Back in 1997, Lucasfilm theatrically re-released the original Star Wars trilogy in celebration of the first film’s 20th anniversary. The build up was massive, the anticipation huge, but when fans finally saw these remastered versions of their beloved films, there were noticeable… changes.
Changes both good – remixed audio, crisp visuals, enhanced effects work – and bad, or worse, downright ugly. There was a notable amount of CGI added to the films, there were entirely new scenes added while others significantly altered, and in some cases these changes impacted not only characterization, but the films’ own sense of continuity. Needless to say, the alterations enacted within the Special Editions created a rift between fans and creator – a dispute documented in an actual documentary, The People vs George Lucas.
The highly contentious Special Editions were soon followed by the also controversial prequel films, which later received a DVD then Blu-ray release as a six-film set containing (you guessed it) more changes to the original trilogy. The changes from 2004’s DVD and 2011’s Blu-ray release built upon the changes of the Special Editions, using CGI to achieve Lucas’s “ideal” vision for the Star Wars saga and better align the original trilogy with the prequels.
With rumors Disney is planning to release an unaltered version of the original Star Wars trilogy and the expectation that another Star Wars box set will arrive just in time for the holidays (and the release of The Force Awakens), now is a fitting time to revisit those infamous changes George Lucas made to a galaxy far, far away. Here are our rankings of 15 changes made to the original Star Wars trilogy – The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.
So to begin with, here are 5 Good Changes Made in the Star Wars Special Editions.
Good: Overall Special Effects Enhancement
It’s no secret that Star Wars was a revolutionary film when it came to visual effects. Even today you’d be hard-pressed to find a movie that hasn’t received some work from Industrial Light & Magic – the visual effects company Lucas founded just before work began on Star Wars in 1975. Almost 40 years later, many of the effects from the original Star Wars trilogy not only hold up, but remain unchanged – even in both the Special Edition, DVD and Blu-ray releases! (Believe me, I simultaneously watched both a Blu-ray and an unaltered laser disc file of the original Star Wars trilogy in preparation for this article. Not nearly as much of the movies have been changed as the widespread outrage leads us to believe.)
The fact that scenes like A New Hope‘s opening shot of a Star Destroyer looming into frame can still leave us gobsmacked is a testament to those visual effects artists. Yet, even they couldn’t recreate every idea or concept George Lucas dreamed up. It was Lucas’ regret over those few, poor looking effects that formed the very root of the Special Editions, and while many agree that Lucas may have crossed a line with his tinkering (more on that later), there are a handful of instances where the original effects are updated with CGI that feel entirely justified.
For example, on set in Tunisia the crew used a tiny, motorized model for shots where the Jawas’ Sandcrawler was traversing the desert, but the model didn’t translate on screen as the massive, lumbering vehicle Lucas had imagined. So for the Special Editions, Lucas had ILM redo the Sandcrawler shot with a digital model and – as you can see from the comparison shot above – the result is a huge improvement.
Small changes like this are littered throughout the now revised versions of the original Star Wars trilogy: improved lightsaber effects making them appear more vibrant, the orange blur removed from under Luke’s speeder, the Praxis effected added to the destruction of both Alderaan and the Death Star, matte lines removed from the snow speeders during the Battle on Hoth, and so on. But because they aren’t as overt or noticeable as others (see section: The Ugly) they pass without scrutiny, and in some cases, are a praiseworthy addition.
Good: Aurebesh Replaces English
The Star Wars universe is vast, containing hundreds of aliens from different worlds speaking a variety of languages. However, in the original trilogy, just about everyone on screen spoke English – or as it’s referred to in canon, Galactic Basic Standard. The Basic language is just that, the most basic language that most residents of a galaxy far, far away (and us, the audience) can understand, and for the most part it’s indistinguishable from English.
Except when written. Basic does not use the Latin alphabet of English and countless other Earth languages, instead Basic is written using Aurebesh. But Aurebesh didn’t appear on screen until Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, and even then, the Aurebesh symbols used were completely random. It wasn’t until Stephen Crane of West End Games chose to add meaning to the random symbols when working on several Star Wars miniature and role-playing games that Aurebesh was officially “born.”
And in the 2004 DVD release, Aurebesh finally replaced any and all English writing that still appeared in Episode IV: A New Hope, most notably on consoles within the Death Star. The change is minor, to be sure, but it’s one that gives a cohesiveness to the Star Wars universe and adds to its otherworldly vibe.
