It gives me absolutely no pleasure to write this blog post. I am really, legitimately sad about this, and I agonized over the decision for some time before finally pulling the trigger a few days ago. And then I agonized even more before I could bring myself to write this essay. But it’s true: I have indeed cancelled my STAR WARS: THE COMPLETE SAGA Blu-Ray pre-order on Amazon in light of the news that the following alteration as been made to my favorite scene from my favorite movie of all time, RETURN OF THE JEDI:
Those of you who know me know that I have long been a huge Star Wars apologist, often to a fault. While I fully acknowledge that most of Lucas’ changes to the special editions have ranged from “unnecessary” to “completely and utterly senseless,” I have always been able to to focus on the positive. In my opinion, the things that I LOVE about the Star Wars saga have always vastly outweighed these few bad things. Yes, it’s stupid that Greedo shoots first in A NEW HOPE. Yes, the added dialogue between Vader and the Emperor in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK dumbs down the scene. Yes, the musical sequence in Jabba’s Palace in RETURN OF THE JEDI is a joke. But it’s okay -- I can close my eyes, put my fingers in my ears and go “LALALALA” during those scenes and still enjoy the remaining 99% of the films. (The prequels, of course, have far worse problems, but even they have their moments and while I have gone through various stages of prequel obsession and backlash over the years, I am now at a point where I can make fun of them AND enjoy them at the same time.)
I have also always considered the release of a new Star Wars trilogy box set to be a momentous occasion, especially in a new media format. I currently own five versions of the original trilogy: The pre-special edition VHS set from 1990; both the widescreen AND full-screen THX-enhanced VHS sets from 1995; the special edition VHS set from 1997; and the special edition DVD release from 2004. (I’ve never owned a laserdisc player or I’d probably own that legendary set, too.) I remember when the THX trilogy was released, my friend Nisha and I embarked on a quest all around NYC to track one down. It took all day, but we finally found it at some random store in the Village. It was a joyous moment (which we later celebrated by playing the Star Wars Drinking Game until we literally passed out, but that's a whole other story). So, needless to say, when it was announced that Star Wars was coming to glorious Blu-Ray in a nine-disc set with a wealth of bonus features including never-before-seen deleted scenes... well, I placed my pre-order immediately.
Of course, I figured that the original theatrical versions would NOT be included, which annoys me to no end and seems to go against everything George Lucas once stood for. Remember, this is a man who stood before Congress in 1988 (less than ten years before the special editions were released) and said this:
"People who alter or destroy works of art and our cultural heritage for profit or as an exercise of power are barbarians, and if the laws of the United States continue to condone this behavior, history will surely classify us as a barbaric society. The preservation of our cultural heritage may not seem to be as politically sensitive an issue as 'when life begins' or 'when it should be appropriately terminated,' but it is important because it goes to the heart of what sets mankind apart. Creative expression is at the core of our humanness. Art is a distinctly human endeavor. We must have respect for it if we are to have any respect for the human race."
You can read the full text of his testimony here -- it gets even better and more mind-boggling, considering what he has become. He has been blatantly defying his own mandate for the past 20 years -- an unbelievable display of hypocrisy that would almost be comical if it wasn't so serious. I mean, it’s fine if he wants to consider the special editions as the “definitive” versions of the movies -- that's his prerogative. But dammit, you HAVE to include the original theatrical versions as a point of comparison and for the sake of preservation! All of his fellow contemporary filmmakers realize this: Spielberg included both versions of E.T. on the DVD release (and has since apologized for changing it at all and vowed never to mess with his movies again). Ridley Scott included FIVE versions of BLADE RUNNER on an incredible Blu-Ray release. The amazing ALIEN ANTHOLOGY contains multiple versions of all four films. James Cameron even included three versions of AVATAR on the deluxe Blu-Ray. There is simply NO reason for Lucas to not include the original versions of the Star Wars trilogy -- three of the most important and influential and beloved films of all time -- other than pure stubbornness and a complete lack of respect for the fans and film history.
There’s also a certain level of crazy vindictiveness on Lucas’ part. You may recall that when the trilogy was re-released on DVD in 2006, it was touted that they WOULD include the original theatrical editions. This is only half true. Yes, the pre-special edition versions of the movies were included as special features on those discs. But they were the shoddiest transfers possible, basically ripped from the laserdiscs that were released in the ‘90s (therefore using outdated transfer technology), and not even given the minimum anamorphic treatment that even the shittiest movies are given when released on DVD, let alone three of the most beloved movies of all time. Note that this had nothing to do with the fact that they were old films with matte lines, grain, etc. -- we’re talking about the most basic work that goes into putting a movie on DVD. This link goes into much greater detail about exactly what went wrong with this release -- a must-read. But the point is, it was almost as if Lucas intentionally released them in the worst possible quality so as to render them unwatchable, so that the general public would be like, “Wow, the special editions really ARE better!” The die-hards, of course, were not fooled, and a great furor arose.
But you know what? Whatever. Someday, you gotta figure there will be a super-duper ultimate edition in which the original versions will be given the proper treatment and all will be right with the world. For now, I still would have focused on the positive (as usual), bought the Blu-Rays and done the aforementioned “eyes closed, fingers in the ears” trick during the dumb parts just to be able to see my favorite films in high-definition. Not to mention all those bonus features, especially the deleted scenes -- some of which (like the Wampa attack on Echo Base in EMPIRE and the sandstorm scene in JEDI) we have heard about, but never seen, for decades. That alone is enough to get my geek heart aflutter.
