ago, Disney gave George Lucas $4 billion for what is arguably the biggest film franchise in the world. Since then, Disney has released an additional five Star Wars films, raking in almost $6 billion worldwide at the box office. In those intervening years, the Mouse House also launched its own streaming service, Disney+, which now offers fans new 4K restorations of the original Star Wars trilogy and its prequels. Having those films all in one place, a place where the new films will also one day live, is a huge selling point for the streaming service—but it could be so much more massive.
Watching the versions of the original trilogy that live on Disney+ isn’t the same as watching the original trilogy that hit theaters. They’re not the movies that changed the world more than 40 years ago. If you go out and buy the 4K UHD Blu-ray box set of the Skywalker Saga that’s being released this week, that collection won’t have those films either. The new versions are pale imitations. They’re abandoned 3D conversions. They’re full of half-finished effects from the 1990s that were clearly practice for future movies.
These aren’t the versions that were nominated for 17 Academy Awards, including Best Picture. These movies didn’t change the world. They’re not the phenomena that upended the way movies were made from that moment on. Moreover, these aren’t the movies that fans want to see. Look at the comments on any article about the aforementioned Skywalker box set. Half of them are people asking if they’re going to include the theatrical cuts, and the other half are people saying how they’re not going to buy the sets because they already downloaded a fan restoration of those original movies.
But not all hope is lost. Disney is steward of this historical artifact now. Now that the 4K versions are on Disney+ and the box sets are up for grabs, Disney should be able to give fans the theatrical cuts once again. They clearly do exist. Watching the originals on Disney+ could just be another option on the home screen—one that’s sure to attract more than a few new subscribers. There could even be a whole new box set. Releasing those cuts just gives Disney more bang for its four billion bucks. Two versions means two revenue streams!
But how did all this happen? How did the Star Wars movies get changed and tweaked so many times? It’s, well, … it’s a whole saga. In this piece, we’ll break down the history of the alterations and show how they break the movies.
In the early ‘90s, Star Wars was having a renaissance. Timothy Zahn released a series of novels known as the Thrawn Trilogy and reinvigorated a somewhat dormant sector of pop culture. Soon after their release, Kenner brought back Star Wars action figures, which hadn’t been seen anywhere but fans’ private collections in nearly a decade. The time had finally come for Star Wars mastermind George Lucas to start working on the long-promised prequel trilogy, telling the story of Luke Skywalker’s father and his turn to the dark side of the Force.
The issue was, could Lucasfilm pull it off? What could they do to make sure everything was going to work smoothly, and more importantly, cheaply? With the 20th anniversary of the original film approaching, they decided to start planning in late 1993 for a 1997 re-release. They started storyboarding the Special Edition of Star Wars: Episode IV—A New Hope about a year before Lucas started writing Episode I (aka the movie that would become The Phantom Menace). In order for Lucasfilm’s Industrial Light & Magic division to figure out if they could make theatrical visual effects efficiently, there was only one thing they could do: make actual theatrical effects.
While John Knoll (now ILM’s chief creative officer) experimented throughout ‘93 and ‘94 with using off-the-shelf software to create starship shots, another team got to work hand-animating Jabba the Hutt into a deleted scene from A New Hope “using Jurassic Park technology” (Jabba’s skin shaders were taken from the T. rex). The idea was to use those shots as pitch material to sell Fox, which had co-financed the original film, on the Special Edition. If they could sell Fox on paying for a re-release, they could use the skills honed on sprucing up the old movies to make the new ones.
Most of the changes made to the movies didn’t just develop techniques for future use, they also provided guidance for how much (or how little) pre-planning Lucas would have to do for the prequels. If ILM could insert a dinosaur in a shot filmed 20 years before, they could add Jar Jar Binks to a shot filmed six months before. They tested the “virtual studio” so shots could be approved remotely. They built models and concepts that could be reused and expanded on in the prequels.
