August 25, 2013 – Last week, J.J. Abrams announced that he would be filming Star Wars Episode VII in 35 mm film, a reversal of George Lucas’ growing use of digital production in his prequels (1999-2005). I won’t discuss the merits of 35 mm film versus digital since that topic is widely covered elsewhere.
However, the return to 35 mm film, which Star Wars purists have been generally applauding, is an opportune moment to remind ourselves of another “hot button topic” among fans: Whatever happened to the ORIGINAL Star Wars trilogy films (not the revised and modified versions)? George Lucas has already declared that the original film versions (released 1977-1983) ought to disappear from history and be forgotten, to be replaced by his re-edited versions. A great many fans and cinephiles strongly object.
One website worth reading is www.savestarwars.com. Here is an excerpt:
“In 1997, George Lucas refilmed, re-edited and redid many scenes for the Star Wars trilogy in a “Special Edition.” Since then, Lucas has refused to have the original versions of the films be seen in high quality. All 35mm prints of the original versions have been recalled from circulation and confiscated, and the originals are no longer aired on television nor screened for special events. Lucas has stated that he would like the original versions to disappear, and that once the existing VHS and Laserdisc releases deteriorate he hopes no one will even remember the originals existed, except as “rough drafts” of the Special Editions. Not only is this robbing the world of a very important part of its cinematic and cultural heritage, but it is engaging in the re-writing of history. The original theatrical versions of these films deserve to be continued to be released and preserved in as high a quality as possible.”
I can almost kick myself for discarding my old VHS tapes of the original trilogy. Like many other cinephiles, I had assumed (wrongly, of course) that all three films in their original theatrical glory would be remastered and released on DVD.
[FOOTNOTE: If you’re lucky, you can still watch the grainy “originals” in the 2006 DVD set of the original trilogy (pictured above). Each of the 3 DVDs contains a bonus disc featuring the original theatrical version. However, sometime in 2011, the 2006 DVD set was no longer being manufactured and Amazon listed them as being “out of print”. These “originals”, however, were taken from the 1993 laser disc version and have not been remastered. And it shows: The videos are somewhat grainy and pixelated, the audio is mediocre and the overall picture quality is less-than-satisfactory. Taken from the 1993 laser disc version, which was formatted for 4:3 aspect ratios, these “originals” do not play well on a 16:9 widescreen. You can read more about the technical problems at www.SaveStarWars.com ]
“Don’t mess with canon! Don’t re-write history or taint our pop-culture memories!” many a fan has screamed. But Lucas will not be swayed.
IN GEORGE’S DEFENSE: Some (but not all) re-edits of Star Wars are superior to the original. For example, I enjoy watching the new version of Luke Skywalker’s and Obi-Wan’s entry into Mos Eisley for the first time as they glide through town in the landspeeder. The dessert spaceport is much more layered and intricate, peopled with more and better-detailed creatures, humanoids and droids. The picture quality is vastly improved, and Mos Eisley feels more alive and interesting than the original version.
Similarly, the greater cinematic details and CGI (computer generated imaging) allow richer visuals, such as planetary explosions and close-ups of vehicles in flight.
Other edits, however, leave you scratching your head: Why make it appear that Greedo shot at Han Solo first in the cantina, when clearly Han shot at him first in the original? And why introduce a mobile Jabba the Hutt at the spaceport, when it doesn’t add anything to the plot?
I suspect that in a post-George Lucas world, the negatives (if they can all be located, reassembled and remastered) will be digitized, and the original theatrical release will be made available to the public once again. And why not? There is a profit motive for 20th Century Fox (which still controls the rights to the first Star Wars movie) and for the Walt Disney Company (which owns Lucasfilms) to give the public what it wants.