I unironically love the Star Wars: Special Editions. This isn’t a statement made for controversy. After all, an opinion of a film (or series of films) is entirely subjective. It’s just how I feel.
Truth be told, until recently, I hadn’t watched the Special Editions in nearly two decades. However, I re-watched Star Wars: Special Edition last month for its 25th anniversary, and my feelings for it remain unchanged. I have yet to revisit the other two, but I see no reason why my feelings would be all that different.
Thinking back to two and a half decades ago, I can remember my brother talking to me about how the Star Wars movies were going to be re-released in theaters, but with changes. There were going to be deleted scenes and added effects, I was told. I can also remember going to see Mars Attacks! and seeing that great trailer for these releases. (If you haven’t seen it, seek it out.) And I most definitely remember going to see Star Wars: Special Edition a few weeks after its premiere.
On January 31, 1997, Star Wars: Special Edition opened in theaters. It would ultimately earn $138 million at the box office, as well as some solid critical acclaim. Here’s what the great Roger Ebert wrote:
“To see Star Wars again after 20 years is to revisit a place in the mind. George Lucas’ space epic has colonized our imaginations, and it is hard to stand back and see it simply as a motion picture, because it has so completely become part of our memories.”
That was the opening of Ebert’s review. He would ultimately give this new version of the film four stars and add:
“Now Lucas has put IL&M to work touching up the effects, including some that his limited 1977 budget left him unsatisfied with. Most of the changes are subtle; you’d need a side-by-side comparison to see that a new shot is a little better.”
He wasn’t wrong. When my brother and I went to see it, I was just shy of thirteen. I can honestly say that I loved the Star Wars films, but not nearly as much as my brother. Let’s just say that throughout the film, he’d lean over and whisper in my ear things like: “They added more stormtroopers” or “This part wasn’t in the original.”
In fact, it wasn’t until Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back in 2001 that I even recognized that the Han and Greedo scene had any changes. As Holden McNeil observes:
“[T]his flick may be the worst idea since Greedo shooting first.”
My brother had to explain that reference to me.
As for the newly added effects (mostly CGI), they were not very noticeable to me in that first viewing. I find this to be odd, though, because watching the added stuff now, it’s pretty obvious at times which things were new. I think the only way I can explain it is that my mind had to be trained to see CGI, since I grew up watching movies that didn’t have any. Once I did, well, I could tell Jar Jar wasn’t real, and that was only two years later.
For a fan like my brother, though, he knew every change, but that might have been more about noticing differences of something watched dozens of times and less about the effects. Regardless, he loved it as much as I did. He might have walked out the same fan he had always been, but I left that theater changed. It wasn’t seismic. For instance, I knew that I wanted to be a filmmaker before seeing Star Wars: Special Edition on the big screen. It was just more that I was now a fan, as opposed to someone who just loved watching the movie from time to time.
Because I didn’t grow up with a lot of disposable income, especially at that time, I didn’t get to see the Special Editions of The Empire Strikes Back or Return of the Jedi until much later. But I did see the next version of the films, which would debut on DVD in 2004. By then, Lucas had changed even more, and a section of the fans was upset with the filmmaker, not simply over these changes or the quality of the prequels. They had an issue with the fact the original versions of the films were not available on DVD. Eventually, they’d be presented as bonus features on the DVD re-releases of the versions released in 2006.
Fans were not satisfied, though, and I can’t really blame them. Even though I felt Lucas had more right to continue to tinker with the films as much as he desired than fans’ supposed ownership of said films, I did and still believe the original versions of the original Star Wars trilogy deserved to be preserved on any home video format.
When the films came out on Blu-ray in 2011, they were different yet again. A few years ago, when Disney+ began, the films were available in 4K, albeit in different versions one last time. As of this writing, the originals are still only officially available on old VHS tapes and on those special DVDs from 2006, and it doesn’t look as if that’s going to change anytime soon.
All of this is to say that as much as I admire the Special Editions from 1997, I also wish the originals were available to all who want them. For me? I’m a completist. Frankly, I wish every single version was officially available. For others? They want the films they grew up with. They want to experience those films the way they originally were. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. For so long, those original versions were what fans and non-fans knew.
In 1997, that all changed. The Special Editions were a turning point for Star Wars fans, whether most knew this or not. I would imagine most treated the films the way they were presented. They were literally called Special Editions. It wouldn’t be a few more years before they simply replaced what once was.
Again, I was not the fan my brother was. To me, these Special Editions were my version of the original trilogy. I saw, and to a large extent still see, no issue with these films or the versions that came after. Greedo shooting first has never bothered me. Either way, the moment doesn’t affect how I see Han Solo. The Jabba scene is fine. It slows the film down, but I don’t think it hurts it. The CGI? It hasn’t held up, and I wonder what Ebert would say if he were to review the current versions of these films. Would any of this matter to him? Or would he focus on the story, the characters, and the world Lucas and his collaborators built?
I know that’s what I focus on. I know that’s what I’ve always focused on. Yes, I marvel at the effects. Of course, I do. I just like the characters more.
This isn’t to say that I’m better than anyone, and I certainly don’t want to come across as pretentious. If anything, writing an article concerning my appreciation for versions of movies that hold a lot of negative criticism suggests otherwise.
And that’s the thing I find ultimately the most fascinating. In 1997, the consensus was that these movies were excellent, even in their “Special” form. In an issue from Entertainment Weekly, dated February 21/28, 1997, in their Film section, they have a box in the bottom corner of one page called “Critical Mass.” In it is a breakdown of letter grades from various critics and publications, along with an average. Star Wars is listed, and the average for the film? An A- .
I do wonder, though, if the Special Editions had just stayed special editions, even with Lucas updating them over the years, and if the originals were always available in the current home video format, would so many people be as negative toward the updated versions? As such, would so many still be negative towards George Lucas?
The original versions of Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi are all available via fan edits and fan restorations, like Harmy’s Despecialized Edition or 4K77, but these are most definitely not official by any means. Want to watch the original trilogy on 4K? Well, you can, but the films are the final versions from George Lucas, and there is nothing to suggest this will change anytime soon.
I have the original trilogy on LaserDisc. They’re wonderful. I have the Special Editions on VHS. (This is how I re-watched Star Wars: Special Edition.) They, too, bring me joy. Does it ultimately matter that I cannot watch them as fully remastered or as restored versions in 4K? No. Not to me, it doesn’t.
I think the reason why is because I don’t have the nostalgic connection to the original trilogy. I grew up watching them and loving them, but I was never a fan. (Again, not like someone like my brother.) This is important to note because I do wish we could all have access to those originals. But I don’t write that because it’s something I’m demanding. I don’t deserve to have access to those original versions in something like 4K. I have no claim over them.
They are movies that so many people loved, that made fans. These movies are a part of cinema history. George Lucas had every right to change anything he wanted in these films, and a part of me is genuinely happy he was able to get closer and closer to the versions he wanted. The other part of me is left scratching my head, wondering why he didn’t, and why now Disney doesn’t, just put out the originals. The films are the ones who deserve this. They deserve to be seen by a mass audience again and appreciated.
After 25 years, it’s clear to me that the Special Editions will always hold a place in my heart. Still, I know and recognize that there are two definitive versions of the films: the original versions audiences watched in theaters decades ago and the final versions that exist on Disney+. Would I love for each version to be made available? Absolutely, but in the end, they’re just movies. There are more important things in this world than being a fan of a particular version of a Star Wars movie.
But, damn, it’d be nice to see the Special Editions in 4K.
1.”Critical Mass.” Entertainment Weekly, February 1997, 106.