Wed
Sep 7 2011 2:59pm

What’s Really Going on with Star Wars and the Zeitgeist

What’s Really Going on with Star Wars and the Zeitgeist

With the recent revelation that George Lucas has again altered the beloved Star Wars films for their impending release on Blu-Ray, everyone’s abuzz with certain amount of indignation, and in some cases a weary resolve that this tinkering will never end.

But what are we actually upset about?

When the classic Star Trek was given new special effects, there was little to no backlash, mostly because the only real changes rendered the spaceships slightly less hokey. Similarly, nobody really minds how awesome the X-wings look in the Star Wars Special Edition version of the Death Star battle. Instead, fans truly get upset when the Star Wars story seems to be subtly changed by the insertion of new dialogue, and new voices, and sometimes new faces.

But does the actual story of Star Wars really deserve this much defense?

Recently, Den of Geek ran a particularly good article in which Simon Brew noted that most Star Wars fans are all bluster insofar as no amount of complaining will prevent the Blu-Rays from selling extremely well. Further, if one really cares about the best possibile quality in terms of sound and picture clarity, they’ll likely pony up and buy the Star Wars Blu-Rays, changes to dialogue be damned. This seems to make good sense to me, and sort of sums up the strange love/hate relationship fans have with Star Wars. We’ll complain about the Lord Master George Lucas being an unfair dictator, but when it comes down to it, we’ll take what we can get.

In addition to weird cosmetic changes (creepy blinking Ewoks) the big news about the Star Wars Blu-Rays is that a pivotal sequence in Return of the Jedi now includes new dialogue from Darth Vader. Originally, Vader was stoically silent as he betrayed the Emperor in order to save Luke. But now he says “No.” Twice. Once short, and then again, a long drawn out “Nooooooo!” similar to the one he utters in Revenge of the Sith.  Check it out below.

But are we really complaining about Return of the Jedi? Well, I’m not happy, but I have to say I’m also not complaining as loudly as I might have been if we hadn’t gone through all of this before. Return of the Jedi is easily the least revered of the classic films, and with good reason. Even during the time of its release there was critical backlash against Return of the Jedi. And if you look at it in comparison to the other two movies, it does seem pretty half-assed. Between Ewoks, weird pacing, the uselessness of Han Solo, and multiple unnecessary, convoluted climaxes, Return of the Jedi exhibits almost all the storytelling failures that plague the newer Star Wars films. In fact, one could argue that the only classic Star Wars film that truly makes a case for the entirety of Star Wars being about Anakin is Return of the Jedi. Pre-special edition, the name “Anakin” was never mentioned until Return of the Jedi and then only a few times. If the seeds for the missteps of the prequels exist in the original trilogy, they are mostly found in Return of the Jedi.

The last time Lucas wanted to make it really clear that the whole of Star Wars is primarily about Anakin, he changed some dialogue in The Empire Strikes Back and stuck Hayden Christensen into Return of the Jedi. As offensive as the latter is, it wouldn’t bother me if I was someone born post-1999. When I was a kid, I had the perception that Luke was seeing an idealized dream-like version of what Anakin might have looked like had he lived a normal life. Then in 2004, it became an idealized version of Anakin up until the time he ceased to be a Jedi. Okay. Really, from a storytelling standpoint of an 11 year old, this is not that big of a deal.

And guess what? Neither is Vader now yelling “NOOOOOOOOOOO!” as he throws The Emperor down that shaft. It’s just really, really driving the point home in what is otherwise a pretty ham-handed, non-subtle movie. To put it another way, Return of the Jedi is a pretty cheesy story, this is just another layer of cheese and it’s also the same kind of cheese. Sure, I don’t like it, because I remember it the other way, and it worked just fine. But the story of Star Wars isn’t some super-subtle kitchen-sink drama or with perfectly crafted dialogue. These stories are extremely blunt and over the top, and (at the risk of being cruel), simplistic.

All Lucas is really doing when he makes stuff MORE obvious is remind us how basic and kind of silly these stories really are. Which pisses us off because we don’t want to think of Star Wars as silly and simple. But you know what? It is. It’s very one-note. Does this mean I love Star Wars any less? No. Does this mean I’ll be buying the Blu-Rays? I don’t have a Blu-Ray player and only own like five movies on DVD as it is. It’s just not my thing. I use Netflix and sometimes the video store. If someone suggests we watch Star Wars, I’ll make some kind of effort to see if it can be the “original” version, but I don’t try very hard.

