In Which the Original Star Wars, via Project 4K77, is Reconsidered

A year ago, awake late in a motel room, I happened upon the original Star Wars on the TV, where by “original” I mean Episode IV: A New Hope – The Special Edition (or the latest alteration of that edition, with whatever arrangement of dashes and colons Lucas/Disney is using these days), i.e. the only version of the first Star Wars movie legally available for humans to view. I hadn’t watched it (the Special Edition) since I’d first seen it upon its theatrical release in ’97, because, obviously, it was terrible. What had once been a weird, goofy, charming oddball of a ‘70s fantasy space-western had been given a once-over with then-current CGI, turning it into a visual and emotional muddle.

Please kill me

One of Lucas’s reasons for reworking his original trilogy was to make it look like he he’d first envisioned it (or so he claimed). Technology had at last caught up to his imagination. The other reason was more mercenary: Lucas had big ideas for his new prequel trilogy, and wanted to prove the viability of current visual effects technology in realizing them. He did this by sticking dinosaurs and Jabbas and other nonsense seemingly without end into his old movies, to the dismay of—hold on, let me check my notes; ah, right—of everyone. Everyone who cared about movies, anyway (and really, who else matters?). Everyone hated the Special Editions. Some claimed otherwise. The explosions look prettier, they said. The backgrounds are more science-fictiony. Everything looks, you know, kinda…shinier? And stuff?

In other words, they tried. Some did. Some tried to believe that Lucas had improved the movies they’d long loved. But in their hearts, indeed, in the hearts of anyone who watched these Frankensteined films, they knew he’d ruined them.

Some years later, in the early aughts, after his prequel trilogy had run its exasperating course, Lucas released the original trilogy on DVD. Excitement was short-lived once fans discovered that “original” now meant only “Special Editions.” What about the original original movies? As far as Lucas was concerned, those movies no longer existed. They were incomplete, early attempts, bumps on the road. Now that the films had been properly finished, the rough drafts were to be forgotten, the original negatives destroyed, unretrievably Orwelled into the memory hole.

Oh god, the horror…the horror…

Fans were not pleased. Lucas, renowned for despising the people who love his movies, did his best to ignore their pleas. Two years later, he caved—sort of. He re-released the Special Edition DVDs, despite their being identical to the DVDs from two years prior, but with them included “bonus discs” of the original versions. “You want the originals that bad? Fine. But you have to buy the new ones you just bought two years ago—again.” One can even now hear him cackling as he flops about naked on his great piles of money. Funnier still was the second part of the joke. For these so-called bonus discs he used the same transfers made for the ’93 laserdisc releases, which transfers were notably poor. He cleaned them up not at all. Just dumped them onto DVD to “appease” the “fans.” We could have our cherished movies—but only in the worst form possible.

Lucas intended with this ploy to ensure that, as time went by, the Special Editions would become the only original trilogy anyone knew and watched. To this day, the crappy DVD re-release in 2006 of the ’93 transfers mark the last time the original versions of the original trilogy have been released.

Here in the amazing future that is the joyful, fun-filled year 2020, one might wonder—how have they aged? Sitting in my motel room a year ago, Star Wars’s opening crawl rolling before me, I decided to find out.

It wasn’t easy. Not to find out how well the ’97 Star Wars Episode IV – A New Hope: Special Edition had aged—it’s aged like milk—no, what wasn’t easy was sitting through it. The blending of aesthetics from different decades is worse than distracting; watching it one feels unmoored. There’s no way to connect to it. It doesn’t look like movies look, it doesn’t appear to come from any known era. It’s “timeless” in the worst way possible. You might claim that the movie is still there—the story, the characters—that ultimately the changes are only cosmetic, but the changes remove Star Wars from any sense of time and place. While I grant that this was exactly Lucas’s intent, his intent is insane. I watched late ‘90s era CGI blob monsters, backgrounds, shadows, etc. pasted over ‘70s footage cleaned up and color-corrected to look vaguely early aughts, and, again, while one might consciously say, “well, and so what?”, unconsciously, emotionally, what I experienced was emptiness. The movie sits there, lifeless, exuding a kind of flat generality. It’s generally a movie. Its specificity has been erased. Lucas always envisioned his Star Wars movies primarily as a means through which to sell toys and Happy Meals, but the Special Editions, and their subsequent tweakings, are the true apotheosis of his vision: The movies are the Happy Meal.