Good: More Screen Time for Biggs Darklighter
In an earlier cut of Star Wars, Luke was introduced much earlier in the film, with scenes of his life on Tatooine spliced with the capture of Princess Leia and C-3PO and R2-D2’s escape. These scenes primarily showed Luke hanging out with friends, giving us a sense there was at least a little more to his social life than power converters and Tosche’s Station. But these scenes also introduced us to a minor though pivotal character: Luke’s best friend, Biggs Darklighter (portrayed by actor Garick Hagon).
However, I wouldn’t be surprised if you do recognize the name (or hear Mark Hamill in your head saying, “Blast it Biggs! Where are you?“) and that’s because though these earlier scenes on Tatooine were cut, Biggs still appears in the theatrical release of Episode IV – albeit very briefly. During the attack on the Death Star, it’s Biggs flying alongside Luke and Wedge Antilles when they make the final and successful trench run to destroy it. Biggs doesn’t survive that trench run and we see the effect his death has on Luke, but we aren’t told why Biggs was important to Luke (as opposed to the countless other Rebel pilots who died).
Without any earlier scenes setting up the childhood friendship between Luke and Biggs, the impact of his death is lost. That was until the Special Edition release when at least one of Biggs scenes was added back in. It’s a scene that now comes right before the assault on the Death Star, inside the Rebel Base, and it features Luke and Biggs reuniting and reminiscing like old friends. It’s a short scene, but it practically doubles Biggs’ screen time and gives us a least some idea that he and Luke go way back, making his death yet another in a long string of tragedies Luke suffers throughout the trilogy.
Good: Ian McDiarmid as The Emperor
As far as most Star Wars fans are concerned, Ian McDiarmid is and always has been Emperor Palpatine, even playing the younger version of the character (oddly enough as an older actor) during the prequel films. But when The Emperor first appeared on screen in The Empire Strikes Back, McDiarmid hadn’t yet been cast. And really, at this point in the saga the role of The Emperor was minor, existing only as a great evil lurking in the shadows and pulling the strings.
For the theatrical release of Episode V, The Emperor was achieved through a couple of means. Appearing via hologram in a scene with Darth Vader, Palpatine was physically portrayed by Elaine Baker, wife of makeup artist Rick Baker, who then had chimpanzee eyes superimposed over her own to give her the look of an old man. The Emperor’s dialogue was then dubbed by actor Clive Revill. Yet, the final effect was never to Lucas’ liking, as a woman in age makeup with ape eyes wasn’t what he had in mind for the most powerful Sith in the galaxy.
For the DVD release, it was decided that Ian McDiarmid would be inserted as The Emperor for not only continuity’s sake but to improve upon that original effect. McDiarmid’s new scene as The Emperor was shot during filming on Episode III: Revenge of the Sith and included slight variations on the scene’s original dialogue. For instance, now The Emperor refers to Luke as the offspring of Anakin Skywalker, causing Vader to essentially refer to himself in third person, only further cementing that the man Anakin was before turning to the dark side is truly dead.
The insertion of McDiarmid is by far one of the more substantial changes made to the original trilogy, but it’s also one of the most welcomed. And for being as noticeable as it is, it’s a change that blends seamlessly with the original film, due in large part to the relative ease of swapping one holographic image for another.
Good: Cloud City’s Digital Scenery
For being named Cloud City, the floating city on Bespin as it first appeared in The Empire Strikes Back doesn’t quite fit the imagery its name suggests. Once inside, Cloud City is almost indistinguishable from a dozen other facilities seen throughout the saga. With its stark white walls and endless corridors, the set used doesn’t evoke a city high among clouds.
Reportedly, the claustrophobic nature of the Cloud City set was a complaint of director Irvin Kershner who, like Lucas, envisioned Cloud City having a very open design, with large windows allowing for grand views of the city and its surrounding clouds. However, the matte paintings required to recreate such vistas would have been numerous and expensive, on top of being very difficult to composite onto the film as it puts limitations on where the actors can be within the frame. Plus, the green screen technology of the day left much to be desired, and if we’re already harping on those few effects that didn’t age as well as others, we can only imagine how poorly Cloud City’s 1980s green screen would be received today.
To rectify this the Special Editions used computer graphics to open up Cloud City’s corridors, creating large windows with views of the city skyline and its puffy, pink clouds. The effect is noticeable but non-intrusive, allowing for Cloud City to appear as a truly idyllic refuge for our heroes – that is then twisted and distorted once it’s revealed The Empire has been there all along, laying a trap. The DVD and Blu-ray releases have since tweaked the digital scenery of Cloud City and each time the work only looks better and better, making it hard for even die-hard purists to argue for a return to the severity of Cloud City’s original appearance.
