Today marks the 40th anniversary of Star Wars hitting theaters. The 40th anniversary received its own panel at Star Wars Celebration Orlando earlier this year, and there are some 40th anniversary toys currently hitting theaters. And yet, when it comes to the films themselves, they remain oddly shuttered away. There’s been no official word about a re-release or upgrading the movies into 4K. If anything, the 40th anniversary today seems to mark the totality of what Star Wars has become rather than a celebration of the original film that created such an intense and devoted following.
And that’s possibly because that film doesn’t really exist anymore. Any discussion of whether or not it will ever be re-released will inevitably get bogged down into a legal dispute over the rights holders (20th Century Fox owns A New Hope, Disney owns Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi). For the time being, our reality is that while the original versions of the original trilogy are out there if you’re willing to find them, what’s officially for sale are the Special Editions. They’re like the movies you remember, except with regrettable added material and changes that no one likes.
The Special Editions have been with us since 1997 when, to mark the 20th anniversary, 20th Century Fox re-released the original movies into theaters with these changes. While the most notorious is Han shooting second, they’re sprinkled with all kinds of distractions like the cacophony of CGI happening at Mos Eisley, the meeting between Han and Jabba, and the dear-God-where-is-the-fast-forward-button musical number “Jedi Rocks” at Jabba’s palace. We’ve had these Special Editions for twenty years, and rarely (if ever) does someone say, “Boy, I’m sure glad this stuff was added.”
The grand irony, of course, is that most of the CG changes made to these films don’t hold up twenty years later. The best digital effects remain either the ones you don’t notice, and while all of the practical effects still look great, the CG changes are as dated as almost any other digital effect from 1997, and the polish provided in the recent Blu-ray will inevitably be dated down the line. While there are always exceptions, digital effects that rely more on simplicity (like the T-1000 from T2) are the ones that have held up while Lucas’ attempt to jam in more creatures and buildings just ends up crowding the frame with fake looking stuff.
And yet, that’s what the original trilogy is today for all intents and purposes. If you’re a parent and you want to introduce your child to Star Wars without tracking down fan-created bootlegs, you have to buy it on Blu-ray, DVD, or Digital HD. And those versions are the Special Editions (with a few added changes Lucas made for the Blu-ray release like Vader screaming “Noooo!” when he throws the Emperor down the pit). That’s what your kids will grow up with, and guess what: they’ll probably still like Star Wars even though you may cringe every now and then at an unnecessary alteration.
The strength of the films themselves is undeniable. No amount of CGI trickery can diminish the characters. Even people who hate Han shooting second don’t think that Han Solo is a bad character for the rest of the trilogy. The storytelling is top-notch even though there are now more bumps in the road. The power of Star Wars can’t be snuffed out by the Special Editions’ changes, and just as these changes have engendered their fair share of detractors (myself included), we must also admit that none of us have abandoned Star Wars because of them.
While hope will remain that the various companies involved with Star Wars can come to some kind of agreement and release the original, theatrical versions in HD, right now I’ve begrudgingly come to terms with the Special Editions. It’s taken a while, and they’ll never sit completely right with me, but I also know that whenever Star Wars comes on TV, I’ll watch it. That’s the power of these movies, and while they may not be the perfect relics we once knew, the Force is still strong with them.