Cinephiles are well aware that more often than not, there are multiple versions of the same film that exist. Extended editions, director’s cuts, and unrated takes are very prevalent in home media, offering fans another way to watch the movie, along with the one that many saw in theaters. This is all well and good, but bringing up the notion of an altered release is sure to draw the ire of Star Wars fans across the globe. They are, after all, a bunch defined by a frustrating history with so-called “special editions” of the films they love.
Ever since 1997, each release of the Star Wars trilogy has included their own set of changes, with George Lucas claiming that they were done so the movies matched his original vision. The existence of these new takes on the classic films isn’t that much of an issue, it’s the fact that they have exclusively replaced the theatrical editions and are the only ones available in high quality. In 2006, limited edition DVDs of Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi included the initial version on a bonus disc, but they were poor laser disc transfers that were not formatted for widescreen televisions. To many viewers, this was not enough.
Some extremely devout Star Wars followers have taken matters into their own hands to give the fan community what they really want: the original, theatrical cuts of the classic trilogy in HD. The most famous example is the Despecialized Edition, which went viral during the buildup to The Force Awakens as moviegoers raved about their quality. In addition, recently a group painstakingly restored a 35mm print of the 1977 original and released it online. As more and more moviegoers download these versions, it’s becoming extremely apparent that Lucasfilm should officially release the unaltered Star Wars trilogy on Blu-ray. There are several reasons why.
Preserving Cultural History
Outside of the nuisances of the various changes, there’s a far more important reason why the studio should move forward with this kind of release. The original Star Wars trilogy (especially the first film) is a touchstone of American pop culture. They completely changed and revitalized the film industry upon their debut and impacted millions of moviegoers across the globe. The work on display earned several accolades, including numerous Academy Awards. There’s an argument to be made that the version of Star Wars people watch on Blu-ray now is not the one that was nominated for Best Picture and Best Director, or won Best Visual Effects and Best Film Editing.
Both Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back are so significant that they’ve been selected by the Library of Congress to be a part of the National Film Registry. Even there, there’s some controversy. Reportedly, when Star Wars was selected, Lucasfilm offered a print of the special edition of A New Hope. Congress rejected the submission, as the guidelines stipulate only the film as it was originally presented to the public should be accepted. This a far greater issue than it has any right to be. We live in a time where Ridley Scott’s sci-fi classic Blade Runner has five different cuts all available on Blu-ray. Consumers can purchase either the extended or theatrical editions of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. There’s no reasonable justification for withholding the theatrical versions of the first three Star Wars films, regardless of which one Lucas himself prefers. The fans just want to have the option.
There’s also a twist of irony here, since in 1988 none other than Lucas testified in front of Congress advocating the necessity of film preservation. In his speech, Lucas claimed that “People who alter or destroy works of art and our cultural heritage for profit or as an exercise of power are barbarians” and stressed that the original negatives of movies produced had to be maintained. Why he feels differently about the Star Wars trilogy being revised countless times is a mystery no one will fully solve (especially since Lucas did not direct The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi), but some would say Lucas has become one of those “barbarians” he spoke against. If this is how Lucas, the creator of Star Wars, feels about film preservation, than there’s no better way to honor his beliefs than to release the theatrical cuts of the original trilogy.
Lucasfilm Has Been Proven Wrong
In the documentary The People vs. George Lucas, there is a segment that deals with the wiping out of the theatrical cuts and fans’ displeasure with the move. Part of it covers a petition from members of the site originaltrilogy.com, asking Lucasfilm to release high quality versions of the original editions. The studio’s PR response essentially said that would be impossible, claiming that the negatives of Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi were permanently altered for the first special editions and existing prints of the theatrical versions were in poor condition.
From a certain point of view, the existence of the Despecialized Edition and the restored 35mm print has to be embarrassing for Lucasfilm, since it basically contradicts their argument. If impassioned fans could go through the great lengths and put the effort into creating their projects, surely Lucasfilm with their abundant resources could do something similar. It’s now been proven that you can make HD quality renditions of the theatrical cuts, to many people’s delight. The studio’s reply to the petition no longer holds any weight. The infamous “artistic vision” debate will rage on until the end of time, but no matter what happens, it’s now well-known that the 1977, 1980, and 1983 versions of the original trilogy can be transferred to fit modern tastes and media.