Bad: R2-D2 Behind The Rocks
While the advancement in digital effects has greatly improved some of the effects work from the original trilogy (see section: The Good), there are still several instances where the additional CGI borders on obnoxious. And though these instances aren’t the worst that the Special Editions and later releases have to offer, they’re still pretty unnecessary.
A perfect example of one of these unnecessary additions comes in 2011’s Blu-ray release of A New Hope, where R2-D2 is now seen slightly obscured by some digital rocks when the Sand People attack Luke and later are driven away by Obi-Wan Kenobi (where another strong candidate for these not terrible, but unnecessary changes happens – the new Krayt Dragon call). The point of the addition is to make Artoo appear more adequately hidden, where previously the little astromech was merely tucked away in an alcove.
Yet, was there ever any real confusion over why the Sand People didn’t notice Artoo? How did he even manage to squeeze himself in there so quickly? These digital rocks also don’t blend with the actual rocks of Tunisia or Death Valley at all. The Blu-ray release’s digital rocks were added to make Artoo’s hiding spot more discreet, but ultimately the effect is distracting and unnecessary.
Bad: Extended Mos Eisley Entrance
Cloud City may benefit from the added digital wizardry, but Mos Eisley does not. The spaceport is sadly at the heart of many of the Special Editions most egregious changes, and even the minor tinkering the location endures does more to hinder its scenes than help. The original Mos Eisley may not have come across as congested or bustling as Lucas imagined, but the subsequent changes instead give the setting an awkward, almost slapdash appearance, with random bystanders and CGI creatures very obviously inserted into the scenery.
There are a handful of changes to the Mos Eisley sequence that are subtle or only enhance an already existing effect – the entrance of Luke’s speeder into Mos Eisley, for instance, has been cleaned up to remove the matte lines around the vehicle, making it appear less like a sticker stuck to the frame. But unfortunately, most of the additions to Mos Eisley are obtrusive: extra people, Jawas, droids, stormtroopers, Rontos, Dewbacks – they absolutely litter the screen!
Even more offensive, these newly added characters and creatures will at times even block the action. For example, during the famous “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for” scene, the action is obscured not once, but three times as various new elements walk through the frame – a stream of people, some droids, and the worst, a Ronto that appears so close to the camera all that appears in frame is a giant wall of reptilian flesh! These additions aren’t only distracting and superfluous, but actually hurt existing and crucial scenes of the film.
Bad: Too Many Stormtroopers
Stormtroopers get a pretty bad rap in the Star Wars universe, and not because they’re the legion of the hated Empire, but because they couldn’t shoot the broad side of a Bantha at five yards. (“Only Imperial Stormtroopers are so precise.” Ha! Good one, Obi-wan.) When they aren’t missing shots on enemies who are literally standing still, stormtroopers will run towards oncoming fire like lemmings, dropping one after the other.
All that being said, anyone armed with a blaster should pose at least some threat, and when it’s a whole squad of stormtroopers, well, that isn’t nothing. In the original version of A New Hope, Han Solo faces just this situation. After escaping the trash compactor, our heroes unexpectedly run into a squad of stormtroopers on patrol and Han, being ever the reckless smuggler, runs at them firing his blaster wildly and screaming like a mad man. The visibly spooked stormtroopers take off in the other direction with Han and Chewie in pursuit, until they reach the end of the corridor where they finally realize how easily they outnumber their pursuers and start firing back.
The scene makes for a good gag, one that plays both on the stormtroopers being useless soldiers and Han’s penchant to not always think before he acts. Yet, the scene is altered for the Special Edition release. Han no longer chases the stormtroopers into a dead end, but rather into a hanger full of stormtroopers. Like a lot, a whole lot. Hundreds even. And what was essentially a funny moment of incompetence on the part of the stormtroopers is now turned into something entirely absurd. More isn’t always better, and Han returning unscathed after bumping into so many stormtroopers is utterly ridiculous.
Bad: Get A Look At That Wampa
For the most part, The Empire Strikes Back has been altered the least of the original trilogy, but that doesn’t mean it’s without an unnecessary change or two. In this case, the scene in question comes early in the film, after Luke has been attacked by the Wampa and dragged back to its lair. What follows is a frightening sequence in where Luke must defend himself from becoming this unseen creature’s lunch and it works especially well because we only see the Wampa in quick flashes.
When it came to the Special Editions, however, Lucas wanted the Wampa to feature more prominently and for the re-release a full size Wampa was included in the scene. Now when Luke awakens to find himself hanging upside down in the creature’s cave, we actually see the Wampa feasting on Luke’s Tauntaun. And when Luke later cuts off the creature’s arm we see a full shot of the Wampa wailing and holding what remains of its severed limb.
