Sunday, December 13, 2015

Star Wars Memories 13: "A New Hope", My Ass!


That ain't Jabba. That's Jabba's Younger Cousin, maybe.

By the mid-90s, fandom had moved almost completely online. Gone were the days of walking into your class in school and ardently and furtively looking around for someone, anyone, who might be into the same thing that you were into (we always checked the doodles on other people’s notebooks for things like band names, logos, or drawings of swords and space ships). Now you can just hop online and join a message board or a chat room and you’ve got a whole host of friends waiting, no matter how weird or obscure the thing you’re into.

We were all blogging, whether we had something to say, or not. I was writing an article I’d started some years before called Finn’s Wake. Maybe you’ve heard of it (*glances up*). Mostly, I was writing angrily about the things that pop culture was getting wrong.

We weren’t quite at the point where news and information broke online first, but the studios and a few visionaries were including the websites devoted to Geek World News on their press release distribution lists. That’s how we all first heard that Lucas was going back into the editing booth to tweak Star Wars for the 20th anniversary of the film. They specifically used the words, “Director’s Cuts.” After years of watching Ridley Scott tinker with Blade Runner, among others, we knew exactly what that meant. It could only mean one thing: Biggs! We were finally going to get Biggs!

There was other stuff in the early announcements, as well. Lucas said he was going to go back into the movie and digitally enhance some shots. He explained that when he made the first movie, he was hampered by time, by the primitive nature of special effects, by the studio...in short, he was finally going to do Star Wars as he originally envisioned it.

Whatever. We were getting Biggs!

In the original movie, Luke makes a mention of Biggs leaving to his Uncle Owen before he storms off to work on the droids: “That’s what you said when Biggs left.” At the end of the movie, in the dogfight, Luke and Biggs are talking to one another during the battle. Then Biggs dies when Darth Vader shoots him in the final trench run, and that’s that with that.

Luke and his friends in an unused scene from Star Wars.
That's Biggs on the far right, with the sweet 'stache.
Unless you read the novelization. Or had the bubble gum cards. Or the comics. Or any magazine article devoted to Luke’s adventures on Tatooine published from 1977-1982. You get where this was going. Biggs was an open secret for us die-hard fans. There were stills from the shots, him in this dashing cape, talking to Luke, dressed like a bumpkin. The scene was cut because it slowed the movie down, and remember, at the time, this was an untested science fiction film that clocked in at over two hours already and cost a fortune to make. Personally, I could have done with two minutes less Threepio and Artoo nattering back and forth like middle-aged British spinsters, but that was just me.

Didn’t matter, now. Star Wars was a proven commodity. We would sit through the movie, no matter what Lucas added to the film, no matter how long or boring. Biggs Darklighter would finally have his day.

Other stuff was mentioned, too, and we were treated to a couple of early examples of how they digitally enhanced the color, upping the saturation to create more dramatic and spectacular landscapes and vistas. And they pointedly said that some of the space shots would be digitally altered to be more dynamic, in keeping with Empire and Jedi.

We, the collective Star Wars hive mind, were cautiously optimistic. In speaking with my roommate, Tyson, we wondered what else would be included in this redo. “There’s that scene Lucas shot with Han and the big Irish actor who was supposed to be Jabba,” Tyson mused. “That would be interesting.”

“I don’t see how he could do it,” I said. “Jabba is too big to move in Jedi.” We loved the scene (we’d seen it before, like most good fans), but agreed it was too problematic.

Oh, ye, of little faith.

The trailer they ran showed us that, not only were we going to get more and extra and altered and enhanced stuff, we frankly didn’t know what else we were going to see. Was that really Han talking to a five foot tall Jabba the Hut in Docking Bay 94? Okay, maybe that was a rough cut. Maybe we weren’t seeing it as it was to be presented. We were all willing to give Lucas the benefit of the doubt. We needed this. We deserved this.

There was something magical about the idea of the 20th anniversary of Star Wars. It felt like a victory lap, in a way that we hadn’t really had before. Oh, sure, it was always present at conventions and the like, but there was this—tone—that other fans (okay, Trekkers) used when talking about Star Wars: “Oh, it’s okay, I guess. But it’s not real science fiction.” We knew that, but they made it sound dirty and cheap. 

The idea of this cultural phenomenon lasting twenty years and having near universal appeal was reassuring for us. It was okay, now, to admit you were a Star Wars fan. You may have seen it when you were just a kid, but clearly, there’s more to it than just Kiddie Fare. It was the monomyth re-interpreted, a fantasy film on a science fiction background. It was allegory. It was metaphor. It was the Hero’s Journey. This was accepted as part of the deal, now.

Now we were getting George Lucas’ intended vision. With 20 years of hindsight, superior special effects from the company he pioneered, that made such effects possible for every other blockbuster movie to come along in the past two decades. We were all rooting for him, because we knew in our hearts that Return of the Jedi was a fluke.  And at long last, we were going to see it done right. We had great, if not new, hope.

