Is it just me? … or are the Star Wars Special Editions better than the originals?

One Total Film writer argues the case…

In our regular polarising-opinion series, Total Film contributor Steve O’Brien asks, ‘Is it just me? …or are the Star Wars Special Editions better than the originals?’

With Disney’s $4bn acquisition of Lucasfilm last year, a good number of Star Wars fans gleefully waved off George Lucas and giddily waved in J.J. Abrams. And with that passing of the lightsaber, hopes arose that the revision-heavy 1997 Special Editions (which have themselves been since revised, at least twice) might be quietly consigned to the shit-tip.

All across the fan-scape, fingers are currently crossed for Disney to release a brightly buffed Blu-ray boxset of the original 1977/1980/1983 cuts, with the SEs a shame-faced extra, like Ted Turner’s colourised version of It’s A Wonderful Life or Giorgio Moroder’s rescored Metropolis.

The Special Edition decriers tend to shout louder and spit harder than its defenders. You don’t see many  ‘Greedo shot first’ t-shirts or people belting out the ‘Jedi Rocks’ song at Comic-Con meet-ups. But SE supporters exist, and there are plenty of us.

Of course, the odd change needles. Slotted in for the 2011 Blu-ray release, Vader’s “Nooooooo!!!” is thunderously ill-conceived. And yes, the 1997 version of the Han/Greedo stand-off seems cowardly revisionist. It’s been amended since, so that Greedo only shoots a fraction earlier than Han, but it’s still epically wrong.

Lucas’ argument in 1997 was that all art is only ever abandoned, and rarely finished. But with this new digital wonderland he was finally able to polish off those first three Star Wars movies. Isn’t Mos Eisley now better for being as bustling as it is? And don’t those CGI townscapes and now-moving Dewback lizards provide some desired connective tissue between the original trilogy and the digitally drenched prequels?

Lucas’ use of CGI in the SEs is remarkably low-key by his standards. We could have had a Cantina completely redone with pixels rather than the odd new monster, but we didn’t. Lucas doesn’t get enough credit for that.

Who could say that Cloud City didn’t benefit from the CG windows that opened up the set, which in its original form could have made on a Blake’s 7 budget? And surely The Empire Strikes Back’s new Emperor scene, with footage of Ian McDiarmid replacing the image of Elaine Baker (wife of make-up guru Rick) with chimpanzee eyes, works better in the context of the six-film series.

And what about Hayden Christensen nudging out Sebastian Shaw as the de-helmeted Vader in those final shots of Episode VI? Surely someone we’d spent three films with packs a heftier emotional punch than some old fella we’ve only just been introduced to?

The SEs smooth over that rattling gear change between Episodes III and IV and keep that slow-burn, analogue spirit of the original trilogy alive alongside some (mostly) light-fingered nips and tucks.

Check out the felt-tip matte lines and occasionally underpowered, under-realised special effects of the originals. There’s no doubt the films are now better for a dab of digital foundation. Or is it just me?

Do you agree with Steve and think that the special editions are an improvement? Join the debate below…


    • dojj singh

      Jul 7th 2013, 15:26

      Special Editions exist only to make you spend more money on stuff that you don't need to spend it on because the original version was all you needed to see. Then comes along Hollywood to decide that, actually, those extra 30 seconds WOULD make a huge difference to the story and so it all gets repackaged into "The Special Edition" aka The Directors Cut or "Buy Me!!!! You will be adored in geek fandom!" etc. You either join the hype and buy the film when it first comes out, or you play the long game and wait for the extended editions, normally cheaper after all those years. Only idiots would spend their money twice (says the man who's got 5 different versions/formats of TF:TM lol )

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    • lukeedwards

      Jul 7th 2013, 15:34

      To my shame, I only discovered the original Star Wars trilogy at the age of 11 with the release of the Special Edition VHS box set (the ones with George Lucas's CGI tinkerings). I still thought the films were iconic and life changing, so I don't see any reason why anyone would want to stick to watching the older versions. If the whole purpose of the Special Editions was to bring the Star Wars special effects bang up to date (just prior to the SFX onslaught of the prequel trilogy) and reintroduce the original films to a new generation, then clearly it worked. Purists can snipe, but it seems to be the same silly argument people made about The Beatles in stereo. For the record, I also think the 2002 re-release of E.T. with added CGI was also an improvement on the original.

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    • Indianabones

      Jul 7th 2013, 20:30

      I liked him opening Star Wars up, I loved the better effects and stuff, I can even put up with the cgi Kabbalah talking with Han. I still hate greedo shooting first, it did take something away from the film.... And I hate with a huge passion the voice change with boba fett!