George Lucas talks about this in the July 1999 issue of Cinefex:
“I was fairly confident that we could pull off what I was envisioning in the new films, but I really felt that I needed to do some concrete experimentation and tests to make sure that I could pull off this vision that I had. So part of it was, ‘Here’s a small version of what we’re going to do. These are the challenges.’ I picked certain issues and certain things I wanted to develop, and I was able to put them in categories, and say, ‘OK, we’re going to try these.’ I wanted to see how much they would cost, and what the processes would be, because to do the new films I had to take those and times them by a hundred. So yes, the special editions were a means of researching and testing what I was going to try to do on [The Phantom Menace].”
Eventually, the entire trilogy of original films got Special Editions (The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi were added to the plans not long before the 1997 release date). All three ended up with shots and scenes not in the original films, and while folks can argue those changes involved aspects of the movies that Lucas had a problem with, many of them also conveniently line up with techniques that could be useful for the prequels.
But that’s not the only issue with them. Most, if not all, of the changes made to the movies that aren’t just recomposites of the original effects actively harm the movies by being in them. They ruin the emotional beats and narrative flow. There’s a whole category of changes designed to tie into the prequels, movies that are generally perceived as mediocre at best. One cannot watch the classic films now without constant reminders of movies a lot of fans would prefer to forget.
“Finally they’re going to see what it was that bugged me so much—because now I can have it be exactly the way I wanted it to be. Well, maybe not a hundred percent. But it went from being what, in my mind, was maybe 60 or 70 percent of what I wanted, up to now being about 93 or 94 percent of what I wanted it to be.”—George Lucas, Cinefex, March 1996
Here are the major changes to the movies in the Special Editions, what research/assets they provided for the prequels (if made for the 1997 Special Edition release), and how they hurt the movie by being there today.
(There have been so many versions over the years, it seems necessary to give a quick breakdown. First, there were the original theatrical versions. Those were all redone for the 1997 Special Editions, heretofore known as 97SE. The 97SE versions were then used for the DVD version (04SE), which has changes made during the production of the prequels to help create a Saga Edition. Then there are the Blu-ray versions (11SE), which are the same as the DVD version with a handful of additional changes done as rough drafts for the abandoned 3D conversion. Finally there is the “Disney” version, which launched with Disney+ in 2019 (19SE). This was the final draft of the 3D version done just before the sale to Disney, using 97SE as a base and redoing all of the changes made up to that point.)
While not part of the Special Edition changes, “Episode IV” and “A New Hope” were added to the crawl for the 1981 re-release in preparation for the upcoming “Episode V.” This is the first instance of changing the movies for the sake of the “saga” as a whole. Adding the extra lines also threw off the movements of the title theme music that used to synchronize with the paragraphs. The first example of the changes ruining the artistry of the originals was also the first change.
The first addition seen chronologically in ANH is a pair of new shots of stormtroopers combing the desert on foot and mounted on dewbacks. The original shot is also present, but with animated dewbacks added. The reasoning behind the change is that it shows the extent to which the Empire is searching Tatooine looking for R2-D2, C-3PO, and the Death Star plans. However, in a movie that has focused almost every scene on the droids, it’s not necessary to have shots that don’t feature them, particularly medium shots of people wandering aimlessly.
The additions did show that ILM could make brand new footage that matched shots captured on location. It also allowed them to make a ship model they could modify as needed and taught them to make CG creatures that could interact with sand, something that would pay off a lot in The Phantom Menace. Despite that, the dewback model was rebuilt for the prequels, and the test model was left front-and-center in a classic film.
This next one is a change made for the 3D version (seen as a rough draft in 11SE and recreated for 19SE), but bears talking about as it doesn’t make any logistical sense. There is no visible way for R2 to have gotten into this cave to hide from the Tusken Raiders. And after Obi-Wan calls R2 to him, you can see the cave behind R2 and the rocks are gone. There is no creative reason to insert some rocks, shift them around in each shot, and then have them completely disappear when they’re not needed anymore. Moreover, the Tusken Raiders wear goggles that block much of their peripheral vision and likely function as desert sunglasses, so it’s possible they might not be able to see R2 even when they’re looking directly at him.
