial intervention," Frye says. "An artist like Lucas who finds it necessary to keep his or her work in an umbilical headlock is clearly insecure."

The question is, why is Lucas insecure? How could anyone be unhappy with, say, the original version of the Death Star attack when millions of fans all over the world think it's almost perfect? The answer, maybe, is that most fans love Star Wars' stories, ideas and characters. But Lucas, more than anything else, loves its look.

"The vision that you see in Episodes IV, V and VI is only 25 percent of what I wanted it to be," Lucas said in a Sept. 9 interview with Charlie Rose on PBS. "The story was way beyond the technology. So I fixed it."

Like Michelangelo, who according to Lucas had to invent oil paints to complete the Sistine Chapel, Lucas said he had to invent digital effects to perfect Star Wars — a process he is just now completing.

After all, Lucas said, "Art is technology."

It's a widely held belief that Lucas cares more about effects than story. So of course he's going to want to improve the appearance of the original films, regardless of whether it's irrelevant or even detrimental to their stories.

Case in point: Jabba the Hutt. In the original version of Star Wars, Jabba is discussed but never seen. As Solo's former employer and current arch nemesis, he's a threat looming just off camera, a source of constant tension and the impetus for Solo even getting involved with Skywalker in the first place. Jabba returned in name only in The Empire Strikes Back in 1980. It wasn't until the 1983 release of Return of the Jedi that fans finally laid eyes on the character they had feared and speculated about since 1977. In the first reel of the film, Jabba makes his appearance. An enormous slimy worm, Jabba is more horrifying than anything else in the Star Wars universe, rivaled only by his pet, the 20-foot-tall Rancor that almost eats Luke Skywalker.

The six-year wait to see Solo's nemesis is the buildup. Jabba's ultimate appearance is the payoff. But for future generations of viewers, there won't be any buildup or payoff, for Jabba crops up in the Special Edition of Star Wars in a throwaway scene notable only for its bad effects and lame humor: Solo catches Jabba snooping around the Millennium Falcon. They chat. Solo steps on Jabba's tail. What's more: the CG Special Edition Jabba looks nothing like the Jabba in Return of the Jedi. He's too small, the wrong color and his facial expressions are those of a cartoon, not a murderous crime boss.

"I had a big problem with the addition of the Jabba the Hutt scene in Star Wars," Cook says. "In this scene, the CG looks almost as bad if not worse than the CG from the new Hulk film. As a filmmaker, it's both frustrating and in some ways discouraging. One of the initial reasons the original Star Wars films were so good was that they had this excellent story in which [Lucas] had to then ask, 'How are we going to make these things happen visually?' Nowadays, a lot of filmmakers are asking, 'How are we going to make all of these wonderful images and effects fit into a story?'"

It's some consolation that the DVD edition of Star Wars apparently includes a better-looking Jabba. But the fundamental problem remains: George Lucas just wants us to see things. Nevermind tension. Nevermind drama. Nevermind stories with good performances and good dialogue. Increasingly, Star Wars is about spectacle: color and motion and expensive CG effects. That's why fans are upset. They love Star Wars for its story, not for its special effects.

To be fair, Lucas is not the only director in love with CG effects. Nor is he the only one to take advantage of improved technology to enhance an old film. Steven Spielberg did it with E.T. In the 1982 version of the film, federal agents pursuing Elliot and E.T. carry guns. In the theatrical re-release in 2002, the same agents carry radios instead. It seems Spielberg wasn't comfortable with adults waving guns at children.

"As much as the cops pointing guns at the kids doesn't make a whole lot of sense, I still like it a lot more than pointing walkie-talkies and flashlights at them," Cook says.

Some say that digital technology has made such changes easy for directors. Milutis disagrees, at least when it comes to what he calls "major re-releases."

"You still have to engage large mechanisms of publicity and capital, so you can't just do a re-edit as you please," Milutis says.

He believes the "main enabler" when it comes to film revisionism is the "culture of film."

"After all, the reason a film like Joan of Arc experienced so many historical accidents was that not a lot of people really cared that much. Film didn't start to be seen as an art until at least the late 1940s, and now more than ever the culture of cineastes is huge. So if you had to point to a technology that enables this trend, it's the cheap cameras and editors that create an audience of directors."

In other words, the legions of American film junkies facilitate this process of perpetual tweaking. But why?

Curiosity, Cook says. "I guess it might be important to note that I've already pre-ordered [the DVDs]. I would and still do prefer just the original trilogy, but I can deal. It's when I found out they were making even a few more changes to the films that I was a little bugged. As far as other hopes, I'm just excited to see all the new [extras] they've put together for the DVDs."

