Saving Star Wars
The Star Wars franchise has been in damage control mode ever since the first review of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Adding new official movies to the Star Wars canon was always going to be a risky move, but nobody could have predicted just how poorly things would go. With every consecutive movie release, fans’ hopes rose only to be dashed by another subpar installment, and that disappointment went deeper than just the films. However, Disney recently purchased the Star Wars license, and has invested a considerable amount of money in it, in hopes of returning the Star Wars brand to the evergreen status it once enjoyed. They seem to have struck all the right chords with their upcoming Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, but the troubles of the Star Wars franchise can’t be completely solved with one good movie (though it will certainly help). Here are 5 things Disney could do to save Star Wars for future generations.
1. Despecialized editions. It was a neat idea, but truth be told, this is where things started going off the rails. When the Star Wars Trilogy: Special Edition hit theaters chock full of bizarre changes like deleted scenes spliced back in, shoddy CG effects galore, and some questionable content changes (and that’s putting it lightly), it seemed that these changes were all fairly innocuous. After all, these were just special editions. All we needed to do to forget the flaws was grab our originals and enjoy them the same way we always had. Except George Lucas went ahead and did the unthinkable. He had these new versions flat-out replace the originals. The Star Wars Trilogy as we knew it suddenly became completely unavailable for purchase, and the Special Editions turned into the only editions. As technology progressed, this became more and more of a problem. VHS gave way to DVD, DVD gave way to Blu-Ray, and CRTs were replaced by HDTVs. If you’ve ever tried to watch a VHS tape on an HDTV, you know that isn’t what anyone would call a pretty picture. So when the DVD format took over, we all anxiously awaited the day when we could get Star wars in crystal clear quality. Unfortunately, we’re still waiting. To this day, there still isn’t a proper, official way to watch some of the most influential movies of all time on our HDTVs. There were Laserdisc versions, which were later dumped on bonus DVDs included in a special release of the original trilogy, but those are far from easy to get ahold of these days, and they were very poor quality at that. If you want to watch Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi as they originally appeared in theaters, remastered for modern televisions, your only option is track down fan projects like the exceptional Despecialized Editions by Harmyfilm Restoration.
This is unacceptable.
Disney needs to invest the time and money in a proper restoration of all three original Star Wars films. Exactly as they first appeared in theaters. This includes the shoddy effects, plot holes, and strange cuts. The people who grew up with Star Wars want these, and they have the money to pay for them. It’s a guaranteed cash cow that can do nothing but help the brand. Sure, they look dated by today’s standards, but at the end of the day, they’re far more cohesive than the current editions with weird CG effects interacting with other effects from the 70’s and 80’s. More importantly though is their significance to cinematic history. These movies are important, and letting their original forms, the ones that made the world fall in love with Star Wars in the first place, rot away is criminal. Creating proper digital, high definition remasters of the films as they originally appeared in theaters is a surefire way to not only make a ton of money, but it’s simply the right thing to do. And I don’t just mean that from a moral standpoint.
The Library of Congress’s American National Film Registry selects 25 films each year to preserve for the future. The year they were established, they included the original 1977 Star Wars in their initial selection. That’s quite an honor. However, they still haven’t received the film, as the only version offered to them by George Lucas was the 1997 Special Edition, which the Library of Congress flat-out refused. Not even the US government, in an effort to preserve history, has access to Star Wars in its original form. Disney and Fox (who still owns the rights to the first Star Wars) no longer have to answer to George when it comes to Star Wars, so this problem absolutely needs to be solved as soon as possible. These movies won Academy Awards for their scores, effects, and designs. Those award-winning aspects have all been “corrected” in the only currently available versions, and from a historical standpoint, that’s simply unacceptable. George Lucas should be ashamed.
2. Redo the special editions. Right off the bat, for this to work, everything I just said above absolutely must happen. In order to maintain the brand and keep introducing Star Wars to future generations while adding to the mythology, modernizing the original’s weaknesses is a sound strategy. But, it absolutely has to exist alongside the originals, not replace them. Nobody would take such offense to the special editions if they weren’t forced on us as the only option. The originals are always going to be the originals. And as long as you never take them away and always present them as an option, Special Editions can be enjoyed by Star Wars fans of all ages.
The concept of Special Editions was a good idea. They were making new Star Wars movies, and the old ones were going to look dated by comparison. The majority of the effects in the original trilogy were groundbreaking for their time, but technology has advanced a lot over the years, and modern visual effects are capable of bringing so much more to the table. I’m not just talking about CG, either. Just look at what we’ve seen of The Force Awakens. There are incredible practical effects combined with outstanding CG all over the place. The result is (hopefully) Star Wars storytelling combined with imagination-exploding visuals. But the effects aren’t the stars, the world and the story are. Effects need to be used as tools, not centerpieces. The biggest problem with the Special Editions was that the majority of the new effects were there just to be there. Adding more Dewbacks didn’t make that scene better, adding the deleted Jabba scene accomplished nothing but weirdness, and the new “Jedi Rocks” segment is one of the most painfully embarrassing things I’ve ever seen. On the other hand, the new backgrounds in Cloud City were pretty nice looking, changing The Emperor to Ian McDiarmid instead of the creepy bug-eyed dude solved a legitimate problem, and those new CG shots of X-wings and the Millennium Falcon look pretty amazing. On the other other hand, the introductory scene to Mos Eisley looked great but it was bogged down by the dumb Jawa falling off the monster and that weird cackling robot. That big ring around the Death Star explosion sure looked cool, but it looked a bit unnatural on top of the original explosion. The Sarlacc Pit monster design is neat, but the effects look completely dated already. On the other other other hand, those stop-motion Tauntauns stick out like a sore thumb, some of those light saber effects, especially in A New Hope, don’t look so hot, and speaking of stop motion, how about those AT-AT’s and AT-ST’s?
