Star Wars Woes
Ten years ago, if you had told me as a 14-year-old that there was going to be this technological advance called a DVD, which would be like a CD for movies, that this format would offer superior picture, sound, and extra features, and that the incomparable Star Wars trilogy would some day be available in such a format, I would have been downright giddy. The three original Star Wars movies ? Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi, are my favorite films of all time ? I?ve probably seen each one 50 times and never gotten tired of them. Yet as Star Wars mastermind George Lucas prepares their release on DVD tomorrow, the present has arrived and I?m not nearly as excited as the younger me might have anticipated.
The Star Wars trilogy is arguably the most popular series in Hollywood history ? 1977?s Star Wars has raked in more cash than any other movie ever made, except for the inane Titanic 20 years later. The next two films were almost as successful at capturing the nation?s imaginations and wallets, and the more recent ?prequel? films have done nothing but made money (more on these later). More than that, though, the movies became a cultural phenomenon: Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Darth Vader became iconic characters, the special effects set new standards for action filmmaking, and even those who haven?t seen the movies pretty much know what happens through cultural osmosis. Naturally, a rabid fan base evolved, many of whom own far too many costumes. I have some pretty cool action figures myself. Considering how popular the films are, and have continued to be, it?s no surprise that the Star Wars DVDs are expected to be among the top-sellers of the year.
So why are Star Wars aficionados such as myself hesitant about buying these discs? We should all be ready to plunk down $45 as fast as Best Buy can run a credit card through, right? Not so fast. As many of you might know, George Lucas has taken the occasion of the DVD release of Star Wars to once again tinker with the films and their formidable legacy. Lucas first became interested in toying with his masterpieces in 1997, when each of the movies was re-released in theaters as ?Special Editions.? There wasn?t really anything ?special? about them ? each one had a few short extra scenes, which were mostly window dressing, and were digitally restored for optimal quality. The digital restoration was welcomed ? only a real die-hard purist could take issue with the movies simply looking and sounding better. Overall, it worked out pretty well for both parties ? fans got to see the classics on a big screen, some for the first time, and Lucasfilms netted roughly 12 jillion dollars on the deal.
However, many fans, particularly ones who donned Darth Vader costumes to attend showings at their local cineplex, were up in arms about the added and altered scenes. Personally, I thought they were mostly harmless ? the shots added to Star Wars were counterproductive, but they were at least brief, and The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi escaped nearly unscathed. Some critics felt that new scenes like an early meeting between Han Solo and Jabba the Hutt in Star Wars were unnecessary and cheapened the memory of the original classics, and not just because Jabba looked very much like a giant piece of rubber. The question asked by most was, simply, why? With a track record like the Star Wars movies had, there really wasn?t any need to fool around with them. It?s quite unfortunate that Lucas didn?t decide to try out his ?special edition? concept on, say, Howard the Duck first.
Further lessening the Star Wars mystique, in the eyes of many, was the production of two prequel Star Wars movies: 1999?s The Phantom Menace and 2002?s Attack of the Clones, which were to tell the story leading up to the original trilogy. Phantom Menace was probably the most anticipated movie of all time ? raise your hand if you stood in line for over a month to secure opening-day tickets. Despite dazzling, state-of-the-art special effects, the movies themselves proved to be aggressively mediocre, spawning the poke-your-eyeballs-out character Jar Jar Binks but nonetheless becoming an even bigger cash cow than the Special Editions. Compared to the spectacular, innovative action-adventure The Matrix and the Lord of the Rings series, the new Star Wars flicks seemed a little amateurish, unanimously viewed as a steep drop from the groundbreaking success of the originals.
So even after the questionable directions in which Lucas has taken his golden franchise, a string of moves that have alienated much of his fan base, a DVD release of the Holy Trilogy should be a slam dunk, right? Well, no. To begin with, Lucas elected to include only the Special Edition versions on the DVDs. Come on, George. This seems almost willfully ignorant of popular opinion and, in a departure for Lucasfilm, not a particularly shrewd business decision. Sure, some people might not have been really bothered with the special editions, but no one actually liked them any better. At the very least, the DVD?s producers could have given viewers the option to watch either version as they go along. It?s been done before with the ?Director?s Cut? versions of films, and it simply can?t be all that difficult considering the fact that, at the end of the day, they?re still basically the same movie. The failure to include the classics is just one of those head-scratching moves that makes you wonder what could be the logic behind it. Perhaps Lucas feels that these changes are the best realization of what he wants out of his films artistically, which I can respect, but certainly don?t have to agree with. Either way, the choice to restrict the DVD release to Special Editions is enough to make fans of the original movies a bit hesitant about shelling out for the shiny new DVDs, out of protest if nothing else.
And then there?s the big controversy with the Star Wars DVDs.
Warning: giant spoilers are coming up if you haven?t seen the first three movies. Wait, why haven?t you seen them? Come out of your cave sometime.
Yes, at the end of Return of the Jedi, Lucas has in fact digitally inserted Hayden Christiansen?s face as Anakin Skywalker into the scene where Luke sees the ghosts of Yoda, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Anakin, who is of course also both Luke?s father and Darth Vader. In the 1983 film, Anakin is played by Sebastian Shaw, who appears as Anakin when Darth Vader is unmasked shortly before his death. Now, he?s played by Christiansen, who plays a younger Anakin (and future Vader) in Attack of the Clones. There are so many things wrong with this decision that I don?t even know where to begin.
First off, Christensen is approximately as old as Mark Hamill (Luke) was when Return of the Jedi was filmed, meaning that father and son now look more like brothers. Nice touch. Second is the fact that no one is ever going to consider Christensen?s performance the definitive portrayal of Anakin/Vader, even if Lucas were to dub his voice over all of Vader?s lines (don?t laugh ? it just might happen). Moreover, Shaw?s brief performance as Anakin is still intact, so his ghost is now randomly 25 years younger, whereas Yoda and Ben are basically the same age as when they passed on to the Great Jedi Hut in the Sky. But what it ultimately comes down to is that it?s simply not a smart idea. Sure, they?re trying to gain some continuity between the two trilogies, but it?s really not worth it to go back and just chuck a different guy?s face into a classic film. I know that anytime I?d ever see the Return of the Jedi DVD, I?d dwell on that groan-inducing moment at the end that, I have a sneaking suspicion, will turn out to be even cheesier than the Ewoks.
Complaining about minor inconveniences like the less than 10 minutes of inconsequential scenes changed from the actual original version is just part of being a fan, I suppose. There will still be an enormous upside to the Star Wars DVD set ? the movies are bound to look spectacular (The Tartan was, shockingly, unable to procure me an advance copy) and the behind-the-scenes extras are plentiful ? how did they pull off those special effects in the pre-digital era? So, what?s the call ? do the pros outweigh the cons? Of course they do. It?s Star Wars, man.
Editor?s note: Sorry, we didn?t think you?d want the DVDs: We had no idea you liked Star Wars.