20 Years: Looking Back At The Special Editions

Twenty years ago Star Wars blasted its way back into the mainstream in a big way with the Special Edition theatrical releases. As the trailer announced, If you’ve only seen it on a small TV screen, you haven’t seen it at all! So true.

Digital effects were starting to be the rage in the entertainment industry for better or for worse. However, only a small handful of films like Willow, Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park had used them wisely, and for every one of those films there were dozens behind it that had no business using them at all. Now, for the first time a film was getting a digital makeover.

George Lucas was replacing several special effects shots in the Star Wars trilogy that he was never satisfied with and added scenes that were too costly. But, the questions on everyone’s minds were, “does Star Wars need these new effects?” and “Will anything be altered that would change the way we look at the film that’s been a big part of our lives for 20 years?” There was much concern among the fans.

Personally for me, the bigger picture remained that Star Wars was coming back into our culture. This provided an opportunity for many of the younger fans to see it on the big screen for the first time the way it was meant to be seen. No more pan-and-scan video. Widescreen for everybody! But would these changes be accepted?  Entertainment Weekly ran a cover story with the headline “The Biggest Gambles of 1997!” And Luke Skywalker was front-and-center. Why would Star Wars be considered a gamble? Just because people may opt to just watch the copy they recorded off of cable TV in the comfort of their own home? Alright, now I was worried. Will this work?

The true test came while I sat in a packed theater waiting anxiously for the trailer that was going to play before Independence Day. The lights dimmed and I was numb with nerves and excitement.  The new Lucasfilm gold logo faded up and the theatre exploded with applause and cheer. Relief overcame me. This trailer was like the ultimate reunion with your closest friends and family, they were back and looked better than ever. Then came the surprise – The Empire Strikes Back AND Return Of The Jedi Special Editions were also to be released. OVERLOAD!

Star Wars was back!

The beginning of 1997 felt like the second coming and Star Wars was everywhere! It was at every multiplex, it was on Pepsi bottles, Fruit Loop boxes, magazine covers, billboards, fast food restaurants had new premiums with their happy meals and most important of all – fan communities starting popping up thanks to this new thing called the Internet!

Legions of like-minded fans and those wanting a taste of nostalgia gathered at multiplexes around the country on January 31, 1997 to see Star Wars Special Edition. We waited anxiously for each and every alteration and expressed judgments in audible gasps. After two decades of hearing about the infamous scene of Han Solo’s confrontation with Jabba the Hutt at Docking Bay 94, we finally got to see it in context! Jabba didn’t look much like he did in Return of the Jedi and most of the dialogue was just repeated from the Greedo scene (more on that in a moment) but this was footage we hadn’t seen on the big screen and the crowd roared with excitement. Now, the most controversial adjustment to this day is that Greedo now shot first. Fans did not stand for this! What happened to the anti-hero gunslinger we knew Han to be? George did not want Han to look like a cold-blooded killer so history had to be rewritten. However by the time we get to the 2011 releases, the shots appear to be fired at the same time. But since Greedo is the troublemaker here it’s assumed he still shot first. When we do watch the 1997 special edition, we have to remember that these effects were new territory so don’t be so judgmental when you see how wonky Han’s head moves to avoid Greedo’s laser blast. I would’ve prefered to have Greedo just miss even at such close range.

Among other new digital effects such as multiple moving dewbacks, a revised Sandcrawler, and a Mos Eisley makeover with new Cantina creatures, we also got an exciting Death Star battle! X-Wings and TIE Fighters were now twisting and turning in combat the way they never could before. Each explosion burned more brilliantly. We could now see the pilots as the ships flew by, giving it a personal touch. Finally when the Death Star blew up it wasn’t just a jump-cut, the battle station was engulfed within a fireball complete with an explosion ring. Even though we had seen this sequence a million times, we were still on the edge of our seats as if it were the first time.

Star Wars Special Edition far exceeded expectations and went on to gross $138,257,865 in its run.