Initially, this change was considered for “The Good” section because the full size Wampa is an improvement over the original puppet and his inclusion in the scene isn’t terribly distracting. Yet, by comparing the two scenes side by side it’s clear that getting a good look at the Wampa instead of only seeing it in short bursts hurts the scene’s frightening atmosphere. It’s another case of where less is more, and though the Wampa sure looks scary, the sequence doesn’t play as scary as it did before the changes.
Bad: Vader Screams “Nooo!” Again
Many of the changes enacted upon the original trilogy for the Blu-ray release are considered the most superfluous. After having already endured alterations for both the Special Editions and DVDs, by the time the Blu-rays released there were far less technical issues in the original trilogy in need of fixing, leaving many of the changes to only better align the films with the prequel trilogy.
This was done in a number of ways, the worst being featured elsewhere (see section: The Ugly), but even a few of the minor changes are pretty bad. For instance, Darth Vader using the last of his strength to save his son from The Emperor in Return of the Jedi is a heroic moment, culminating the character’s six-film arc. But still, the scene wasn’t spared from needless tampering.
For the Blu-ray, audio of Vader saying “No,” while Luke is being tortured, followed by him screaming, “Nooo!” as he throws The Emperor down a bottomless shaft has been dubbed into the scene. And at first it may not seem too terrible, that is until you realize it’s something of a callback to Vader’s “Nooo!” from Revenge of the Sith. Not only is the added audio exceptionally unnecessary, but it’s reminiscent of a detested prequel trilogy moment.
Ugly: Greedo Shoots First
By far the most hotly debated change to the original trilogy, the alterations made to this one scene over the years have been numerous. Originally the scene went as such: Greedo aims his pistol at Han while the two are seated in the cantina, but before Greedo can get a shot off, Han shoots him from under the table. It’s a dirty move, sure, but Han is a smuggler after all and his somewhat dubious morals are part of his charm.
In the Special Edition release, the scene changes to Greedo shooting first and inexplicably missing, followed by Han shooting him as he did originally. Lucas’ argument for the switch is two-fold: it was always his intention for Greedo to shoot first and Han was never meant to be such an underhanded character.
For the DVD release the scene was changed again, this time making it appear that both Greedo and Han shoot at almost the same time. Instead of Greedo flat out missing his shot, we’re expected to believe Han dodges it at the last minute, though there’s really no evidence of this in scene. In the Blu-ray release the scene was changed yet again, this time being shortened by several frames to make it appear more like their shots are simultaneous (and presumably make it harder for fans to continue nitpicking).
Obviously, the change doesn’t only fundamentally alter the dynamic of the scene but the characters within it. Greedo now appears as the most inept of hitmen, missing his target at only three feet, and Han now acts as if he needs more reason to shoot than having a gun aimed at him. The constant tinkering with this scene doesn’t fix anything, instead it only perpetuates an ongoing dispute between creator and fans.
Ugly: Jabba in ‘A New Hope’
Possibly the ugliest of Ugly changes made to the original Star Wars trilogy comes not long after the infamous “Han Shot First” debacle. It’s a scene Lucas had always intended to appear in his original cut of Star Wars, where the gangster Jabba the Hutt would personally visit Han Solo, demanding payment. The scene was filmed with actor Declan Mulholland as a stand-in for Jabba with the intention for a stop-motion creature (not so unlike the Rancor in Return of the Jedi) to be added in later. Yet the scene never came to fruition, mostly due to Lucas being unsatisfied with the stop motion effect, and the scene was scrapped.
That is, until the Special Editions. For the re-release the scene of Jabba confronting Han in Mos Eisley was included, only this time with a digitally created Jabba masking Mulholland. And the final result is downright ugly for a number of reasons. The CGI Jabba is atrocious, clashing with the worn look of A New Hope and looking quite different from how he later appears in Return of the Jedi. The scene is also redundant, since Han’s previous encounter with Greedo already sets up Han’s debt to Jabba and the bounty now on his head.
Adding insult to injury, the scene as it was originally blocked features Harrison Ford walking behind Mulholland. This proved a tricky element of the scene given that Jabba as we know him is a giant slug with a tail. To “fix” this, Han is now depicted as stepping on Jabba’s tail, but the final effect is appalling. The image of Han jitters as he moves up and over Jabba’s tail in an moment that’s clunky and terribly distracting. Later releases on both DVD and Blu-ray have thankfully improved on the original CGI Jabba, but the addition as a whole still looks awful and is completely unnecessary.
