By Morgan Leger
In 1988, filmmaker George Lucas delivered a speech to Congress about the importance of film preservation. He described people who alter films as “barbarians” and noted that computer technology could allow them to “add color to black-and-white movies, change the soundtrack, speed up the pace, and add or subtract material to the philosophical tastes of the copyright holder.”
Now, Lucas seems to be going back on his word.
Not only is “Star Wars’ being released on Blu-ray DVD today, but news of additional changes to the saga has angered fans once again, in greater numbers.
“I think he’s [Lucas] kind of an unfortunate figure, because he has something that people respect,” noted Joseph Moser, who teaches literature and film in the English department at Fitchburg State University. “He’s tinkering with work that viewers have an association with. That doesn’t just happen in movies. It happens in art forms, but good things don’t come from an artist who goes back and starts tinkering with things.”
And this is not the first time Lucas has “tinkered.” For example, the title “Episode IV-A New Hope” was added to the opening crawl for a 1981 re-release. Then, 1997 saw the “Special Edition” releases, in which the first three films were remastered and had some extra effects added. Some minor things like adjusting the blue-screen effects were OK with fans, but they had a problem with material like Greedo shooting first and the addition of a deleted sequence with Jabba the Hut back in. The backlash got even bigger with the 2004 DVD, where more changes took place such as the ghostly image of Sebastian Shaw being replaced with Hayden Christensen, who played Anakin Skywalker in Episodes II and III.
Now the idea of Lucas continuously altering his work is getting questioned more based on the latest fan reactions. Not only has he given in the new Blu-ray release Ewokes the ability to have CGI blinking eyes and a CGI Yoda for Episode I, but controversy has risen over an audio change during a pivotal moment in “Return of the Jedi” when Darth Vader overcomes his mentor. In the original, he was completely silent, but in the new edition, he says, “No!” This change was confirmed by a representative from Lucasfilm in August, and some fans have expressed anger over how it alters the tone of the scene.
Even those who don’t consider themselves “Star Wars” fanatics have noticed. Robert Harris, who teaches film and video production in the communications department at FSU, commented that “in the former version, it’s like, ‘What’s he thinking?’ We ask, ‘Is he in conflict?’ and we’re not given the information. Movies tend to be more interesting to the degree they don’t serve everything up.” Removing the ambiguity, he said, is “the mark of a weak film.”
Moser added, “It takes the subtlety and tension out of that scene … Why mess with a good thing?”
However, the idea of altering something that was seen years ago on the big screen is nothing entirely new. Filmmakers before Lucas have gone back and made corrections and different versions of a film they have done before.
“Hitchcock made ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’ twice,” noted George Bohrer, an FSU communications professor whose courses include history of film. “He said in interviews, ‘The first time was done by a talented amateur and the second time by an experienced filmmaker.’ And he did things in the second version that he didn’t in the first. So Lucas is not the first person who’s gone back to his work and tried to make what he feels is improvement.”
Moser say a difference in what Lucas is doing, however. “No one has ever considered the ‘Star Wars’ movies as compromised works,” Moser said. “His ‘changes’ just seem like needless tinkering to me. It’s not a situation where a filmmaker wasn’t happy with the original cut for artistic reasons, like ‘Blade Runner’ where the original released cut had a voice-over.”
It is clear that Lucas’s changes are not for artistic purposes, but more for the sake of digital enhancements and to keep his saga updated for a new generation. The only question that remains is, how much longer will this “updating” continue?
“I think he will be doing it until he dies,” remarked Bohrer. “The technology is going to continue to evolve and improve. For the time, the special effects of those films were outstanding. But there is so much that today … you could go back and see how the effects work. You saw the strings and ignored them. By today’s standards, the films are a little clumsy in terms of special effects, but it doesn’t matter. That’s the way the audience experienced it at the time.”
Among Fitchburg State students who were questioned on their opinion, most spoke out against these changes to the Blu-ray DVD set, while a minority said they didn’t really think the changes were a big deal. And even though a very small minority said they were positive toward the alterations, more than three-quarters of those questioned said they had no intention of purchasing the new Blu-ray set.
“If the Blu-ray set had both the original and altered versions, that wouldn’t have been a problem,” Bohrer suggested. “It was a powerful and cultural event,” he said, impacting “not only filmmaking but people and how they thought about film, the nature of the hero, and all kinds of things. Those first three films really did do that.”
However, Lucas has no plans at all to release his original cuts to a high-definition format. This was confirmed during an interview in 2004 for MSNBC, when he said, “The special-edition ones are the films I wanted to make. The other movie, it’s on VHS, if anybody wants it. … I’m not going to spend the, we’re talking millions of dollars here, the money and the time to refurbish that, because to me, it doesn’t really exist anymore. It’s like this is the movie I wanted it to be, and I’m sorry you saw half a completed film and fell in love with it. But I want it to be the way I want it to be.”
Steven Spielberg thinks otherwise, as he said during an interview for Ain’t It Cool News earlier this year. “At this point right now I think letting movies exist in the era, with all the flaws and all of the flourishes, is a wonderful way to mark time and mark history,” he said. “And I think the other good thing is that they understand when they see a movie and they suddenly see something that obviously could have been done much better today and could have been corrected in the DVD/Blu-ray transfer, they really appreciate seeing the strings attached.
“George goes his own way and I respect him for it, but my new philosophy on this is to let sleeping dogs lie.”