Saturday, September 3, 2011

Does George Lucas Have the Right to Tamper with His Star Wars Classics?

As we draw closer to the Phantom Menace 3D release date in 2012, the controversies will swirl around again as to whether George Lucas should be tinkering with the Star Wars films. It is hard to imagine that it has now been almost 15 years since the theatrical release of the Star Wars Special Editions, which caused a greater shockwave through the Star Wars universe than the destruction of the first and second Death Stars combined. With these 3D releases, some of the same questions will be dredged up again. Here is my take on a few of those questions:
Should Lucas have tampered with the Original Trilogy and released the Special Editions?
Yes…and no…
Traditionalism is nearly lost in our society today. The emphasis is on new, cutting edge technology, breaking, up to minute news, and on the latest and greatest toys that we can lay our grubby little hands on. Anything that existed prior to 1990 is now considered “classic.” Classic Rock used to be music from the 1960’s and 1970’s.  Now a song from the late 80’s is “classic.”  Why? Most likely this is driven by the fact that much of pop culture entertainment (movies, sports, and television) is geared toward an 18 – 25 year old audience. If you are 21 now, you were born around 1990 and music from the 60’s pre-dated your birth by three decades.
Our culture is driven to change and adapt. We colorize old black and white movies. We restore priceless works of art. We renovate old historic landmarks. We tear down old attractions that no longer generate interest and revenue in amusement parks and sometimes tear down the amusement parks themselves. We use instant replay in sports. We stopped speaking Latin. The point is that as time marches on, many times it knocks down and tramples anything in its way. Apparently, the Star Wars universe is no different.
I have been a Star Wars fan my whole life. In fact, since I was a young child when Star Wars hit theaters, I consider my generation to be the “Star Wars Generation.” In that way, I can understand the point of the traditionalists who lament Lucas’ tampering with their history, their childhood memories. However, we lose sight of something as fans, which by the way, is an abbreviated form of the word “fanatic.”  The Star Wars movies are George Lucas’ creations. They are his children. As fans, we may have spent countless hours watching and re-watching the movies and yes, we have invested in them both emotionally and financially, but Lucas spent years of his life making them and risked his health, career, and family life to bring his vision to the screen. He rolled the dice when making the deal for Star Wars and agreed to make less money so that he could retain more creative control and sequel rights. This seems ludicrous now, with 20/20 hindsight, well over a billion in revenue, and five sequels in his back pocket, but at the time, making Star Wars was a big risk for Lucas. Should he now have to answer to all of us, if he wants to clean up some scenes and drop in a digital dewback or two? No, he shouldn’t have to. Similarly, he shouldn’t be able to dictate what I post on this site. Nor should he have the power to force your kids to wear those horrendous plaid shirts he wears. However, once Lucas made the decision to “tread on hallowed ground” by releasing the Special Editions with changes and not merely clean-up work, he had to be prepared to live with the backlash. Whether prepared or no, it is safe to say that he has had to live with the backlash.
Should the original theatrical releases of the Original Trilogy be available for fans to purchase?
Although Lucas may look at the theatrical versions as his first drafts, upon which he was able to improve with CGI technology, they are part of pop culture history and are biblical to millions of fans across the globe. Obviously, these fans loved them in their original condition, blemishes and all, so why not make them available? If they weren’t legendary and beyond criticism at this point, it might make sense to hide them away forever, but when you’ve reached the top of the insurmountable mountain, does it matter how you made it up there?
There are many who consider the imperfections of a classic to be the very aspects that make it special. Was the Vaseline distorted area under the land speeder pretty? No, but it was an old camera trick that Lucas and his crew utilized to hide the wheels that were actually propelling the land speeder. Does it look better cleaned up? Sure, but it did not need to be changed. There are dozens of other special effects that I may have felt needed improvement, which Lucas left untouched. The point is that George Lucas wanted to change it and he is in complete creative control of the Star Wars universe, which is more than can be said of many artists who have built an empire as large as his. The downside of having such total control over an intellectual property is that when your ideas are not top notch, they make it to the screen rather than winding up on the storyboard trash pile or editing room floor. Can anyone say Jar Jar Binks? I understood the purpose and intent of Jar Jar, but I think he may have needed some tweaking before being “green lighted.”
Should Greedo have “shot first?”
Absolutely not. I have read that George Lucas’ reasoning for changing this scene was that he did not want Han Solo to appear to have shot Greedo in cold blood. It is a film for all ages and that includes children, some of whom may be very small when they first see Star Wars, but I think that the rest of the film and the subsequent sequels serve to develop the character of Han Solo as anything but a cold-blooded killer. Let’s face it, Greedo was there to take Solo prisoner or kill him on the spot. Wouldn’t blasting Greedo first be self-defense? Above all, that scene in its original form established the ultimate cool of Han Solo. In that initial ten minutes of screen time, the Han Solo legend is forged in film history. Without that establishing scene, nothing Han solo does during the rest of that film is as impactful. His moments of comedic bumbling are not as funny because they are not juxtaposed to his icy cool demeanor. His return at the end of the film to help Luke and the rebels destroy the Death Star is not as dramatic. If there was one other shred of genius in Star Wars, aside from the story and special effects, it was the effective development of the characters and their relationships. The inability to achieve this same character development was the main drawback of the prequels, in my humble opinion. If Greedo should shoot first, maybe Leia should not have strangled Jabba in Return of the Jedi. Cold-blooded bimbo.
