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Star Wars (1977)

by on 2011/01/15

George Lucas has presented critics with an interesting quandary.  If our intent is to tackle the first installments in a variety of landmark series, then how to approach the Star Wars franchise?  With the 1977 original, retroactively retitled Episode IV: A New Hope, or with the more recent prequel, Episode I: The Phantom Menace?

Even once I’d chosen A New Hope, a decision remained, whether to review its first version or the tinkered-with Special Edition.  Lucas largely resolves the issue by playing hard to get with the former.

Personally, I’ve yet to be convinced of the value his Disney-esque moratoria, revisiting and revisionist tactics.  I have more faith in planning ahead, making careful moves, and doing things “properly” the first time.  Unfortunately, the Star Wars phenomenon has become the embodiment of retcons.

Such second-guessing backpedaling really is a shame because, even — or especially — in its initial incarnation, this film was a landmark in exposing the construction of story and its telling, as much for the mainstream as for the movie world itself.

Given the apparent hyperbole, then, it hardly seems necessary to describe what is already familiar to the world at large.  My experiences watching and rewatching these videos have taught me the most obvious facts can still be overlooked or forgotten over time.

For instance, I was struck in my most recent viewing by how visually this tale is told.  Many of its strongest moments either lack dialogue, or the need for it.  Visual effects, often disparaged as a crutch or detriment, work well here.  In a stark contrast previous genre pictures, their effectiveness is often a function of their speed and brevity, rarely grandstanding for their own sake.

I also noticed another unexpected convention:  the rarity of on-screen action.  Certainly, we see our fair share, particularly as the plot advances, when the pace and excitement ramp up.  Think of all the scenes we assume we’ve seen, and yet are never actually shown:  the droids’ escape pod crash, C3PO’s capture by the Jawas, the Sand People attacking Luke Skywalker, the attack on the Jawas and Skywalker Ranch, and the interrogation of Princess Leia.  All of these events take place between existing scenes.

Other points of more visceral excitement are staged with modest theatrical or optical tricks, rather than grand-scale mobilizations:  Darth Vader’s “sorcery”, Kenobi’s Jedi mind trick “wizardry”, the destruction of Alderaan, and the end of the light saber duel.  I don’t mean to belittle the existing visual effects.  I’m suggesting that, in tandem with our imaginations, a little goes a long way, and also that they exist in service of the narrative, not the other way around.

All of which succeed well enough to make Lucas’ latter-day changes confounding.  In their earliest form, the effects were hardly plodding showpieces, interrupting the narrative flow.  Now, however, we are faced with distraction, not necessarily because we notice anything obtrusive, but because they add nothing absent in the first place; they draw attention to themselves while serving no higher function.  At “best” they add visual clutter, as with the slapstick “humour” of Mos Eisley’s “scum and villainy”.  At worst, they weaken the foundation, as in Han Solo’s meeting with Greedo.

One notable exception is the addition of Jabba the Hutt’s scene.  It does add some value but, unfortunately, feels unsatisfying.  While I’m aware of the technical limitations faced by manipulating old footage, the results are still clumsy:  Jabba looks markedly different from in Return of the Jedi, a soft halo surrounds Han Solo throughout, the tail-trodding throws him completely out of focus (and diminishes Jabba’s threat), and Boba Fett’s presence feels less natural than pandering.

Despite the many alterations the Special Editions have wrought, I find myself thinking two thoughts nearly at once.

  • The changes do not actually undo most of what was already good.
  • If changes are unavoidable, then why not go farther and do them properly?

Personally, I don’t care for the half-measures here.  I’d support restoration over revision every time but — when you’re spending more than the original film’s entire budget on just the revisions — you’re probably crossing a creative line.  Lucas should be prepared to have his effort judged against a new generation’s exemplars, like The Matrix or Inception.  In the company of such competitors, frankly, the updates to Star Wars had better be more than just a new hope.

* * * *

Rated PG for violence

125 minutes

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