Star Wars Trilogy: The Special Editions (review)

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The Force Will Be With Us, Always

A recent episode of Showtime’s Stargate SG-1 featured this delightful line: “We’re afraid you’re gonna dark side on us,” one character says to another who’s under the sway of the enemy. The mythology of Star Wars has presented us with a new verb: “to dark side.” I love it.

George Lucas’s Star Wars films changed Hollywood, changed movies — some would say for the worse. No doubt, there’s a slew of bad movies audiences have been assaulted with in an attempt to replicate Lucas’s success. But Lucas gave us a modern myth, a brand new fairy tale, full of archetypes that I recognized and understood on a gut level, even as the 8-year-old I was when Star Wars was released: the naivé farmboy, the rogue, the princess, the evil king/stepfather. Lucas’s story will endure.

Lucas needn’t have bothered with special editions of Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi last year — he could have just rereleased the originals, and the lines at movie theaters would have been just as long. I won’t reveal how many times I waited outside in the freezing cold of a New York winter with lots of normal moviegoing grownups (and just a few lightsaber-toting fanatics), all of us waiting for a chance not to see some gussied-up special effects but to hear that thrilling 20th Century Fox fanfare, to read that scroll that starts (still disconcertingly) with the words “Part IV,” and soak in these movies that all of us surely owned on video with a crowd of the devoted, hoping for a religious experience. We weren’t disappointed.

I could rant about the evils of pan-and-scan — the films just aren’t the same boxed off on a television screen — but instead I’ll focus on all the stuff I love about the trilogy, even after an umpteenth viewing.

Star Wars: A New Hope
I don’t remember a lot from the summer of 1977, but I remember being scared to death by stormtroopers. They reminded me of those Ray Harryhausen clay-animated skeletons from the old Sinbad movies that filled the local TV station’s Saturday afternoon schedule in those days before 100 channels. It never occurred to me that the stormtroopers were simply men in armor. I understood that Luke and Han were wearing disguises during their travails on the Death Star, but they were the good guys. The real stormtroopers were not human.

So the opening sequence of Star Wars — the white-armored troopers storming Princess Leia’s ship — still sets off the same visceral reaction in me: one of sheer horror as walking skeletons come blasting their way onto the screen. And there’s a great bit later on that tickles me now: While Ben Kenobi hides from troopers on the Death Star, we overhear two bewildered soldiers. “You know what’s going on?” one asks. “Probably another drill,” the other replies, and then they launch into a manly discussion of some new spaceship. When that line finally registered with me, as an adult, it amused me to think that the nightmare figures of my childhood were nothing more than grunts.

Watching Star Wars again with full knowledge of all that will happen lends some new meaning. Now that we know the story of Luke’s parentage, watch Kenobi’s face as his eyes shift when he tells Luke how his father “died.” Before, my impression of Kenobi was that of a kindly old man — but now I see him as cannier, more manipulative.

And yet there’s still mystery, though now it’s in wondering what came before — and the anticipation grows as the release of the prequels draws nearer. As they wander through the desert of Tatooine, C-3PO scolds R2-D2: “No more adventures!” I’d never heard that line previous to the Special Edition — and it’s wonderful knowing we’re going to explore some of those adventures next year.

(You’ve seen Kevin Rubio’s short film “Troops,” haven’t you? It tells the real story behind Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru’s demise. You can download it and play it on your computer. Don’t miss it.)

The Empire Strikes Back
I think I can recite most of the dialogue from The Empire Strikes Back — I mean, even R2’s clicks and beeps. Isn’t that sad?

Raiders of the Lost Ark — the movie, I think, that made Harrison Ford the Hollywood god he is today — was still a year away when Empire was released, and Empire is the last time Harrison Ford wasn’t playing Harrison Ford. It’s possible to watch Star Wars and Empire, even today, and see more Han Solo than Harrison Ford — but by Return of the Jedi, the Ford persona was fully in place. Or maybe it’s the other way around — maybe the Ford persona we love in all his post-Jedi roles is more Han Solo than anything else. Whichever — watch the trilogy to see Harrison Ford transformed from a character actor to a Movie Star.

Harrison Ford has a moment I love in Empire. After he and Luke bid adieu on Hoth (they won’t see each other again till Jedi, but of course they don’t know that), Han watches Luke walk away, and the expression on Han’s face could only be called wistful. It complicates their relationship in a way that few other movies dare, by suggesting that there’s almost a “romance” between Han and Luke — not a sexual relationship, but a deeply platonic one.

I have new respect for Mark Hamill after recent viewings of Empire. He’s no Kenneth Branagh, yet consider: Luke spends most of the movie on Dagobah with R2-D2 and Yoda — hence Hamill must interact with a robot and a Muppet for a good chunk of the film. And he does a fine job — one that’s not so obvious until you watch a movie such as The Muppet Christmas Carol, in which you can see on the face of Michael Caine — one of the few humans in the cast — that he’s constantly thinking, “I’m talking to a sock puppet.” Hamill never once lets you see how tough he must have had it. He believes in R2 and Yoda just as much as we do.

Return of the Jedi
There’s wonderful symbolism in Luke’s costumes that becomes plain when you sit and watch all three movies at once. In Star Wars, as the callow, innocent boy, he’s dressed in colors so pale they might as well be white. In Empire, as his confidence increases, as he takes on leadership responsibilities (leading a squadron at the battle of Hoth), and as he dabbles more in the Force, he wears gray — his innocence is soiled. By Jedi, he’s dressed in priestly black, a tortured ascetic but one sure of his power.

Between his robot hand — echoing Vader’s machine innards — and his dark garb, Luke almost dark sides on us. At his confrontation with Vader in Jedi, Luke is the more powerful. In Empire, when Luke dueled with Vader, sweat poured off him, plastering his hair to his head. Luke was terrified, while Vader didn’t consider Luke much more than an annoyance — his lightsaber is held in one hand as parries with Luke, as if Vader almost can’t be bothered. Yet now, in Jedi, Luke is undoubtedly the master, even before he faces the emperor — even shackled, he turns his back on an armed Vader, and as Vader threw him for a loop with his fatherly announcement in Empire, it’s Luke’s turn to rattle Vader with entreaties to abandon the dark side, abandon the emperor.

But Luke is redeemed by redeeming Vader, and as he looks upon his father’s face for the first time, the flap of his black tunic falls open, revealing a patch of gray. There’s no return to innocence for Luke, but all is not darkness, either.

What’s so special?
The Special Editions are fun, no doubt — having seen these three movies countless times before, it became a game to find all the new scenes and FX. But if the new versions didn’t fundamentally add anything to the films we’ve loved for two decades, they didn’t change anything, either.

As 3PO might say, “Thank the Maker for that.”

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