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George Lucas Is A Hack And A Ne’er-Do-Well

May 23rd, 2006

The title of this post is taken from one of my wife’s favorite invectives. She typically employs it whenever I tell her about Lucasfilm’s most recent passive-aggressive affront to Star Wars fans. “He’s playing you!” she traditionally adds.

Vic is convinced that George Lucas is going out of his way to screw over the people who helped make him a gazillionaire. While I’ll admit that there’s evidence to support her theory, I don’t always agree with her. I do think that most of the “double-dipping” (the practice of encouraging consumers to buy the same things two or more times by producing ever-better versions) that goes with Star Wars merchandising has more to do with the licensees than with Lucasfilm itself. It’s actually pretty common in the home entertainment and toy industries. It’s certainly possible that Hasbro’s own abuse of the practice is rooted in the massive licensing fee they paid to Lucasfilm prior to the release of Episode I, but as toy companies are notoriously unwilling to part with that sort of information, I’m not comfortable stating that as fact.

However, the whole “hack and ne’er-do-well” thing came up again yesterday when I described the most recent news about this fall’s scheduled DVD reissue of the classic Star Wars trilogy. And this time, I really couldn’t disagree.

First, a bit of background. In 1997, Lucas rereleased the old films to theaters in spiffed-up “special editions” which were alleged to be more in keeping with his original vision. The argument was that he was held back both by budgetary and technical limitations from making them all they could be. Certainly, Lucas’ frustrations during the filming of that first trilogy are well documented, and there’s no question that however groundbreaking the special effects were for the ’70s/’80s, they look crude by modern standards.

However, the digitally enhanced editions were controversial among die-hard fans. While most purely cosmetic tweaks were deemed acceptable–for example, the greatly-improved attack against the first Death Star–Lucas was seen to have exceeded his mandate by making editorial changes. The most notorious was his revision of Han Solo’s encounter with the bounty hunter Greedo. In the original, Han plugged the boastful criminal under the table with a concealed blaster. The new version had Greedo firing first–and missing from a distance of three feet–thus allowing Han to act without seeming quite so bloodthirsty. A lot of folks–myself included–hated this because 1) it softened Han’s rogueish character, making his ultimate transformation into a good guy less of a journey; 2) it made no logical sense for a bounty hunter to miss an unmoving target from such a short distance; and 3) it looked fuckin’ stupid. In general, the “special editions” appeared careless, with some things unnecessarily “corrected” while other, actual mistakes were left untouched.

Fans clamored for the release of the non-special versions of the movies that they grew up with, but Lucas dug in his heels and said that not only would they never be seen again, but that the actual negatives had been destroyed during the restoration/adulteration process. Despite much hand-wringing and petition-writing, the 2004 DVD release included only the “special editions.” (It should be noted that these had been further enhanced since 1997, and that some of the more egregious alterations had been made more acceptable. Greedo and Han now shoot simultaneously.) Again, we were told that the original versions would never be sold.

That was, until a few weeks ago, when it was announced that the trilogy would have yet another home video release this fall. This time, each would include, as a supplemental feature, its own unaltered version. Many fans rejoiced at this surprising reversal, though some, like myself, were pissed off at being expected to buy the “special editions” yet again to get the versions we wanted in the first place.

The other shoe dropped last week, when it was learned that the transfers to be used would be from the 1993 laserdisc release. Not only would they not be DVD quality, but they would not be in anamorphic widescreen. This latter bit is the real pisser. Anamorphic is the industry standard for presenting widescreen films on DVD. In essence, it presents a full-screen 4:3 image which appears vertically “stretched” when seen normally, but which is squeezed back down to its proper proportions by widescreen TVs (or TVs, like mine, which have a widescreen setting). The result is greatly improved picture quality. In short, anyone watching these on modern TVs will find a noticably degraded image.

Again, the fans are up in arms, and not without good reason. Lucasfilm, which has long prided itself on pushing the technical envelope in moviemaking and presentation, is deliberately releasing its crown jewels in a format which is inferior to pretty much everything currently being released to DVD.

There have been a variety of theories for this–see the title of this blog entry for the one my wife puts forward–but here’s mine. Lucas is sick of hearing old-school fans whine about how they don’t like his fancy new editions and has decided to give them what they want–sort of–in a manner which will convince them once and for all that they didn’t really want them after all. They’ll see just how crappy the unrestored films look in comparison to their 2004 counterparts and say, “How could we have ever doubted you, George?”

Except, of course, he’s setting up a straw-man (straw-trilogy?) argument by representing the originals in their worst possible, yet still vaguely defensible condition. He can say that these are the best transfers currently available without going through a hugely expensive restoration process, and it’ll be true. It’s also true that Lucasfilm easily has the resources to do them up right. They just don’t want to, whether because of hubris, malice, laziness or a simple desire to make a bunch of money without putting out any real effort.

It is, as my delicate wife loves to claim, “The Fuck-You-Up-The-Ass Edition” of the Star Wars Trilogy. I’m not sure that they’ll use that on the actual box.

Update: Lucasfilm has responded to the criticisms by saying, in part, “We hoped that by releasing the original movies as a bonus disc, it would be a way to give the fans something that is fun. We certainly didn’t want to be become a source of frustration for fans.”

I’ll grant you that fans can get frustrated about all sorts of alleged slights, large and small. However, it shouldn’t be news to anyone that this would be seen as a big deal. The online petition to get the original trilogy on DVD attracted nearly 12,000 signatures. And obviously, Lucasfilm corporate thought that the release of the unexpurgated films was worthy of making a fuss about.

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