Adventures in Star Wars – Episode 1: A New Version

So I’ve had Star Wars on the brain quite a bit lately (too much SWTOR probably), so I might as well do something about that.

Originally this first bit was going to be a video, but I’d rather not have my email inundated with content claims, and quite frankly Disney’s lawyers scare me.  So you’re getting an article instead.

We’re starting things off with the movie that got the whole ball rolling in the first place, Star Wars Episode 4: A New Hope.  Specifically, we’re going to be taking a look at the changes made to the movie for the “Special Editions” that came out in the late ninties and early aughts.  I have watched both the Special Edition and the original Theatrical Release of Episode 4 (please don’t ask how I got the original version, let’s just say that it’s available if you know where to look.), with an eye towards seeing if the changes made by Lucas to the original alter the movie in any meaningful way.  And they do.  Sort of.

Fans of the franchise have claimed that the Special Editions are simply a blatant cash grab by Lucas and the changes made alter the movie beyond recognition.  I have my own theory as to why Lucas made the changes that he did, but we’ll get to that later.  But are the changes so bad that A New Hope actually becomes a mediocre, or even a bad movie?  Not really.

But before we dive into the changes and why they do or don’t work, a little background on my own history with the franchise.

I watched the movies when I was a kid, of course; Star Wars is an American cultural touchstone after all, but I was never as emotionally invested in them as I was in other things.   So I’m a bit of an outsider in terms of perspective, which means I’m going to be looking at things as objectively as possible.

Deep Background

Most of the changes made to A New Hope are simply background things. Animals added in the background of certain shots, the formerly rotoscoped blaster shots and lightsaber blades replaced with CGI versions, that sort of thing.  For the most part these are unobtrusive changes, they’re just there in the background to liven things up a bit.  However, they can be a bit distracting in some places, but those bits are brief and don’t really harm the flow of the film.  The biggest problem is that the CGI used to make them has not aged well.  Mind you, it was state of the art back in 1999, but film effects have moved forward by leaps and bounds since then (partially thanks to Lucas’ own ILM effects company) and a lot of older CGI just doesn’t hold up.

And this is where my theory about why Lucas made these changes in the first place comes in.  You see, ILM was doing some amazing stuff back in the late ninties, and I would be willing to bet that Lucas looked at all that and said to himself: “Wow!  Just look at all the things ILM can do now!  If I could remake Star Wars with all this new technology, it would be so much better!”  And that’s exactly what he did.

Now, this theory doesn’t excuse Lucas’ alterations, but it does explain why he decided to alter the film so dramatically.  Of course, not all the changes made were simply background stuff and cleaning up things that were a little muddy in the original.  There were two changes made that significantly alter one character in particular.

Han Shot First

Sometimes in the moviemaking process, sacrifices will have to be made.  Certain scenes will end up on the cutting room floor, either for budgetary reasons or time reasons, or simply because the scene just isn’t working.  In the case of A New Hope, the scene in question is one between Han and Jabba the Hutt.  Originally, a live actor played Jabba, but the scene didn’t work as Lucas wanted and it was cut.  In it’s place was put a scene between Han and a bounty hunter who worked for Jabba.  Fast forward to the Special Editions and two key changes were made.  One, the previously cut scene was added back in (with the addition of a CGI Jabba to replace the live actor) and the second was a slight alteration to the scene between Han and the bounty hunter.  We’ll deal with the latter first.

The scene in the Cantina gives us a lot of information about Han’s character without infodumping everything about him.  We learn that Han owes money to a local gangster after he had to dump some cargo when he got boarded by some Imperials.  We also learn that Han is not to be taken lightly, he is more than willing to kill in order to keep himself safe.  That last part is changed in the Special Editions when the bounty hunter shoots first thus giving Han a reason to kill him.  He didn’t need a reason before, why does he need one now?  Also, as a side note; Apparently Jabba puts his bounty hunters through the same marksmanship training that the Stormtroopers get.

As for the scene between Han and Jabba, it’s redundant.  There is no reason for it to be there since all it does is give us information that we heard not two minutes ago in the cantina.  It doesn’t really kill the pacing of the film, as the scene is rather brief, but it does slow it down unnecessarily.  I can only think that someone thought that the phrase “With Never Before Seen Footage!” would look good on the posters.

In Conclusion (or TL;DR)

Now then, to the question at hand.  Do the changes and additions to A New Hope significantly alter the film.  Not really, no.  With the exception of the two Han scenes previously mentioned, the changes made do not alter either the plot or our understanding of the characters and their motivations.  However, I can understand why longtime fans were upset by the changes.  When something you love is altered like this, at best you can walk out feeling disappointed; at worst you can walk out feeling betrayed and insulted.

All that said, I think that the movie still holds up quite well.  At it’s heart, Star Wars is a simple hero’s journey tale told well, and that’s what has kept the franchise alive after forty years.

 

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