Here’s a change that keeps getting adjusted: the sound Obi-Wan makes to scare off the Tusken Raiders. In the original film and the 97SE, it’s roughly the same audio as a dewback. In the 04SE, it becomes more of a piercing wail, which isn’t too terrible. Then, in the 11SE it’s turned into a weird echo sound that hilariously sounds like someone shouting into an empty bathroom. This sound, which remains the same in 19SE, is also reminiscent of the one made by the lizard Obi-Wan rides in Revenge of the Sith, which no one needs to be reminded of in the middle of a dramatic moment in this film.
The point of an establishing shot is to give the audience a sense of place, to give them an idea of where the characters are and possibly where they are going. The establishing shots of Mos Eisley don’t do this. Instead of conveying a sense of “bustling spaceport,” they just look like shots of people wandering futilely around the city.
All of the CG creatures seen in Mos Eisley are Jurassic Park dinosaurs modified to make them alien. The scurriers are raptors, the rontos are brontosaurus. If it was so important that these specific dinosaur creatures populate Mos Eisley, why aren’t they used again in the prequels? Again, this wasn’t a creative change, it was a proof-of-concept that was done using existing models to see if it was passable—a proof-of-concept that was left in an Academy Award-winning movie.
The new shots use a mix of physical models and CG buildings with bluescreen live action elements added. While the models built for this weren’t reused in the prequels, these are exactly the techniques used for Mos Espa and Theed in The Phantom Menace. Practiced in the Special Edition, perfected in the prequels.
Replacing the masks made by creature creator Rick Baker (in some shots but not in others) provided a way to practice matching the lighting of previously shot footage with a new object being inserted in a scene. But, as you can tell by this image, they had not perfected it.
This one is a doozy that’s been covered a lot. This scene was changed not because Lucas didn’t have the technology to show Greedo shooting first, but because he changed his mind about the violence. It wasn’t that we misinterpreted the scene, like Lucas has said in interviews. It’s that Lucas wanted to change the meaning of the scene so kids wouldn’t look up to someone who would shoot without provocation (even though he had plenty of provocation and fans had already been looking up to him for 20 years at that point).
In the “Making Magic” CD-ROM, Lucas mentions Greedo needing to provoke Han into shooting him. They did this by inserting a new wide shot, where Greedo clearly shoots first and Han reacts. Apparently, according to Lucas, it was quite difficult to time the lasers in a way that made it believable.
Every release since 1997 has been modified, inching away from Greedo blatantly shooting first towards firing at nearly the same time, then finally at the exact same time (seen above), but Greedo now shouts “maclunkey” before they fire. It seems like Lucas finally figured out how to provoke Han into shooting Greedo: by having Greedo shout nonsense words at him!
Plot-wise, this change is even worse than a sloppily-executed duel. Until this point of the movie, we have been following the droids, then the droids and Luke, then the droids, Luke, and Obi-Wan. We’ve seen everything up to this point through their eyes. But after our heroes leave the bar, the camera cuts back to show us who they just made a deal with. Someone dangerous. Someone tricky. A liar who will stop at nothing to get away. A murderer. We’re not supposed to trust him. We’re supposed to wonder if he’s actually going to rescue the princess. We’re supposed to worry that he’s not going to come back and save the day at the end of the movie. We’re supposed to worry he’s going to leave everyone behind at the earliest opportunity. But trying so hard to change our first impression of him has ruined that. Sure, Han turns out to be a smuggler with a heart of gold, but if you try to reveal that heart in his second scene, all tension of him not making the right decision is gone. It destroys his arc. Han needs to be experienced as a possible threat to our heroes. This, combined with the restoration of the Jabba scene, ruins that entire aspect of his character.
The Disney movies each have a take on how this character should be done. In Cassian Andor’s first scene in Rogue One, he shoots a guy in cold blood, an ally, and you spend the whole movie rightly wondering if he’s going to kill Jyn’s father. Solo, however, is an example of how no one understands why Han shooting first is important. The movie spends the whole runtime showing how he’s a great guy who will always do the right thing, which plays into the myth Greedo shooting first is trying to build. Then he shoots Beckett first at the end of the movie as if he learned it from watching Beckett, but it ends up being a dark turn for the light character they were reinforcing. A joke about the joke of a change is completely out of place.