When it comes to film, especially films like Star Wars, fans just can't get enough. But their compulsion to see every re-released edition of every major film can look stupid in retrospect.

"I remember when I went to see [Spielberg's] Close Encounters of the Third Kind: Special Edition with my mom when I was a kid," Milutis says. "The publicity was not clear, or we were too unsophisticated to realize that this wasn't, as we had hoped, a sequel or even something 'special.' It took me half the film to realize that nothing was going to be different, so it was a big rip-off. Close Encounters has had a Special Edition in 1980 and a Collector's Edition in 1998. These seem like empty gestures, purely driven by marketing."

Could it be that Lucas' revisions are meant to produce a constant flow of new merchandise to consumers? Lucas himself has implied that the answer is yes.

The Commercial Empire

Before Star Wars was a hit, Fox unwittingly sold all merchandising rights to Lucas for a pittance. And why wouldn't they? The film looked like a real stinker — in Lucas' words, "this weird movie with Wookies and robots and no stars." Fox's lack of foresight combined with Lucas' natural business savvy and the Star Wars films' inherent appeal to kids and toy makers has made Lucas a billionaire thrice over by 2003, according to Forbes. And in the interview with Rose, Lucas admitted that his wealth means creative freedom.

"In the end, all artists face the same problem," Lucas said. "They've got to know how to manipulate the situation to get what they want."

But what does Lucas want?

"I wanted to tell a modern myth that was in the classic mode of old mythology," Lucas said.

Fair enough. But if creative freedom is Lucas' goal and money is how he gets there, to what extent is he a slave to money itself? There's a bitter irony at work, that Lucas must wring cash from fans in order to inflict further injury to the same fans by revising the films they hold dear. Lucas pretty much relies on fans' consumerist impulses overpowering their revulsion at his edits.

Which is ironic in light of how Lucas got his start.

To millions of people all over the world, Lucas is first and foremost the master of the Star Wars franchise, the very definition of mainstream film. But to a few die-hard film buffs, Lucas is also a hero of independent film. In 1971, when Lucas was fresh out of film school and Star Wars was but a twinkle in his beady little eyes, he shot a little film called THX 1138, a thriller starring Robert Duvall. Roger Ebert called it "a work of visual imagination," "special" and "haunting."

Like most independent films, THX 1138 was shot on a shoestring budget and features little in the way of special effects. Like 2001, THX 1138 expresses an underlying suspicion of technology — a sentiment that still resonates with audiences.

While nowhere near as successful as the Star Wars films, THX 1138 has won a cult following over the years, to the extent that in early 2004, Lucas announced that he would be re-releasing the film on DVD and for a limited theatrical run.

At the announcement, fans held their breath. Considering Lucas' penchant for mucking up his own film legacy, there was widespread fear that THX 1138 would get the Special Edition treatment. Soon reviews of the revised film began circulating fan web sites. One of the earliest was posted to Aintitcoolnews.com by cult filmmaker Scooter McCrae.

McCrae cites a litany of changes to the minimalist film he remembers: computer-generated shots of a horrifically over-populated future world, re-edited scenes that show rather than imply, a computer-enhanced car chase and CG monsters that caused a test audience to laugh out loud. "[Lucas] took the jewel of [his] empire and treated it like toilet paper," McCrae said.

Which is hardly surprising after nearly a decade of revisions to some of the greatest films ever. But what is surprising to those who've never seen it, is THX 1138's plot. In the 25th-century, overpopulation has forced mankind underground, where they are monitored 24 hours a day and fed mood-altering drugs to control their passions and encourage them to behave like good little consumers.

In a new trailer for the film, identical men in identical suits travel down an escalator while a computer voice booms, "Consume more. Consume more."

Did Lucas write his own future in THX 1138?

At Dragon Con this year, one of the most popular events was a presentation by a representative of Lucasfilm, one of Lucas' many companies. The hour-long presentation was a shameless pitch of upcoming video games, collector's items and, of course, DVDs. The whole affair was so blatantly commercial that even a family of Jedi and a pair of stormtroopers near the front started shifting in their seats, perhaps uncomfortable with their own role in sustaining Lucas' empire.

Will they grow tired of squirming? Will they ever rebel — say, "Enough is enough" — and refuse to fuel Lucas' relentless assault on his own film legacy?

The Star Wars Empire


Ep. IV: A New Hope (1977) $323 million

Ep. V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980) $222 million

Ep. VI: Return of the Jedi (1983) $263 million

Ep. IV: Special Edition (1997) $138 million

Ep. V: Special Edition (1997) $68 million

Ep. VI: Special Edition (1997) $45 million

Ep. I: The Phantom Menace (1999) $431 million

Ep. II: Attack of the Clones (2002) $310 million

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