The assertion that the entire story is about Anakin and not about Luke, Han, and Leia is probably deep down at the core of what bothers people about most of the all these changes. And that’s because Anakin just isn’t a very likeable character. This, I think is perhaps a slightly more interesting complaint than complaining about a change that is essentially more of the same. However, memorable drama doesn’t necessarily need to have likeable characters to work. So we’ll either need to get over that, or get over the fact that we’re dealing with a fairly basic morality tale in which the themes are hammered home in the most obvious, and non-subtle ways over and over again.

Is there a threshold where the story of Star Wars is being over-explained by these tweaks from Lucas? Perhaps. Should we really care? Probably not.

After all, Luke only saves the day when he finally refuses to fight.


Ryan Britt is a staff writer for Tor.com.

25 comments
Fisty
1. Fisty
Good point, but there is something wrong with you that you don't own DVD's or a PS3 to watch Blu-Rays on. Seems it would be a job requirement if you're writing pop-culture stuff, even though it's TOR the book company.
Joseph Kingsmill
2. JFKingsmill16
Personally, I’m done. I won’t give Lucas anymore money until he restores the original “non-special edition” trilogy. I know, I know… they are his movies he can do what he wants with them. Well, I am the consumer and I am voting with my wallet.

As to the changes and what they mean to me. I think the most puzzling thing to me is the fact that ep 4 & 5 were movies that were made for adults that children loved and embraced. Then he made ep 1, 2 & 3 which he made solely for kids that most adults couldn’t relate to (bad acting, implausible/unbelievable love story, cartoonish characters and convoluted plot). I really don’t think Lucas had any real idea what he is doing. He just lucked out having a lot of friends contribute creatively towards Star Wars (ep1) and decided to bet on the merchandising. Of course ILM and his partnership with Speilberg on Raiders didn’t hurt either.
Ryan Britt
3. ryancbritt
@1 Fisty
You'd think! Though I still bet I could beat you in Star Wars/Star Trek/Babylon 5/Sherlock Holmes or Dinosaur Trivia. :-)

P.S. Though we work with Tor Books, Tor.com is allowed to do its own thing. I work for Stubby the Rocket.
Kristoff Bergenholm
4. Magentawolf
Actually, all of these pointless changes are a pretty big deal; to me at least.

I have the original versions on VHS, and the only additional copy I will buy is if he ever makes a remastered version, without all of these CGI additions and tweaks and no frigging Hayden Christensen.
Dave Thompson
5. DKT
For me, the frustration is when the changes feel like, well, changes, instead of something superficial (like F/X). I mean, it's somewhat understandable from an aesthetic standpoint that Lucas could look at the original trilogy and think, "Yeah, some of these f/x could really be updated." It's baffling that he could actually look at some of the classic scenes, such as Han shooting first, or Vader tossing the Emperor overboard, and actually think, "You know, this scene really needs something ELSE." It's strange to me that any director (other than Uwe Boll) might even consider that.

I don't have BluRay player, but I understand that when I do eventually get one, I can play my DVDs on it. So I'll be sticking with the non-BluRay set.

One other puzzling thing: If Lucas is really all about the money, I don't know why he won't release Han Shoots First versions of his movie, or the original trilogy, etc. I mean, he'd make an awful lot of money off geeks like us who wouldn't be able to stop ourselves from double/triple/quadruple dipping.
Joseph Kingsmill
6. JFKingsmill16
@5 - I had read somewhere that one of the possible reasons he wouldn't -re-release the non-special editions was because his exwife would get some of the money for it. To me that seems a bit of a reach but at least would make a little more sense than his need to change Han Shooting first and the Vader scene.

From what I understand one of the hardest things for an artist to learn is when to walk away and let their creation be finished. He dosen't have someone around him to say "no" or "don't", they're all "yes men".
Fisty
7. Gibush
"I won’t give Lucas anymore money until he restores the original “non-special edition” trilogy."

It's out there. What about the Star Wars Trilogy DVD set? It includes the Special Editions on Disc 1, and on Disc 2, the original movies, right down to just being called "Star Wars" without the "New Hope" thing.

