The thing that makes Star Wars truly great is Greedo shooting first. Wait, come back, I’m being serious! The original Star Wars trilogy was an incredible cultural touchstone, and obviously Star Wars merchandise and expanded universe novels created a whole world for fans to inhabit. However, the moment when Star Wars became truly great was the moment in 1997 when a generation of fans had to examine what this film meant to them, and why it was so important that Han shoot first. This moment galvanized an already fervent fandom to, if you don’t mind me mixing my geek metaphors, play Sam Beckett in the SWU, going back to earlier prints of the films to put right what Lucas had made wrong.
Using the sort of film tech popularized by Lucas himself, the fandom dove in and started making new editions of the original trilogy, and then turned their scalpels on each of the prequels. Rather than accepting anything as “canon,” they made their own. Now, as a flurry of new films loom, causing hope, fear, and trembling, I’ve rounded up nine different ways you can experience Star Wars into one handy list!
I feel I should restart this article by telling you all a little about myself, and what you’re about to read. To once again mix geek metaphors, Star Wars was part of the device that kicked off my own nerd Genesis Protocol. I saw the original trilogy, uncut and pre-specialized, at about the same time that I read Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and a few weeks before I dove headlong into Star Trek: the Next Generation. I am personally pro-Original Trilogy and anti-prequel, but I come here today not to rant about that—okay, there will be some ranting, but mostly I’m just interested in how many different ways there are to watch these movies.
Plus, George Lucas’ own divided nature fascinates me, as does his fans’ reactions to him. Lucas wants people to have access to more tech, and Lucasfilm held The Official Star Wars Fan Film Awards from 2002 until 2012 (and apparently they’re coming back this year)—Lucas himself bestowed one of the awards. Troops, which showed Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru in a fairly negative light, won the OSWFFA’s Pioneer Award the year it was released. And he liked George Lucas in Love enough to send its creators a congratulatory letter. So he’s evidently okay with fans mucking about in his universe. Which is great! But then there are his thoughts on the 1997 Special Edition vs. the Original Trilogy:
There will only be one. And it won’t be what I would call the ‘rough cut,’ it’ll be the ‘final cut.’ The other one will be some sort of interesting artifact that people will look at and say, ’There was an earlier draft of this.’ …[W]hat ends up being important in my mind is what the DVD version is going to look like, because that’s what everybody is going to remember. The other versions will disappear. Even the 35 million tapes of Star Wars out there won’t last more than 30 or 40 years. A hundred years from now, the only version of the movie that anyone will remember will be the DVD version [of the Special Edition], and you’ll be able to project it on a 20’ by 40’ screen with perfect quality. I think it’s the director’s prerogative, not the studio’s, to go back and reinvent a movie.
Which, again, I completely agree with keeping the studio out of an auteur’s vision! But I don’t think Lucas realized that it wouldn’t be the studios interfering, it would be the fans themselves. Over the last thirty years, Star Wars enthusiasts have come up with many ways to re-experience the films, some with official sanction, and some without.
The image above is of the laserdisc set that was released in 1993, during the brief battle between laserdisc and DVD, as well as a couple different box sets of the Original Trilogy, and my ancient, rotting VHS copy with all three films. No, I will never get rid of these. But even these aren’t technically “Original Release”! The three original films were even being altered a bit in the early years—the subtitle A New Hope was only added to the original title of Star Wars after The Empire Strikes Back came out, for instance. Most of the tweaks that were made to the trilogy were slight, however—certain sound effects were changed, and dissolves were reedited into quick cuts. These are the versions that people remember, misty-eyed, when they talk about going to the theater.
They were released on VHS in the mid-80s, then on Laserdisc in 1993, and finally included in a 2006 DVD release. (However, the DVDs still pissed many people off, because they were grainy, low-contrast, and letterboxed rather than widescreen.)
OK, technically Dünyayı Kurtaran Adam isn’t Star Wars. But it involves a heck of a lot of Star Wars footage, so I’m throwing it in here anyway. Unlike these Chinese Star Wars comics which expanded on the SWU in some, shall we say, inventive ways, Dünyayı Kurtaran Adam attempts to tell its own distressingly confusing story. So as far as I’ve been able to figure out: Murat and Ali crash on a planet, fight some skeletons, and run afoul of a 1,000-year-old wizard, who spends the rest of the film tormenting them in some sort of convoluted plan to take over Earth. I think. There are also zombies, ninjas, and magical golden swords, and a queen?
But most importantly, there are many pilfered shots of the Death Star, Mos Eisley cantina, and even the Millennium Falcon herself interspersed with the two main actors. You can read a review here, and watch the whole shebang for free! And hell, here’s a trailer for the English dub, or as the filmmakers call it, “The Ottoman Empire Strikes Back.”
You could obviously watch the Special Editions, in which George Lucas took the original trilogy and remastered the shit out of it. To quote Wikipedia: “The changes are controversial, with opponents claiming that the changes detract from the story and tend to be more distracting than expedient.”
