Star Wars: The Special Edition

reviewed by John W. Herbert

The recent retooling of Star Wars raises some interesting questions of art. When is art no longer the property of the artist and when does it become the property of the public?
Director George Lucas has added some new scenes and restored some lost scenes to the 20th Anniversary edition of Star Wars. Lucas has also replaced some of the clunky motion-control model spaceship shots with brand new CGI shots, which only point out even more how clunky those old models shots have become. State of the art once, but obsolete now. Why didn't he just replace all of them? But I digress. What if twenty years after the fact, da Vinci announced that he'd really wanted the Mona Lisa to be in a hot pink dress, but he just didn't have the proper shade of pink at the time. Is it his prerogative to make that change? Would Shakespeare, if he were alive, have the right to go back and tinker with the ending of Romeo and Juliet so he could set it up for a sequel? If Lucas' alterations were simply enhancing old effects shots that don't alter the story, that's one thing. But Lucas also has made a change that panders to political correctness, and changes a characterization: Greedo shoots first.
Greedo is the green alien who confronts Han Solo about a debt at a table in the bar at Mos Eisley. In the original version, Greedo is blown away by Solo, but in the new version Greedo shoots first and Han shoots back in self-defense. The issues raised by this are threefold: first, it makes Greedo look like at idiot because he can't hit a large target at a distance of about two feet (admittedly, we don't know a lot about Greedo -- he could very well be an idiot); second, this change smacks of political correctness -- we can't have a hero that would shoot first and kill someone; and thirdly, the character of Han Solo has been altered. As played out originally, Han is a selfish rogue who thinks only of himself. This makes his return at the end of the film all the more heroic as he has finally found something more important than himself. But by having Han shoot only after Greedo shoots first in the new version, this outlaw aspect of Han has been softened, thus also softening his change of heart at the end.
Worse yet, Lucas plans for this new version to be the definitive Star Wars. The previous version will no longer be available.And Lucas is not the only person changing old movies to be politically correct. In the recent reissue of E.T., director Steven Spielberg excised a line wherein one of the children says he wants to dress up as a terrorist for Halloween. Spielberg has also said that he would make other changes if he were making the film now, such as removing a scene where FBI agents are chasing a group of children with their guns drawn. I'm glad to see that Spielberg has grown up and realized that guns are not something to play around with, but obviously that was something he had not considered in 1982. But so what? Art reflects its times, and its creators. If Lucas and Spielberg feel grown-up now, that's great. But is it right for them, or anyone, to go back to inflict their modern maturity on their youthful exuberance? I mean, don't you think that fifty-something Pete Townshend would like to go back and re-write "My Generation": "Hope I die before I get old."
The special edition of Star Wars sets a dangerous precedent. Will other artists now revisit and retune their past works? What if Mel Brooks decides to redub Blazing Saddles in an effort to make it politically correct? Can you imagine the result? "The sheriff is an African-American!" Sure it's more polite, but is it funny? I hereby reserve my right to be offended.
(The Special Edition of The Empire Strikes Back contains few changes other than some special effect shots, although there is a new scene with Darth Vader inserted near the end that is not voiced by James Earl Jones(!). The Special Edition of Return of the Jedi also has mostly just special effects changes, and a second and longer song inserted in the scene in Jabba's palace (like we needed that). Verdict: Empire still rocks and Jedi still sucks.)

2005 Addendum:
The original Star Wars trilogy was re-issued in 2004, and George Lucas made further changes in the original trilogy in an effort to further conform the films to the new trilogy. With specific regard to Greedo, he still shoots first, although Lucas has attempted to make the shot a little egregious. But it still sucks.

Look, I don't care. Lucas can make as many changes to Star Wars as he wants. Just allow the original version to be available, too! Spielberg did this with the DVD release of ET. He removed the FBI agents' guns, restored other scenes, and redid some special effects. But when we bought the DVD, it had both versions. So the viewer had a choice of ET Redux, or the original ET.
The original version should be preserved and availble, if only in the name of cinematic history. It is, after all the 1977 version of Star Wars, warts and all, that set box records and sent people like Peter Jackson, James Cameron, Ridley Scott and a host others diving into movie careers, not the 1997 Special Edition, or the 2004 DVD version.

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