But then came the announcement that Lucas had made more changes to the films. "I have a bad feeling about this," I thought. The first one we heard about was that the digital Yoda from Episodes II and III would be inserted into Episode I, replacing the puppet that was used in the original release. Now, granted, replacing the puppet in EMPIRE and JEDI would be grounds for assassination... but that PHANTOM MENACE puppet WAS pretty terrible. So far, so good.
I also saw that they have actually improved the infamous Han/Greedo scene in A NEW HOPE. Now, Greedo still gets a shot off, but it's cleaner and more simultaneous, like an old-west shootout. Still dumb as hell... but slightly more palatable. Fair enough.
But wait, there’s more. Seems Lucas has also decided to alter Ben Kenobi’s Krayt dragon impression in A NEW HOPE for no good reason, and now it sounds like something Yoko Ono would have recorded in the ‘70s. And he added extra rocks to the scene where Artoo is hiding after the Sandpeople attack, which makes no sense (how did he get back there? how does he get out?). And he digitally altered the Ewoks eyes so they now blink, because clearly, the non-blinking eyes is the reason why people don’t like Ewoks. Dumb, unnecessary changes, all... really just tinkering for the sake of tinkering... but still, harmless enough in the scheme of things. Wouldn’t have stopped me from purchasing the Blu-Rays if the changes ended here.
Sadly, they did not.
Darth Vader bellowing a cheesy-sounding “NOOOOO” as he hurls the Emperor to his death in what is arguably the seminal moment of the entire Star Wars saga??
That, I cannot forgive.
We can all see why Lucas did this, cinematically speaking. Vader bellows “NOOOOO!” as he comes to life at the end of REVENGE OF THE SITH. So, in George’s clueless mind, it makes sense to parallel that with Vader bellowing “NOOOOO” as he finds redemption at the end of RETURN OF THE JEDI. It makes sense, from a certain, twisted point of view. Except for two things:
First, the “NOOOOO” in Episode III was one of the most reviled moments of the entire prequel trilogy (which is really saying something). It turned what should have been Anakin's lowest moment of despair into... well, a joke. Actually, it wasn't even the "NOOOOO" itself that was so bad (hell, Luke screams "NOOOOO" when he learns Vader's identity in EMPIRE and it works), but the execution of the scene and the delivery of the line is just... so... bad. Fans made no secret of their feelings, and we know that Lucas is a stubborn, touchy bastard, so it's almost as if he is now saying, "You hated the 'NOOOOO' in SITH, did ya? Well, you're really gonna hate this." It's like he is sending a blatant, rousing "FUCK YOU" to all of Star Wars fandom.
Second, and most important: Sure, JEDI is a flawed film at times, and one that first raised the red flag that maybe Lucas was beginning to lose touch with reality as a result of his massive success. But whatever -- from the Rancor to Luke’s green lightsaber to the speeder bike chase, the movie rules. But the REAL reason it stands as my all-time favorite movie is because the last forty-five minutes. The Battle of Endor, the assault on the Death Star, and Luke’s duel with Vader as the Emperor looks on... quite simply, that is cinematic perfection. Especially the duel. I love everything about those scenes. Luke’s turmoil. “Your overconfidence is your weakness / Your faith in your friends is yours!” Luke finally giving in to the Dark Side as John Williams’ score swells. “I am a Jedi, like my father before me.” “So be it... Jedi.” The Emperor unleashing Dark Side energy (remember, at the time, we had never seen Force Lightning until that moment, so it was like HOLY SHIT). “Young fool, only now at the end do you understand.” And then Vader’s silent turmoil as he looks back and forth between his dying son and his vengeful master... and his ultimate, wordless decision to come back to the good side. A lump is forming in my throat as I write this, and it is two-fold: The scene is so powerful and I love it so much AND I hate that Lucas has turned it into a joke by adding that “NOOOOO.” This is NOT a change for which I can close my eyes, put my fingers in my ears and go “LALALALA”... because goddammit, I don’t WANT to have to do that during my favorite fucking movie moment of all time!
And so, here we are. After all these years of defending the Star Wars films and loving them unconditionally, George Lucas has finally pushed me too far. He finally messed with something he really shouldn't have messed with, to the point where it renders my favorite movie unwatchable. It's clear that he is more machine now than man; twisted and evil. And unfortunately, the only thing that we, the fans, can do in protest is simply not buy it.
That I will not be receiving the Star Wars Saga on glorious Blu-Ray this week makes me very sad. I’ve never been more depressed about not spending $80. I had planned to spend the coming weekend watching all six films in one sitting for the first time ever, digging through the bonus features, basking in the high-def experience... that's out the window now. And the worst part is, it will probably make no difference. The geeks have come out en masse to protest on Amazon.com, where the set currently has a dismal two-star rating (with 753 out of 1,035 giving it a one-star thrashing), but it will probably still sell like hotcakes to the general public who either don't know or don't care as much as the die-hards. Meanwhile, Lucas will sit up in his tower, oblivious to the fact that, while the dollars are still rolling in, he has alienated his most loyal and important fan base.
Regardless, I strongly urge my fellow Star Wars fans to follow suit and cancel your pre-orders if you haven't already done so. Might as well do what little we can. And maybe someday Lucas will come to his senses and have Han shoot Greedo in cold blood, remove those ludicrous "Vader shuttle" scenes from EMPIRE, and above all, get that God-forsaken "NOOOOO" out of JEDI... or at the very least, give us every version of the films (theatrical, special edition, super-special edition, etc.) to both preserve their evolution for history's sake AND allow us to choose which ones we want to watch. But until that happens, George Lucas... you have failed me for the last time.