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The Star Wars Saga (1977-2005, USA)

18/09/2011

Directors: George Lucas (New Hope, Phantom Menace, Attack Of The Clones, Revenge Of The Sith), Irvin Kershner (Empire Strikes Back), Richard Marquand (Return Of The Jedi)

Starring: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, James Earl Jones, Billy Dee Williams (original trilogy) Ewan Mcgregor, Hayden Christensen, Natalie Portman, Ian Mcdiarmid (prequel trilogy)

Unless you live in a galaxy far, far away it’s highly unlikely that you won’t be aware of the recent release on blu ray of the complete Star Wars saga. It’s also unlikely (although maybe less so) that you will be unaware of the controversy George Lucas caused when, in 1997, he released special editions of the original trilogy “improving” (I prefer the term “butchering”) scenes left, right and centre, replacing model work with CGI, re-editing the sequence of certain events and generally riding roughshod over his own work. This controversy was compounded by the release of the first of his trilogy of betrayals (he calls them “prequels”) in 1999, The Phantom Menace, a two hour ode to computer generated banality.

There are a lot of people in the world who don’t understand the reaction of Star Wars fans to this and the strength of the backlash to the prequels. They look on in wonderment, offering up phrases like “they’re just movies” and “they’re just for kids, why does it matter” in an attempt to assuage the boiling anger of fans who don’t just dislike the new films but actively despise them, who feel betrayed by George Lucas, a man once idolised as the creator of something wonderful only to have become a figure of hate for the efforts he has seemingly made to destroy it. An extreme reaction? Gross overstatement? Perhaps. But there must be a reason that such (to non-fans) trivial things should stir such powerful feelings among Star Wars fans.  I’ll try and explain some of them here.

Before I do that, however, a quick word on the blu ray set. As you might expect, these are the revised editions of the original trilogy plus the prequels presented in rather lovely transfers in high definition. Some scenes fare better than others, the interiors of space craft and the Death Star in the original trilogy being the real standouts where the extra pixels really bring out the gleam on the Stormtroopers and the amazing (even after almost thirty five years) set design. The original trilogy actually look better than the prequels, the shortcomings in their largely CGI existence made all the more obvious by the hi-def transfer. Somewhat unbelievably, George has been tinkering AGAIN and made a few extremely minor, utterly insignificant changes to a couple of shots and added some pointless dialogue here and there. I think just because he can. In fairness though these don’t really affect the films much, they are certainly nowhere near as detrimental as the fundamental damage caused by the revisions for the DVD release. I plumped for the complete saga box set in order to get my mitts on the extra features – three discs of deleted scenes, interviews, behind the scenes stuff and even a disc of collected Star Wars spoofs. So far these have proved interesting and in my opinion worth the extra investment (not to mention being saddled with the prequels).

The singular disappointment with the box set is that it doesn’t include the original, unspoiled Star Wars films in their original form. Here’s where we start to touch on the reasons that people across the globe have turned against George Lucas. He has proclaimed in no uncertain terms that there is only one version of the Star Wars films, the current one. The original releases of A New Hope, Empire Strikes Back and Return Of The Jedi were an incomplete representation of his vision apparently. The revolutionary special effects techniques, exquisite model work and outlandish creature makeup that changed the way people made films forever was not satisfactory. George has computers now. George wants to play.

Regular readers should be well aware of my hatred of CGI abuse but I’ll recap: CGI should be a tool to enhance a film, not a shortcut to making one. There is no substitute, especially in science fiction, for actually creating the environments, equipment, vehicles and creatures that comprise your fantasy universe on screen. So what if there’s detail that the audience cannot see, your actors can and the authenticity this brings to their performances can be felt by your audience. It’s possible to make a cardboard box with a couple of bits of plastic stuck on it look like something real but the second you see a CGI effect on screen it instantly feels fake, even if you haven’t consciously realised it. It never looks exactly right and therefore should be used as a last resort if you want to maintain any sense of authenticity. It’s telling that in Empire Strikes Back, widely regarded as the best Star Wars film and the one in which George has tinkered the least, the most memorable scenes are the ones where most of the special effects were done in-camera, using traditional stop motion techniques. Ok so the AT-ATs in the attack on Hoth are models but they are real objects and as such have a sense of weight and power that a CGI replacement would lack.

