Monday, September 12, 2011

Why Star Wars Geeks Are Wrong

This week the Star Wars trilogies come to Blu-ray.

Predictably, there is a loud outcry over the fact that we’re getting the 1997 special edition version of the original trilogy and that George Lucas has made few more edits.

I’m here to tell you that the geeks are wrong, and they need to STFU for once and for all.

I’m as big of a Star Wars geek as anyone else.

I had all the toys growing up, the trading cards, the posters hanging on my wall, bought all the various home video releases, etc. And like everyone else, I think a lot of the changes made to the original trilogy are lame, like Greedo shooting first and the unnecessary inclusion of Jabba the Hutt.

George Lucas
But Lucas owns these films, both artistically and legally.  He can do whatever he wants.  My fandom and loyalty does not obligate Lucas to do anything for me.

There really should be no debate beyond this, but Star Wars geeks continue to insist that once a work of art is “completed” -- a movie’s theatrical release -- that it can never be modified. Historically that’s not been true and it doesn’t make any rational sense.

The only reason that more films aren’t modified after their theatrical release is because of the expensive nature of producing films.

Music, for instance, has an extremely long tradition of changes being made after premiers, sometimes decades after the premier.

It doesn't cost anyone anything to change the scores. Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Wagner, Mahler, Verdi and many others continued to tinker with scores years after they had their premiers. Stravinsky was often motivated to make revisions just so he could extend his copyright on his music. Composers would also make revisions to take advantage of new developments in instrument technology (doesn’t that sound kinda like Lucas?). And in the 20th century, it’s quite common for musicians to completely remix their recordings for subsequent CD and now digital releases because they have new thoughts on how the various instruments and vocals should be balanced.

Things like this happen less with film because filmmaking is so expensive. Reshooting a few minutes of footage can cost millions of dollars. But it does happen, and Lucas is hardly the first person to do what he’s done.

In 1977 another science fiction blockbuster was released: Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Director Steven Spielberg felt he needed six more months to work on the film, and after it grossed hundreds of millions of dollars, he convinced Columbia to give him money to reshoot some of the special effects sequences as well as shoot new ones. The result was the 1980 “Special Edition” of the film. Then in 1998 Spielberg recut the film again, creating a “Collector’s Edition.” So that’s three separate versions of the Close Encounters -- where’s the outrage?

What also separates film from other mediums is that there is a very rigid timetable for when it needs to be completed because so much money has been invested in it.

Whether you’re writing a book, painting a canvas, or composing music, the financial pressures are so much less compared to film that artists can work on their projects indefinitely. For instance, look at the six-year gap between the last two A Song of Ice and Fire novels by George R. R. Martin. He won’t have to go back and make revisions because he took all the time he needed to get it right.

Having been a filmmaker, I can completely understand where Lucas is coming from.

Your final product is never what you envision. Comprises have to be made because of money and timetables. And the creative process can be so rushed that only after the film is completed do you realize that you made some bad decisions and wish you could go back and correct them. Probably the best documentary I made I cannot watch because there are some things in it that I wish I had cut differently. It’s painful to watch something you’ve created that has what you view as mistakes.

The last thing I’ll say is that I do like a lot of the special effects upgrades Lucas made to the original trilogy.

I always thought it was really silly how Cloud City is supposed to be this exotic location, but all we really see of it are the interiors of rooms. The Ralph McQuarrie paintings of Cloud City are far more exciting than anything in the film, and the digital insertion of windows that show the exterior of the city help bring to fruition what Lucas had in mind. I also have no problem with special effects shots that are fixed, such as removing matte lines or eliminating transparency issues with shots that were composed on the optical printer.

In fact, I’d argue that if someone like Alfred Hitchcock were alive today, he’d have no problem having some digital touch-up work done to his films so that rear projection shots are better integrated with the foreground elements.

But of course, no one dares do this because they cannot get his authorization due to him being long dead.


  1. I agree that there's room to update, if it actually adds something. I for one think the version of Bespin in the special editions is incredible too. It's not just a clinging to the past, but more of a short changing the future.

    Lucas is just chipping away and missing the point. I know that sounds arrogant, but let's look at one particular scene; the end of Return of the Jedi.

    Darth Vader is redeemed. The man at the end is Anakin Skywalker, free of the burdens of actions and redeemed. This is wonderful way to end it. It was also a chance to see more of the late Sebastian Shaw in this role.

    Instead, Shaw is pulled out to be replaced by an awkward looking Hayden Christensen. This just doesn't make sense. It's comes across as being included because George Lucas can just chip at it for no reason, not for any real benefit.

    I do understand completely the film maker's right, and I also accept I am overthinking just a space film. There's also an unfair sense of entitlement on behalf of any fan. I think if it was something that was helpful to the story, not hamfisted or just plain stupid, it wouldn't cause so much grief.

  2. A few points:

    1) "STFU" is the kind of thing you really shouldn't be saying to your readers. It kills any potential for discussion, which is an absurd thing to do on a blog. (Plus, it's the kind of thing airheaded teenagers say, not journalists.)

    2) In the 1970s and '80s, Lucas was one of the most outspoken opponents there was regarding filmmakers changing film masterpieces.

    3) Lucas neither wrote nor directed Empire and Jedi. Yes, he created Star Wars, but those films were written and directed by other people.

    4) There's room out there for multiple interpretations and opinions. Why write a blog insulting everyone whose opinion isn't the same as yours?