This proof-of-concept test for the Special Edition is an oddity. The scene was wisely removed from the original cut, as we’re again pulled away from our heroes to the smuggler they hired, who is heading to his ship we’ve never seen to talk to a mobster that was mentioned only minutes before covering information that was already given. But this scene was always stuck in Lucas’ head. He didn’t care for the actor they had on set and considered replacing him with an alien in post-production during the original edit, which ILM said would be impossible. Then he appeared to consider it again just before Return of the Jedi, but abandoned the idea and let the designers come up with the Jabba they did. So when the technology was finally available to actually matte out the actor, it was the first item on Lucas’ list. An unfinished version of the scene was also shown to Fox to help sell them on the idea of the Special Edition and what could be accomplished for the prequels and to literally sell them on paying to distribute both for Lucas. So it was shoved back into the movie with no consideration for how it affects the flow of the edit. No new information is given to the audience by having this scene present as everything, including some of the actual dialog, was in Greedo’s scene.
The 97SE model for this scene was built using very rough technology, basically taking the Jurassic Park models and modifying them to make Jabba. But the new Jabba was vital for the success of the Special Edition. It was the center of the promotion. It got its own toy. But when the prequels came around, they didn’t bother to try to use the model and built a new one, leaving the test model in the movie for years before finally replacing it with the model they did build for The Phantom Menace. How much of this was creative? How much of this was embarrassment for leaving such a rough model in the movie? Who knows. It’s also kind of an ouroboros: the original Jabba was an impetus for the Special Editions, the project that allowed them to get a jump on the prequels, and then he was replaced by the model from the prequels themselves.
But is this even the character of Jabba? In the original scene, which never made it into the film, Jabba is a cheerful Irish human who is more than happy to make a deal with Han after sending a bounty hunter to kill him minutes before. When his dialog is reinserted and given to a character who later kills a woman for not dancing close enough to him and wants to throw a bunch of people into a pit where they are digested for 1,000 years, it rings false. Watching the movies in order now gives Jabba a wild arc of increased insanity that I’m sure no one intended when they put this scene back in. Jabba lets Han step on his tail with just a flexed fist in anger. This is not the same character seen later.
The scene has also become our first look at the Millennium Falcon. This now makes the very next scene’s dramatic musical reveal of it and Luke’s reaction to seeing it redundant. The current version almost assumes you’ve either seen the movie before, or have already seen the Falcon in Solo and don’t need a dramatic reveal.
Also, Boba Fett is there! And then he breaks the fourth wall as the scene ends! The only reason he was added was to make this fit into the idea of a “saga,” while simultaneously hurting Fett’s character even more by showing him as yet another henchman to Jabba instead of the feared intergalactic bounty hunter he was set up to be. Since we never see him onscreen in the Age of Rebellion outside of Jabba’s employ, there’s no reason to believe Fett is this super-cool intergalactic man of mystery. He’s just a guy who works for a slug. He was added to the scene so fans could point at him, not bothering to think about how little sense it would make for him to be there with a bunch of nameless thugs.
There is now a quick shot of the Falcon “blasting its way out of Mos Eisley.” There’s no creative reason for showing us this other than the fact that there aren’t any really good closeups of the model in any other shot so they wanted to show it off, especially because it would never be seen outside of the Special Edition. It’s possible they built this model to reuse in an earlier concept for the prequels but it wasn’t used, so here we are with another orphaned model.
This one is a small change made in 2004 that I kind of like. But one can’t help but wonder if having the English text there almost justified the fact that we have C-3PO and R2-D2, X-wings and Y-wings. The Expanded Universe even called it “High Galactic.” But without any example of it in the main films, the character and ship naming may baffle some viewers.
The other deleted scene inserted back into the movie was Luke reuniting with his childhood friend, Biggs. While this does a little to show that they do know each other and provide a reason for why Luke (almost) reacts to Biggs being killed during the trench run, it is our hero reuniting with a character we’ve never met as his other scenes remain deleted.
The one interesting part of the original scene was how Red Leader mentioned flying with Luke’s father, a possible tie to the prequels that I’m guessing Lucas didn’t want to have to worry about writing into the movies, so its cut out by having a technician walk across the screen and hiding the cut dialog with a time jump. Unfortunately, this is done poorly, as the missing time is reflected by R2’s literal jump by several feet in his rise to the X-wing.
