I am ashamed to admit that I had never seen Star Wars until yesterday. I had seen the 1997 edition, sure, as well as the 2006 DVD release, but I had never watched Star Wars as it existed in 1977. This is a strange admission, because the theatrical version of Star Wars is arguably the single most influential film ever made. It was the first international blockbuster success, it fundamentally altered the industry’s relationship with special effects, and it cemented a certain conception of genre in the minds of generations.
The changes that George Lucas made to the film between 1977 and 1997 are minor when compared to the other famously iterative science fiction film, Blade Runner. Due to my age, I watched the Blade Runner Director’s Cut long before seeing the theatrical version, which is a very different film. The theatrical version’s monotonous voice over and tacked-on happy ending change the film’s tone from start to finish, which, according to lore, was the studio’s intention. When the Director’s Cut was released on home video, the public got to see the movie that the director intended to make; it was the revelation of a masterpiece.
The opposite process has been taking place with Star Wars. Whereas Blade Runner is available in all its versions on the same disc, it is still (and will likely always be) impossible to purchase the 1977 version of Star Wars. The version that I watched was lovingly cobbled together by a dedicated fan from myriad sources ranging from 35mm prints to recent Blu-ray releases. The amount of effort that went into restoring the video and audio is staggering, especially since the result is intentionally less polished and refined than any later version. The grime on C3PO’s suit is more visible, Luke’s hair glows like a reflecting pool at midday against the grey interiors of the Death Star, and you can almost see the lines around the lasers as they travel across the screen.
Neither George Lucas nor the Czech editor who put the “despecialized” edition together seems concerned about legal ramifications. Lucas has not taken any action against the sub rosa distribution of the 1977 “version” of Star Wars beyond keeping it from both the market and the National Film Registry. In fact, he considers Star Wars as it was released in 1977 to be “half a completed film,” and is vocally proud of the alterations he has made to it over the decades. Lucas is in the unique position of believing that his masterpiece, the film that launched one of the most successful production companies of all time and cemented his legacy in the pantheon of Hollywood directors, was incomplete at the time of its release.
But this is not how film works. Film is unique in the ways in which that the final product is defined by the circumstances of its creation. The most authoritarian auteur is incapable of keeping the rest of the cast and crew from influencing their final product; even Kubrick, who famously adjusted the positions of background items and demanded that his actors do dozens of takes until he got the one he wanted, was incapable of keeping Malcolm McDowell and R. Lee Ermey from leaving their unique marks on his films. Collaboration is one of the necessary, and wonderful, aspects of the medium.
Another necessary aspect of Hollywood filmmaking is budgetary constraints. Examples like Apocalypse Now aside, no filmmaker has unlimited time and resources with which to craft their movie. In fact, formal aspects of films are often altered by these constraints; ask Sam Raimi or George Romero why they set their debut films in a single location and they will both have the same answer. There is no getting around the fact that the budget you have to make a movie determines its scale. More than any other art form, film is defined by its economics. As such, Raimi and Romero’s early films could not have been made with the larger budgets that their creators almost certainly wished (at the time) that they had, as they would have been different films entirely.
In the documentary The White Stripes Under Great White Northern Lights, Jack White discusses the relationship between resources and creativity. “Deadlines and things make you creative,” says White. “Telling yourself, ‘Oh, you’ve got all the time in the world, all the money in the world, you’ve got all the colors and the palette you want, anything you want,’ I mean that just kills creativity.” He then goes on to describe the way in which he lays out his instruments on stage to foster invention: “I put the organ just far away enough that I have to leap to get to it to play different parts of a song, it’s not handy to jump from one thing to the next. I always try to push it a little further away so that I have to work harder.” It is through this work, this tension, that he produces compelling music. Creativity exists because of limitations, and, as such, stricter limitations force you to greater creativity.
Now consider the opposite conditions. George Lucas has had all the money and time in the world to tinker with Star Wars after the fact. None of the changes that he has made in the thirty years that he has had to alter the film made the film any better because none of them were made under any sort of constraint. With no urgent need to creatively solve the problem of telling a story with a limited budget and within a given timeframe, Lucas’s creativity was replaced by an obsessive perfectionism that changes its standards with every new advance in computer graphics. In the existence of the iterative Star Wars editions we have a concrete example of what a film that is caught in an endless state of post-production looks like, and the result is not pretty.
The most startling fact of the “despecialized” Star Wars film is how much it feels like a product of the 1970s. It shares many traits with Alien, another 1970s scient fiction film: both are small genre movies made on relatively tight budgets with a stable of non-star actors (with one glaring exception in the case of Star Wars) that happen to have great production design. Additionally, the heroes in Star Wars are a scrappy group of misfits flying a castoff spaceship while fighting against a literal representation of “The Man.” Much like Lucas himself, they accomplish big things with few resources and under a tight deadline. They aren’t perfect, but they’re damn well good enough. It is sadly ironic that George Lucas does not understand the parallels between the story of Star Wars and the circumstances of its creation. He began as the Rebels and ended up as the Empire, trying to control every last aspect of his domain instead of allowing diversity to flourish.
One of the main things that Lucas has added in the various “special editions” is increased numbers of people and things on screen. He has added more monsters walking around the desert, an army of storm troopers on the Death Star, and a bevy of X-Wings in the climactic assault. By doing this, he has stripped his film of the very intimacy that was one of its defining traits. Star Wars is not a film about a galactic civil war, but rather it tells the story of a small group of people who impact history through their actions. It is an adventure film, not an epic tale of warring factions. By cluttering the frame, Lucas undercuts this fundamental aspect of the story to the same degree that his decisions while filming enhanced it.
Star Wars is not a perfect film. Especially from a modern perspective, its pacing is glacial and fractured, and the dialogue and tone waver in quality and consistency. However, none of these problems can be solved by using alternate takes or by adding new computer generated characters to the foreground of shots. They are necessary features just as much as they are flaws. This is because Star Wars has an essence that can only be attributed to its creator’s vision. Much like subsequent masters such as Paul Thomas Anderson and Quentin Tarantino, George Lucas made his own version of an old film from a genre that he grew up loving. Star Wars is a 1940s science fiction serial viewed through the lens of the 1970s. As released in 1977, Star Wars accomplished this goal while simultaneously reinventing the genre that it mimicked, and also just happened to be one of the most financially successful films of all time. Perfection was not a goal then, and should not be one now.