You can see a complete list of tweaks here, but the soul of the controversy around it can be summed up with the phrase “Han Shot First.” I think that moment became the rallying point because it undermines Han’s character arc so drastically: rather than being a mercenary who gradually joins the Rebellion because he believes in it, and finally chooses to put his love of Leia before his own needs, he’s now just an improbably lucky fuck-up. (We also get a shockingly milquetoast Jabba the Hutt.)
For me, though, the worst moment comes in Empire. I can still remember sitting on my living room floor the first time I saw Empire. I can, if I want to, remember exactly how the carpet felt under my hands, and how hot it was, and I can feel myself holding my breath as Vader tells Luke that he’s his father. I went in knowing the twist, and was waiting for it, but I had no idea what happened next. I had somehow decided that Luke was going to turn to the Dark Side and that it would be up to Han and Leia to get him back, so I was waiting for him to take Vader’s hand. And instead he chose to let go and fall to his death. (Now, I was not a complete idiot. I knew that they couldn’t kill the hero off—at least not yet. But Luke doesn’t know that.)
The fact that in the midst of learning who his father is, and that his father-figure Obi-Wan has been lying to him the entire time, and that his beloved mentor Yoda has been training him to kill his own father, he puts all of these emotions aside and chooses death rather than Vader’s offer of ultimate power…it’s an amazing moment. And it’s made more amazing by Luke’s silent resolve. He doesn’t curse Vader, or try to bargain his way out of anything, he just lets go. So imagine my shock when I attempted to watch the remastered version and discovered that Luke shrieks like a frightened 5-year-old as he falls. I can understand wanting to inject some more humanity into the scene, but that was not the way. Not to mention that it actually made it seem like Luke might have slipped. I’m pleased to say that seemingly even Lucas agreed it was a mistake, since the silent version was restored in the 2004 DVD release.
Han was less fortunate: even in 2011’s Complete Saga Blu-ray he only gets to shoot simultaneously with Greedo, rather than getting the drop on him. But, to balance that, Vader now also screams “NOOOOOO!” when he kills the Emperor, even though that makes no emotional sense whatsoever.
To give you an idea of the world that gave us the Phantom Edit, the Phantom Editor used a Hotmail account, popular opinion held that he was a pseudonymous Kevin Smith, and the phrase “remix culture” was tentatively trotted out in every single article about it. Looking at these articles now, particularly Salon and NPR, might stab some people with a certain type of nostalgia. But this was one of the points of Star Wars. The film united several different genres of nerds when it came out, it encouraged cultish devotion and rabid message boards as the internet grew, and now that those original nerds and their younger siblings had access to decent tech, they could unleash their passion into creating a better movie than the one Lucas gave them. More importantly, they got rid of every trace of Jar Jar. (Understand, I’m not talking about murdering Jar Jar, just editing him out.)
The film circulated around Hollywood in 2000 before going viral, and eventually an editor, Mike J. Nichols took credit. When people asked why he had put the time and effort in to actually do the thing so many fans said they wanted to do, his reply was unabashedly emotional: “[George Lucas] got so wrapped up in the cloud of advanced technology that he overlooked some of the more primitive elements of good storytelling that he became famous for” and Nichols wanted to restore some of the “strong-hearted-ness” that he loved about the original Trilogy.
The Phantom Edit cuts Jar Jar’s scenes down, and also removes some of the expository trade dispute stuff. Anakin’s dialogue is trimmed, so we no longer here the future Darth Vader shout “Yippee!” at any point. And, best of all, it removes the midichlorians! The Force can go back to being a spirit that unites us all, rather than a biologically-based meritocracy. You can watch the whole thing on Youtube!
Harmy’s Despecialized Edition!
Harmy painstakingly constructed his “Despecialized Edition” from the many fan clean-ups that have appeared online over the years. He started with the 2011 Blu-Ray edition, which a fan called You_Too had color corrected to improve the magenta tone of the film. He combined it with Project Blu, (an upscale of “George’s Original Unaltered Trilogy” which was included on the 2006 DVD extras), the “Flunk” edition from 1997, Team Negative 1’s scan of the original 35mm print (which they did on a home-built scanner), and Puggo Grande, which was a homemade capture of one of a 16mm prints. So, as you can see, this all took a ton of work, but many Star Wars fans working together like some sort of, I don’t know, Rebel Alliance or something. You can see a documentary on the making of HDE, which I highly recommend you watch, as it is fascinating.
When Harmy’s Despecialized Edition Version 2.5 came out a few months ago, it was written up in Polygon, and, perhaps more surprisingly, The Atlantic. Both outlets are quick to mention that this version isn’t strictly…er…legal, per se, but you can’t discredit Harmy’s passion for his project. Plus his own arc is fascinating: he didn’t see the original trilogy in theaters (he actually enjoys the Special Editions) but the more he learned about the Trilogy’s cultural impact, the more he fell in love with the SWU. He ended up writing his undergrad thesis on it, and has now dedicated years of his life to creating the cleanest version of the Trilogy. He’s also excited to pass this version along to the next generation: “I want to show that to people. I wanted to show my brother. He was three when I started working and I showed it to him when he was five and he loved it.”
