Ever since May 25, 1977, people have wanted to re-capture that Star Wars magic like it was the first time. Initially it was easy. Star Wars (back before it was Episode IV: A New Hope) enjoyed an 18 month run and numerous re-releases in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s before its eventual home media release on VHS, Betamax, LaserDisc, and all those other crazy, now-extinct ’80s formats. But it wasn’t the same. Even with the first releases, changes had already been made to the movie, although many were small things, like the addition of “Episode IV: A New Hope” in the opening crawl or the use of alternate takes, often resulting in changes to the audio tracks resulting in new (or missing) dialogue compared to the initial release, the most famous of which was the “close the blast doors” line spoken by a stormtrooper on the Death Star, which alternately appeared and vanished depending on the release – Ben Burtt actually re-mixed all the audio for most new home releases.
The biggest change came in 1997 with the 20th-anniversary release of the Special Edition. George Lucas had obviously already tinkered with the movies quite a bit, with some of the first changes happening while Star Wars was still in theaters, but the Special Edition was when he finally put his foot down and made some of the biggest changes he’d been wanting to make for years. The movies were completely remastered and new footage was added through the use of CGI and even a few pick-up shoots that were spliced into the original footage.
While the Special Edition was initially well-received and performed well at the box office, it would eventually become a wedge between Lucas and a segment of fandom, possibly due to the fact that the Special Edition wasn’t merely an alternate or directors cut of Star Wars, but it became the definitive cut as Lucas discontinued distribution of any previous version, making the LaserDisc copy the last version that hewed closely to the theatrical release.
Subsequent DVD and BluRay releases didn’t make things better, as Lucas continued to make changes. Despite some drastic improvements to the quality in some areas, a few changes became major sticking points for fans. The 2006 DVD release did finally include the “unaltered” versions on bonus disks, but they were just copies of the LaserDisc, lacking any of the sort of remastering or improvements the altered versions had benefitted from.
As such, fans have been clamoring – basically since 1977 – for remasters of the original cut, keeping Star Wars the way they remember it, but updating it to glorious 1080p, or even 4k, for enjoyment on modern TVs. It seems like there’s a rumor that Lucasfilm intends to do exactly that every couple of months, but so far nothing has materialized. The thing is, they’re making the right decision. They shouldn’t release the theatrical cuts.
They Aren’t What You Remember
Fans have been chasing that first theatrical experience for 40 years now. While a significant chunk of the current fandom wasn’t even alive to experience it, we’ve all heard the legends from older fans about how their life changed when the tip of the Devastator first came across the top of the screen as the massive Star Destroyer chased down Princess Leia on the Tantive IV. The thing is, the experience people remember is filtered through decades of nostalgia and rose colored glasses.
Sure, Star Wars is an amazing movie and has always been beautiful, but the version everyone remembers is not in 4k with dolby 5.1 surround sound. There were only a couple dozen 70mm stereo screens showing Star Wars in its original theatrical run, meaning the vast majority of moviegoers experienced it in mono audio with projectors of varying levels of dimness, and the home releases most people remember are worn out VHS tapes if they weren’t outright taped from a TV broadcast. In fact, the DVD releases of the LaserDisc master more than sufficiently recreate the experience fans had in the 70s and 80s.
Now that the Special Editions have been the “definitive versions” for longer than the theatrical was, what most people think of when they think of a theatrical release is the video and audio quality of one of Special Edition or BluRay versions, only where Han Shoots first and CGI Jabba the Hutt doesn’t make an appearance. While talking about the process of making Rogue One, ILM’s John Knoll said that “The overwriting philosophy of [Rogue One] was to match more how you remember it than how it actually was,” specifically drawing attention to the cheap stormtrooper armor used to shoot the original Star Wars:
“If you’ve ever seen one of the originals from Star Wars in person, they kind of look like a high school craft project. They’re a little sloppy and didn’t figure that stuff would quite hold up today. So the ones that are in our movie are from exactly the same original design, it’s just a somewhat better execution of that original design. If you take a step back, they look like, ‘Wow, that looks like the classic stormtrooper, I love it.’ But it’s a lot better made than the originals.”
Star Wars was groundbreaking with its use of special effects, but not much of it would actually hold up today, and part of the reason Star Wars has superseded the status of cult classic is because of these visual updates – for better or worse.
Die hard fans always point to one of the many fan edits, with Harmy’s Despecialized Edition being one of the most popular, but even Harmy’s claim of “despecialized” is a bit of a misnomer, as the majority of the footage used as a source for his edit comes straight from the much derided BluRay itself. Sure, changes were made to make it match the original theatrical look, but they’re still relying on the Lucas remasters to accomplish that.