Ugly: New Musical Scene in Jabba’s Palace
In Return of the Jedi, Jabba’s palace was another opportunity to put a vast array of unique and interesting aliens on display, much like Mos Eisley’s cantina. And also like the cantina, a gangster’s hangout deserves a house band. In the original release that was the Max Rebo Band and the number they performed was “Lapti Nek.”
Then came the Special Editions and in absolutely baffling decision, Lucas changed the short interlude into a full blown musical number. Now featuring a song called “Jedi Rocks,” the Max Rebo Band’s lead singer, Sy Snootles is a digital creature (though her practical puppet is still visible in a previous shot) and she is joined by the obnoxious and hairy, Joh Yowza.
To call the scene distracting would be an understatement. Visually, it’s incongruous with the dingy, smoky atmosphere of Jabba’s Palace, largely in part because of how badly the CGI aliens mesh with the real actors and sets. The new song also doesn’t fit with the mood of the setting, making the change feel all the more abrasive. Not since the infamous Holiday Special has there been such a regrettable mix of Star Wars and popular music.
(And here’s another sin worth calling out in this scene: extraneous Boba Fett sightings. Throughout the musical number the camera repeatedly cuts to the bounty hunter as he watches the performance and flirts with a few dancers. But other than to remind us that, “Hey, Boba Fett’s a character and he’s here,” nothing is gained from the cutaways. He made a similar appearance for appearance’s sake during Jabba’s added scene in Episode IV (see above). And we get it, Boba Fett looks cool in that Mandalorian armor, but how about actually giving him something cool to do other than strutting through the background and falling into Sarlacc pits. Guess we’ll have to wait for his solo film for any of that.)
Ugly: Blinking Ewoks
Of the three original Star Wars films, Return of the Jedi receives the most fan backlash and that’s due in large part to one thing: the Ewoks. For the fans that embraced Episode V‘s darker, more mature themes, having the Rebellion rescued by cute and cuddly teddy bears was unthinkable. In the years since, some considered their introduction as the beginning of Star Wars‘ downfall, with the Ewoks leading the way for Gungans and pod races.
Surely, the Ewoks themselves aren’t all that bad, but thanks to another needless tweak found in the Blu-ray release, the Ewoks have gone from a little annoying but cute to downright creepy. Now the Ewoks blink with the help of CGI eyelids and the effect is… unsettling. Besides being unnecessary and the very definition of gratuitous, the work to enable each Ewok with a pair of blinking eyelids was likely tedious. And when money and artistic effort is wasted on giving eyelids to space bears, then you really are scraping the bottom of the barrel for substantial changes.
The original Star Wars trilogy has weathered more than any film’s fair share of post-release alterations, but the blinking Ewoks encapsulate perfectly how nitpicky these changes have become with each version. There are clearly changes that are more distracting and more egregious, but none are as unwarranted.
Ugly: Hayden Christensen in ‘Return of The Jedi’
Throughout this article we’ve covered changes both bad and good, changes that enhanced an existing effect and those that ruined them. But of all the changes made to the original Star Wars trilogy, not one is more hated, more reviled than Hayden Christensen appearing as a Force ghost in Return of the Jedi. (Even worse, there’s a rumor he’ll appear again in Episode VIII!)
The scene, as it originally existed, saw the blue apparitions of Yoda and Obi-Wan joined by a third – a redeemed Anakin Skywalker, now again a member of the Light, having been saved in his final moments by his son. The scene is poignant and full of closure as Anakin, not Darth Vader, is depicted as healed and whole – the very image of the father Luke (and Leia) would never know.
Then came the DVD release and that family moment was forever ruined. In order to better associate the character seen in this scene with the character audiences followed through Episodes I-III, Anakin’s previous actor, Sebastian Shaw (who still appears as a dying man inside Vader’s suit) was replaced with Christensen, the prequel trilogy’s Anakin. And if there ever was a change made to the original trilogy that stung Star Wars fans the worst, it’s this one.
The change achieves little more than to remind viewers of Christensen’s universally panned performance, a true low point for the franchise. Not to mention bringing up more questions, like why does no other character revert to their younger self as a Force ghost? Wouldn’t Obi-Wan prefer to be young and fit as Ewan McGregor as opposed to an aged Alec Guinness? Bottom line, this is the absolute worst change made to the original Star Wars trilogy and the reasoning for it is flimsy at best.
These are the 15 changes to the original Star Wars trilogy we ranked as being good, bad, and ugly, but we know that’s not all of them. What changes did George Lucas make to the original trilogy that you actually like? Which do you hate? And which do you hate the most? Let us hear your opinions on these contentious changes in the comments below!