Star Wars original trilogy changes: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly – Part 1 The Good

Posted: November 10, 2015 in movies
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Reblogged from ScreenRant.Com. Text: Sarah Moran.

Back in 1997, Lucasfilm theatrically re-released the original Star Wars trilogy in celebration of the first film’s 20th anniversary. The build up was massive, the anticipation huge, but when fans finally saw these remastered versions of their beloved films, there were noticeable… changes.

Changes both good – remixed audio, crisp visuals, enhanced effects work – and bad, or worse, downright ugly. There was a notable amount of CGI added to the films, there were entirely new scenes added while others significantly altered, and in some cases these changes impacted not only characterization, but the films’ own sense of continuity. Needless to say, the alterations enacted within the Special Editions created a rift between fans and creator – a dispute documented in an actual documentary, The People vs George Lucas.

The highly contentious Special Editions were soon followed by the also controversial prequel films, which later received a DVD then Blu-ray release as a six-film set containing (you guessed it) more changes to the original trilogy. The changes from 2004’s DVD and 2011’s Blu-ray release built upon the changes of the Special Editions, using CGI to achieve Lucas’s “ideal” vision for the Star Wars saga and better align the original trilogy with the prequels.

With rumors Disney is planning to release an unaltered version of the original Star Wars trilogy and the expectation that another Star Wars box set will arrive just in time for the holidays (and the release of The Force Awakens), now is a fitting time to revisit those infamous changes George Lucas made to a galaxy far, far away. Here are our rankings of 15 changes made to the original Star Wars trilogy – The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.

So to begin with, here are 5 Good Changes Made in the Star Wars Special Editions.

Part 1: The Good

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Good 1: Overall Special Effects Enhancement

It’s no secret that Star Wars was a revolutionary film when it came to visual effects. Even today you’d be hard-pressed to find a movie that hasn’t received some work from Industrial Light & Magic – the visual effects company Lucas founded just before work began on Star Wars in 1975. Almost 40 years later, many of the effects from the original Star Wars trilogy not only hold up, but remain unchanged – even in both the Special Edition, DVD and Blu-ray releases! ([Author’s note] Believe me, I simultaneously watched both a Blu-ray and an unaltered laser disc file of the original Star Wars trilogy in preparation for this article. Not nearly as much of the movies have been changed as the widespread outrage leads us to believe.)

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The fact that scenes like A New Hope‘s opening shot of a Star Destroyer looming into frame can still leave us gobsmacked is a testament to those visual effects artists. Yet, even they couldn’t recreate every idea or concept George Lucas dreamed up. It was Lucas’ regret over those few, poor looking effects that formed the very root of the Special Editions, and while many agree that Lucas may have crossed a line with his tinkering (more on that later), there are a handful of instances where the original effects are updated with CGI that feel entirely justified.

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For example, on set in Tunisia the crew used a tiny, motorized model for shots where the Jawas’ Sandcrawler was traversing the desert, but the model didn’t translate on screen as the massive, lumbering vehicle Lucas had imagined. So for the Special Editions, Lucas had ILM redo the Sandcrawler shot with a digital model and – as you can see from the comparison shot above – the result is a huge improvement.

Small changes like this are littered throughout the now revised versions of the original Star Wars trilogy: improved lightsaber effects making them appear more vibrant, the orange blur removed from under Luke’s speeder, the Praxis effected added to the destruction of both Alderaan and the Death Star, matte lines removed from the snow speeders during the Battle on Hoth, and so on. But because they aren’t as overt or noticeable as others (see section: The Ugly) they pass without scrutiny, and in some cases, are a praiseworthy addition.

Good 2: Aurebesh Replaces English

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The Star Wars universe is vast, containing hundreds of aliens from different worlds speaking a variety of languages. However, in the original trilogy, just about everyone on screen spoke English – or as it’s referred to in canon, Galactic Basic Standard. The Basic language is just that, the most basic language that most residents of a galaxy far, far away (and us, the audience) can understand, and for the most part it’s indistinguishable from English.

Except when written. Basic does not use the Latin alphabet of English and countless other Earth languages, instead Basic is written using Aurebesh. But Aurebesh didn’t appear on screen until Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, and even then, the Aurebesh symbols used were completely random. It wasn’t until Stephen Crane of West End Games chose to add meaning to the random symbols when working on several Star Wars miniature and role-playing games that Aurebesh was officially “born.”

And in the 2004 DVD release, Aurebesh finally replaced any and all English writing that still appeared in Episode IV: A New Hope, most notably on consoles within the Death Star. The change is minor, to be sure, but it’s one that gives a cohesiveness to the Star Wars universe and adds to its otherworldly vibe.