When Luke is captured by the Wampa Ice Creature, the original cut is a course in tension. Where is Luke? What is stalking him? In the Special Edition, we get a few closeups of the creature eating a snack, then standing up alarmed when Luke starts to use the Force (is it Force Sensitive?). I honestly believe this is one of the rare changes I’m sure the filmmakers intended when they first shot the movie, but when they couldn’t get the creatures to look right, they edited the scene to depend on tension of the unknown. Now the tension is different, but it’s like if Steven Spielberg built a new mechanical shark and re-edited Jaws. It might work, but it’s not the same movie.
During production of Revenge of the Sith, Lucas filmed new shots of Ian McDiarmid as the Emperor to replace the hologram voiced by Clive Revill (who is still credited in the film while McDiarmid is not). While one would think this would add better continuity, it just introduces new issues. McDiarmid is wearing his Sith makeup, which means he looks more like he did 20 years before in the timeline than he does a year later in Return of the Jedi and again reminds you of poorer movies in the middle of this excellent one. Lucas also added new dialog to the scene.
In the original scene, the Emperor calls Vader to tell him that Luke Skywalker is a “new enemy” and could destroy them. We know from the opening crawl that Vader has been “obsessed with finding” him, so this is just confirmation that Vader is wise to hunt him and Vader uses the opportunity to convince the Emperor that Luke would be a good ally. Starting in 2004 however, the Emperor never says Luke’s name. He calls him “the young rebel who destroyed the Death Star” and that he is “the offspring of Anakin Skywalker.” Vader now acts surprised by this information, even though he’s been “obsessed with finding” him and calls Luke by his name earlier in the movie. Then Vader immediately pivots from not knowing what the Emperor is talking about to saying that “Obi-Wan can no longer help him” and convincing the Emperor he’d make a good ally. I’m not sure if it’s supposed to be the two of them deliberately testing one another, but it reads as ignorant within the context of the rest of the film.
For the 2004 DVD, Lucas had Temuera Morrison, who played Boba Fett’s father Jango Fett, re-record all of his son’s dialog, literally doing it over the phone. So now the gruff bounty hunter sounds exactly like his clone/father. This might make sense if it wasn’t for the fact that accents aren’t genetic. Jango died 25 years earlier, it’s highly unlikely Boba would still sound exactly like his father, even if they were genetically identical. And what’s the harm in Fett using a voice modulator or something in his helmet? Morrison also makes Fett sound uninterested in everything that’s going on around him, which makes this change super distracting.
The week before the Empire Strikes Back Special Edition was supposed to be locked, Lucas decided it wasn’t clear that Boba Fett was hiding in the trash the Millennium Falcon was using to escape (even though no one had had a problem understanding it before). So ILM used someone’s personal Slave 1 model to complete the shot before the deadline. This model was rushed and not reused when building Slave 1 for Episode II, leaving another rough draft in a classic film. This change also makes it so that Fett is so close it looks like Han could just look out the window and see him.
Much like the entrance to Mos Eisley, this new approach to Cloud City—created entirely with CG models—inserts establishing shots that don’t really establish much. In fact, once the Falcon lands, all of the new buildings disappear and the original matte painting is restored. This is similar to what happens with most of the windows inside Cloud City. If a wall with a new window is in more than one shot, it only has a window in the first shot. The giant elevator Lando Calrissian walks by with our heroes is just a wall in every following shot. What might be a good change is poorly done because as soon as the point that ILM can expand sets digitally is made, it goes away because it’s too expensive to keep doing.
This is a unique change. It’s the only alteration made to the 97SE that was restored back to the original in every subsequent release. For some reason, Luke’s quiet sacrificial fall had a scream added to it for the 1997 theatrical Special Edition. Not just any scream though; it’s literally the audio of the Emperor being thrown down the reactor shaft in Return of the Jedi. Yes, this change was undone, but it does make you question the logic of any of the changes. Was Lucas trying to change how we felt about this sequence? Luke freaked out, but then calmly let go of the railing and fell. Why would he scream like someone who’s surprised by being picked up and thrown down a shaft? There’s no creative reason for this to have been changed, let alone changed back.
