Star Wars Special Edition Trilogy
LucasFilm Ltd. & 20th Century Fox
Aged pundits struggling to find a theme with which to typify an entire generation finally settled uneasily upon the unsubstantiated concept of direction-less energy and slackers-en-masse, and in their clumsy intellectual stumblings, the old bastards completely missed the boat. We've been saddled with contradictory assumptions about the nature of our generation, and became the first age group to be labeled by our evident lack of distinguishing features or available designations. Ironically, these would-be cultural commentators were too myopic even in their own presumptions to notice that if there's a common thread at all to "Generation X," it's a lot less philosophical than social motivation or idle apathy. Goddamn it, it's the one movie that we all saw five times as children, the one we reenacted with our friends, calling our banana-seat bicycles "X-wings" and wielding sticks dubbed "light sabers." Sorry, you cranky old bastards, your designation missed the mark entirely. This is Generation S, suckers, and you're just jealous YOU didn't have a movie this cool.
If we agree that Star Wars wasn't a movie but a generation's cornerstone, it follows that there's an element of sanctity surrounding it. Star Wars is one of the few movies that maintains some sense of importance, even after multiple viewings. The same holds for its two sequels. Solidly constructed and built to last, these films are landmarks. And now they've been re-released, but with changes--special effects and alterations prompted by and custom tailored to suit a '90s audience. This begs the question: Is it necessary to update something timeless? The trilogy was essentially given a multi-million dollar face-lift and tummy-tuck--special effects were touched-up, audio work was fine-tuned. New scenes were added, old scenes were restored. And, like face-lifts and tummy-tucks, the changes made the films look prettier, but somehow less authentic.
Personally, I found the idea of brand-new additions exciting at first. I figured Lucas could do no wrong, and armed with modern technology he could probably really fuck shit up. But I guess the worrying should've begun a few months prior to the film's re-release. In a phone conversation, my friend Jeff quoted to me, with some concern, one or two of Lucas's unfulfilled aspirations. He'd apparently always wanted to include an "extended musical segment" in one of his movies (wasn't the stomach-turning "Yub-Yub" Ewok victory song enough?). Cut to late March and there I am, wincing in the theater, as a trio of extraterrestrial backup singers harmonize in Jabba's palace as a dancer with tails on her head performs some previously unreleased space pirouettes.
Oh well. So much for the new material. At least there was still hope that the original, restored footage would be eye-opening and exciting when viewed in context (like a 20-year-old secret we were finally being let in on). Predictably, I ended up hating that footage too, but for different reasons. I came away from the theater after seeing each of these films vaguely, but consistently, dissatisfied. It took me a while to put my finger on what bothered me about the changes, and even longer to realize I had separate problems with each different type of change: new footage, restored original out-takes, and omissions.
The principal problem with the new footage and effects work was how much it clashed with the older material, especially pre-existing scenes that had new, largely computer-generated, additions matted in. The Spartan Mos Eisley Spaceport of the first film of the trilogy was made into a bustling metropolitan center--more densely populated and more congested. In theory that would have been a great idea. But the new digitally-perfect Patrol Dewbacks looked sparklingly clean, the large computerized Jurassic Park rejects were far too precise and much too distinct against the dry, gritty backdrop of Tatooine, and even against the grainy, endearingly imperfect film the movie was shot on.
Furthermore--and the Mos Eisley scene is a perfect example--much of the new footage was done to indulgence, as if it was in competition with the story line it was supposed to complement. Luke, Obi-Wan, and the two droids pull into the city practically unnoticed as a computer-generated Jawa is thrown from its enormous reptilian mount, "comically" swinging helplessly in the air, clutching the animal's reins. Hovering droids dart about in a distracting fashion, disrupting the sense of urgency as Stormtroopers search the city for Luke and Obi-Wan.