Good 3: More Screen Time for Biggs Darklighter

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In an earlier cut of Star Wars, Luke was introduced much earlier in the film, with scenes of his life on Tatooine spliced with the capture of Princess Leia and C-3PO and R2-D2’s escape. These scenes primarily showed Luke hanging out with friends, giving us a sense there was at least a little more to his social life than power converters and Tosche’s Station. But these scenes also introduced us to a minor though pivotal character: Luke’s best friend, Biggs Darklighter (portrayed by actor Garick Hagon).

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However, I wouldn’t be surprised if you do recognize the name (or hear Mark Hamill in your head saying, “Blast it Biggs! Where are you?“) and that’s because though these earlier scenes on Tatooine were cut, Biggs still appears in the theatrical release of Episode IV – albeit very briefly. During the attack on the Death Star, it’s Biggs flying alongside Luke and Wedge Antilles when they make the final and successful trench run to destroy it. Biggs doesn’t survive that trench run and we see the effect his death has on Luke, but we aren’t told why Biggs was important to Luke (as opposed to the countless other Rebel pilots who died).

Without any earlier scenes setting up the childhood friendship between Luke and Biggs, the impact of his death is lost. That was until the Special Edition release when at least one of Biggs scenes was added back in. It’s a scene that now comes right before the assault on the Death Star, inside the Rebel Base, and it features Luke and Biggs reuniting and reminiscing like old friends. It’s a short scene, but it practically doubles Biggs’ screen time and gives us a least some idea that he and Luke go way back, making his death yet another in a long string of tragedies Luke suffers throughout the trilogy.

Good 4: Ian McDiarmid as The Emperor

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As far as most Star Wars fans are concerned, Ian McDiarmid is and always has been Emperor Palpatine, even playing the younger version of the character (oddly enough as an older actor) during the prequel films. But when The Emperor first appeared on screen in The Empire Strikes Back, McDiarmid hadn’t yet been cast. And really, at this point in the saga the role of The Emperor was minor, existing only as a great evil lurking in the shadows and pulling the strings.

For the theatrical release of Episode V, The Emperor was achieved through a couple of means. Appearing via hologram in a scene with Darth Vader, Palpatine was physically portrayed by Elaine Baker, wife of makeup artist Rick Baker, who then had chimpanzee eyes superimposed over her own to give her the look of an old man. The Emperor’s dialogue was then dubbed by actor Clive Revill. Yet, the final effect was never to Lucas’ liking, as a woman in age makeup with ape eyes wasn’t what he had in mind for the most powerful Sith in the galaxy.

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For the DVD release, it was decided that Ian McDiarmid would be inserted as The Emperor for not only continuity’s sake but to improve upon that original effect. McDiarmid’s new scene as The Emperor was shot during filming on Episode III: Revenge of the Sith and included slight variations on the scene’s original dialogue. For instance, now The Emperor refers to Luke as the offspring of Anakin Skywalker, causing Vader to essentially refer to himself in third person, only further cementing that the man Anakin was before turning to the dark side is truly dead.

The insertion of McDiarmid is by far one of the more substantial changes made to the original trilogy, but it’s also one of the most welcomed. And for being as noticeable as it is, it’s a change that blends seamlessly with the original film, due in large part to the relative ease of swapping one holographic image for another.

Good 5: Cloud City’s Digital Scenery

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For being named Cloud City, the floating city on Bespin as it first appeared in The Empire Strikes Back doesn’t quite fit the imagery its name suggests. Once inside, Cloud City is almost indistinguishable from a dozen other facilities seen throughout the saga. With its stark white walls and endless corridors, the set used doesn’t evoke a city high among clouds.

Reportedly, the claustrophobic nature of the Cloud City set was a complaint of director Irvin Kershner who, like Lucas, envisioned Cloud City having a very open design, with large windows allowing for grand views of the city and its surrounding clouds. However, the matte paintings required to recreate such vistas would have been numerous and expensive, on top of being very difficult to composite onto the film as it puts limitations on where the actors can be within the frame. Plus, the green screen technology of the day left much to be desired, and if we’re already harping on those few effects that didn’t age as well as others, we can only imagine how poorly Cloud City’s 1980s green screen would be received today.

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To rectify this the Special Editions used computer graphics to open up Cloud City’s corridors, creating large windows with views of the city skyline and its puffy, pink clouds. The effect is noticeable but non-intrusive, allowing for Cloud City to appear as a truly idyllic refuge for our heroes – that is then twisted and distorted once it’s revealed The Empire has been there all along, laying a trap. The DVD and Blu-ray releases have since tweaked the digital scenery of Cloud City and each time the work only looks better and better, making it hard for even die-hard purists to argue for a return to the severity of Cloud City’s original appearance.

Now that we’ve looked at the Good Changes, let’s see the 5 Bad Changes Made in the Star Wars Special Editions. Click here to see the Part 2: The Bad.

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