Most of the Cloud City expansions are nice (even if they disappear after the first time you see them), but this one is extremely poor so it deserves a special mention. The actors aren’t cut out well, the railing comes up to their shins, and you can see the reflection on the floor through their bodies. Again, maybe a good idea for a change, but poorly done.
While Lando orders the evacuation, we get a couple new shots of citizens reacting. The frantic pace of our heroes trying to escape is now interrupted by shots of characters we’ve never seen and will never see again. They’re all just milling about. This is good practice for the prequels though: CG buildings with depth, live action crowd replication, matting against an entirely CG backdrop.
Luke is dangling under the city, begging Leia through the Force to come rescue him. Lando is against turning the Falcon back, but he is convinced by the rest of our heroes that this is his next step to redemption. Meanwhile, in the Special Edition, this dramatic sequence is interrupted to answer the question “sure, Vader said to bring his shuttle, but how did he fly it to his Star Destroyer?” Yet another addition that answers a question no one had.
It absolutely destroys the pacing of our heroes’ escape for no reason other than to show cool shots. The last shot of the additions is literally an alternate angle from the beginning of Return of the Jedi, complete with the same officer waiting for Vader. Sources say that this sequence was added specifically so they could have a model of the shuttle to use in the prequels and not have to pay for it out-of-pocket. (They didn’t end up using it, though.)
Another change for the 3D version that was abandoned, the door to Jabba’s palace has a zoom in to give it more scale, with the droids added onto the new expanded matte. It’s distracting and pointless, mostly because it gives the shot too much scale. We see the door from the inside a few times. It is now literally three times larger on the outside than the inside. There is no creative reason for this other than it looks cool.
The original “musical” sequence in Return of the Jedi is a quick in-and-out “live performance,” letting you experience life in the palace and showing how ruthless Jabba can be if he doesn’t get his way. In the Special Edition, it becomes an actual “music video.” New shots are spliced with old shots, CG creatures now dance and sing right up on the camera (breaking the fourth wall), and it just stops the movie dead. Of course, it did give all of Lucasfilm something to do: puppets, masks, makeup, bipedal CG creatures. Everything they needed to be good at in the prequels gets tested out here. (Also, while it is impressive that they got the original actress to play Oola again, they put a different eyeshadow color on her, so she’s not exactly seamless.)
Yet another establishing shot that doesn’t actually establish anything. But it did give them an opportunity to create some live-action bantha elements and dunes they could also use in the prequels if needed.
In order to make the sarlacc pit more menacing, it was given an unfortunate Little Shop of Horrors-esque head and extra tentacles. This was done in a ton of moving shots, so it gave ILM plenty of opportunity to practice putting motion-tracking CG elements into non-locked-off shots, again something they would need to do a lot in the prequels. But the beak doesn’t really make the sarlacc look scarier, it just makes it look more dated.
This one is just plain mean. For years, audiences watched this scene, watched Darth Vader look back and forth between his son and his master, and understood that he was struggling with internal conflict, choosing the light side over the dark, without a word being spoken. David Prowse was acting so hard through that helmet. Then, starting with the Blu-ray, the scene was changed. In that version, Vader looks at Luke and mutters “no,” then picks up the Emperor and shouts it again, using the same audio as Revenge of the Sith. Perhaps Lucas wanted to bookend the beginning and end of Darth Vader with a Big No. The problem is that this was 2011, and he knew that Vader’s Big No had become a meme and what the industry calls a “Bad Laugh.” But he added it anyway, taking the most dramatic moment of the finale of the trilogy and turning it into something fans joke about. Now when they watch this scene, they’re not thinking about Anakin redeeming himself, they’re thinking about the most mocked scene in the prequels.
The original ending of Return of the Jedi is pretty lowkey. Our heroes are all reunited as their new allies sing a song. The journey is over. The war is won. Finally, a night of peace. The Special Edition, however, removes most of the personality from the party and instead cuts away to scenes of other planets in the galaxy celebrating after somehow immediately getting word that the Emperor is dead.
