I am a child of the 1980s. Well, actually, I was born towards the close of the 1970s, but that pretty much puts me in the child of the 1980s category since on December 31, 1979, I had only just worked out this whole walking and staying upright 80% of the time thing.
But other than being the first on the block to get a VCR, being a child in this era entailed a lot of different entertainment-related things for me. And although VHS tapes were of astoundingly poor quality in the 1980s, they did afford children like me a vague approximation of three films that have since been collectively called the Star Wars trilogy.
I was not big on Star Wars as a child. The more utilitarian, lived-in approach to how the universe appeared was lost on me until I got a bit older and had epiphanies concerning how the universe would really look if the Homo Sapiens I knew expanded their habitat into it. I ended up sticking more with films like Battle Beyond The Stars and two of the Star Trek films (the first two, specifically). But then I started to play videogames a lot when I was getting into my mid and late teens, and soon after this rather odd time in my life, I began to play some videogames based on the Star Wars universe. The first Star Wars flight simulator, X-Wing, did not appeal to me so much. Its steep learning curve and difficult interface, not helped any by the fact that playing it effectively was utterly impossible without a joystick (and those were quite a hassle in themselves on the PC), ended up pretty much terminating any chance that I was going to play it to completion. But a few years passed, and LucasArts, the videogame branch of George Lucas‘ empire, brought forth TIE Fighter. Putting the player into the shoes of a pilot in the Imperial Navy, the game offered both an insight into the workings of the Star Wars universe that had not been seen previously, and rather overwhelming evidence that playing the bad guys was always more interesting.
So around the early part of 1997, LucasArts releases X-Wing VS. TIE Fighter, a simulator based on “true” 3D graphic modelling and multiplayer capability, whilst Lucasfilm brings us a special edition of the Star Wars trilogy. Whilst I was aimlessly drifting around the Internet by this time, one still had to specifically go looking for what the cult of popular culture had to say about any given product. For the most part, I did not mind the alterations that were made to what I will refer to as the Special Edition here. The new shots in which TIE Fighters and X-Wings duke it out above the surface of the Death Star actually enhanced the first film to a degree. Whilst the original model-on-wire shots were no slouch, the computer-generated models gave more of an illusion of reality to the spacecraft and the people flying them, which helped me to care more about the pilots I was seeing get killed. But by far the most controversial and ill-advised change in the Special Editions, and by that I mean all three films, is a shot in which Han Solo and Greedo are sitting across from one another at a table in a cantina, exchanging stern words concerning a bounty a crime boss has put on the head of Solo after a routine smuggling operation went pear-shaped. Irrespective of what version you watch, the end result where this scene is concerned is the same. Greedo ends up a dead, smoking mess atop the table, Solo tosses the barkeep what I presume is the Star Wars equivalent of currency, and exits with a flat-sounding apology about the mess.
In the original version of the shot, numerous cutaways show Han Solo pulling his distinctive gun from its holster and moving it into firing position, all under the table. After a quip from Greedo about how he has been looking forward to “this”, Solo states he will bet Greedo has, there is a blast (one that looks like a very large squib), and Greedo falls down dead. A similar shot exists in Sergio Leone’s more whimsical masterpiece, The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly (Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo, literally “the good, the ugly, the bad”). In that shot, a man whom Tuco (the ugly) has earlier shot in the process of making a getaway confronts him whilst he is having a bath. This man, who has lost an arm as a result of having been shot earlier by Tuco, makes a fairly lengthy speech about thinking of Tuco every time he has had to use his left hand for anything when he would normally use his right. From under the surface of the bubble-bath water, Tuco simply shoots the man before emerging from the tub and matter-of-factly stating “when you have to shoot, shoot, don’t talk”. That is the kind of shot that the original version of this sequence basically is. We do not see any of the trademark red laser beams associated with Star Wars during this shot. Simply an explosion, a very silly bounty hunter falling down dead, and the craftier of the two walking away to perform a job that he feels might get him out of the hole he is in.