    5) The problem has never really been that Lucas modifies his films anyway, so this blog's point is moot. Rather, the problem is that many of his changes--Greedo shooting first, Luke screaming like a frightened child while falling on Bespin, Vader yelling "NOOOOO!!!!" at the end of ROTJ, Hayden C. replacing Sebastian as a ghost, and so forth--make the films worse instead of better.

    Here's the thing: George Lucas was once a genius and a visionary. His early work was nearly all brilliant: THX-1138, American Graffiti, A New Hope, TESB, the three classic Indy films.

    But then something happened... Return of the Jedi. And after that, so much of his work was subpar: Captain EO, Willow, Howard the Duck, the fourth Indy film, Young Indiana Jones, the Droids/Ewoks cartoons, the two Ewok films, Radioland Murders, the Clone Wars film, the Clone Wars cartoons, Labyrinth. Some of it has its moments, but none of it even comes close to his earlier potential.

    The biggest problem with his most recent four films has been that he's done them without collaborators willing to tell him that the Emperor (Lucas himself) has no clothes. As a result, he keeps making bad decisions that are damaging his property.

    Does he owe anything to fans? You say no, but when people are paying money to see his films and buy merchandise based on them, then yes, he does--that's how a consumer market works. If he were providing his artistic endeavors for free, then no, he'd own no one anything. But if people need to spend $12 to see a movie, $20 to read a book, $100 to buy DVDs and Blu-rays, $5 to read a comic book, and so forth, then they have a right to expect quality work for the high pricetags they're paying. And they also have a right to be public and honest about their displeasure when the work turns out not to be up to the quality they're looking for. Telling them to "STFU" is not only rude and immature, but also counterproductive. As a fan, you should WANT to see the right decisions being made.

    I'm all for supporting a creator who makes the right decisions--but blind loyalty hurts fandom. It doesn't help it.

    And neither does insulting all of your readers.

  3. The bigger problem is Lucas' insistence on discarding old versions of the movie. The most recent release for Close Encounters (and E.T. for that matter) included every available version, for viewers to choose based on their preference. Lucas' only option given to fans of the older versions is crummy laserdisc transfers as "special features" on a bare-bones DVD release. It seems highly unlikely that those versions will ever be remastered for blu-ray or any further formats, effectively negating them for posterity.

  4. rassmguy:

    My tone was in jest, hence the use of "airheaded teenager" lingo. I'm also not a journalist, but a columnist -- I'm here to express my opinion.

    2) Lucas was speaking out about colorization, how once copyrights on films expire, anyone can alter the films without the consent of the filmmakers.

    3) Clearly Irvin Kershner consented with the changes because he would have blocked Lucas if he didn't like them. Further, Lucas is the copyright holder. Jedi is obviously more complicated because the director is dead. So Lucas' claim only goes as far as the copyright. So with Jedi, I agree that he shouldn't have made changes due to consent being impossible.

    4) Again, it's a blog and written in jest.

    5) Whether it makes it worse or better is a purely objective matter.

    The simplest way the public can express their displeasure is to stop buying Lucas' products. If Lucas felt that sales were hurt by not releasing the unaltered versions, he'd probably release them. But the fans complain and then gladly scoop up all the products.


  5. sadbuthappy:

    I think you're right -- had a few of the most condemned changes never happened, and Lucas' revisions were limited to cleaning up and updating special effects, there would probably be very little outcry. And I think that shows a hypocrisy of the whole debate: Lucas can make changes as long as he doesn't offend fans.

    Of course the simplest solution where everyone wins is to release both the altered and unaltered version. I'm sure it will happen some day.


  6. There is no outrage about Close Encounters of the Third Kinda because the Blu-Ray 2-disc set includes all three versions. I'm ok with the edits, but I would absolutely love to have the original on Blu-Ray.

  7. "The simplest way the public can express their displeasure is to stop buying Lucas' products. If Lucas felt that sales were hurt by not releasing the unaltered versions, he'd probably release them. But the fans complain and then gladly scoop up all the products."

    On this point, I'm in full agreement with you. And I'm glad to hear your points were made in jest, though I'll be honest, it didn't come off that way.

  8. Your humor was so subtle that it was basically non-existent. George Lucas did not simply correct problems caused by the limits of the tech of his time; he changed characters, motivations, etc.

    Ridley Scott fixed problems in Blade Runner, restoring the story only because the producers would not let him have his original vision, instead forcing Ford at gunpoint to do an awful narration, and changing the ending of the film completely. Scott only restored what already existed, and corrected the special effects that were off (like the factories at the beginning of the film). He did not use new material, he did not record new voices, he did not change character motivations. Lucas did all of these things without even fixing the problems that exist.

    My problems with Lucas are that things like lightsaber coloring, explosions, and even that awful Jabba scene are things that can be fixed by the tech of our time without altering the movies, and, in fact, doing what Lucas set out to do, which was put his original vision in place. What we have now is something that continues to add unnecessary weight and change to the series, but does not fix the actual problems that were caused by his limited tech, thus making him a hypocrite hiding behind an excuse.

  9. With Close Encounters Spielberg Released all 3 versions on DVD. And Scott Released A complete Blade Runner Box set, this effectively allows us to pick our favourite version. If Lucas released all versions of the star wars films in the box set giving us the actual choice version there the outcry would be minimal I feel.. By all means the man can tinker but do we really need Vader shouting "nooooo" in Jedi? I think he answered that already, we know what he's thinking which is conveyed visually. We're not stupid. I think my biggest problem is when is it going to be enough for him.