There are now four locations shown in the middle of the celebrations: Cloud City, Mos Eisley, Theed (added in 2004), and Coruscant. Cloud City looks nearly identical to one of the new shots in Empire; Mos Eisley is the mirror image of one of the new establishing shots from A New Hope; and Theed looks nearly identical to the shot of the droid army invading in The Phantom Menace.
Cloud City and Mos Eisley are said to be off-the-grid, so far out of the way as to be unimportant to everyone. But now at the end of this “saga” version of the movies, they’re the focus of the celebration. These unique locations have now become the center of the universe. As for Coruscant, this new scene gave audiences their first glimpse of a planet that would be featured heavily in the prequels. In fact, some of the buildings made for this shot were used in the prequels, making them the only elements confirmed to be reused from the Special Edition. But even Coruscant was updated in 2004 to include other buildings from the prequel trilogy, a move that meant all the locations in this new addition referenced other movies, rather than the one they’re in.
Then, when the film does return to Jedi’s main heroes and their celebration, their scenes together are cut to ribbons, shifting focus to the main characters of the prequels: Anakin, Obi-Wan, and Yoda. Shots of the protagonists of this trilogy hugging and smiling at one another are gone, replaced by ghosts from other movies. And this was re-edited before they pasted Hayden Christensen’s young Anakin head onto Sebastian Shaw’s body. Why do Yoda and Obi-Wan have to be their old selves for eternity if Anakin gets to be 20 forever? It almost seems added solely for the viewer’s benefit, since Luke wouldn’t know who that guy was, something even the licensed Lego Star Wars: Droid Tales makes fun of in its opening scene. Another change made to tie into the prequels that didn’t need to be there.
The result? The entire conclusion of Return of the Jedi is now an undeserved and poorly executed conclusion to the trilogy that doesn’t reflect the original ending of the movie.
Now we come to the change I was in shock I never noticed until it was pointed out to me recently. The one change that ruins the last act of A New Hope and negates everything that comes after.
Our heroes are making their last stand. The Death Star has just entered the system. They have 15 minutes before Yavin 4 is in range. We get a visual of what that looks like through the tactical board.
After a cut from this board to some technicians, we get the fighters approaching the Death Star. The original version has a reverse of the ships heading towards the Death Star, then makes a cut to a forward view of them.
The Special Edition makes these two shots into one sweeping shot by reversing the shots and making a new CG pan of the ships crossing in front of the camera. There’s just one problem:
They also added Yavin 4 to the background.
It’s the exact same model (with the same cloud cover) used in the Falcon‘s new approach. John Knoll even confirms in “Making Magic” that it’s the “rebel moon they’re coming from”. Thanks to it being inserted into the new 180-degree turn, it’s now very clearly in range of the Death Star from the very beginning of the battle.
Subconsciously (well, consciously now that I’ve shared this) this shot ruins the climax and tension of the movie. Logically, there’s no reason for the Death Star to have not shot straight through the approaching ships and blown up the moon, ending the trilogy 20 minutes before the first movie is over.
“Even on the first films, I went back and fixed what I didn’t like—that was the whole point of the Special Editions—so now I’m happy with those films, too. I’m not at all frustrated the way I was before. People look at the Special Editions and say, ‘Well, there’s not that much difference—they’re the same movies, except maybe the Jabba the Hutt scene added in there.’ But those little changes made a very big difference to me. Those things had bothered me a lot. A lot of the shots that didn’t get in there originally because of time and money, finally got in there.”—George Lucas, Cinefex, July 2005
Lucas said this after finishing Revenge of the Sith, before changing the movies two more times and then selling the franchise to Disney. You can now see that very few of these changes weren’t added originally because of “time and money”; they were added to save time and money in research for his next films.
The Special Editions function well enough as what they should be: a side-project version that looks more like and ties into the prequels. They’re the movies you can turn on when you want to rewatch the whole saga, an artifact to show how artists are better off not changing their works. But the current versions do not stand up on their own as individual movies or as a stand-alone trilogy. I’ve shown that they assume that viewers have seen the movies already, which creates a recursive loop. If these were the movies that were originally released, they would not have become a phenomenon.