What I’m getting at is that the process of modernizing the original trilogy is immensely complicated, and requires a much more thorough approach than has been taken thus far. The original trilogy could use sprucing up to make it fit visually with the new movies and keep it feeling a bit more timeless, and if you’re keeping the theatrical versions in print and treating them with the utmost respect, making new Special Editions wouldn’t piss people off, especially if it’s done right. Hire a team and go through the original movies scene by scene and treat them as a storyboard of sorts. Then use the unlimited Disney budget and create modern-looking and sounding movies that incorporate all the original sets and performances to the same extent you would use them today. Fix things like wonky stop-motion animation and uneven sound quality. (Aunt Beru was clearly voiced over in A New Hope, but her voice has no echo while Uncle Owen’s does) If you want to show more Stormtroopers riding Dewbacks, do it without making them so over animated and noisy that it takes over the scene. Create those establishing shots that couldn’t be created before, but don’t waste our time with slapstick humor and subpar visual effects. Redo all (yes, all) the outer space action sequences with modern visuals and choreography. (Again, absolutely no offense to the original miniatures and whatnot. They were incredible for their time.) Make the asteroid fields and space battles as impressive as they can be. Get John Williams and faithfully rerecord the entire score for A New Hope (it’s amazing as-is, but it sounds a little dated, especially the violins). And for the love of all that is holy get away from George Lucas’s odd obsession with all things small and cackling. Create a budget, assemble a team, modernize these movies intelligently, and don’t half-ass it. Remove nostalgia from the equation, and if it looks outdated, fix it. We have the technology. Make it look like something new. As long as you spend the money preserving the originals and making them just as much an option as the new versions, the fandom may not only be okay with Special Editions, they might even love you for them.
3. Completely destroy the prequels. Raze the ground. Salt the earth. Completely eradicate anything and everything having to do with the prequel movies. Make them non-canon, and keep them away from your marketing. Wipe them out. All of them. This is the tough part though, because this unfortunately means throwing out the good with the bad. For as painful as they are, some great ideas and characters were introduced. Liam Neeson as Qui Gon Jinn, Ashoka Tano, the bulk of the Clone Wars cartoon, Ewan McGregor as young Obi-Wan, some awesome comics, Darth Maul, great new planets, Jango Fett, and even the basic plot were great. But some terrible casting choices, downright shitty directing, and offensively terrible writing make these films at best something to tolerate instead of something to genuinely love. But most importantly, these are what officially and seemingly irreparably damaged the Star Wars brand. They are synonymous with bad CG, and have an offputting, overly-digital feel to them. But worse than any visual is what they did to the mythology. Sure, it’s fascinating to see a universe in which the Jedi flourished, but if these movies are to be watched in chronological order, some legendary scenes lose a lot of their impact. The identities of Darth Vader and Yoda in particular are severely damaged thanks to these movies. If you’re doing something that negatively impacts iconic characters like Darth Vader and Yoda, you have to know you’re doing something wrong. The prequel trilogy as it exists needs to be exterminated. Which leads me to…
4. Make new prequels. If after this 7-9 trilogy is done, Disney has proven that they can make good Star Wars movies, it’s time to try the prequels again. But this time, they need to spend much more time on making them work as part of the overall narrative instead of just filling holes for the sake of it. Telling the story of Anakin Skywalker could be incredible. Showing how someone who was a great Jedi turned to the dark side, telling the story of Luke and Leia’s mother, Obi-Wan’s history as a general, the Clone Wars, all of those stories are worth telling. But it absolutely cannot be at the expense of the original trilogy. Think about Yoda for a moment. When I first watched Empire, I didn’t know that little green guy was Yoda. I learned that at the same time Luke did, and it was incredible. And you know what? I didn’t judge him by his size. That little guy lifted an X-wing out of a swamp with his mind, and that was enough for me to know that he was powerful. In Attack of the Clones (terrible title) you see Yoda whip out his lightsaber and jump around like a frog. Was it badass? Sure. But was it necessary? Not at all.