The same holds true for scenes in Return Of The Jedi, particularly scenes in Jabba's Palace. There is of course the unendurable and pointless dance segment, coupled with more "comic relief" in the form of dopey alien back-up vocalists. And call me "Old School," but whose bright idea was it to replace the obviously superior original animatronic Sy Snootles and the Max Rebo Band with second-rate computer-generated impostors? They even changed the song and added another dippy digital singer who looked more irritatingly Muppet-like than the real Muppets that were actually used in the films.
There was relief in some of the subtler additions. A nice new shot of a hulking, corroded Sandcrawler inching along the Tatooine desert, some additional air traffic over Mos Eisley, a few more X-Wings in the raid on the Death Star. The material that didn't compete with the film itself was wonderful: it didn't hit you over the head with its newness, and it let the viewer take the scenery in at his or her own pace.
The needlessly indulgent inclusions unfortunately spilled over into other aspects of the film that might have been interesting in their own right. I was most excited at seeing the inclusion of out-takes omitted from the original cuts of the movies. But the Special Editions' tendency toward overkill helped to ruin even those. For example: one of the most talked about scenes in the Special Edition release of Star Wars took place on Tatooine, a dialogue between Han Solo and Jabba The Hutt. I couldn't wait to see this scene, to see what was being said, and how it fit into its originally-intended format. And, in addition, how it would serve as a plot point that would later (chronologically speaking, in Return Of The Jedi) become self-referential. The scenes had been filmed in 1977 with a fat guy in a vest as a stand-in for Jabba The Hutt, whose appearance hadn't yet been agreed upon and who would be matted over at a later date.
But the restored scene basically proved two points: the individuals responsible for matting over the new Jabba have no sense of subtlety, and more importantly, that sometimes out-takes are out-takes for a reason. To elaborate on the first point, there was one particularly irritating moment. I'm willing to suspend my disbelief that somehow Jabba The Hutt is a svelte little worm in the first film, and that he started putting on the pounds somewhere between the scene with Han and his reappearance in The Return Of The Jedi. I'm willing to accept that he's much shorter than Han in the new version of Star Wars, whereas you could probably stuff fourteen Han Solos in the Jedi version of Jabba. But I drew the line at a completely indulgent moment when Han appears to be stepping on Jabba's tail, and of course Jabba winces convincingly because after all, why not take advantage of every opportunity to show off crappy computer-imaging effects? Was that little bit included as "comic relief?" It was stupid and irritated me probably more than it should have.
Questionable choices of effects aside, the inclusion of the scene with Han and Jabba was also pointless in the context of the storyline. The scene's dialogue mirrors an earlier scene with Han and the green-skinned bounty hunter Greedo, both scenes serving to establish Han's outstanding debt to Jabba. It's probable that both scenes were filmed, each one establishing the same point, with the intention of ultimately clipping one or the other. The inclusion of the omitted scene doesn't just fail to add anything to the film, it's positively redundant.
There were omissions as well, but operating on dusty 20-year-old memories of what I saw in a theater when I was four, I'm less able to be quite so self-assuredly venomous. I'm reasonably sure (and I may be incorporating what I'd read in Star Wars picture books soon after the movie) that Luke's relationship with his friend Biggs Darklighter was explored more fully. Biggs was actually reintroduced to some extent in the first film's Special Edition, in an oddly context-less reunion scene, just prior to the raid on the Death Star. But I thought I'd remembered some scenes at the beginning of the film with Luke and Biggs on Tatooine. And I'm almost positive that when Biggs got nailed during the attack on the Death Star that Luke had at least some kind of reaction. Ah well, now I've got to go dig up those old picture books.
But even after all of the complaints and dragging-of-heels as the picture was relocated from the '70s to the '90s, it was good to see these three films on the big screen again. Beneath all my toothless ranting and cane-waving, I'm sort of glad another generation is being exposed to these movies. I'm not sure that it's going to hold the same captivating wonder for 1997's five-year-olds as it did for me 20 years ago, but one can always hope. And yeah, I've even got a few of the new toys. I certainly haven't, uh, opened or played with them, though. No no. Too old for that sort of thing.
Brooklyn, New York