Subsequent releases of the film, both the Special Edition and what I would call the Very Special Edition, alter this sequence so that we see a bolt of laser from Greedo’s pistol, then what appears to be a shot from over the table coming out of Solo’s. It is a ridiculous alteration for a number of reasons. But as you might have guessed from the title of this post, I am going to lay on the line the biggest reason why the altered versions of this shot suck the donkey. Specifically, they take a universe that has been well-established as not suffering fools gladly (a science fiction equivalent to Dungeons And Dragons, if you will) and grafted something onto it that looks like it belongs in Play School.
Have you ever watched school-age children talk about the kinds of entertainments that are aimed at them, at any age? If so, then chances are you have heard the words “that show is for babies” or some permutation thereof at least once. Well, if the entirety of Star Wars had been made with the same kind of mentality that drove Lucas to make this version of the sequence, those words, “that show is for babies”, would have been coming out of the mouths of my peers every time Star Wars was mentioned. And whilst aiming your show at babies might be a viable short-term marketing strategy, babies have a way of growing up, and the more you try to babify them through the media you expose them to, the more they will resent you for it when they are adults. If you learn nothing else from my life, at least have the decency to learn that.
Adding to Lucas‘ stupidity is his explanation for these alterations. At least one wikia entry has it that Lucas has told the world that he made these changes to the shot in order to “enhance Solo‘s overall heroism”. Excuse me? Are you fukking kidding me, George?
George Lucas is neither a very original nor inventive storyteller, so I will go into a little sidetrack here about what we call a character arc. As I have explained in the past, I have had the pleasure of listening to one Geoff Portmann speak about story structure in the past, and how he explains it makes perfect sense. You start with a character. You explain who that character is. You explain what that character wants to have at the end of the story. You explain what is getting in that character’s way. Then you show your audience how that character either succeeds or fails at getting what they want. But it is the little things that make all of the difference.
At the beginning of his arc in Star Wars, Han Solo is a mercenary who really only has one goal that we can discern from the story: pay his way out of a debt to a boss that arose from a previous mission which was not successful. And whilst I have only met one or two people I can confidently say are mercenaries, the typical manner in which they are depicted as ruthless people who think in terms of what their objective is and how to destroy or bypass whatever is between them and it is a fairly accurate one most of the time. Add to this that the groundwork of the Star Wars universe is not a place that suffers fools gladly, and you can see that we have a problem here. Unless “enhancing X’s heroism” is Lucasian for “making both characters in this exchange look like fukking idiots”, it just does not work. But getting back to this whole arc thing, take a hard look at the Han Solo we see at the end of the series, where he is placed in charge of a team of commandoes and entrusted with a critical part of the Rebel Alliance’s strategy in the climactic fight.
When you “enhance” Solo’s heroism in the early point of the story (and there are far better ways to do this, I might add), you effectively diminish it from that point going forward. You see, one of the most heroic journeys a character can go through is a battle with what they are, or were meant to be. One of the most exciting, enriching, and/or rewarding arcs is to see the hero fight this battle and win. Conversely, one of the most tragic and sad journeys is to see a character struggle with what circumstances have made them, and lose (Alice Cooper‘s album Welcome To My Nightmare is a classic example of this). But when a character has no difference between where they started and where they end up, the journey ends up diminished unless someone does something very clever with it (eg. Repo Man).
George Orwell wrote in Nineteen Eighty-Four that the government as it exists in the Oceania of his novel has an entire department dedicated to the alteration of records in order to reflect whatever said government wants the “truth” to be. When a prominent government employee falls from grace, for example, they become like an autistic adult in a country village: an unperson. Photographs are altered, publications are changed, even languages are being mercilessly edited in order to meet the government’s ends. But what makes that relevant here is that George Lucas has specifically stated that as long as he has any say in it, the previously-released versions of Star Wars (the original theatrical cuts and Special Edition) will never be released again. In one frighteningly Newspeakian statement, he says that the original versions do not exist to him. Well, George, those versions exist to me, and to every person alive today who existed during or prior to the years 1977, 1980, and 1983. We know about them because we have seen them. What do you intend to do? Disappear everybody who remembers that originally the first impression audiences got of Jabba The Hutt was a very large puppet whom Mr. Cranky aptly described as a smaller version of Marlon Brando? As Krumah Steward once wrote, every scrap of clothing on your back, every morsel of food you have put in your mouth, over the past thirty-five years has all been due to the immense love that people from multiple generations have of these films in their original forms. You were in hock so far by the time the first film hit theatres that Fox would have disappeared you if it had failed to ignite a merchandising bonanza.
