Medium Grey will be a biweekly column devoted to current trends in the film and television world. Topics might span reviews, breaking news in the industry, or more general issues facing the medium. I'm your columnist, David Shuck '12, a film studies minor, aspiring filmmaker, and co-president of the Bowdoin Film Society. I've worked on both the development and production side of major network television, and recently returned from a semester of film production abroad at FAMU, the Czech national film academy in Prague. Please note that movie talk is based almost solely on subjective opinion, and this column is just that.
Like most people born in the last 30 years, "Star Wars" was as much a part of my childhood as losing baby teeth. I had the costumes; I had all the cool toys (yes, even Boba Fett); I had a Millennium Falcon birthday cake; and my VHS tapes were practically falling apart from repeat viewings. My obsession peaked at age seven with the 20th anniversary re-release of the original trilogy in the summer of 1997 starting with "A New Hope" (1977).
When the day finally came, I remember sitting forward in my theater chair, salivating as that signature yellow type scrolled by. I knew all the lines, so there were few surprises...until Luke, Obi, and the gang are walking through a loading bay on Tatooine and, out of nowhere, saunters Han Solo and an odd CGI facsimile of Jabba the Hutt. They were prattling on about events we had just seen, and the poorly-animated Jabba was a stuttering gaffe in an otherwise believable world. This was not on my VHS tape; something was amiss. I felt wronged. The universe I thought I knew so intimately had disappeared.
That scene was not the only casualty. Director George Lucas peppered in many other additions and alterations throughout the trilogy's re-realease. Well he's been at it again. The high definition Blu-Ray edition of all six "Star Wars" movies arrives Friday, September 16, with even more computer-added changes—including a CGI Yoda to replace the puppet used in "The Phantom Menace." Darth Vader now yells "Noooo!" before he throws Emperor Palpatine down the shaft, and new editing will settle with certainty whether Han or Greedo shot first. All six films are also slated for a digital 3D theatrical release starting with "Episode I: The Phantom Menace" this February.
It's not uncommon for a director to revisit an old work for another crack at his or her film—see Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now: Redux (2001) or one of the dozen versions of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982). Lucas, however, is notorious for making tiny alterations over the course of decades to his films and even more so for discarding everything but the most current adulterated version (see South Park episode "Free Hat").
Lucas' influence seeped into the 20th anniversary release of Steven Spielberg's "E.T." (1982), which saw the guns of the FBI agents in pursuit of Elliott's bike digitally transform into walkie-talkies. Spielberg had the sense, though, to put both versions on the DVD. Lucas, on the other hand, wants to completely re-edit viewers' perception of his original films by only allowing access to modified "Special Editions."
In a 1997 interview, Lucas claimed that film is a living medium and should continue to be altered as the director sees fit, that the definitive version is whatever has been most currently realized by the maker. I disagree. When a film releases to the public, the contribution of the filmmaker ends. Viewers, like my seven-year-old self, often develop a deep connection to a work and undermining it with annual alterations only insults and alienates the audience.
Such grumbling may seem petty; they're only miniscule changes, and Lucas does own the copyrights to the films and thus has the right to do with them what he pleases. And to be fair, there are a significant number of technical and audio improvements that do add to the viewing experience (the old lightsabers used to look really cheesy). But, with the exception of used VHS copies, it is impossible to buy or see the original "Star Wars" that screened in theaters 34 years ago. Lucas had nearly all of the original film prints destroyed after they were digitally transferred for the 1997 edition. Personal taste aside, the erasure of such an influential piece of Western culture is a great loss.
Come February, you'll have to tell me how "Star Wars" looks in 3D because this time around I won't be the first in line.