Coming soon in 3D, the ‘Star Wars’ movies are set for release in cinemas once again, with Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace due to be unleashed in February 2012.
Researching the chapter on the ‘Star Wars’ phenomenon for my forthcoming sci-fi book Outer Limits, I spent an entertaining weekend before Christmas watching all six of the ‘Star Wars’ films, in chronological order: The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, Revenge of the Sith, A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. [The Clone Wars fills in the gaps between Attack and Revenge, but as an animated feature it doesn’t count as part of the official series]
As a set of films, the sextet tells a far-ranging saga. The special effects are dazzling, but there’s a gulf in the storytelling between the first three films as released (New Hope, Empire and Jedi) which tell Luke Skywalker’s fight against the Empire – and the second three, which are prequels that depict Luke’s father Anakin’s journey to the ‘dark side’ in much simpler terms. When they are exhibited later this year, the 3D editions of the original trilogy (which were released to great success by George Lucas over a six-year period, from 1977 to 1983) will be the revamped ‘special editions’ that the director created in 1997 and 2004. These differ significantly from the original versions, with many more sound and special effects, more impressive lightsabers, laser blasts and explosions, and in some cases the reinstatement of scenes originally left on the cutting room floor. For example, in A New Hope this includes a conversion between Han Solo and Jabba the Hutt in docking bay 94 in Mos Eisley, and a great deal more footage of the space port itself, which now has busy streets, teeming with extraterrestrial life.
I’m not always a fan of ‘special edition’ redoes and I’m especially not keen on them when the director is dead and the work is carried out by other hands. A prime example of this in recent years is the ‘special edition’ of Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and Ugly, which had a bunch of previously deleted scenes reinstated into the action. Apart from one exception (a scene where Lee Van Cleef visits a Confederate fort), the additions are out-of-place, off-the-pace, and in one case (featuring Tuco recruiting three Mexican gunslingers) downright embarrassing. Worse still, lead actors Eli Wallach and Clint Eastwood dubbed themselves in this footage, which only existed with an Italian language track – no English dub had ever been assembled. Their voices now are completely different to their 1960s selves (as you would expect) and only Lee Van Cleef, who died in 1989 and was voiced by an impersonator, works. Perhaps impersonators all round would have been a better option. A big problem with the ‘special edition’ is the sound – many of the gunshots, cannon blasts, explosions and other effects have been replaced with new sound effects and much of the film’s echoing, ricocheting soundscape is lost. As Blondy (Clint Eastwood) says in the film, ‘Every gun makes its own tune’, but in this new version, they’re distinctly off-key. Leone, who also passed away in 1989, was unavailable for comment, though the project was sanctioned by the film’s producer Alberto Grimaldi, whose PEA jointly financed the movie with United Artists. The Italian language version, Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo, which Leone did craft, is excellent however, as most of the extended scenes are present, the sound effects are correct and the Italian dubbed voices consistent throughout the movie. An English subtitled version – with newly translated subtitles – would be the ideal way to view this extended version.
With very few exceptions (Blade Runner being the best example), I prefer the original versions of films, as they were first released. After my ‘Star Wars’ marathon I watched the ‘special edition’ of A New Hope, assembled by Lucas in 1997. Without a doubt it’s quite a different film to the original 1977 release, with the laser blasts, effects and general tone more in keeping with the busier, frenetic ‘prequel’ trilogy. In the original film, Han Solo shoots bounty hunter Greedo without warning in the Mos Eisley cantina scene. But in the newer version, Greedo fires first, his shot misses Solo and hits the wall, then Han kills Greedo. This new order of events makes Han more of a ‘goodie’, but prompted dissent among many fans and led to the cult favourite T-shirt ‘Han Shot First’.
I saw the original ‘Star Wars’ film in my local Odeon in the late 1970s. As a gimmick, the theatre owner projected a starfield on the ceiling of the auditorium (like a planetarium) before the film began, to set the scene. When the film eventually commenced, the stars and our cinema ceiling seemed to be part of the film itself. This alone made the film very memorable, even before the Imperial Star Destroyer roared overhead. Three decades later, while walking up and down the aisles of ‘Toys R Us’ over Christmas, it was apparent that not much had changed since the 1970s and 1980s when it came to film and TV tie-in merchandising, with shelves devoted to Transformers, Dr Who and the ‘Star Wars’ franchise, all of which are still among the most popular toys. ‘Star Wars’ has even crossbred with LEGO to create a whole range of products. But it’s hardly surprising – cinema’s as much interested in ‘products’ these days as art.
Just as there are those who think Oasis wrote ‘I Am the Walrus’, The Beatles wrote ‘Twist and Shout’, and Leona Lewis has just ruined Johnny Cash’s maudlin classic ‘Hurt’ (it’s actually a Nine Inch Nails song, written by Trent Reznor), there will be many film buffs out there that think that these ‘special edition’ film reworkings (and 3D editions) are the genuine article, when in fact they are ‘Take Two’ (and sometimes even takes ‘Three’ and ‘Four’) on the classic originals. The song remains the same, but the tune is slightly different.