Star Wars: Special Edition (1997, George Lucas)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

WHICH VERSION? In 1997, writer/director/producer/corporate-bigwig/beard-wearer George Lucas returned to his masterpiece and rejigged it for a cinematic reissue. This new edit added some then-state-of-the-art special effects and features some never-before-seen footage. Irritatingly, this ‘special edition’ has since become the default version of the movie for home-video releases and TV screenings. Further minor tweaks were made for a 2004 DVD (that’s the version I watched for this write-up) and again for a 2011 Blu-ray box set. I’ve already reviewed the original film – so instead this is a discussion of the changes made in the 90s. It’s not a definitive list; just a look at the ones I spotted and thought interesting…

* The vintage 20th Century Fox logo has been updated, while a Lucasfilm logo has replaced its old text credit.

* The film has the subtitle ‘Episode IV – A New Hope’, which had actually been on the original too from a 1981 rerelease onwards.

* We get a few new establishing shots of Tatooine. They’re nice enough. R2-D2’s encounter with the Jawas has been colour-timed to make it seem more like dusk.

* The scene of Stormtroopers finding the crashed escape pod has had an overhaul. It’s longer now, with some newly filmed Stormtroopers and computer-generated dewbacks (we only had static models of these elephant-like creatures in the old version). They’ve been digitally added to some existing shots too.

* A nice model shot of the Jawas’ huge sandcrawler vehicle has been replaced by a CGI version, which is pleasant enough and more dynamic.

* Similarly, there’s a new establishing shot of Ben’s house, which is more detailed (and more digitally) than the old one. It tells us that his hideaway is on top of a hill and he has a nice view across the wastelands.

* Luke and Ben’s arrival at Mos Eisley is a lot more elaborate now. There’s new CGI footage of the city streets as their speeder drives into town. It’s crammed full of people and creatures and vehicles – some on newly shot film, some computer-generated. There’s even a bit of comedy. Great in theory, as it expands the city and brings it to life, but the additions stick out a mile – especially the cartoony shots of the speeder.

* In the cantina scene, one of the strange creatures seen in the montage of customers – a wolfman – has been replaced by a new frog-headed hipster alien who’s wearing a beret and smoking a pipe.

* In Han Solo’s confrontation with Greedo, Han no longer simply kills the guy rather than deal with him. He now shoots only in self-defence, after Greedo takes a shot at him. At point-blank range. And misses. This is a justifiably ridiculed, infamously unpopular change, which undermines Han’s entire character arc for the film. It’s like painting in eyebrows on the Mona Lisa or dubbing a new bassline onto a Beatles song.

* The Stormtroopers searching Mos Eisley now have little floating devices following them around (cameras, I guess?).

* An entire unused scene from the 1976 shoot has been added in. Han returns to the Millennium Falcon to find Jabba the Hutt and his cronies waiting for him, and has to use his silky charisma to buy more time before he has to pay off his debt. Jabba is a computer-generated character and is pretty corny-looking (he was even worse in the 1997 cinema version, but the DVD I watched carried out some repair work). The raw footage featured actor Declan Mulholland playing Jabba, but George Lucas claims he shot the scene that way only as a guide. The notion, he says, was that Mulholland would be replaced in post-production, probably by a stop-motion puppet. Well, that’s clearly bullshit. Not only was Mullholland is full costume, but Harrison Ford walks behind and in front of him and even touches his chest at one point – not things you’d get an actor to do in 1976 if the intention is to matte in a special effect. (Han also calls him a ‘wonderful human being’ in the dialogue, though admittedly he’s being sarcastic.) The whole thing is awful. On a story level, it adds little and slows down the momentum. It robs the viewer of first seeing the Millennium Falcon through Luke’s eyes. And the clash of 1970s film and 1990s technology is nothing but distracting. The worst moment comes when, in the original shot, Harrison Ford walks behind Jabba. When later designed for Return of the Jedi, Jabba was given a huge tail – so how can Han avoid it? The solution – to have Han walk up and over it, and for Jabba to grimace in pain – is a pathetic idea and looks absolutely terrible. On the plus side, although not part of the original shoot, Boba Fett has been digitally added to the scene. Nice touch.

* There’s a new shot of the Millennium Falcon taking off.

* When Dantooine explodes, it does so mainly with a focused arc of energy for some reason. The Death Star does the same later on.

* The Death Star hanger now looks more like it does in Return of the Jedi.

* The gag of Han turning a corner on the Death Star and bumping into six Stormtroopers has been altered: he now finds dozens of them.

* There are some new CG shots of the Falcon approaching Yavin.

* The Aztec-style temple on Yavin 4 now looks a lot more weatherworn.

* In the original cut, Luke goes from maudlin about Ben’s death to excited about the upcoming battle very quickly. Now we can see why: a deleted scene of him bumping into old pal Biggs Darklighter has been slotted in. (Biggs’s other deleted scenes from the shooting script haven’t been used – it seems the footage hasn’t survived in good enough quality.)

* We get new computer-generated shots of X-Wings taking off from Yavin 4, then shots of them approaching the Death Star have been replaced by CG versions with significantly more craft. A few CGI shots have been slipped into the main battle montage too. As a surgical bit of editing, it works really well: the geography of the dogfight is a bit clearer and none of the urgency is lost.

* James Earl Jones is now credited for playing the voice of Darth Vader. It’s astonishing to realise he wasn’t listed originally.

REVIEW: First and foremost, it’s really enjoyable to see a good quality copy of Star Wars. Little restoration work was done to the 2006 DVD release of the original cut, allegedly because Lucasfilm felt guilt-tripped into releasing it. So it’s smashing to see the movie shining and gleaming and popping through the TV screen. Most of the alterations in this version are good in theory and liveable-with in practice, but the two big changes to the Mos Eisley sequence – Han and Greedo, Han and Jabba – damage the film significantly. Let’s knock a mark off because of that.

Nine explosion rings out of 10

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