The Star Wars “Special Editions” (what went wrong?)

Several years ago an eighty-something lady named Cecilia Gimenez, from the small town of Borja (in northeastern Spain), took it upon herself to tinker with a painting of Jesus that was hanging in the nearby church of Santuario de la Misericordia. The painting had decayed from dust and sunlight exposure over the years, and Cecilia thought she could improve the painting by “touching it up a bit” to restore it to its former glory.

Her terrible efforts ruined the painting and made her either a laughingstock or a villain, depending on your affiliation to the church in question. Only her children and closest friends were brave enough to stare at the mangled face of the Christ and conclude “we think it looks fine; quit being so mean!”

Of course we all know better than to take the word of someone’s most devoted people. Everyone else was able to look at the work, unbiasedly, and conclude that the finished product sucked. No amount of excuse-making, and discussions about someone’s “best intentions” can change that. The end result is either good or bad. And especially when it comes to tinkering with an already-good (though not perfect over time) work, you need to be sure that you can make it better or else the whole operation will be more than a joke; it’ll be a fiasco.

The funny thing is, had Gimenez stopped after her first few hours of work, she might have been able to claim victory and not be laughed at. All the painting needed was a little touch of paint here and there, just to overcome the damage done over the years. But she couldn’t leave well-enough alone. She couldn’t stop tinkering. Eventually, the whole Jenga Tower fell over and the painting was ruined.

Let’s talk about Star Wars.

By the mid-1990’s, the Star Wars trilogy was a cinematic institution. It was a beloved series of movies to both children who enjoyed it on home video and adults who first enjoyed it in theaters. Was it perfect? Certainly not: Some of the effects shots were incomplete, some of the audio cues were off (or even missing), and even though so much of it has a timeless quality, there are a few moments that make the production seem dated (bushy sideburns, Halloween costume aliens in Mos Eisley, etc). Those are minor quibbles, however, and they were proven to be minor due to the fact that no one ever complained about them.

No one sat around watching Star Wars in the 90’s (or the 80’s…or the 70’s) and complained that Obi Wan’s lightsaber occasionally looked like a PVC pipe (due to unfinished rotoscoping), or that the snow speeders in Empire Strikes Back had see-through cockpits. No one cared because (A) everyone was having too much fun, and (B) they were minor production problems. Had the movies been plagued with a dozen minor plot errors, then you’d hear complaining. It’s almost a universal truth that people who criticize a movie criticize acting, pacing, plotting. If the acting is wooden, fans will make fun of it. If the pacing is bad, fans will tire of it. If the plotting is nonsensical, fans will walk out on it. If those three things are good, but the effects look like they were made in someone’s garage, fans—time and again—will overlook it. Star Wars was revolutionary in the 70’s-80’s in the field of special effects, but it still had to cut corners and rely on primitive tech to make it happen. There were flaws, but no one cared.

No one…except George Lucas.

Today Lucas is sort of the Bob Kane of Star Wars. Kane, of course, is the “man who made Batman.” And that’s a fact printed (thanks to a contract clause) onto every issue of every Batman comic ever made: BATMAN CREATED BY BOB KANE. Nevermind the fact that Kane actually created something called the Bat-Man, a blonde trapeze artist with a domino mask and red spandex, who fought crime with a revolver. It was not until he partnered with Bill Finger that “Batman” as we know it today (black and grey, with a long-eared mask that covers all but his mouth, etc) came to be. But Finger didn’t have the business wherewithal to make sure his name lasted into posterity. It’s only recently that DC Comics has given Finger the credit he deserves.

The way George Lucas tells it, he’s the one and only brainchild of Star Wars, from 1975-2012. The way he tells it, he always had in his head a complete story that told the rise and fall and rise again of the Jedi Anakin Skywalker. The way he tells it Star Wars was too big to fit into one movie so he chopped off the first third and then chopped the second third into three movies, with the first coming out in 1977, fifty years ago this month. The way he tells it, people like Gary Kurtz, Marcia Lucas and Lawrence Kasden were bit players. He was the brains. He was the only brains.

And yet, history tells it differently. The reality is there was no Star Wars saga. There was only a Flash Gordon knock-off that came about when he couldn’t secure the rights to make Flash Gordon. All the big moments in the saga, like Vader’s true identity, Luke and Leia’s relationship, the nature of the Clone Wars, none of it existed in the mid-70’s. Those things came about in later years, and not only from Lucas but from other key people involved in the creative process.

The early drafts of Star Wars (which are available online) were much more akin to 1999’s The Phantom Menace than the actual product that came out in 1977. There was much more of a 1930’s pulp-sci-fi style, not only in the plotting but especially in the dialogue. The original cut of the film was long, meandering and pointless. It was saved in the editing room by his wife Marcia. She ended up winning the Editing Oscar for her work on the film, and it was well-deserved; the movie was an absolute mess before she started cutting it. The climactic Death Star Trench Run, as George envisioned it, actually would have had Luke make two runs at it, with him failing on the first one before trying again and “using the force” to actually succeed. Marcia pointed out how George had built and built to that one grand moment only to have the hero lose and then do it all over again. It was unnecessary and emotionally-stunted. She convinced him to let her recut the ending and it saved the movie. That’s just one of countless examples.

