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.

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.


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