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Why Star Wars Geeks Are Wrong

This week the Star Wars trilogies come to Blu-ray.

Predictably, there is a loud outcry over the fact that we’re getting the 1997 special edition version of the original trilogy and that George Lucas has made few more edits.

I’m here to tell you that the geeks are wrong, and they need to STFU for once and for all.

I’m as big of a Star Wars geek as anyone else.

I had all the toys growing up, the trading cards, the posters hanging on my wall, bought all the various home video releases, etc. And like everyone else, I think a lot of the changes made to the original trilogy are lame, like Greedo shooting first and the unnecessary inclusion of Jabba the Hutt.

George Lucas

But Lucas owns these films, both artistically and legally.  He can do whatever he wants.  My fandom and loyalty does not obligate Lucas to do anything for me.

There really should be no debate beyond this, but Star Wars geeks continue to insist that once a work of art is “completed” — a movie’s theatrical release — that it can never be modified. Historically that’s not been true and it doesn’t make any rational sense.

The only reason that more films aren’t modified after their theatrical release is because of the expensive nature of producing films.

Music, for instance, has an extremely long tradition of changes being made after premiers, sometimes decades after the premier.

It doesn’t cost anyone anything to change the scores. Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Wagner, Mahler, Verdi and many others continued to tinker with scores years after they had their premiers. Stravinsky was often motivated to make revisions just so he could extend his copyright on his music. Composers would also make revisions to take advantage of new developments in instrument technology (doesn’t that sound kinda like Lucas?). And in the 20th century, it’s quite common for musicians to completely remix their recordings for subsequent CD and now digital releases because they have new thoughts on how the various instruments and vocals should be balanced.

Things like this happen less with film because filmmaking is so expensive. Reshooting a few minutes of footage can cost millions of dollars. But it does happen, and Lucas is hardly the first person to do what he’s done.

In 1977 another science fiction blockbuster was released: Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Director Steven Spielberg felt he needed six more months to work on the film, and after it grossed hundreds of millions of dollars, he convinced Columbia to give him money to reshoot some of the special effects sequences as well as shoot new ones. The result was the 1980 “Special Edition” of the film. Then in 1998 Spielberg recut the film again, creating a “Collector’s Edition.” So that’s three separate versions of the Close Encounters — where’s the outrage?

What also separates film from other mediums is that there is a very rigid timetable for when it needs to be completed because so much money has been invested in it.

Whether you’re writing a book, painting a canvas, or composing music, the financial pressures are so much less compared to film that artists can work on their projects indefinitely. For instance, look at the six-year gap between the last two A Song of Ice and Fire novels by George R. R. Martin. He won’t have to go back and make revisions because he took all the time he needed to get it right.

Having been a filmmaker, I can completely understand where Lucas is coming from.

Your final product is never what you envision. Comprises have to be made because of money and timetables. And the creative process can be so rushed that only after the film is completed do you realize that you made some bad decisions and wish you could go back and correct them. Probably the best documentary I made I cannot watch because there are some things in it that I wish I had cut differently. It’s painful to watch something you’ve created that has what you view as mistakes.

The last thing I’ll say is that I do like a lot of the special effects upgrades Lucas made to the original trilogy.

I always thought it was really silly how Cloud City is supposed to be this exotic location, but all we really see of it are the interiors of rooms. The Ralph McQuarrie paintings of Cloud City are far more exciting than anything in the film, and the digital insertion of windows that show the exterior of the city help bring to fruition what Lucas had in mind. I also have no problem with special effects shots that are fixed, such as removing matte lines or eliminating transparency issues with shots that were composed on the optical printer.

In fact, I’d argue that if someone like Alfred Hitchcock were alive today, he’d have no problem having some digital touch-up work done to his films so that rear projection shots are better integrated with the foreground elements.

But of course, no one dares do this because they cannot get his authorization due to him being long dead.



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