Revisiting Star Wars (1977)
When I went through the Star Wars movies back in November and December, I found myself frequently offering my opinions on changes from the original classic trilogy and the special editions. These comments were reliant on my memories of the original editions.
Last weekend I dug out my old DVD of Star Wars from 2004 which included the original version of Star Wars. It’s important to note that it was just Star Wars. There was no “Episode IV” or “A New Hope”. Nor did those subtitles appear in the 1979 re-release of Star Wars. When people of my generation (and older) call the original movie just Star Wars we are indeed correct - it was originally Star Wars.
I’ll begin with some comments as to the the DVD itself. It is not a well-done DVD. It is 4:3 letter-boxed, an effect which looks horrible on a modern wide-screen television, as the screen applies black bands to the left and right of the screen to resolve a 4x3 box. That box in turn has black bands on the top and bottom. This is in contrast with the special edition disc also included in this set which works fine on wide screen televisions. Presuming motivation is always a dangerous thing but I’ll go ahead with one anyways… My own assumption is that, judging by numerous interviews, George Lucas viewed the special editions as representative of his “true vision” and therefore was not motivated to do a polished job on what he viewed as an inferior version. While I was able to tell my television to adjust the image to better fill up the screen, the image quality is rather mediocre - at times it is somewhat fuzzy and/or jittery. The quality seemed more what one would expect from a VHS tape.
With these caveats out of the way, what did I think of it? Aside from the quality issues I mentioned, I found it to be a superior film. There are three ways I found this to be true: characterization, focus, and models vs. CGI. I’ll explain what I mean by each.
With regards to characterization, this is almost solely with regards to the infamous “Han shot first”. As I’ve mentioned before, twice I believe, the characterization of Han Solo seems much stronger in the original film. In the special edition, Greedo fires a shot at Han. This has been tinkered with in multiple special edition revisions - in some versions Han shoots immediately after Greedo misses him, in others they shoot nearly simultaneously. In the original film, Han shoots Greedo under the table. The original film features a far more active Han Solo, one who seizes the initiative from Greedo. In the special edition, Han is lucky Greedo missed a stationary target from under a meter away. I’ve read Lucas’ opinion that the original version portrays Han Solo as something along the lines of a cold-blooded killer. This seems difficult to fathom - Greedo had a blaster aimed at Han and had made his intention at killing him clear. When someone is about to shoot you this is a clear case of self-defense. It doesn’t even enter into the controversial “stand your ground” territory. The gun is out. It is aimed at you. And when you say “over my dead body”, if the response is “that’s the idea” you are clearly dealing with a credible and premeditated threat to your life.
When I refer to focus, there are two things I have in mind. The first is the overall pacing of the film, especially dealing with the addition of the Jabba scene. There was no reason to include it - from the scene with Greedo we already knew Han owed money to Jabba for a job gone wrong and Jabba was prepared to use deadly force against Han. No new information was provided by this scene, no new insights into anyone’s character. Instead, information we had heard just minutes earlier was repeated.
The other aspect of focus I am thinking of is the fact that the original film is a much tighter film. The special edition is visually “noisy”, full of distractions - animals walking in front of the camera, Jawas falling off Rontos, droids flitting all over the place, a stormtrooper struggling to control its Dewback. That's not to say there can't be events happening in the background - for example, when the stormtroopers march through Mos Eisley you see citizens nervously getting out of the way. Or in the cantina scene, we observe lots of conversations happening in the background. But these events were not distracting, they were there in the background, adding depth to the setting without pulling us away from the main story.
The last difference I'll focus on is that of the models vs. computer generated imagery (CGI). And this is the one that bothers me the least, probably because it is a matter of personal preference. While for the most part the CGI was rather well done, I have a preference for the models of the original film. This is probably most observable in the Death Star battle at the end of the film. For me, the model work holds up incredibly well. Yes, the CGI versions of the ships absolutely work, but for me the older models seem a bit more "solid".
What I will say is the original Star Wars holds up incredibly well and it is unfortunate there is not a high quality version that is legally available. While I'm not a huge fan of revisions to classic movies, I do give a bit more leeway when the creator is the one who makes the changes. That said, I much prefer it when the original version remains available, as Steven Spielberg did with E.T. several years ago. I'm not 100% certain what it would take to re-release the original versions of the classic Star Wars trilogy. As I understand it, 20th Century Fox retains the rights to the original Star Wars in perpetuity. When I just went to my digital video library on Amazon I noticed that A New Hope maintains the 20th Century Fox intro while The Empire Strikes Back begins with a Lucasfilm banner. This does seem to indicate that the rights are likely split - but it also seems to indicate that a deal must have been reached between Disney and 20th Century Fox to release all the films for streaming simultaneously.
What I'd like is a nicely cleaned up version of the original films to be available. The original Star Wars was an event that changed movies and it is unfortunate that experiencing it in its original form is difficult to do.