Reimagining Star Wars

When we last saw Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Princess Leia, they were on a forest moon, celebrating the death of the Emperor and the downfall of the Empire, surrounded by happy Ewoks and the ghosts of Yoda, Darth Vader, and Obi Wan Kenobi.

Next year, they’ll be back.  The new installment of Star Wars begins filming in a few weeks, and all of the original cast members, including Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill, as well as the actors who played Chewbacca, R2D2 and C3PO, will be back.  They’ll be joined by some new folks as well as the actor who plays the distasteful boyfriend character on Girls, who apparently will be a villain.  Obviously, the story will take place years after the end of Return of the Jedi.

When George Lucas decided to make The Phantom Menace, he was taking a risk in reinvigorating a beloved and colossally popular movie franchise — but the risk involved in reintroducing the familiar characters from the original Star Wars movies in this latest feature is even greater.  What has happened to Han and Leia?  Did they get married and have kids, or did something happen to keep them apart?  Do any of the characters die?  Whatever happens, people will be second-guessing the story, and the fact that this new film won’t be directed by George Lucas is just going to increase the scrutiny.

I loved the original Star Wars films and fondly remember watching the first movie at the old University Flick theatre next to the Ohio State campus and then going back to see it again and again.  I’m looking forward to being reintroduced to some of the most iconic movie characters of all time, but I’m warning new director J.J. Abrams — handle with care.

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I Say, Bring On The Next Star Wars Movie!

George Lucas has decided to retire, and to help fund his retirement he decided to sell Lucasfilm to The Walt Disney Company for $4 billion and change.  The deal not only should provide Lucas with a comfortable retirement, it also means that more Star Wars movies will be made.  Disney has announced that the next Star Wars movie, episode 7, is scheduled for release in 2015.

Many fans have expressed concern about the sale to Disney, how it will affect the Star Wars franchise, and whether the movies will stay true to Lucas’ vision.  I’m not one of them.  I loved the original Star Wars films — I remember watching the first movie, with awe and wonder, in the old University Flick theater on the Ohio State campus, and then promptly watching it again — but I eagerly anticipate a fresh look at the characters and the Star Wars universe.

Beloved film franchises can become creaky and rote over time; they get to the point where only diehard fans can watch them.  Those franchises are injected with new energy when the characters are re-imagined by new creative minds.  The Star Trek and Batman movies are good examples.  Does anyone object that Heath Ledger had the opportunity to give his dazzling interpretation of the Joker?

I don’t understand the concerns, anyway.  It’s silly to worry that Disney is going to produce dross.  It just paid $4 billion, in significant part, to buy the Star Wars franchise and the right to produce new movies.  It’s safe to assume the company isn’t going to run its huge investment into the ground by bringing junk to the big screen.  If anything, the Disney approach might avoid some of the excesses of the later Star Wars movies, which could mean we won’t see annoying “comic” characters like Jar-Jar Binks, leaden, embarrassing, and unbelievable romances, and another exploding Death Star to provide a big finish.  And it’s not as if Disney could over-commercialize the Star Wars characters, either.  This is the franchise that led the way with action figures, comic books, and made-for-marketing characters like the Ewoks.

Lucas always said that he envisioned the Star Wars saga as a nine-movie tale, with the final three movies following the stories of Luke, Leia, and Han Solo and their children.  That’s apparently what Disney is planning for the next installment of movies.  I’ll be interested in seeing what happens to those now-iconic characters.  The Star Wars universe is sweeping, and there are lots of good stories yet to be told. Bring on the next Star Wars movie!

The Rules for Revising Movies

In 1997, when George Lucas re-released heavily modified versions of the original Star Wars films, fans reacted as if he had airbrushed a blemish off the face of the Mona Lisa. Even before Jar-Jar Binks, the re-releases gave Lucas a reputation for caring more about making money than preserving the legacy of his films.

The most offensive of Lucas’ changes occurs during the showdown between Han Solo and the bounty hunter Greedo. In the original film, Han shoots Greedo under the table while they’re chatting away. This was not only an amusing comeuppance for the despicable insectoid Greedo, but a good set-up for Solo’s character, a hardened drifter who isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty.

For the 1997 rerelease, Lucas changed the scene so that Greedo shot before Solo but missed. According to Wikipedia, Lucas did this because “he wanted to make clear to children that Han had no choice but to shoot Greedo.” Basically, he was worried that the scene made Solo appear cold-hearted – which was the entire point of the original scene.

This is an unforgiveable transformation of Solo’s character – if he existed, Han would probably zap off one of Lucas’ thumbs for making the change, and then steal his fortune and gamble it away.

Yet for many movies, the re-release is considered by fans to be the “true” version. This is the case for Blade Runner. When the film was originally released in 1982, the studio forced director Ridley Scott to put in a voice-over because they worried that the audience wouldn’t understand the film. Scott removed the odious voice-over for the 2007 “Final Cut” edition, the first cut he had complete control over. I’m confident that most fans and critics would call this the “official” version of the film.

Why is George Lucas evil when he redoes the Star Wars movies, while Ridley Scott is a hero for changing Blade Runner? Because Lucas didn’t follow the golden rule for changing movies:

The only good reason for changing a movie is to bring it closer to the original artistic vision.

If a studio interferes with a director’s control of a movie, the director gets a pass to fix the movie by reediting it. Somehow, I don’t think this was George Lucas’ reason for changing the Greedo scene; he was either trying to impose a middle-aged sensibility on a movie he made in his early 30s, or a ’90s blockbuster sensibility on a ’70s film. The George Lucas of 1977 would be appalled to see Greedo shoot first.

That’s one of the most tragic things about directors modifying old movies – they interfere with the energy the movie received from the era it was made in. Part of Star Wars’ charm comes from the shaggy haircuts, the somewhat grainy film and the earnest but dated special effects. I’m sure that, like most films, Star Wars also contains some of the zeitgeist of its time, but I don’t have the time to examine it like that now.

So even the small changes Lucas made in 1997, like adding new extras to the scenes in Mos Eisley to make it seem more crowded, or cleaning up the special effects with computers, hurt the film’s feel, which leads me to the second and last rule:

No new footage can be filmed or special effects added.

Fortunately, the trend seems to be moving away from George Lucas-style revisions. I can’t remember any after 2002, when Steven Spielberg changed the police officers’ guns to walkie-talkies in the re-release of E.T. Maybe South Park’s vicious parody of Lucas’ and Spielberg’s practices had something to do with that. I hope we will continue to see edits of classic movies like Blade Runner that needed only meet the approval of the director – the way movies should be in the first place.