Two decades after Star Wars changed pop culture forever, George Lucas decided to go back and fiddle with it. Despite the science fiction movies becoming household names with enough merchandise to cover the desert of Tatooine, Lucas believed he could improve them.
Star Wars Special Edition was a 1997 re-release of the Original Trilogy with revamped audio and video, bringing them up to modern standards for a second theatrical run and new home video box set. Rather than just upscaling the ’70s and ’80s films, Lucas went one better by toying with the effects and altering scenes to include ideas he had previously scrapped.
These range from making Mos Eisley an even busier hive of scum and villainy to adding cut lines, and a CGI Jabba the Hutt. Most are somewhat innocuous, but occasionally there’s something like Greedo shooting first that just seems needless. Like many things post-The Empire Strikes Back, these versions are contentious, but while I can’t defend every tweak Lucas made, I think time has shown he had the right philosophy about Star Wars as a whole.
Admittedly, I’m fundamentally biassed here: I was eight-years-old when the Star Wars Special Edition Trilogy came out. It was my introduction to the galaxy far, far away, and those golden VHS cases from our local Video World were the go-to whenever my brother and I knew we’d have an afternoon or evening free to rent something.
Sipping Coca-Cola, eating chocolate, watching Darth Vader cut through Obi-Wan Kenobi before we move onto Empire, my brother primed to warn me about the ‘snake’ Lando when he appears; those were the good times. I’d no idea that the added establishing shots and one of Vader’s lines being longer made it somehow controversial, or inferior to what audiences got the first time around.
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The internet hadn’t become ubiquitous such that I’d soon learn, either. I was just a regular, small-town child awe-struck by Star Wars in a way that specific franchise has always been acutely good at. This was all part of the plan: the Special Editions were meant to gear audiences up for the prequels, ingratiating new fans while reminding old ones of the magic.
Little did we all realise, the goofy CGI and inane additions that stilted the pacing were indicators that Lucas’s uninhibited vision didn’t always make for great movies – but that’s another discussion. The flipside to all his tinkering is that he understood that Star Wars should change and evolve. Star Wars characters were his action figures, and Tatooine, the Death Star, and Cloud City were his sandbox, to do whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted.
He didn’t believe in the franchise existing in stasis, forever looking and sounding one particular way. To him, Star Wars was malleable. Some things would repeat – the Jedi, the Sith, awesome space battles, nifty alien civilisations – but how they’d manifest could shift with the times. More than that, the Original Trilogy could present itself differently to each new generation, giving them their own particular version.
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It’s not like re-editing a film is some faux pas, look at Blade Runner. A new cut of The Godfather Part 3 came out in 2020, three decades after the original. Art can be revisited, rejigged to become something else. Whatever can be said about Lucas’s direction and ideas, he wasn’t much for resting on his laurels and letting Star Wars spin its wheels.
The collective fandom has other ideas. To many Star Wars diehards, the idea anything should be different from the action movies they remember is nothing short of an insult to their humanity. Racial and gender diversity are mere exercises in wokeness, and Han, Luke, and Leia not living happily ever after is tantamount to finding out your parents are divorcing on Christmas morning.
Kelly Marie Tran, who played Rose Tico in The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker, was harassed off social media in the wake of the former. Despite Mark Hamill giving the performance of his career, Luke as a resentful hermit didn’t match people’s idealised image of his future post-Return of the Jedi, and was thus rejected. Heated dislike toward Finn and Rey continued to boil, unhelped by Rey’s arc with Kylo Ren of rethinking the balance of the Force and what it represents.
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Never mind that The Last Jedi’s central themes are of deciding what belief systems mean to you, and that we’re all capable of being the heroes we look up to. It’s not the same, and that makes it bad. The community splintered such that we ended up with heaps of refried nostalgia in The Rise of Skywalker, frontloaded by the nonsensical return of Emperor Palpatine, and The Book of Boba Fett using an AI generated young Luke Skywalker. Who needs real acting and actual craft, when effects can provide that thing you like, just as you think you remember it?
Curiously, the Sequel Trilogy has led to a rehabilitation of Lucas’s Star Wars. Some believe Lucasfilm and Disney betrayed what he wanted the franchise to be. In 2018, Ahmed Best, the performer behind Jar-Jar Binks in The Phantom Menace, admitted he became suicidal due to the vitriol fans threw at him. Lucas’s work is being retroactively used as a crutch to avoid considering the problem has always been among those most ardent about Star Wars.
I’m no cheerleader for the prequels, and the special editions are rarely my version of choice. Though I may not love the result, I respect what Lucas wanted Star Wars to be. After over two decades, I’m still finding new reasons to enjoy those re-releases, and that shows some real understanding of the ways of Force.