Lastly, you can watch The Star Wars Special Edition twenty seven times and not realize that the film was altered to have Greedo shoot first. You may realize that there is a laser blast ricocheting off the walls of the cantina, but how many people really knew what was going on there, before they read that Lucas had changed who does the shooting in that scene. I know I didn’t catch it.
Should Darth Vader have been “emasculated” with the infamous “Nooooooooo scene” in Revenge of the Sith?
The first three Star Wars movies (the Original Trilogy) cemented Darth Vader as one of, if not the, baddest villain in film history. A faceless, towering and imposing villain, whose coldblooded methods, perfectly complemented his terrifying appearance. Then there’s the breathing. The greatest sound effect ever in film? I vote yes! The sound effect on its own is great enough. The genius manner in which it is used only enhances its effectiveness. How terrifying are the scenes in which Vader is not visible and his presence it only revealed by the off-screen commencement of that bone chilling breathing?
The icy cold and remorseless manner in which Vader cuts down his elderly mentor Obi Wan in Star Wars gave us a glimpse into his seemingly black soul. Granted, when those of us in the "Star Wars Generation" saw that, we weren't privy their little encounter on the shores of the lava river on Mustafar from Revenge of the Sith. I would have wanted revenge too, even if Obi Wan had Depends on under that ratty brown cloak!
The point being that Vader was as close to merciless as he could be in the first two movies. Until...the finale of Empire. Vader has Luke disarmed and helpless or as he himself says, "beaten." He was ordered to bring him back to the Emperor, but if he really believed that Luke was a threat and would replace him at the Emperor's right hand, why would he not just kill him right there and let his body fall into the clouds of Bespin, never to be found? Instead, we see another side of Vader as he implores Luke to join him to defeat the Emperor and rule the galaxy together as father and son. Maybe he's not the totally evil villain we thought he was after all.
At the finale of Return of the Jedi, Vader, ever dutiful and loyal to his master, witnesses his Emperor's failure to turn his son to the Dark Side. He stands by and listens to his master entice his own son, to kill him and take his place. If Vader were truly as cold blooded and heartless as the image we have built up around him, wouldn’t he have just slain the Emperor and Luke and seized true control of the Sith as those before him had done? Instead, he remains a spectator as his Emperor, realizing that he will not turn the son as he did the father, unleashes his force lightning upon Luke in an attempt to eliminate the only threat to his dominance of the galaxy.
Here is another chance for Vader to show us the true nature of his dark soul and again he contradicts the “legend.” After years of blind devotion and obedience to the Emperor, Vader redeems himself and saves his son from certain death by destroying the Emperor. Was this a castration of our favorite villain as well? Did this make him any less fearsome of a character? Did this ruin him forever as the villain we had come to know and love? It didn’t seem that way. I don’t recall anyone ever whining about how Vader should have thrown Luke down the Death Star shaft or let the Emperor toast him to a crisp.
The point is this. The entire Star Wars saga is built upon the duality of its main character, Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader. He has the capacity for great love and compassion as well as great anger and vengefulness. Episodes 1 through 3 detail how his fear of losing those he loves eventually drives him to the Dark Side. That aspect of the story could have been revealed better in Episodes 1 through 3. The portrayal of the Anakin character left much to be desired in the prequels. It is true that there were some very big boots to fill in the prequels, yet Ewan McGregor delivers a phenomenal performance as the Obi Wan character leading us to believe that it was possible to successfully link the two Star Wars generations.
Considering all of this, does the scene where Anakin rises as Darth Vader (in the suit) for the first time and discovers that Padme is dead really emasculate the character that was so villainously legendary? I don’t think so. If we are to believe Lucas’ storyline, Vader’s obsession with keeping Padme safe is what drives his turn to the dark side and all of the heinous acts he commits for the Emperor in Revenge of the Sith. Should he simply shrug his shoulders after the Emperor informs him that it was HE who killed Padme and their unborn child? The display of anger and uncontrollable power that Vader unleashes after the Emperor lies to him about the death of his true love is exactly what we might expect. Then comes the now infamous “Nooooooooooooooooo.” That is what most people have had issue with and I agree wholeheartedly. Nothing need be said by Vader as that scene draws to a close. We got it. We understood. His uncontrolled use of the Force destroying everything in that lab, the loud Force hum, the devilish delight of the Emperor at the sight of his new weapon, all these things perfectly communicate to the audience the emotion and significance of the scene. That is where that scene could have ended. If it does, it brings the Vader character right up to where we met him in Star Wars. The rage and uncontrolled anger mask the hurt and the despair. He appears invulnerable.
The inclusion of the shot of Vader falling to his knees does further develop the notion that he is a tragic character, a point that Lucas was trying to drive home throughout the prequels. The cry of despair (the infamous “Nooooooo”) drives home the tragic character aspect a bit too hard and leaves us with a diminished image of Vader as a villain and a Dark Lord of the Sith. We almost pity him. Yet, maybe that is the point. For those of us who grew up with the Original Trilogy Vader, the transition is not an easy one. Maybe the point is that the lines between good and evil, between the Dark and Light Side, are not as clearly defined as we want them to be. They usually are not that clear in real life, so why should art not imitate life in a galaxy far, far away?

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