From a certain point of view

Thursday, 20 May 2004 — 3:23pm | Film, Star Wars

By now, anyone who cares has already seen the leaked shot from the DVD of Return of the Jedi that features a long-haired Hayden Christensen, not Sebastian Shaw, as the redeemed spirit of Anakin Skywalker. The fact that the DVDs boast further changes to Classic Trilogy above and beyond the 1997 Special Editions is nothing new – The Digital Bits has been reporting it for months – for many self-professed fans, this is probably the first time an image has really packed the magnitudinal punch for what’s happening to hit home: yes, Star Wars is changing. Yes, it’s moving closer to the controversial Prequel Trilogy. Why, exactly, is this causing an uproar, as if it were a bad thing?

The truth is, when it comes to revisionism in art, Star Wars has been almost exclusively singled out to take the heat for being changed and updated. The extended and revised cuts of Blade Runner, Almost Famous, The Big Sleep and Close Encounters of the Third Kind are considered the definitive versions of those films. After the rebirth of high-profile modified re-releases with the Star Wars Special Editions, we saw Apocalypse Now Redux and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial receive similar treatment, with the only noise being made about the latter’s trivial replacement of a few guns by walkie-talkies. Many classic films that are seeing release on DVD are as much as half an hour to an hour longer than the original without modern-day audiences knowing they were ever any different; observe the restorations of Spartacus and Lawrence of Arabia.

This applies not only to film, but also to literature; academically, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is still popularly studied using the text of the 1831 edition, which is heavily rewritten from the 1818 original, though the First Edition can be found and is even preferred by some. J.R.R. Tolkien rewrote the entire “Riddles in the Dark” chapter of The Hobbit after the publication of The Lord of the Rings, which itself underwent subsequent revisions and the addition of supplementary material now considered to be integral to the Middle-Earth canon.

So, why the kerfuffle about Star Wars?

Having spent more time observing the patterns of the online Star Wars community over the past six or seven years than is healthy for the sanity of any given individual – I was once an Administrator at TheForce.net’s forums (lack of a hyperlink intended), which is a hive of scum and villainy akin to everything bad about any arbitrary Internet messageboards all rolled into one – I bring forth this indisputable fact: the majority of people who call themselves Star Wars fans, at least, the ones on the Internet, are idiots.

This isn’t a matter of who agrees with me and who doesn’t. I am clearly in the minority in the sense that, strike me off your Christmas lists if you want, I love the Prequels. A lot of idiots also love the Prequels, so like I said, this is not an issue of who holds what opinion. The real issue is that the Star Wars fan culture on the Internet is one giant pep rally after another of flag-waving lunacy, where people mobilize themselves into congruous rival gangs under the banner of liking or disliking something, justifying their cliquy behaviour by citing victimization and a bunch of other excuses they borrowed from the same bag of tricks used by racial supremacists.

Back when I was still patrolling the bozo-boards, there was actually a set of n-thousand-post chat threads started by a group that called themselves the “Expanded Universe Defense Force”, or EUDF, which was started by so-called fans that did their darndest to convince themselves and everyone else that a) the licensed fan fiction coming out of Lucas Licensing is valid literature, and b) despite the volume of said licensed fiction that comes off the press every year, its readership is an oppressed tribe of nomads under the thumb of those who for some crazy reason think that the Prequels are, in fact, not based on the aforementioned non-literature. Call it EU-vangelism, if you will. What they would do is assign themselves squadrons and ranks, and when a member logged in, he would go to the current n-thousand-post “home base” thread and post a notification that he’s patrolling their imaginary borders for danger, along the lines of, “Blue 5, coming in.” After he finished pissing on say, a given community-forum discussion about classic literature by mentioning Michael Stackpole’s I, Jedi within a ten-post radius of the name “Dickens”, it would be straight back to the EUDF thread with a “Blue 5, signing out.” And this is how they act before you engage them in conversation and debate.

Predictably, some of these camps are targeted to despise anything that was done with Star Wars after 1997, be they SE-bashing preservationists or Prequel-bashing neo-cons. For some reason, this is the camp that has a lot of allies in the online media – mostly a generational quirk unifying the fans and laypeople who liked the original films in ways that George Lucas didn’t, and are now appalled at the mere suggestion that they, in fact, do not know more about Star Wars than its creator.

A lot of the vitriol directed to the DVDs does have a valid concern, though: the fact that without a digital release in the DVD format, the orginal version of the Classic Trilogy is doomed to degrade on unreliable magnetic media. This is not quite true, as Star Wars has already been marked for preservation, original reels do still exist, and nothing’s stopping a restoration years down the road like what has had to be done with any old film transferred to DVD, much like what Criterion tends to do. The trouble is that a lot of people out there want their version and they want it now.

It’s undeniable that gradually, a lot of those who claim to be Star Wars fans have lost a lot of faith in the direction of the saga, as if George Lucas were the late-nineties Calgary Flames or something. I use “faith” here because a lot of it is predicated on the religiously fervent belief that George Lucas circa 1977-1983 was God and the Classic Trilogy was His divine creation. It just so turned out that God disagreed. God had a very different plan in mind.

Much of the opposition to the Prequels is not so much a critique based on merit; one should remember that both Episodes I and II initially opened to favourable, albeit divisive reviews. A lot of the criticism they suffer accumulated over time, though not because the scrutiny of them was any more meticulous. The opposition to the Prequels is instead largely because they are in many respects quite different from the original three, and constitute an independent trilogy. The stories are more political, the protagonists come from a higher social class, and the villains are a less visible presence (phantom menaces, alas). The Doug Chiang designs of a Republic in its last renaissance have a fluidity not present in Ralph McQuarrie’s junkyard vision of a galaxy ruled by the Empire. Given that many out there consider the Classic Trilogy perfect, and given that you can’t do better than perfect, the syllogism follows that in their eyes, you can’t do better than the Classic Trilogy – not with the Prequels, and especially not with the Special Editions, both of which compound the sense of negativity by way of a multiplier for perceived blasphemy.

But in addition to these sociological factors, the specific opposition to “fixing the Special Editions” is silly on its own merit. It has been established from the beginning that no, we are not getting the original editions this September. So what would you rather have: the 1997 Special Edition’s experiments in digital editing that, while lauded at the time, now seem like a dated and half-finished test to see if the Prequels were viable (cf. the model of Jabba the Hutt in Episode IV’s restored hangar scene) – or a project brought to completion, consistent with the rejuvenated continuity and aesthetic established by the Prequels, in the name of better flow between the two trilogies? If we are getting a Special Edition anyway, a representation of what George Lucas would have done had he possessed new-millennium technology back in 1977, why not go all the way?

Star Wars is experimental, and always has been. Experiments tend to produce the occasional unintended errors, and no matter how much the audience has grown accustomed to these errors, it does not make their errancy any different in the eyes of the artist. When something avant-garde gets pigeonholed into the status of a mainstream franchise, it faces a new obstacle: fans do not commit to franchises to see something new. They commit to see more of the same. Kudos to George Lucas for not succumbing to the demands of the mob and instead continuing to push the envelope, approximating his own ever-changing imagination more precisely with every iteration.

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