I was there on opening weekend. And I was just as stunned, as conflicted, as angry as everyone else. I didn’t mind dropping in digital mattes and new establishing shots and transitions. That made sense. I didn’t even mind the digital do-over on the Death Star space battle. Hey, it looked cool. And while we didn’t get the whole Biggs sub-plot, we at least got the hanger scene that explains how Luke knows him. It would have been a great addition to the film in 1977 and taught us all a valuable lesson about how we should cherish our friends, because we never know when they’ll be blasted into atoms by Imperial TIE Fighters.

The Jabba scene? I wanted to like it, but it was ugly, and worse, it was pandering. I thought maybe Lucas was going to digitally re-design Jabba in Jedi to match this new, green and yellow version. But Han stepping over Jabba’s tail was just awkward-looking and weird.

But nothing was more awkward and weird than Greedo shooting first in the famous cantina scene.

Oh, there were fans who came out of the woodwork to champion it. “It’s Lucas’ film, and he can do what he wants with it,” and “If that was his original vision, then we have to respect it.” To briefly address those stances, then, now, and forevermore, no, he can’t, and no, we don’t.

Here’s the most recent Lucas explanation, a current re-re-re-working of stuff he’s been saying for the past fifteen years:

 “Han Solo was going to marry Leia, and you look back and say, ‘Should he be a cold-blooded killer?’” Lucas asks. “Because I was thinking mythologically —should he be a cowboy, should he be John Wayne? And I said, ‘Yeah, he should be John Wayne.’ And when you’re John Wayne, you don’t shoot people [first] —you let them have the first shot. It’s a mythological reality that we hope our society pays attention to.”

Notice how he’s using all of the code words? Myth-making. Back in 1976, flying by the seat of your pants, wondering if this is the only one you’re going to get to make, and you’re also thinking this far ahead? Never mind trying to walk back through it. It’s just more bullshit.

This is basically Jack Palance from Shane. "Pick up the Gun."
I shouldn’t even have to explain to you all of the reasons why it’s bad that Lucas decided to have Greedo take the first shot at Han, and have Han digitally, slightly, move his head to the right so as not to be caught by Greedo’s pistol shot. However, there may be someone out there, reading this, rolling their eyes and saying to themselves, “Ugh, another hater. Why can’t he just accept Lucas’ vision as canon and move on? It’s just a movie.”

Okay, first off, you don’t get to use the word ‘canon’ to describe story continuity and then add that “it’s just a movie.” That’s how Flash Gordon got made.

Second, the scene as it was shot speaks to character. Han is a mercenary, a rogue, a scoundrel, and a smuggler. He’s shady, and it’s clear and obvious in every scene in the film that he’s only doing this for the dough. He pooh-poohs the mission to fight the Death Star. Calls it “suicide.” Asks Luke to leave the Rebels and light out with him and Chewie. “You’re pretty good in a fight. Why don’t you come with us?”

Han’s change of heart is supposed to be a surprise. The cavalry. The hooker with a heart of gold.  The Deus Ex Machina. Right? This isn’t a tough concept, is it? It’s tried and true.

Lucas’ explanations over the years about Han’s journey just don’t hold water. They just don’t. If he wanted him to be nicer, he would have written the rest of the movie differently. It wasn’t an accident.

See, Lucas was trying to do something with Star Wars that hadn’t been attempted in a genre film. Star Wars was an homage to the cliffhanger serials of his youth—specifically and most emphatically, the Flash Gordon serials. A big part of why Star Wars works as well as it does, coming in during the 1970s at just the right time, is because it’s a post-modern reaction to those 40s and 50s cliffhanger serials.

Star Wars has all of the ingredients of vintage space opera, right up to and including the sword fights. It’s Space Western setting with High Fantasy characters and a Middle Ages morality. But Lucas does something that none of the Cliffhanger serials could do at the time. Princess Leia is not a damsel in distress. She is the opposite of that. There’s nothing traditionally “Princess-y” about her, with the possible exception of the “For Luck” kiss before they have to swashbuckler-swing across the high-tech maintenance shaft.

Leia shoots, fights, and kvetches her way through the Death Star rescue. She is a leader, taking part in the planning of the final battle. She’s not scared of Vader, or of Grand Moff Tarkin. She even tries to lie to the bad guys to save her planet from destruction. This is not someone you just tie to the railroad tracks.

Luke buys into it. We all do, right, since Luke is our POV character. But she doesn’t need any rescuing. All she needs is a blaster. She’s not even scared of the wookie. “Would somebody get this walking carpet out of my way?”

Only afterward, in subsequent movies, do we get any hint of traditional femininity from her. But even right through the love story, she is never afraid to pick up a gun and shoot her way out of trouble. There are great lines that were cut from Empire where Leia, upon learning that both Luke and Han are leaving the Rebel Forces, says “When am I going to learn not to count on anyone but myself?” In those same unused scenes, she gets the last word when Han tells her he’s leaving.

There are other things, as well. The trash compactor sequence is a straight up deathtrap, albeit with a somewhat convincing reason for being. The droids, too, may be comic relief in the movie, but they serve an important role to the plot. They are also useful outside of the main story. A big change from the bumbling character who always gets into trouble through their ineptitude, but the hero keeps them around anyway. Threepio has strong self-preservation instincts, as does Artoo. They are sidelined for most of Empire, only to be revived as the Deus Ex Machina, but in Star Wars, they are essential to the plot and the story.