Am I saying that you are not entitled to monkey with your masterpieces? Far from it. Many films have been monkeyed with in some manner now that ranges from terrible (any “3D” post-conversion or rerelease conversion) to mixed (Aliens, Star Wars) to outright awesome (Blade Runner). But I am here to tell you something that might come as a shock to you, George. Of all the directors and producers in the world who have altered their films after first release, you are the only one who has felt entitled to withhold the original version simply because you like the new one better. Indeed, part of the sales pitch that accompanied the recent Final Cut rerelease of Blade Runner is that all four extant versions would be made available in the one box. Whilst the version in which one can see a seemingly random shot of dancing girls wearing naught but feathered bikinis and hockey masks is my personal favourite, Ridley Scott has demonstrated something you apparently cannot: having the balls to let the viewer make up their own mind.
Also putting the court well and truly in Scott‘s hands is that although he has gone back and recut Blade Runner (and Kingdom Of Heaven, and Alien), he has also moved on and made other stuff since. Even now, the Hollywood machine is preparing to release another film of his, Prometheus, which apparently will not only explain just what the hell that derelict ship in Alien was doing there, but also take the series that Alien was apparently part of in a whole different direction.
You see, George, a real artist does not go back and tweak and tune his old projects ad nauseum. A real artist looks back on his previous work, admits to himself what he did wrong (or right), and puts the lessons from that into his next work. Guillermo Del Toro did not recut or remake El Laberinto Del Fauno or Mimic twice over. He took on board his experiences from those films and made Hellboy, and then he took the limitations he experienced from that film and channelled the lessons into Hellboy II (even though it is about the same titular subject, the two films are very different in style and tone). Frank Zappa did not recut or remake We’re Only In It For The Money twice over, he made even more collossally awesome pieces of music like Apostrophe (‘) and Sheik Yerbooti.
So not only is “who shot first” completely beside the point, that you spend so much effort defending an indefensible position proves to me the one thing I did not want to admit about you when I was a younger man. You are creatively bankrupt. Whilst it is one thing to only release a half-dozen or so films over a thirty-five year period, the fact is that nothing associated with your name in that time does not have the words Star or Wars in it somewhere. Whilst I admit that new ideas do not come to me all that easily, either, at least mine have some variation in terms of who they are about and what happens in them. Have you never watched any of your making-of videos and seen the uncomfortable looks on the faces of your lackeys when you say things like how the prequels are supposed to be like poetry, they rhyme? Those are the looks of people who want to tell you that your current idea is shit, and that you urgently need to go back to the drawing board, but want to keep eating. In other words, you would have to go very far outside of your little ranch in order to find a shred of a creative process.
And whilst I am sure that my audience has already got the point I was trying to make earlier, I fear you need it spelled out to you: CHILDISH. THINGS. ONLY. APPEAL. TO. CHILDREN. (And sometimes, not even then.) The more you try to make your cash cow more child-oriented, the more people for whom childhood is a distant memory will leave you behind. The makers of the film TRON: Legacy learned from your mistake in this regard, George. They took a good look at response to your desire to forget that people paid for your work want to see a semi-grown-up story, and took special notice of the fact that the people who were children when they saw the first film in their arc are now old enough to have had children themselves. I never thought I would say this, but you have become more childish than Disney, or rather the people who were contracted by Disney in this instance.
Those who have read this far, please take this to heart. Trying to prolong a person’s childhood in any form, even something as “subtle” as trying to babify the media they grew up with, only ends in anger and resentment. Remembering this simple lesson can save us all much grief in future.