Unless I'm missing something.
Joseph Kingsmill
8. JFKingsmill16
@7. Gibush - Those editions are direct copies from the laser disc editions from the ninties. They are not formatted for wide screen tv's. So as long as you only intend to watch them on a standard tv those copies will be fine but if you try and watch them on a 60" Sony LED it will look fuzzy and off.
James Goetsch
9. Jedikalos
All the changes are ok with me, and I saw the originals when they first came out. After all , the original films are still there (on the star wars trilogy dvd set) if I want to watch them. And I think it's kind of cool that Lucas has enough creative control of his stuff that he can do whatever he wants with it. Here's my stuff the way I want to make it, take it or leave it! You go, George: I'm right there with you.
Chris Palmer
10. cmpalmer
I have two major issues with all of the changes.

First is the "tampering with film history" thing. Many of the things that made Star Wars such a milestone in technical filmmaking have been progressively obscured by the changes. Even when the changes are cool, the fact remains that you can't watch a cleaned, Blu-Ray quality version of the 1977 film, warts and all.

Second is what they chose to "fix". I was 11 when the first film came out. I saw it like 15 times during its theatrical releases. I've seen it dozens of times since on different media. Because of that, I knew where most of the mistakes and FX problems were. When the first special editions of the original trilogy was announced, I was sure that among the many changes, they'd fix these things. Nope. There were still matte lines on some of the effects shots that remained (when Vader and his wingmen leave the Death Star). You could still see straight through the eye-holes of the little mousy alien in the cantina. R2's right "foot" is still heading straight for the bulkhead. On the DVD release (where they have to brighten scenes or they'll look murky on TV), you can still see David Prowse's eyes through the Vader mask. They didn't even color Vader's lightsaber right on the Death Star. Some of those were fixed in the latest super deluxe extra special editions, but still it was obvious that the "fixes" were to play around with different technologies and make a few million dollars in spending money and not to actually improve the films.

If I were one of the ILM people who worked on the incredible model work and computerized motion control system, or the make-up and prosthetics of the cantina aliens, or any of the other shots that were "improved" (and obliterated) by the CGI fixes in the special editions, I'd be pissed.
Fisty
11. Improbable Joe
Here's my problem: George Lucas is a bad filmmaker who managed to accidentally make movies that I liked when I was a kid, and he's decided that he needs to go back and "fix" those "accidents."

I remember when the prequels came out on DVD, and I was in my "watch all the special features" phase. You could make a drinking game of listening to the commentary and taking a shot every time someone says something along the lines of "we forgot this major plot point/character during the initial shooting, and we fixed it in post-production."

You'd die of alcohol poisoning.

All these changes point out the fact that Lucas had no idea what he was doing from one movie to the next, the story doesn't stand together as a remotely cohesive whole, and now he's decided to enshrine his ineptitude by "fixing it in post" to movies he made decades ago! Every change he makes reminds me of how little real good was in any of those movies, and makes it seem like Lucas is determined to kill whatever is left.
Dave Thompson
12. DKT
The shocking thing to me about the prequel special features was the casting sessions. I thought both Hayden Christensen and Jake Lloyd actually gave pretty incredible auditions. It was only once they got "directed" that their performances really tanked.
Fisty
13. Scott Laz
No one complained about changing the special effects on the original Star Trek because the original effects are also on the discs. If you want, you can watch the original and ignore the new version. Or you can compare the new with the original and say: "Huh. Special effects ain't what they used to be." (Also, no dialogue or anything else was changed. It's an exact frame-by-frame replacement of special effects only.) Why not include both versions of Star Wars? I believe both could fit on these new-fangled Blu-Rays...
Ethan Glasser-Camp
14. glasserc
To me the Star Wars thing is always about who has control over the created product -- the creator, or the fans. The fans have parts of themselves invested in it, so they naturally feel they get a say in what "happens" to it. Fan-fiction is another example of the same phenomenon.