Best action figures ever?

Lucas claims to care about film history. To this day, he argues for the importance of preserving the cultural heritage of films. In the ‘80s he and other directors went before congress arguing for the necessity of film preservation. At the time Lucas seemed aware that once released into the world, art, in a large sense, ceases to belong to the artist. From ’88:

American works of art belong to the American public; they are part of our cultural history. People who alter or destroy works of art and our cultural heritage for profit or as an exercise of power are barbarians, and if the laws of the United States continue to condone this behavior, history will surely classify us as a barbaric society… The public’s interest is ultimately dominant over all other interests. And the proof of that is that even a copyright law only permits the creators and their estate a limited amount of time to enjoy the economic fruits of that work.

As he began work on the Special Editions, Lucas found himself doing exactly what he’d previously argued so vehemently against. In a 1996 Cinefex interview, when asked whether fans might resent his tampering with a classic, he acknowledged his ambivalence (the only time he would ever publicly do so):

I don’t know. It’s my classic. On the one hand, I’m doing this, while on the other hand I’m on the Artists Rights Board, a foundation that’s trying to protect films from being changed—which I feel very strongly about, because with the technology we have today, anybody can go back and do this kind of thing. I can sort of see the future, and I want to protect films as they are and as they should be. I don’t want to see them colorized, I don’t want to see their formats changed, I don’t want to see them re-edited, and I don’t want to see what I’m able to do now, which is add more characters and do all kinds of things that nobody even contemplated before.

This pang of guilt and self-awareness was short-lived. He went ahead with the Special Editions and didn’t look back. In 1997 he made his new position on film preservation—with regards his films, that is—very clear. Asked how many versions of the original trilogy would be extant, he replied:

There will only be one. And it won’t be what I would call the ‘rought cut’, it’ll be the ‘final cut.’ The other one will be some sort of interesting artifact that people will look at and say, ‘There was an earlier draft of this.’… What ends up being important in my mind is what the DVD version is going to look like, because that’s what everybody is going to remember. The other versions will disappear. Even the 35 million tapes of Star Wars out there won’t last more than 30 or 40 years. A hundred years from now, the only version of the movie that anyone will remember will be the DVD version [of the Special Edition].

Upon the DVD release of the Special Editions in 2004, he stated simply:

The Special Edition, that’s the one I wanted out there. The other movie, it’s on VHS, if anybody wants it…To me, it doesn’t really exist anymore.

Meanwhile, Lucas continues to proselytize for film preservation—of other films. The psychology of this Jabba-like creature is indeed curious, but for now we must abandon it. The original trilogy may not exist in its original form for Lucas, but to obsessive film nerds, it’s all that matters.

Last week I watched Star Wars again. Not the Special Edition. The real thing, or as close to its first theatrical presentation as devoted fans could make it. Called Project 4K77 (which you may read about at length here), it’s a 4K scan of an original 1977 release print, cleaned and rendered to resemble as closely as possible the look of the film as it originally played in theaters.

It is a thing of wonder.

It looks like the ‘70s, it feels like the ‘70s, which that alone was a revelation, to be brought back in time to when this movie first played, and to see just how strange it is, but seeing it this way, I swear it borders on the avant garde. Doesn’t it? A little? There are tiny demon dwarves shanghaiing a trash-can shaped robot rolling through a desert defile, hooting “utini!” while the robot beeps and boops for crying out loud. And that happens during the twenty minute opening of the movie during which we follow two goofy robots running from a man in a cape and bizarre S&M mask evidently fashioned from old tires and electrical tape.

Dance of the Laser-Eyed Demon Dwarves, in waltz time

I’ll spare you the rest of the plot recap. You’ve probably seen this one. But the movie is striking for how unusual it was when it came out. The ‘70s were not a time for action-packed space-serials. It’s no wonder Star Wars blew up the movie-going world. It was Edgar Rice Burroughs meets Flash Gordon by way of 2001, comic books, westerns, and Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, released in an era dominated by dark, plotless, character driven dramas. “Fun” in the ’70s meant shark attacks and flaming skyscrapers.