Over the years the movies have been changed almost half a dozen times. Changes that were made in 1997 were redone in 2004, changes were made in 2011 that just don’t make sense, and then there’s “maclunkey”—which feels like a middle finger to those who complain about all the tweaks. The myriad alterations made over the years also create a confusing mishmash of versions. This week the “Skywalker Saga” is being released in a UHD set, but there will also be individual releases. These UHD/Blu-ray packages have a 19SE Blu-ray disc (maclunkey) on the shelf next to a Blu-ray-only package that has a 11SE disc. Customers wanting to watch the movies on Blu-ray will get two wildly different experiences based on whether or not they pay extra to get the UHD disc also.
I propose a relabeling of the films. Since the “Special Edition” moniker was quickly removed when they became the default versions, I would like to suggest that the 19SE be labeled “The Saga Edition.” This opens up the possibility that Disney could re-introduce the original theatrical cuts as “The Classic Edition.” These are clear, well-defined terms that would allow the public to make a choice about what to watch. If they really wanted to keep with their current branding, Lucasfilm could even release them under the “Legends” banner that their publishing side utilizes. The publishing side has kept the non-canon books and comics in print with a label to prevent customer confusion. “Public confusion” on which version of the movies is “canon” should not be a concern. The public understands the difference already.
Directors and studios release alternate cuts all the time. Each of the Alien franchise films has a clearly-labeled alternate cut available, and those have not tarnished the franchise. There are multiple versions of Blade Runner, and Ridley Scott is seemingly as disappointed with the theatrical cut of that movie as Lucas is with original cuts of Star Wars. There’s a “Saga” cut of The Godfather movies that has managed to co-exist with the Best Picture winners. Hell, fans are still begging for the Snyder Cut of Justice League. Consumers can handle having multiple cuts of movies—and don’t pretend that people won’t buy all the editions of Star Wars. If they make a really good package of both editions, or even nice Criterion Collection-esque releases of just the Classics, they’ll make tons of money.
Even if Lucas has lost his sense of pacing and dramatic structure, audiences haven’t. Fans forgive the Saga Editions for all of their flaws simply because they’re still Star Wars. But those movies wouldn’t be Star Wars without the originals. Lucas may have felt like the original movies were only a percentage of what he thought they should be, but that’s what fans saw. That’s what they fell in love with. The originals are what the Academy nominated. They’re what the National Film Registry deemed to be “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” movies. They’re what changed the way movies were made, and inspired generations of artists.
For the last 20-plus years, we’ve been allowing the Saga Editions to stand in for the originals, in box sets, in retrospective videos. An entire generation is growing up under the mistaken impression that these are the movies their parents fell in love with. We can’t stand for this anymore. The Saga Editions could exist in their own corner, but there is no reason that the original pieces of film history should be locked in a vault somewhere.
The problem I’ve been seeing recently is an “I got mine” attitude. Disney doesn’t seem to mind the fan restorations, and the more people go around saying “Well, I guess it’s not coming—doesn’t matter to me because I’ve got [Despecialized/4K77/VHS],” the less likely it becomes that Disney will bother to release the original versions. I’m not saying we can’t have and enjoy the fan preservations, I’m saying we can’t pretend they would be anything compared to a professional restoration of backups we know they have just sitting in an archive. We have to make the demand.
Even J.J. Abrams recently said in an interview that “it would be great to have [the originals] available for a mainstream audience.” But when he asked about it, he was told such a release was not necessarily possible “for reasons I don’t quite understand.” So when he watches the originals, he has to watch Despecialized. The man directed two Star Wars movies probably has to pirate the same versions fans do. That’s insane.
The simple fact is that the originals are historical artifacts that can stand on their own, separate from the franchise they birthed. For all the reasons detailed here, fans should be able to watch the versions that hit theaters some four decades ago. Moreover, Disney paid $4 billion for this franchise, they should want fans to want to watch them. The demand is there; the company could likely bring a lot of converts to Disney+ if they just met it.
This isn’t a call for a boycott, nor is it a call for a Disney/Lucasfilm pile-on. Instead, it’s a call for one thing, and one thing only: #ReleaseTheOriginalTrilogy.
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