This is outlined on the NoMacheteJuggling blog as IV, V, I, II, III, VI. As NoMachete says, “George Lucas believes that Star Wars is the story of Anakin Skywalker, but it is not. The prequels, which establish his character, are so poor at being character-driven that, if the series is about Anakin, the entire series is a failure. Anakin is not a relatable character, Luke is.” Rister Order starts the journey with Luke, takes us up to the critical moment when we learn that Vader is Luke’s father, and then gives us what is essentially a loooonnnnng flashback to Anakin’s youth and fall, before leading us back to the graceful, redemptive ending of ROTJ. This helps us care about Anakin and Padme, despite the clunky dialogue and awkward acting, and also deepens Obi Wan’s role in the story, so the moment when Luke looks over and sees the great Force Ghost Jamboree is even more poignant, because t’s not just the moment when Luke realizes he has saved his father, it’s also Obi Wan’s reunion with his best friend.
In response to the Rister Order, the brilliant programmer behind No Machete Juggling suggests his “Machete Order” of IV, V, II, III, VI, cutting out Episode I entirely in order to strengthen Anakin’s character.
…Episode II quickly establishes [Anakin] as impulsive and power-hungry, which keeps his character consistent with eventually becoming Darth Vader. Obi-Wan never really seems to have any control over Anakin, struggling between treating him as a friend (their very first conversation together in Episode II) and treating him as an apprentice (their second conversation, with Padme). Anakin is never a carefree child yelling ”yippee,” he’s a complex teenager nearly boiling over with rage in almost every scene. It makes much more sense for Anakin to have always been this way.
Removing The Phantom Menace also brings balance to Luke and Anakin’s respective arcs, and we lose
Jar Jar all the usual stuff people complain about. We also get a deeper sense of Yoda’s hubris, as this Den of Geek review points out. But we lose Qui-Gon Jin, and with him Obi Wan’s promise to train Anakin. Obi Wan’s determination to train Anakin can be read as his attempt to prove Qui Gon right–Qui Gon said he was the chosen one, dammit, so he has to be the Chosen One–and losing that element undercuts the tragedy of Obi Wan’s failure.
The Editor Strikes Back
And so we come to The Editor Strikes Back, Topher Grace’s take on the prequels. Topher Grace, best known for playing Eric Forman in That 70s Show and Eddie Brock /Venom in Spider-Man 3, is a giant 80’s-era film geek, and decided to test both his editing skills and his love of Star Wars by creating a whole new version of the prequel trilogy. His edit slashed the three films down into one tight 85-minute movie that, from all eyewitness accounts, worked extremely well. He screened the film once at his home in Hollywood for a group of film industry friends, and while he did release a trailer, it’s unlikely that the full cut will ever be seen in public. The film highlights the relationships between Anakin and Obi Wan and Anakin and Padme, and cuts out almost all of the trade discussions and Jar Jar.
His most interesting decision, however, is to start his film in the middle of the battle between Qui Gon Jinn, Darth Maul, and Obi Wan. Viewers are immediately dropped into a tense light saber fight (which is a pretty fantastic hook) and even better: if you were watching this as part of Machete Order, you’d theoretically have no idea who these three people are, or why they’re fighting, but you know they’re Jedi and you want to know what happens next. Within the first few minutes Qui Gon is mortally wounded and Obi Wan slices Darth Maul in half (always a good start to a film). The first time you hear Anakin’s name, it’s because Qui Gon uses his dying breath to whisper it to Obi Wan, insisting again that the boy is the chosen one. When Obi Wan swears to train him, we see that it’s a promise he’s making to his dying master, and since we already know that Anakin grows up to be Vader, the tragic nature of the story punches us in our collective gut. Then Grace cuts straight to the next film and we meet Anakin as a teenager, twitchy and nervous because he’s seeing Padme for the first time in a decade. In Grace’s ending, Anakin is never told about Padme’s death, and there is no terrible “NOOOOOOO!!!”—the twins are born, Padme dies, the helmet comes down, cut to black.
Star Wars UnCut
OK, maybe this one is my favorite. In 2010, Casey Pugh put out a call for Star Wars fans to recreate the 2004 Special Edition of A New Hope, via 472 15-second scenes. Hundreds of fans signed up, and once Pugh edited them all together, he found he had a glorious Starwars-enstein’s Monster. The film is a patchwork of ’70s grindhouse, animation, machinima, stop-motion LEGO, paper bag puppetry, a pregnant woman playing Jabba, a dog in a trashcan playing Artoo… it’s brilliant, and absolutely delightful to watch all these people pour so much love into the project. And you can watch the whole thing online for free! Right here in fact!
So, as I said, the most important moment in the history of Star Wars was Greedo shooting first, because this was the moment when people from all different backgrounds took it upon themselves to create their own cuts. Star Wars went from being a passive experience to an interactive one, and now it is another playground for creative people of all stripes and spots. I hope The Force Awakens is a magnificent, moving film. I also hope that a week after its DVD and Blu-Ray releases, a clever 12-year-old with a cool idea chops it into pieces and makes her own version!
Happy May the Fourth!
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This article was originally published November 14, 2014