We never needed to see Yoda jumping around like a ninja. Now, instead of the gravity of Frank Oz’s performance instilling faith in us that Yoda was a great Jedi master, we are flat out shown it, removing some of the mystique of the character. Then you have the moment. You know, THE moment. “No, I am your father.” Think about that moment. When you learned that Anakin Skywalker and Darth Vader were one and the same. I don’t know about you, but I did not see that coming, and learning it from that scene was a moment I’ll never forget. Now imagine seeing the prequels first. You already know Darth Vader is Anakin Skywalker. Not only that, but you know Anakin to basically be a terrible, whiny, unlikeable fool. Darth Vader was powerful and mysterious. He walked on screen through a wall of smoke, and he didn’t need to say a word. He just stood there, with that breathing sound, imposing as all heck, and you knew this was a villain to fear. After the prequels, you already knew who he was under that mask, and you didn’t like him. Not because he’s evil, but because he’s awful. There was no reason to fear him. There was every reason to loathe him. What needs to be done would be pretty difficult, but if the prequels are to exist and tell the story of Anakin Skywalker, they have to somehow manage to preserve the mystery of Darth Vader. Show Anakin’s descent to the dark side, but don’t show him actually become Vader. Leave Anakin’s true fate unknown until that moment in Empire.
The story of Anakin Skywalker is an interesting and tragic tale, and it is worth telling. He’s born as a slave, then freed to become a Jedi, but he has to leave his mother behind. As he grows strong in the force, he senses his mother is in danger, but he isn’t allowed to check up on her, and by the time he does, she dies. Then he starts having the same premonitions about his wife and unborn child, and he goes to whatever lengths he needs to, including the dark side, in order to stop what happened to his mother from happening to them. This is the story you tell. You don’t need Anakin to invent C-3PO, you don’t need to show him becoming an obsessed, creepy, line-crosser with Padme, and you don’t need to show him physically becoming Darth Vader. You DO need to make him likeable. You DO need to establish his relationship with Obi-Wan. You DO need to tell a believable love story. And you do need the rest of the world to be interesting while you do it. Naboo and the Gungans are great designs, but don’t make the entire species into bumbling morons for the sake of cheap slapstick comedy. Show Palpatine’s gradual rise to power and his brilliant plan to create a threat to the government, then use that threat as a distraction while he turns the established government into an Empire that he rules, but don’t bog down your movies with endless scenes of politicians arguing about trade disputes to do it. Don’t kill Darth Maul! For crying out loud, they created a new villain with a similarly imposing presence as Darth freaking Vader and they barely used him before killing him off in favor of the underused (and criminally poorly named) Count Dooku and the horrendously underwhelming General Grievous. There was a great outline laid out by the prequels, but the execution was beyond poor, and the Star Wars brand still hasn’t fully recovered. Ask anyone who is still timid about The Force Awakens. They aren’t afraid of it not being as good as the originals, they’re afraid of it being as bad as the prequels. Let’s see if we can’t correct this problem for future generations.
5. Maintain stark quality control/don’t let Lucas anywhere near future films. This was his world, don’t get me wrong, but he’s basically an abusive parent. Just because you created something doesn’t always necessarily mean you’re the best caretaker for it. We will always be indebted to George Lucas for giving us this universe and these characters, but in an almost unbelievable move, he has managed to squander all of that good will with poor choice after poor choice. Disney, on the other hand, is exactly what it is. They are out to make money, and their business is creating a quality product that they can exploit for generations to come. They have invested a lot of money in the Star Wars brand, and they are going to do whatever they can to protect their investment. The most important thing they can do going forward is keep George Lucas the fuck away from it. If they are going to keep this brand alive, they need to attach only top talent to it. Marvel has done a stellar job with the new official comics, and EA seems to have made a new Star Wars Battlefront game that’s guaranteed to make a ton of money. The Star Wars: Rebels cartoon is fairly excellent too. (Making a new Clone Wars cartoon in the future to keep Ashoka canon would be a plus). Disney has been managing this brand very intelligently since they bought it, and as far as I know, George Lucas’s only job has been to count the cash they paid him for it. As far as I’m concerned, that’s the closest he should ever be allowed to the Star Wars franchise going forward. He has no creative control over the license anymore, and it should stay that way.
I’m no Hollywood expert, and I’m certainly not a Disney shareholder, but I am a Star Wars fan, and I’ve been burned. However, things are looking up. The Force Awakens has everything going for it, the expanded universe has been tidied up and is is restructuring intelligently, and the marketing for all things Star Wars has largely ignored the prequels. What I want more than anything is for my children and grandchildren to enjoy Star Wars in ways I could never have dreamed of. I want this to ignite their imaginations the same way it did mine, and I want it without the soul-crushing disappointment of the prequel trilogy. I want them to have to seek out those prequels like relics. Freakishly awful curiosities to them like the Christmas special is to us. I want them to see shiny new Star Wars movies and be inspired to see the original theatrical editions, and then be able to. I know that Star Wars will never be the same, because the universe has expanded. It’s never going to just be the original trilogy again, but if Disney can create a world in which Greedo shooting at Han only exists as a bad joke, then the Star Wars brand can once again become more powerful then you can possibly imagine.
One thought on “Saving Star Wars”
Great article man. While I don’t agree with everything, it was still wonderful.