With the Star Wars saga finally hitting bluray this week, there are a number of voices crying out—and, if the set’s 2 star rating on Amazon is any testament, they won’t be silenced. As one reviewer, Puggo, puts it: “This is not simply a bad product, it is a serious blow to art history and to our popular cultural heritage.” Is this an overreaction? It’s not merely the grumbling always accompanies a studio remake or reboot, but this is a more subtle form of revisionist media, as the films being released on bluray are once again not the films from the theatres—nor are they even the same as the special editions which brought such fury from the fans the last time Lucas decided to revise his films. But the outcry isn’t just about whether ewoks blink or Darth Vader screams. Those angered by the changes are venting their powerlessness in the face of George Lucas’s choice to not only tinker with and transform the classic films but also to erase the originals from the record.
An experience of a film is much more than what’s on the screen, just as the experience of a book or song or any medium becomes interwoven with the threads of personal circumstance. This linking of memory and experience goes hand in hand with preferences of all kinds: it’s why a familiar food offers comfort, or why the vinyl versus digital sound quality debate will continue unresolved as long as music fans who had their first experience of a song on vinyl are here to argue for its superiority.
Similarly, there will always be people who prefer the “original” cut of Blade Runner, even though it wasn’t the director’s vision—the studio forced a number of changes, including the explanatory voice-overs, in an attempt to broaden its appeal. But the reasons for the changes don’t matter once a story has imprinted in a certain way. When directors decide to revisit their older works, it’s usually marketed as the Director’s Cut. (If the director can’t seem to stop fussing with things, then new categories get added to the lexicon, as with Bladerunner’s relatively recent “Final Cut.”)
When George Lucas makes changes in Star Wars, and rather than calling it the “Director (or producer’s) Cut” releases it in lieu of the original, he’s not just changing his films—which, as many commentators have already noted, he’s perfectly within his rights to do, thanks to an understanding of ownership that gives the creator continuing control. He’s changing the experience as it will go forward. What fans fear is the erasure, or at least the blurring, of their collective memory—the jarring of a nostalgic experience, and the gradual reinvention of a franchise to the point where the original is irrecoverable. Lucas is playing with a classic story embedded into our cultural fabric.
There is something insidious about many of Lucas’s changes that go beyond enhancement. Just as changing the order of shots so that Han Solo no longer shoots first skewed the moral compass of a fascinating character, so too does adding a cry of “Noo!” to Vader’s powerful reformation undermine a moment for the character. And, most frustratingly, there’s no real alternative to accepting these changes, just as the “special editions” before them displaced the originals. Lucas has already claimed no intention to release the originals in high def—thus condemning them to obscurity, with the new versions in their stead.
Even now, the best quality version of the original trilogy sans “reinventions” exists not in an official copy but in versions ripped from the still sought-after Star Wars laser discs (laser discs were an early high-definition film format that, thanks to costs and poor timing, never really caught on). Many of the archives that preserve original creations forgotten by their creators are similarly illegal, existing without official sanction but often offering the only chance to revisit a remembered story.
With each new media technology, vast archives of film, television, games and stories are left behind—you can’t find everything that was available on VHS on bluray, just as all the films of Hollywood’s golden age never made it to VHS in the first place. Some have been left to rot away completely, forgotten. It’s unlikely that Star Wars will ever fade completely out of our record, or be allowed to fall out of print. But the originals, the films that allowed the franchise to rise into its own transmedia empire, could easily be lost outside of fans’ own personal archives. In some ways, it seems that’s what Lucas wants—to rewrite the history of his own saga, ignoring the value of what has come before.
Perhaps the most laughable part of this saga is the ease with which the originals (complete, even, with the cleaning-up that accompanied this move to hi-def) could have been preserved on these same discs, which apparently contained 40 hours of special features. It is now easier than ever to store a digital product, no matter how large, but the decision of what is worth saving is not always in the most sensitive of hands.