For some reason, George Lucas thinks that erasing as much of this painstaking model work and substituting it with CGI is a good thing, that by making such changes he is refining the work he has done. Fans see it a little bit differently. If you don’t buy into the Star Wars phenomenon it may be difficult to comprehend just how much the original trilogy means to a lot of film fans (especially guys of a certain age). I for one grew up watching and re-watching Star Wars. I’m too young to have seen A New Hope and Empire in the cinema first time round but vividly remember queuing up for Return Of The Jedi at the La Scala Cinema on Strothers Lane (don’t bother looking for it, it’s not there anymore) in the scorching summer sun. We got to jump the queue because my friend’s mum fainted in the heat and so they brought us inside. As kids, my friends and I would play at being Jedi and Stormtroopers. We collected the toys, read the comics and books, listened to the soundtrack albums. We lived and breathed the Star Wars universe. For Lucas to come along and tamper with it is almost unforgivable.

I say almost. There is a way Lucas could redress the balance, a course of action he resolutely refuses to follow. Given the storage capacity of blu ray there is no reason, other than sheer bloody-mindedness, that the original versions of the original trilogy couldn’t have been included on the discs. Give us the choice George. It’s not the fact there are new versions, director’s cuts or special editions, whatever you want to call them, in existence. It’s the fact that you have taken away our beloved, indelibly remembered versions forever. In a spectacular slap in the face to his fans call for a reissue on DVD of the original films there was a special edition release of the original films in a two disc format, the second disc containing the original films. No effort had been made to clean up the prints and the pan and scan transfers on the disc were pretty much unwatchable. Such a deliberate insult to the people who effectively supported the rise of Lucasfilm and ILM into the global behemoths they are today was monstrous in the eyes of many fans. There’s no need to take the piss.

All that pales into insignificance when you consider the insult to the innovators of effects studio Industrial Light and Magic who must have wept when they saw what had been done to their groundbreaking work at the hands of George and a veritable army of computer effects technicians. There are more special effects artists credited on the 1997 special edition of A New Hope than the original film. Basically it took twice as many people to undo the brilliance of the original special effects than it took to design and execute them in the first place. What a senseless waste.

Then there’s the senseless mutilation of classic scenes that actually impacts on the characterisation and story. Everybody knows Han shoots first. Everybody knows this establishes him as a master of self preservation, a man not afraid to do what it takes to survive. It doesn’t make him a bad guy George (although a quick look at the prequels is all it takes to establish his infantile sense of good and evil) that he drops the hammer on a bounty hunter who has declared his intention to kill him. The time, effort and expense that went into changing this scene, the end result of which being an incoherent mess of editing and a less interesting insight into Han Solo, amounts to nothing short of madness.

A New Hope is full of this sort of pointlessness, the unnecessary and unwarranted changes adding nothing, damaging plenty and coming across as more than a little facile. The abuses in Return of the Jedi are about as bad. Do we really need to see tentacles and a secondary mouth coming out of the Sarlacc? And what the hell is up with the song and dance number in Jabba’s palace? I suppose the intention was to try and bring the feel of the original films more inline with the planned prequels. Perhaps it wouldn’t have been such a bad idea had the prequels amounted to anything more than hours and hours of terrible dialogue and digital pudding.

