I’d like to ring in 2015 with another post about my favorite movie series, which is of course Star Wars. Last year, I defended the prequels. Much of the criticism they endured was unfair and largely the result of misplaced fan expectations. Today’s post is going to focus on the original three movies, and why I believe the Special Edition is the best adaptation of them. To clarify, I am referring to the Special Edition rereleased in theaters in 1997, which is the first time I ever saw Star Wars. I have seen the original 1977-1983 versions, and that’s what I’ll largely be comparing them to. I am not referring to the DVD (2004) or Blu-Ray (2011) releases of the movies, where George Lucas and the team made further changes.
Let’s break it down movie by movie, starting with A New Hope. The biggest improvement made was the addition of Han Solo’s initial confrontation with Jabba the Hutt over his debt. This scene was deleted from the original film due to time and budget constraints, and featured a human actor playing Jabba. In the new version, Jabba is added in using CGI, featuring the appearance fans are familiar with from Return of the Jedi. In my opinion, this scene helps to flesh out Solo’s character, and foreshadows the events of Jedi, which makes the overall storytelling better. He also steps on Jabba’s tail, which elicits a chuckle in an otherwise serious scene.
The other major changes involved the Mos Eisley and Yavin Four scenes. In the former scene, more details were added to make the spaceport seem more like a bustling hive of activity (or scum and villainy, as the case may be :), which establishes the setting better. There is one shot in particular where the camera pulls back, and viewers see a panoramic view of Mos Eisley, which I think adds even more to the experience.
There are two key changes when the protagonists arrive on Yavin Four near the end of the movie. First, we actually see the Millennium Falcon land on the planet, which I think is interesting even if it is brief and doesn’t add much to the plot. Then we get a scene between Luke Skywalker and childhood friend Biggs Darklighter right before the attack on the Death Star. I like this scene because it helps the audience get to know Luke a little better, and sheds more light on his life before the events of the movie. Also, it gives the audience a reason to care about Biggs and establishes why his subsequent death during the attack impacts Luke so much.
No, I’m not going to talk about Han/Greedo shooting first. It’s a stupid debate and I don’t care.
There were fewer notable changes in The Empire Strikes Back. Probably the most significant one was additional footage of the wampa being added in showing him eating his prey. Not really much impact on the plot, but also helps to establish the setting. The Battle of Hoth scene was also cleaned up significantly, eliminating matte lines and making it run just a little smoother. There were a few other minor changes, but the Special Edition version of this movie is largely identical to the original.
Return of the Jedi, like A New Hope, received a comparatively extensive facelift. Jedi’s overhaul, however, mostly had to do with the music. Two pieces used for the Special Edition have much more energy and are better than those used in the original movie. The musical scene in Jabba’s palace originally featured the piece “Lapti Nek” and had much less action. The Special Edition replaced this song with “Jedi Rocks,” and the Max Rebo Band singers are replaced with CGI versions, which are much more expressive and interesting than the puppets originally used. Fun fact: Oola, the green Twi’lek dancer that entertains Jabba, was played by the same actress in both the original version and the Special Edition, 14 years later.
The music in the celebration scene at the end is also different. In this case, the two songs aren’t as directly comparable. The first one has more of a tribal Ewok feel and is interesting, but I still believe the second retains the tribal feel while more fully showing off the extent of John Williams’s composing prowess.
The CGI sarlacc pit monster is also much more imposing in the Special Edition, with tentacles and a large mouth added for greater dramatic effect.
So while the changes made in the Special Edition aren’t radical, plot-altering devices, I believe they do a better job of articulating George Lucas’s original vision for the movies. The Special Edition movies just feel like a finished product, more so than the original films. Many fans would argue that Lucas became overly meddlesome with his creations when he continued to make changes in the DVD and Blu-Ray versions, which is up for debate. A good-sized portion of the Star Wars fan community tends to be oversensitive to these changes and throw temper tantrums over minor “problems” (see Han/Greedo debate above). Whichever version you like, the original movies stand as a shining example of good filmmaking.