Ethan
Fisty
15. Joseph Chandler Cain
You know if King George keeps picking on that scab its going to get a terrible infection.
We Star Wars fans must be suffering from "Battered Spouse Syndrome" the way we keep shelling out money for this stuff. It really is becoming quite painful.
I keep wanting to say "the madness of King George" but am restraining myself.
Marcus W
16. toryx
I've hated the changes since I watched the theatrical re-release of Star Wars in the 90's. I don't care whether those changes are minor or not; they irritate me, so I don't watch them. George Lucas hasn't gotten a penny from me since I was talked into watching Episode 3 in the theater in London and I don't think he's going to get another dime in the future, no matter how nice the picture is in the Blu-Ray.
Fisty
17. RoarDawg
It's an expensive rerelease on bluray. People should have the option to watch the untampered with version of Star Wars or the new Lucas versions. That's all. Just include both versions. What a novel idea. Statisfy the fans and Lucas... Why does George have to be such a hard ass about it. This is what is truely upsetting. Someone needs to rein George "GodComplex" Lucas in.
Fisty
18. revgeorge
Lucas hasn't gotten any money out of me since Phantom Menace came out. Even now to this day I still like to pretend that Darth Maul won at the end of that movie.

Oh well, I guess if Lucas hadn't started tampering with the movies repeatedly we wouldn't have two great South Park episodes lampooning him.
Micah Schwantner
19. Chiblade
I'm not a huge fan of Star Wars. I think the only Star Wars movie that was actually a good movie as opposed to fan pleasing Star Wars product was Empire Strikes Back. But I'm a film fan and I'm opposed to the changes because he's trying to erase film history.

Those movies are cultural phenomena. They're important to filmaking history, in terms of everything from special effects to story structure to the rise of the auteur driven blockbuster. We should be able to buy them in a current format and study and remember them as they were released, not after a mediocre hack has "updated" them to fit his "original vision".
Micah Schwantner
20. Chiblade
Sorry. Doublepost.
Kevin Maroney
21. womzilla
The changes that get people most up-in-arms, it seems to me, are the ones that involve moments where Lucas got things right in the original and is changing them for the worse. This shouldn't be surprising. There aren't many moments of subtlety in Return of the Jedi; camping it up with a giant NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO makes the film worse. (It's a pretty bad film to begin with, so I'm not actually particularly concerned, but if you are one of the people who likes pr loves the film, ruining one of the few genuinely well-staged moments seems like the definition of a bad idea.)
Fisty
22. Venomous Sheep
I think the thing that really bothers me about the new Nooooooooo scene is the fact it totally takes away from some extremely strong and powerful scoring from John Williams in that scene.

If the chanegs added something I wouldn't mind - but the vast majority are completely pointless - change for the sake of change - like this one: http://www.youtube.com/watch?annotation_id=annotation_507941&src_vid=eGaSxSuB2vY&feature=iv&v=J0EUjobdavw

Ridiculous.
Anthony Pero
23. anthonypero
Some of us would like to completely deny the existence of the Prequels. Lucas' "tinkering" makes that impossible. The '97 re-releases were OK, with the exception of Empire's rediculous musical additions, which completely destroyed the tension of the best of the movies, but subsequent changes have all been geared towards "unifying" the two trilogies with each other. Which is a shame, because we all know that a class can only move forward as fast as it's dumbest student. These changes lump something great with something woeful, which inevitably brings the quality of the classic trilogy down to the level of the atrocious prequels.
Anthony Pero
24. anthonypero
Also, while Jedi was not as good as the other two, I still loved it on whole, and I know exactly why: Ian McDermitt as the Emperor. He was the best thing about the entire trilogy.
Fisty
25. anonymuth
JFKingsmill16 - yeah. I came to the conclusion many years ago that the reason Star Wars (the first, original film) was so good was to do with the era it was made in, the people Lucas had around him doing all the hard work, and simple luck. Oh, yeah, sure, Lucas had the nouse to steal from the Flash Gordon movie serials (twice! Once here and once for Indy), I accept that. But he didn't design any of those glorious, unforgettable, inconceivably perfect spaceships and he didn't design any of the rest of it. Look at ep. IV again and think about how much of it is to do with the design work. You'll be surprised, really.
It also helped that Lucas still hadn't gotten over his "Kubrick" phase at that point, so he could still put together a really nice establishing shot. Derivative, sure, but still nice.
Another thing that was different back then was that Lucas had no money and therefore not much control. When somebody put a drawing in front of him of the X-Wing, he was thankful. He didn't stamp a "Fabuloso!" in the middle of it in red ink if it was okay, or send it back for the 35th go around if it wasn't, he just said "Can we make that? Cool, that's great." Once he had enough money to be in control, we got Jedi, and then the prequels.
I stopped giving money to Star Wars after seeing the ep. IV remaster in the movie theater. If everybody else stops, he'll quit screwing around, really he will. Not much chance though, is there?

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