My memories of the prequels (based on my single cinema viewing) were not good. I was in America when The Phantom Menace came out. I distinctly remember the utter disappointment spawned by that film. CGI heavy, rambling away with no regard for the established back story that had been more fully explored in the expanded universe of novels and comics (anyone else remember when Han Solo was an ex-Stormtrooper? or that Boba Fett and his fellow Mandalorians were responsible for the destruction of the Jedi?) or indeed for the intellect of its audience. Nowhere is this more crystalised than in the risible Jar Jar Binks. A digital creation of moronic proportions he serves no purpose other than to be irritating. His existence is frequently defended by those that insist The Phantom Menace is a kids movie so it’s ok to have thise sort of facile nonsense in it. These people need a slap. Since when does “for kids” equal “doesn’t matter if it’s bollocks”? Ever seen a Ghibli movie? Your audience should be treated with respect and not patronised whether they are three or thirty. Then there’s the overt racism at play in Phantom Menace. As if Binks’ Stepin Fetchit antics weren’t bad enough (Me’s a scared Massah!) the Trade Federation race are a horribly stereotyped pseudo-Japanese race complete with comedy accents and a penchant for surprise attacks during trade disputes. Its lazy and offensive and I can’t believe Lucas got away with it. Is he so surrounded by yes-men that nobody pointed this out to him? (for some reason it reminds me of this sketch from Mitchell & Webb):

The other prequels are, unbelievably, even worse. Seemingly endless parades of computer graphics banging into other computer graphics they are bereft of soul and drama. You know why lightsabers are cool? Because Jedi use them to fight Jedi which means in the original trilogy you only get to see four lightsaber battles of increasing intensity (Kenobi vs Vader in New Hope, Luke vs Vader in Empire, the assault on Jabba’s guards in Jedi and the concluding duel between Luke and Vader in Jedi). When the sabers come out the effect is exciting because this is something rare and special in the universe. Not so in the prequels. Lightsaber after lightsaber is swung, more often than not at an endless army of idiotic, CGI robots, robbing them of their thrill and spectacle. When Jedi clashes with Sith, what should be spectacular feels very pedestrian in the wake of all that saber action. Even more so when it’s two computer generated combatants thrashing about in a blur of what at the time looked cutting edge but now looks very dated CGI.

And the dialogue! Dear lord the dialogue! The significance of the co-writers to Empire Strikes Back and Return Of The Jedi cannot be underestimated in the face of this evidence. “From my point of view the Jedi are evil” bleats Anakin in his final confrontation with Obi Wan, showing exactly the sort of awareness of the role of perspective in morality to avoid the trap set for him by Palpatine. It’s ok to ask for help George. Nobody would have judged you. For whatever reason you allowed Irvin Kershner and Richard Marquand to helm Empire and Jedi and collaborated with other writers to realise your vision and it worked beautifully. Nobody would have condemned you for doing it again for the prequels.

I think, ultimately, the reason there is so much bile reserved for the Star Wars prequels is because they represent a massive missed opportunity. They could have been great, fabulous testimonies to the glory of the iconic originals. Lucas has amassed a fortune from the Star Wars films (in licensing alone he must earn as much as some countries) so it’s not like he would have lacked the resources to do the job properly. It feels more like he, in a fit of self destructive fury, decided he was going to ruin his greatest achievement. It’s the only explanation I can find for the damage done to the originals, his blind insistence that the unsullied versions will ever see the light of day in any watchable form and the atrocious excuse for prequels he cobbled together in a computer. There is another theory that I rather like but I think it’s wishful thinking:

If I was going to list everything that was wrong with the current state of Star Wars I would be here all day. Hopefully this has helped clarify why so many people feel so aggrieved by the actions of George Lucas. Maybe you still feel that such a reaction is excessive over what amounts to little more than a couple of films. Fair enough. All I can say is, think of your favourite artwork (a painting or song or film or sculpture or whatever) and imagine the artist went back to it and irreversably altered it for no real reason than they could after you had years of enjoying it just the way it was. Imagine the new version lacked the power, aesthetic and feeling that first attracted you to it. Try and imagine how that would make you feel. Try and imagine what might motivate someone to ruin something so wonderful and influential. Because that’s how I feel about Star Wars.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. 23/09/2011 05:17

    Wow! Quite a diatribe but very eloquently put.

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