If nothing else, Lucasfilm should want to save face, since the full PR response is far from their finest moment (for starters, the word “original” appears in quotes as if the term was made up). Under Disney’s leadership, the studio has done a great job of winning back the fans’ goodwill, kicking off the new era of Star Wars in style with the monumental critical and commercial success of Episode VII. Keeping the fans happy seems to be a priority for Lucasfilm, and few things would thrill them more than an official Blu-ray release of the theatrical editions.
Next Page: What Fans Can’t Buy Legally, They’ll Pirate
The emergence of the Despecialized Edition and the new 35mm print opens a whole new can of worms for the studio. To obtain these versions of the films is technically considered pirating, which is illegal. It seems harmless on the outset, but piracy is not a victimless crime and can hurt a company financially. Obviously, Disney and Lucasfilm are not exactly pressed for money, but with the fan edits gaining more attention, there will most likely be less interest in purchasing the official Star Wars Blu-rays. It’s true that the complete saga set released in 2011 set new sales records, because it marked the first time the franchise was available on the format. However, if there were any holding out, they now have a preferred alternative to watching the movies in HD.
In an effort to dissuade fans from downloading the unofficial versions, Lucasfilm really has no choice but to green light a Blu-ray set for the unaltered trilogy. A collection like that would generate much enthusiasm and revenue, adding on to the billions already made from The Force Awakens. Even those who already have the Despecialized cuts would happily buy a Lucasfilm sanctioned release, since the studio would probably include a nice list of bonus features to sweeten the deal. Outside of all the new Star Wars films being great, this is the one thing the longtime fans want and have been clamoring for. There’s no reason not to do it. Lucasfilm is sitting on a goldmine and they just haven’t pulled the trigger.
There’s also the matter of the rumor from last fall, when filmmaker John Landis said that theatrical Star Wars Blu-rays were in the works. His source was George Lucas. Since Landis has no reason to fabricate something like this, it seemed like more than speculation and many read it as a sign that one day Lucasfilm would release HD versions of the first three films in their original glory. Unfortunately, nothing has become of this report in the months since, but those who recall the headlines are almost expecting the studio to turn around and do it. With the lure of the Despecialized Edition tempting for most, including those who do not support piracy (but are willing to bend their moral code), the obvious solution is to just put the first cuts of the movies on store shelves. Otherwise, there are those who will skip out on future home media releases as a means of protest.
If this release ever is to happen, there is a rights issue that would have to be resolved. Disney now owns Lucasfilm, but 20th Century Fox maintains the rights to The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi until 2020. Star Wars will remain with them in perpetuity. Of course, fans won’t accept the theatrical Star Wars trilogy on Blu-ray without the seminal first film, so the two studios need to come to some sort of deal. There is great incentive to do so (money, money, money), and as we’ve seen with Marvel Studios and Sony coming to terms on a Spider-Man agreement, it isn’t exactly unprecedented. There’s a good chance they could work together.
Moreover, it would make a great deal of sense if they did. Putting the original versions of the classic trilogy on official Blu-rays would accomplish a lot all at once and is just a logical move whichever way one looks at it. The notion of Star Wars canon is moot since multiple movies are offered in alternate editions and each person has their own preference. Viewers want to choose which copy of the films they watch, and they should be able to. It would just be a smart business decision and make a lot of fans happy. Ideally, the spread of the Despecialized Edition will convince Lucasfim to transfer the unaltered trilogy to HD and share it with the world. That would certainly be one way to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Star Wars with a bang next year.
Star Wars: Episode 7 – The Force Awakens is now in theaters, and will be followed by Rogue One: A Star Wars Story on December 16th, 2016, Star Wars: Episode 8 on December 15th, 2017, and the Han Solo Star Wars Anthology film on May 25th, 2018. Star Wars: Episode 9 is expected to reach theaters in 2019, followed by the third Star Wars Anthology film in 2020.