The Empire Strikes Back Special Edition opened on February 21, 1997 with not nearly as many alterations. There were many audio tweaks, clean-up shots and dialogue replacements but two of the stand-outs would be the Wampa scene where we get to see the actual Wampa in the scene! No longer is the ice creature hidden behind frozen stalactites or just heard off-screen, we now see him/her devouring a fresh kill. Moments later Luke’s Lightsaber blade severs the Wampa’s arm and we now see the creature howl in agony.

The next big change comes when we got to see the city that is Cloud City! As the Millennium Falcon was escorted to docking platform 327, aerial shots show us how far this mining colony stretched. It is truly amazing how seamless this sequence cuts into the original footage. Then later as our heroes settle in, we see the buildings and towers of the city a little closer as we follow a Twin-Pod Cloud Car in an amazing point-of-view shot that leads outside of Leia’s quarters. To really open up the scope, hallway walls were replaced with windows so we could see the bustle of the citizens and tourists that make up the population.

The Empire Strikes Back Special Edition racked up $67,597,694 during its release.

To round out the original trilogy, having moved from March 7th to a March 14th release because of the saga’s immense popularity, we were treated to Return of the Jedi Special Edition! Like the others before it, Jedi also opened in the #1 spot at the box office. This release had almost as many alterations as Star Wars. The simple but much loved ‘Lapti Nek’ was removed from Jabba’s palace and replaced with the over-produced recording of ‘Jedi Rocks’. Complete with a new 9-piece band, back-up singers and a shot that begs for 3D as a digital Sy Snootles sticks her Mick Jagger lips up to the camera. Sy now has to share the spotlight with a new digital lead singer named Joh Yowza, a Yuzzum character we hardly saw as a puppet leaning against the background in the original release.

A more menacing Sarlacc lies in wait in the newly enhanced Pit of Carkoon sequence. The creature now has many more reaching tentacles and a sharp beak to pull in its victims. This new addition intensifies the battle as we see the creature actually grabbing and gobbling up several of Jabba’s henchmen. The most terrifying part comes when Lando is being pulled into the pit and the giant beak rises up behind him like a great white shark ready to devour its prey. It’s tame by today’s standards, but back in 1997 I would have thought this scene would have pushed the film to a PG-13 rating.

Then comes the change that ties the whole trilogy together as well as the yet-to-be-filmed prequels. Instead of just seeing how the inhabitants of the forest moon of Endor celebrate the defeat of the evil Empire, we now see numerous citizens rejoicing on Cloud City, Tatooine and, appearing on film for the first time, Coruscant. (Naboo was inserted into the 2004 DVD release.)

The Empire has been defeated, now let’s celebrate with the catchy ‘Ewok Celebration’ Yub Nub song. Nope! It has been replaced with the new ‘Victory Celebration’ theme. All those hours I spent phonetically learning the original song and now I have to start all over. As much as I loved the original, as a kid I always wondered who was singing the Yub Nubs. These voices are clearly not Ewoks and I didn’t see anyone else singing, but I loved it so I let it slide. I just wish ‘Victory Celebration’ had the raw, primitive sounds that made the original version work. Like ‘Jedi Rocks’ it’s too over-produced to be believable for the scene. In short, give me the Yub Nub song back!

At the end of its release, Return of the Jedi Special Edition had taken in $45,470,437 at the box office.

Regardless of how you feel about the changes in any or all of the Special Editions, they are still fantastic films. I personally feel honored that George Lucas wanted to to share his original vision and  experience the films the way he was seeing them in his head. If you still prefer the original releases, they were made available on DVD in 2006. And let’s not forget this was not the first time George had made changes to any of the films. Most notably for the 1981 re-release of A New Hope he added ‘Episode IV A New Hope.’

After the releases of the Special Editions, the world was now primed and ready for the long-awaited Star Wars prequels. Then that would be it for Star Wars. As George once said, “The Skywalker story will be over and that will be the end.” I wondered then if he really meant it or would the the Force be awakened again?