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Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Star Wars: Special Edition arrived 10 years ago today

It was ten years ago today, on January 31st 1997, that the cinematic re-issue of Episode IV: A New Hope kicked off the arrival of Star Wars: Special Edition in theaters.

To say that this was a big thing when it came would be a severe understatement. I don't think even we die-hard Star Wars fans were expecting what happened starting that day in the winter of 1997. It was truly a wonderful time whether you were an old-timer fan or a newcomer to the series (and there were more than you might have thought). The Special Editions were such a huge event that I felt it was worth commemorating here.

George Lucas first said in 1994 that he was considering re-releasing the first Star Wars movie with "upgraded special effects". It wasn't long afterward that word came that before he started working in earnest on the prequels, that he was going to give this "enhanced" treatment to all three of the original movies for a theatrical re-release in time for the Star Wars 20th anniversary.

The hype for what would become known as the Special Editions started to crank up in the spring of 1996. This in itself would be important to note because I can't help but think that how word on the Special Editions came out really did become the model for how info about movies gets dispersed across the Internet. First came a series of pilfered photos from the upgraded version of A New Hope showing the newly CGI-enhanced dewbacks (those lizard things that the Stormtroopers rode on) and it wasn't long afterward that the public got a look at the computer-animated Jabba the Hutt, for a scene that was cut from the original release of the first movie. Then a list of some of the forthcoming changes got leaked. I think the one that really whetted the appetites of a lot of die-hard fans was the news that the final scenes from the re-issue of Return of the Jedi would show celebrations all over the place, including on the galactic capital planet Coruscant: a place that had been written about but never shown in a Star Wars movie. Every time something new came out it was all good.

It went on like this throughout the summer and then fall of 1997...

...and then it got out that among the changes that Lucas was implementing was making Greedo shoot first.

Then all Hell broke loose.

There's no way I could describe the furor this caused and do it any justice. And it absolutely has to be mentioned in the context of talking about the coming of the Special Editions. A lot of fans said Lucas had no right to change his own story like this. Some started leveling the charge that Lucas was "raping our childhood". My take on it? If Lucas was doing all of these other things to enhance and make better his legend, I didn't have any problem with it. Having Greedo shoot first actually made a lot of sense to me: it didn't make Han out to be such a cold-blooded killer. Although how Greedo could have shot and missed from that close-by is still something I struggle with cognitive dissonance about.

January 1997 arrived and the public hype machine went full-tilt wacko. Pepsi led the way with its gonzo promotional product tie-ins: something that everyone got to see in a big way with this commercial that ran during Super Bowl XXXI...

Finally, five days later, the Special Edition of A New Hope came out. I was spending a few days with my parents after the end of winter term at Elon so that Friday morning I drove back to campus, picked up my friends "Weird" Ed and Gary, and we went to the Carmike 18 in Greensboro. There was a pretty long line waiting to go in when we got there (but nobody in costume: that's something that in these parts wasn't "cool" to do for a Star Wars premiere... at least not yet). Finally they opened the doors and we got our tickets and found our seats and showtime came...

...and we had to sit through at least fifteen minutes of trailers for upcoming movies! It might have been closer to twenty. There were so many trailers that by the time a new one started up most of the people in the audience were groaning "NOOOOO!!" (as one guy screamed out "We've waited twenty years for this!").

Well, at last, there was that 20th Century Fox intro. Then the "new" Lucasfilm logo: the fancy one that turns into gold or bronze or whatever (instead of the plain static blue "old" logo that was regular text). Then the "A long time ago..."

When that honkin' big yellow Star Wars logo filled the screen I went pure nuts. Ed and Gary had to hold me down. Lord help me, I was in tears...

We watched the movie, and were "oohing" and "ahhing" every "new" little thing that we could spot. One funny thing that happened was the scene where Luke is playing with the model of his T-16 Skyhopper: as soon as he did that someone's arm stood up out of the audience... holding the real-life toy of the T-16 and started playing with it along with Luke!

We had a great time watching A New Hope Special Edition. I saw that one four more times in the theaters while it was out. Three weeks after A New Hope's re-release came the Special Edition of The Empire Strikes Back, and then three weeks after that (it was originally going to be two) it was Return of the Jedi's turn. So for a month or so after that, all three of the original Star Wars movies were playing in theaters simultaneously, with some theaters running all three. Counting all three movies, I saw the Special Editions fifteen times during their theatrical run, most of those times with people I knew.

Well, there's not much else I know to add to what's already been said except that I naturally went a little nuts for the merchandising, like the soundtracks for all three Special Editions and more action figures 'course. My favorite piece of Star Wars memorabilia that I bought during that time is still the Darth Vader cap that I bought at the Air and Space Museum in Washington while we were there for a winter term class a few weeks before the Special Editions debuted.

It was an amazing time to be a Star Wars fan: one that I don't know if the release of the prequels even approximated. Maybe in another ten years or so, for the 40th anniversary, and after there's been plenty enough time since a Star Wars movie was shown in a theater, there could be something like this happening again but with all six movies. I don't know if it's possible to capture lightning in a bottle again, but it would sure be fun if it did happen.

So let's hoist aloft our glasses of blue milk and raise a toast to Star Wars: Special Edition on the occasion of its 10th birthday as we remember how it brought a legend fully back into public consciousness... and this time, to stay.


qemuel said...

The one good thing that came from the Special Editions for me was seeing them in the theater for the first time (I was denied this as a child).

I've come to terms with the insanity that has ensued over the past ten years, choosing to hold on to what the Trilogy meant to a certain young and impressionable child in a decade far, far away...

Also, I replied to your last post about the zampolits with a decisive "AUGH!"

I'm open to ideas as to how to wake the masses up before it's too late.

Anonymous said...

Have you ever see the very first original Star Wars movie when it came out in the theaters for the very first time (in 1977)?

I did. And it went way over my head. Couldnt understand one bit of it.

When and where was the first time you saw the very first one?

Chris Knight said...

Funny thing: the first Star Wars movie I saw was The Empire Strikes Back when it came out in 1980 (I was six at the time) but it wasn't until the 1982 re-release that I saw the first movie. But by then I had come to know the story completely by reading the picture storybook and everything I'd heard from older kids about it. All the same, the first time I actually *saw* A New Hope, I was completely blown away by it as if it was something totally new.

All told, including the Special Editions when it comes to watching them in the theater I've seen A New Hope 6 times, The Empire Strikes Back 6 times, Return of the Jedi 6 times, The Phantom Menace 9 times (?!), Attack of the Clones only 2 times (the fewest times I ever saw a Star Wars movie at the theater, for one thing after 2 and a half years on TheForce.net staff I knew EVERYTHING possible about that movie and also 'cuz I was so busy that summer getting ready to be married :-) and Revenge of the Sith 5 times. For a grand total of 34 times I've seen Star Wars flicks in a real cinema.

Maybe in the next 10 years or so Lucas will decide to make the final trilogy after all and I can add on more to the tally :-)