Everything from the tone of Star Wars (played straight, without camp or high drama) to the Set and Prop design (that lived-in look that further established the reality of the fictional world) was a reaction to the sterile, slow-moving Science Fiction of George Lucas’s youth.

And that Han and Greedo scene? That was supposed to be a gunfight. Maybe in the cantina, maybe in the street, but either way, Greedo was using Han’s debt to Jabba as a chance to balance the scales. In the shooting script, which eventually became the novel and the comics, Greedo says to Han, “Get up, Solo.”

Why make a man stand up if you’re only going to shoot him down again? Unless, of course, you’re going to give him a chance to draw. This is the post modern commentary on what would have been a gunfight in the middle of the movie that took all focus away from the main story. The intentional play that Solo makes—shooting first to avoid all of the ritual that goes with a blaster duel, which would have resulted in Greedo’s death anyway—is a commentary on that trope that appears in countless western movie made in the twentieth century. Han’s decision is a time-saver, truncating both story and plot internally as well as externally.

Like good post modern art, it surprises us because it goes against our expectations. There was a lot of this going around in the late 1970s and 1980s. But it started with Star Wars.

So, we’ve got this movie, and we’ve decided we love Han Solo for the choices he makes in the film. His pragmatic nature is refreshing in a movie where the POV character is emotional and reckless.

Now, millions of dollars and some years later, Lucas decided that Han and Leia, initially presented as opposites, but really cut from the same cloth, should be together. That’s also fine and good. But with all of this toy money on the line and the unintended consequence of having so many kids interested in these movies, Han morphs even more in Jedi to this rubber-faced grinning, almost avuncular guy that bears so little resemblance to Han from Star Wars. That this change takes place off-screen is even more damning, but we accept it at face value. Aside from his positioning in the group of heroes, there was no need to alter Han Solo any more than Lucas already did.

Twenty years later, and with the full knowledge that kids would be coming to see Star Wars with their parents, and being a parent, twenty years down the line himself, Lucas was in a very different head space. We were post-Columbine at this point. And he made the decision a forty-something year old man with kids would have made.

Is that a good reason to change it up? You tell me. Personally, I don’t think so. I think all it means is that, if your kid isn’t ready to see aliens get shot by people with lasers, maybe wait a few years to show Star Wars to them.

There were other changes, as well. Some of them good. A few of them, bad. Like adding the Jabba scene with a now CGI worm. Nope. Doesn’t work. Han has too much power in the scene, for instance. But also the logistics of getting Han over Jabba’s digital tail just don’t work. And then, just in case you weren’t paying attention before, hey, look, at the end of the scene! It’s Boba Fett! Looking right at us as if to say, “See? This is cool, right?”

Empire’s Special Edition was funny, in that it didn’t need much help. But we got an amped up Wampa scene, which was cool, and more scenery on Cloud City, which was a little distracting, but with the exception of the insert shots showing Vader returning to the Star Destroyer before he telepathically reaches out to Luke, there wasn’t much to do to Empire.

Jedi, on the other hand. Again, we see the work of a guy who really didn’t understand what he had done. The scene in Jabba’s palace didn’t need an upgrade. And it sure didn’t need a new song. The original one was bad enough, but it at least sounded like part of the world. This new one had horns in it, for crying out loud! A huge band, and for what? Nothing, really. An extended dance and subsequent roll from the actress who originally played the green girl. Totally unnecessary. But do you know what was necessary? Critical, even?

We needed to see Boba Fett flying/climbing/swimming out of the Sarlaac Pit. That’s what we needed. A three second add-on, just before Jabba’s barge goes blooey. It would have redeemed Lucas and Jedi for so many fans.

Nope. Not happening. Not when there’s a new Ewok song to write. Mind you, I’m no fan of the original Ewok song. I hate it in the same way that some people hate the Dallas Cowboys: passionately and unreasonably. At least this new song was more tribal and less sing-song at the end. It didn’t take anything away from the fact that they were Ewoks, or that they were still in the movie.

I watched them all, in the theaters, lined up again to be amazed, and I was—more or less. Sort of. Kinda. All the Special Editions really did for me was stir up my old feelings about the movies, and coupled that with new appreciation for the original films. Flawed as they were, they were a crucial part of film history. And my history.

But this thought also took hold. Those movies became cash cows. They made eleventy-skillion dollars. And I certainly did my share of lining George Lucas’ pockets over the year. Thousands of dollars spent by my folks and myself, to help connect and anchor myself to these movies in very personal ways. For Lucas to make those changes...yeah. of course, his movie, his money, he can do what he wants. But overwriting those visuals that fired my imagination and put me on a path that lead to my adult self, as a man, as a storyteller, as a creative person, was wrong of him. Very wrong. And from an objective standpoint, he didn’t always make good choices for the changes.

I’ve spent a lot of space typing and talking about Star Wars and the Special Editions. Now multiply that times one hundred thousand and try wading through it every day for a year. That was 1997. Love them or hate them, but everyone was talking about Star Wars in tones that bordered on the reverential.
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