I may have liked Star Wars more watching it this time than ever before. I liked it well enough when I was six (and may secretly have found Hardware Wars an improvement), and when I was nine I liked Empire even better, but I went for the weird starting at a young age. By the time of Jedi (which I only saw a paltry three times in the theater at age 12) I prefered movies by Carpenter, Cronenberg, Landis, Romero, and Gilliam. For that matter, I loved Raiders of the Lost Ark more than I ever loved the Star Wars universe.

But I will now gladly concede that the original Star Wars is one weird and wonderfully ridiculous movie. I’m not surprised that at the time, before it was finished, Lucas was told by some of his filmmaker friends that he had a disaster on his hands and by others that he had a smash. Because what the hell was this movie? Alec Guinness thought it was a load of malarkey (maclunkey?)—but still made a deal to be paid in part based on its profits. Star Wars made him rich.

For some years, Harmy’s Despecialized Editions of the original Star Wars trilogy have been the go-to way to watch them. Created using primarily the official blu-ray, then adding DVD, laserdisc, etc. pieces as needed, these versions were designed to mimic what an official blu-ray release might look like. What’s unique about Project 4K77 is that it’s a scan of an original print, cleaned up, color corrected, and etc. to look like film. It’s grainy and soft and in every way looks like what it is: a 35mm film made in ’77. Perhaps some people will prefer to stick with the Despecialized Editions; they more closely resemble what movies have come to look like watched at home.

Brighter and less blue… Because it was 1977

Being a curmuedgeonly film lover who wants nothing more than to spend his days watching 35mm prints in theaters (curse you, covid!!!), I adored the look of Project 4K77’s Star Wars. I adored the old special effects, warts and all, because of course there are warts, this was made in the ‘70s on a limited budget, these artists were inventing effects as they went along, that it shows is the point! To erase all the “errors” is to erase the movie’s creation, its origin. Watching the Special Edition (and later versions) is like meeting someone with no past, who smiles a smile of perfect teeth, who looks like they were born fully grown in a test tube. It’s inhuman. The original movie is a living, breathing being, one with whom you want to cuddle up, share a bottle of wine, maybe watch a movie. Like Star Wars.

I adored Project 4K77 so much that two nights later I watched the Project 4K83 version of Return of the Jedi. In between I’d have watched their take on The Empire Strikes Back, but that’s still under construction (instead I watched the D+80 version of Empire, sourced primarily from the official blu-ray with two 35mm prints used to restore original shots where needed. It’s excellent, but not as beautiful as Project 4K’s Star Wars and Jedi).

Empire is fascinating for how serious Star Wars suddenly became. It’s the only one of the three movies with a deep emotional core. What was a goofy lark in the first movie here becomes a stately space opera. Thankfully Yoda is there to make jokes.

Jedi makes for a listless conclusion. It has its moments, but it’s the only one of the three that drags. Harrison Ford looks half asleep at best, Yoda does nothing but pontificate and die, and confident Luke is a bore. Might have been nice to see his transformation instead of just introducing him as the universe’s most smug Jedi.

But that transfer! Boy does Jedi look wonderful. By which I mean wonderful in the sense of it looking like a film from 1983 projected on your TV screen. I can’t say I love its look cinematographically speaking.

Hayden Christiansen used to look so old

If you’ve been watching and loving the Despecialized Editions for years, you may not be smacked in the face as hard as I was by Project 4K. But if you’re already that obsessed with Star Wars, you’ll want to check them out anyway. Depending on how you like your movies—as modern blu-rays or as grainy ‘70s films—you might like them better (because they are). For the non-obsessed who’ve never watched the Despecialized Editions, now’s the time to take a look at Star Wars again, assuming you can dig up the Project 4K transfers. They’re out there on the internet somewhere. I’d tell you where to look if I weren’t an old man afraid of computers who relies on the kindness of friends. I’m sure you’ll find your way somehow.

As for Lucas, I wonder if he pays the least bit of attention to things like Project 4K. He was always smart in the ways of commerce, yet his prediction for the future of Star Wars was woefully short-sighted. His plan for the Special Editions to become the norm over time relied on earlier concepts of distribution and ownership, concepts the internet and new technology have erased. It no longer takes a studio and millions of dollars to oversee a film’s restoration and release. It doesn’t even take an original negative. All it takes is enough devoted fans. Fans not just of Star Wars, but of film history. Fans like Lucas, a long time ago, before he became the very barbarian he warned us against.

Alas, poor George…

Yeah, well, you know, that's just, like, your opinion, man.

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