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    • marc96

      Jul 7th 2013, 22:24

      you know, I agreed with a lot of this until you decided to mention the ridiculous Hayden Christensen , then I felt this whole page must be a joke, I didn't mind a lot about the star wars special editions... but when he changed silly things like that I just felt it went too far, but that's just me

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    • vinnym1980

      Jul 8th 2013, 0:02

      There was improvements with the special editions, for example the x-wing attack at the end of A new hope, the original wasn't great. The yeti monster in Empire Strikes back was good and a few other small editions. But the Jabba scene in the first film plus the music changes and Hayden Christensen in return of the Jedi i didnt like. The other Jedi like Yoda and Obi Wan look like they did when they died. Plus Hayden Christensen was one s**t actor lol.

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    • StevePotter

      Jul 8th 2013, 6:47

      I'd generally agree with you, as you have a lot of good points. The problem is that the CGI is just JARRING in the films. Some changes are for the better (McDiarmid as the Emperor instead of the woman with chimp eyes is an obvious one), but the CGI just doesn't work with the practical effects in the film. I've nothing against CGI, per se, but the more noticeable effects just look like c**p. Compare CGI Jabba to Puppet Jabba- Puppet Jabba wins because he looks real. Of course, I should point out that "Revenge of the Sith" is my favorite Star Wars film, so perhaps my opinion is "invalid."

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    • CaptainCrazy

      Jul 8th 2013, 8:09

      I wonder if after the next trilogy of Star Wars films we will have JJ go back to the original 6 films to add new characters or change scenes just to align the Star Wars universe or maybe update the SFX because of new technology?

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    • FBKTudor

      Jul 8th 2013, 11:16

      It's a mixed bag for me. I like how Cloud City was opened up more. I like the recasting of Ian McDermid in Empire, and I like the additional scene with Biggs before the Battle of Yavin IV in A New Hope, as it makes his death in the attack more impactive. The Wompa on Hoth also looks better in the Special Editions. I was not a fan of recasting Hayden Christensen in Return of the Jedi, as it made no sense to do so as Luke was only familiar with the Sebastian Shaw looking older version of Anakin so would not have known who Hayden was (also, why is he the only Jedi to appear in a younger form as a ghost, why not Obi Wan as Ewan MacGreggor, or a youthful Yoda too). Also, Hayden was only in 2 of the Prequel films, not 3 (to be a pedant). The Greedo shooting incident robs Han of his redemptive arc, as the start of the film shows a character who doesn't hesitate to kill, whereas by the end of the film he selflessly returns to help in the fight, risking his own life. The John Dykstra effects were superb in the final battle of the original Return of the Jedi, and were never touched up in the Special Editions. To me, it shows how good the model shots were, and as they had advanced in the 6 years between the first film and final film of the original trilogy, maybe model shots should have been used over the CGI of the 1997 edition, as the X-Wings change appearance between model and CGI in the final battle in A New Hope. Also, the ring/shockwave that leaves the exploding Alderan and Death Stars just looks terrible. The screams being added and removed is annoying too, as Luke's fall in Empire's 97 edition had Luke scream all the way down, only for it to be removed by the 2004 DVD amendment, and the 2011 amendment. But then they added that terrible Vader "Noooo!" which already sounded bad at the end of Sith. So a mixed bag for me. I don't loathe them as some do, but they are by no means perfect.

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    • Hadouken76

      Jul 8th 2013, 16:04

      The Jabba and Han scene only serves to make a mockery of the Star Wars trilogy, not enhance them.

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    • thejonner

      Jul 8th 2013, 16:52

      Of course it's just you. Don't be a prick.

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    • spid2411

      Jul 9th 2013, 19:25

      Just you - all three of the new ones were f*****g s**te. You complete, no taste,shouldn't be reviewing anything.......tool

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    • BenTramer

      Jul 12th 2013, 19:59

      The Special Editions did improve on 20-year-old effects, e.g. the dodgy scribbled in shadow under Luke's landspeeder, but there was also a lot of unnecessary messing around (do we really need that flying droid thing that accompanies the storm troopers in Mos Eisley? Or all that business with the Jawas falling off that creature in the background? There's also that new song in Jedi at Jabba's place that is just a horrendous CGI mess.) Mos Eisley does look more vast and densely-populated in the SEs but Jabba should never have been CGI'd into the first one, it ruins the big surprise of Jedi and Jabba's CGI eyes look awful.)

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    • MadMatt

      Jul 21st 2013, 14:05

      No one would object to a remastered, cleaned-up version being released. Removing matte lines and visible wires is one thing, but changing character motivations, lines of dialogue and replacing actors is quite another. A film is a record of a moment in time; we'd like to see it at its best, but there is a fine line between makeover and mutilation. (Surely no one thinks the plasticky CGI Jabba scene is necessary or even as convincing as the animatronic featured in Jedi? And the infamous Greedo scene betrays both the nature of Han Solo's cynical character and is artistically inferior - Ford's line-reading is much better and funnier in the original cut.)

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