But even though the first film was a smashing success, George was never happy with the way it turned out. In his mind, the problem with Star Wars (a movie no one but him would ever say had a “problem”) was that he simply wasn’t able to finish it. In his mind, Lucas simply stopped working on it because he ran out of time. That might explain why the first one was the most “touched up” movie of the three Special Editions.

In fact, from listening to interviews and reading behind the scenes works, it’s obvious that Lucas considers every film in the saga except The Phantom Menace to be an incomplete version of his vision. With the first film, he was working with a limited budget, forced to answer to his financiers. For the second and third movies, he funded the production himself but handed the director’s chair over to other people. And even though most consider Empire Strikes Back the artistic highpoint of the series, Lucas has said multiple times its his least-favorite film. Chew on that. Episodes II and III were made with the anti-kiddie/JarJar backlash in his mind. Lucas threw into the screenplay things he thought people wanted to see (Boba Fett! Yoda fighting with a lightsaber! Twenty-minute long duels!). The Phantom Menace is really the one film where George had complete and total control over the whole creative and production process. It was the one time he presented his vision of Star Wars in an unfiltered capacity. The Phantom Menace is what George Lucas thinks of when he thinks of Star Wars.

Chew on that.

Lucas made the point in his interview with Charlie Rose (where he criticized The Force Awakens as “a retro thing”) that he tried to do something different with each Star Wars film. When you look at the four movies he directed, in particular, you can really see what he means by that: Star Wars is Kurosawa’s The Seven outer space. The Phantom Menace is a political thriller/adventure. Attack of the Clones is an epic romance. Revenge of the Sith is a Greek tragedy. The fact that the prequels have not remained in the public’s good graces is irrelevant to George Lucas. He doesn’t see Star Wars as a product for the masses to consume (at least not entirely). First and foremost, Star Wars was the canvas on which he painted his art. No matter how big the Star Wars “business” grew, Lucas never saw it as a business. In his mind it was a series of cinematic paintings. Imagine his bitterness at cashing a four billion dollar check and then watching the queen mother of all movie corporations turn “Episode 7” into a “retro, greatest hits” package. That’s why he likened it to “selling his baby to white slavers.” He feels like he sold out to people who didn’t respect the “art” of it.

All that’s well and good, but the fact still remains, from the perspective of almost everyone else, we don’t care.

What any person wants when he sits down to watch a movie is to see a good plot, good acting and a well-told story. Whether it’s a Greek Tragedy or a political thriller, if it’s got the plot, the acting and the pacing fans will enjoy it. That’s what the prequels lacked and that’s why they remain detested by all but the most ardent devotees.

That brings us to the Special Editions.

Lucas looked at the original Star Wars movies and saw something totally different from what everyone else saw. As a result he set about to “fix” movies that no one thought needed fixing. The biggest problem with the Special Editions (and subsequent re-releases, all of which have been tweaked here and there) is that Lucas’ biggest flaws as a filmmaker are in the three areas movie viewers care the most about. His writes great stories in broad strokes. But the details are where he struggles, and then when the camera is rolling he’s admitted to having no idea how to direct an actor. And when the movie is filmed he has no idea how to edit it together either. Plotting, Pacing and Characters: That’s where the Original Trilogy shined, in spite of Lucas (thanks to many influential co-workers), and that’s where the Prequel Trilogy fell apart, because of Lucas (thanks to no one being around but yes-men).

The problem with the special editions is they didn’t just fix the things that actually needed fixing, but in many cases went too far and made unbearable the things no one minded. If the Special Editions had simply touched up the effects, and fixed the little problems that were unavoidable in the 70’s and 80’s, the re-releases would have become the definitive version of the series. Instead, a significant number of fans still refuse to buy the blu-ray release, opting instead for one of the many bootlegged “HD” releases available online that have the additions to the films stripped away. Things like momentum-halting conversations with Jabba the Hutt in A New Hope, Greedo shooting first, an overabundance of computer generated characters and animals to make the backgrounds of shots seem more “alive” (but really only diminish the movie since the quality of the new effects are so obviously different from the quality of the 1970’s effects they’re slotted next to), Vader screaming “No!” just before saving Luke in the climactic shot of the whole trilogy, young Anakin leering creepily at the camera at the end of Return of the Jedi, instead of the older, redeemed Anakin we met just moments before, and so on and so forth.

None of those changes do anything to “fix” the movies; they only add another layer of paint onto the painting. Why do it, though? Why does Lucas insist on “ruining” (as fans see it) one of the seminal fictional works of the 20th century? To understand it you have to think of George Lucas, not as a filmmaker, but as an artist.

All people who have a strong artistic mindset have problems “finishing” a work. They tinker and the pick at their painting constantly. They see flaws no one else does and they agonize over things they wish they’d done differently that no one else cares about. It’s an obsession. It’s an inability to say “it’s done.”

And so they dip their brush and add one little streak of blue here, and then one little bit of yellow there.

And they keep tinkering, oblivious to how they are ruining the work. Because they don’t see it that way. The fans of the work see it that way, but in the mind of the artist the fan doesn’t matter. It’s not their work, it’s his. And it’s not done till he says it’s done. So like Howard Hughes they become tunnel-visioned and unaware of how eccentric and damaging they are to the very art they love.

And when it’s done, this happens…

And that’s how we got the Star Wars Special Editions.

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