George Lucas was upset, they said. After many years and $10 million, he was being forced to release a less-than-perfect movie. Star Warsas nifty as it lookedsimply wasnt the film he had hoped for. It was a compromised version that didnt fulfill his original vision, slapped together in order to make its release date, rough edges still showing. With any luck, itd break even and he then could move on to his next, more commercial moviemaybe that sequel to American Graffiti.
Of course, things turned out differently. Despite its flaws (which mostly had to do with its dialogue rather than its shots), Star Wars became monumentally successful, launching Lucas onto a galactic career path, and changing the way movies are made. And 20 years later, we are to believe that George Lucas has finally perfected Star Wars, that the "new and improved" version being released is really what he had originally intended for us to see. But, for the most part, the only sizable improvement lies in the Special Edition's marketingwhich is light years beyond the originals in both scope, sophistication, and relentlessness. Indeed, despite the addition of several bells and whistles, the "new" Star Wars is simply not better than the "old" Star Wars.
Should you still go and pay to see it again at the theater? Definitely. You probably won't get a chance for another 20 years.
For some fanboys, even the thought of tinkering with such a modern classic is abhorrent. But Lucas has opened a whole new realm of post-production, wherein a director (or a studio, frighteningly enough) can radically change the final product even after filming it, which is a fine thing. The problem isfor all of Lucass proclamations in the mediathere is little actual difference between the two Star Wars films. Some of Lucas additions are good, some of them are badbut neither really change the quality of the viewing experience (unless youre a Star Wars fanatic).
The two biggest additions create mostly irritation: the inclusion of a "lost scene" involving Jabba the Hutt, and an interchange between Luke Skywalker and his hometown pal from Tattooine. Why Lucas spent 20 years yearning to reinsert these brief, pointless sequences is inexplicable. Jabba is digitally inserted into a conversation with Han Solo right before the pilot takes off with his new clients. Beyond a menacing glimpse of bounty hunter Boba Fett, the scene doesnt add any important details. It looks like one of those digital TV commercials where they take a classic film star like Humphrey Bogart and make him do hideous things. And the conversation between Luke and Biggs on the Rebel flightdeck only raises unanswered questionslike, how the hell did Biggs suddenly show up there?
Its the more subtle changes that really impress. Seeing the spaceport Mos Eisley from aboverevealing gorgeous architectural detailgives you a sense of scope for the city. A couple of newly animated sand creatures are fun. Watching the Millennium Falcon take off, with Mos Eisley below it, is thrilling. Likewise, the refined X-wing attack on the Death Star at films end is even more breathtaking, with a couple of keen new angles of dogfighting spacecraft and (I swear!) even tighter editing.
But there is a side effect to all these changeseven as I was enjoying the movie, I found myself simultaneously comparing it to the original: Was that split-second shot of Greedo new, or was it my imagination? And whats with that bleeping in the backgroundit sounds like theyre in an arcade. Heythey didnt change the music there, did they? They wouldnt dare!
The biggest change between the original and the new version is something Lucas couldnt control, however. In 1977, most cities had theaters capable of showing 70mm movies. And even though we now have THX theaters with digital sound, watching Star Wars on a multiplex screen is still a limited experience. If youre 12 years old, sitting in the tenth row in front of a 70mm screen, that opening sequence with the never-ending Imperial Cruiser will seize your brain for life. Watching it today at the 12-screen-o-rama, its merely impressive, not life-changing.
Regardless of those quibbles, Star Wars still has the elements that make it great: beautiful settings, cool special effects, a great cast. And despite its obvious flawsthe clunky dialogue, a really silly plotwhat makes Star Wars nearly timeless is indeed George Lucas "vision." His imagined universe is so well thought out, so full of amazing detail and fresh imagery, it sucks you into a whole new realm. And isnt that what movies are supposed to do? (Too bad today's $100 million wonders can't manage to do the trick.)
Whether or not you think the "new" Star Wars is better than the "old" Star Wars, its fun to see it at a theater again with a fresh print and to experience just a small reminder of the mania that surrounded its original release. As for the much-hyped additions, however, they would've been far more special on the laser-disc edition.