Celebrating the Star Wars Trilogy Special Edition
“A famous filmmaker once said that films are never completed, they are only abandoned” – George Lucas
In January 1997 George Lucas kicked off the 20th anniversary of Star Wars with an almighty bang – the cinematic re-release of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. But this wasn’t any ordinary re-release. This was the start of the Star Wars Trilogy Special Edition.
In the lead up to 1997 Lucas and the team at Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) were working intensively to restore the deprecated negatives of the original film. It was a process that proved trickier than anyone had expected.
“When I saw the first print struck off the original negative, it was gone,” said Rick McCallum, producer of the Star Wars Trilogy Special Edition. “I’ll have been restoring the film for three years by the time it comes out, and that film is only 20 years old! We weren’t sure we could make it in time.”
The Color Reversal Internegative (CRI) film stock used for the effects sequences of the original film had deteriorated faster than expected. In order to save the film, archivists at Lucasfilm had to disassemble the entire negative and reconstruct every single effect shot from the original elements – an intensive process you can read more about in the ASC’s Saving Star Wars feature.
Yet Lucas didn’t stop at painstaking restoration, as the Special Edition provided an opportunity to revisit certain scenes and scratch the itches that had piled up in two decades. From replacing outdated model effects to restoring cut scenes, this was our first glimpse of how Lucas truly imagined the Star Wars universe.
As the oldest film Episode IV, saw the most additions. Most notably this included an expansion of the Tatooine environment and the restoration of cut scenes that added extra depth to the film. To a lesser extent, Lucas also tweaked both The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi to take advantage of the pioneering digital technology, bringing all three films into line with contemporary sensibilities.
The Star Wars Trilogy Special Edition showed us the films as Lucas always envisioned them. Before he had lacked the time, money and technology to realise his vision; but the release of Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993) convinced him that CGI was ready.
“The digital technology frees you up, especially in a fantasy world like this”, Lucas said. “You could write things but it’s very hard to make that literal and make it real. Digital technology is the thing that’s going to allow that whole medium, which is science fiction and fantasy in film, to flourish as it never has before.”
More Wealth Than You Can Imagine
Released on January 31st 1997, Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope became a cultural phenomenon once more. Taking $35 million on its debut weekend, the re-release earned $140 million in the US alone, helping it to earn enough at the global box office to become the highest-grossing film of all time for the second time (if only for a short while – James Cameron’s Titanic was already incoming).
The success of the re-release exceeded Lucasfilm’s expectations. Following A New Hope’s strong performance they pushed Return of the Jedi from March 7th to March 14th to give Episodes IV and V a longer run.
In his own 2017 retrospective, Forbes box office analyst Scott Mendleson noted: “these remastered (and yes, somewhat altered) versions of the Star Wars trilogy absolutely dominated the box office for nearly two months.”
And it was true. In the US, The Empire Strikes Back took $21.9 million on its opening weekend on its way to $67.5 million. Return of the Jedi took $16.2 million in its opening weekend to finish with $45 million.
Worldwide the Star Wars Trilogy Special Edition took $892 million.
As Mendleson observed, “for one glorious moment in 1997, Star Wars was special again specifically because it was playing on the big screen at a theatre near you.”
From crisp packets to magazines to the MTV Movie Awards, Star Wars was everywhere. And the trailers were right. For this 13-year-old fan, nothing compared to finally seeing the trilogy on the big screen.
As one of the “video generation”, I was primed for the Special Edition and the films hit the target. A combination of pre-existing love for the franchise with the fact that the restorations made the films a unique experience for my generation – and made the saga relevant again – contributed to making the 1997 editions my clear favourite version of the trilogy.
With the simultaneous success of the Power of the Force toy line, Lucas had brought Star Wars to a new generation. A victory in itself, but also important groundwork with the prequel trilogy in pre-production.
Yet while Lucas exceeded the expectations of his target audience, he also started to learn that the vocal (some might say entitled) first-generation of Star Wars fans were not as easy to please…
No Reward is Worth This
Few people could honestly argue that Lucas hadn’t earned the right to re-work his own films. But it didn’t stop them from trying.
The Special Edition revisions were overwhelmingly obvious improvements to the trilogy, but that doesn’t mean they were entirely flawless. Return of the Jedi introduced “Jedi Rocks”, a bombastic new musical number in place of the more sedate “Lapti Nek”. The new scene expanded Jabba’s band to include (among others) the scene-stealing Joh Yowza, the first big-screen appearance of a Yuzzum, and a group of scantily-clad alien backing singers. Though entertaining at the time the sequence has not aged well – but then, I’m also far from 13 years old.
Yet it was a smaller change that proved a lightning rod to the fans who had seemingly forgotten that they owned the original films on video.
In A New Hope, Han Solo originally shot bounty hunter Greedo under the table in an act of preemptive self-defence. Yet in the Special Edition Greedo shot first and missed. This goofy edit gave birth to the “Han shot first” protest, a rallying call for those disaffected by Lucas’ alterations. With that began the widespread “Lucas bashing” that has plagued Star Wars since.
Yet without those two changes would the fandom have ever become so toxic? After all, Lucas’ alterations were indisputably a net improvement on the originals. The Yavin IV base scene now feels incomplete without seeing Luke and Biggs reunite. Few complained about the new Wampa, the enhanced Sarlacc or that Mos Eisley looked more like a bustling spaceport. These revisions made the original Star Wars trilogy a more comprehensive, immersive experience.
What is clear is that the Special Edition marked the start of some people choosing to blame Lucas for everything they didn’t like about his work while simultaneously giving him no credit for his achievements.
In a 2004 interview, Lucas responded to the criticism: “To me, [the original movie] doesn’t really exist anymore. … I’m sorry you saw half a completed film and fell in love with it. But I want it to be the way I want it to be.”
“… So rather than live with my ‘abandoned’ movies, I decided to go back and complete them.”
In the 1970s Star Wars was a strange, out of the ordinary story. If the film had been a failure, as Lucas himself feared, then ownership of that would have been his alone. In that case, it stands to reason that the film’s success should be attributed to him as well.
Of course, others were involved in making Star Wars happen, and there’s merit to saying that Lucas was not as good a storyteller without the aid of Gary Kurtz or Marcia Lucas, amongst others. But as the principal author and creator of Star Wars, Lucas’ decisions should be final.
If the Star Wars Trilogy Special Edition took the films closer to his original vision then fair play, George. You earned it.