Tuesday, September 12, 2006


Mr Lucas, Do Not Mock Me

At last, he admits it: Star Wars really is called ‘Star Wars’. Early in 1978, my Dad, my brother and I queued literally round the block to see a new film which, as I and every six-year-old knew, was called Star Wars. It’s the only time I’ve ever queued for a film and still not got in to see it – in fact, the only three times. On the third occasion, having left early to go into central Manchester to make certain we got to see Star Wars, we’d reached the doorway of the cinema when we were turned away. Being taken to see a badly Disneyfied version of a great British children’s tale in the far less full cinema next door was little compensation.

When we eventually got to see Star Wars, we loved it, and must have seen it at least half a dozen times at the cinema alone (and who knows how many on video, when that came along). It was the greatest film ever, and only one little boy – well, not so little, in fact – didn’t think so. His name was George. Of course, the critics didn’t think so either, but we hadn’t heard of them back then, and we’d heard of him. Since the film took America by storm in 1977, George Lucas has never stopped tinkering with it; a nip here, a tuck there, at least two sequels / prequels that are less movies in their own right than straight remakes… I can understand the urge to keep tinkering with what you’ve created to get it exactly right, but there’s a time to move on. And besides, when I look at a blog piece I’ve published, think, ‘Ooh, that’s not right’ and sneakily add in yet another sentence, at least I don’t re-post the whole thing, call it a ‘Special Edition’ and expect you to read it all over again (even with Richard, I only point out the extra bit).

Some of George’s changes make it look a little better, some make you think he’s lost his marbles (secret code for those of you who were at school when Star Wars came out: what was the Star Wars figure everyone agreed was the coolest, so much so that when mine’s head came off I went all the way to Buxton to find a new one? Exactly. But he still didn’t shoot first), but there’s one that he’s insisted for a quarter of a century wasn’t a change at all.

Mr Lucas has claimed for decades that the first film made for this saga was always called ‘Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope’. ‘No it wasn’t,’ said everyone who went to see it. ‘Yes it was,’ said Mr Lucas. ‘Look at your video.’ ‘No, it wasn’t,’ we all replied. ‘We know what we saw, and besides, if that was true, why would seeing ‘Episode V’ at the start of ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ have been such a surprise?’ ‘You’re wrong,’ said Mr Lucas. ‘You can’t have seen it enough.’ ‘I went to the cinema ten times,’ we replied, ‘and on seven of them we even got to see the film. But even when we were stuck outside because the cinema was full, we could read the title on the posters, right down to the small print. And we bought the comic books and even the novel that you yourself wrote, and there was no mention of this ‘A New Hope’ bobbins in any of those.’ ‘Enough!’ cried Mr Lucas. ‘I made it, I know, and I have all the original prints locked away in a great big cupboard, so you’ll never be able to prove me wrong.’ Sometimes I wondered if he might even be telling the truth, and that part of the title had mysteriously vanished from our collective consciousness in the same way that we have all somehow always known that Ben Kenobi fought Darth Vader on a volcano planet and that’s how he got all burnt, but none of us can remember where we first read or heard it.

Yesterday, a set of DVDs were released which I suspect are selling spectacularly not because of the ‘main features’ but those films found on the ‘bonus discs’. After years of people clamouring for them, at last George Lucas has given in to reason popular demand and issued the films as they were originally released, and Richard and I watched just the first couple of minutes of Star Wars last night. There it was; or, rather, there it wasn’t. That majestic theme; that still awesome moment as a huge Star Destroyer crawls into view from the top of the screen; that thrilling 20th Century Fox fanfare without ‘Subsidiary of EvilCorpTM’ plastered across it; the word ‘Lucasfilm’ appearing in plain green, rather than 73 shades of pixie dust. But, most of all, at last the proof, the admission: “STAR WARS It is a period of civil war....” and no sign of Hope.

But Mr Lucas still can’t resist trying to make us think the ‘new’ versions are better. They’re stuck on the ‘bonus’ discs; they’re only a ‘limited edition’; and, for some insane reason, the picture quality fails to make the most of DVD. Look at all his other releases, and you’ll find they’re anamorphic discs – that means the picture automatically fits to your screen to make maximum use of the available size. The original Star Wars on DVD doesn’t. It wastes most of the picture with… Blackness. This film pops up on screen in an old-fashioned 4x3 frame, with heavy black bars at the top and bottom to imply widescreen. Just as it looked when it was released on home video like that a quarter of a century ago, the actual picture looks tiny and lost in the middle of the screen. Our TV allows you to zoom in on the picture, but while that means you have to squint less, it shows up the lower resolution; yes, when those famous words scroll up the screen, you can now see the lines that make them up.

The only explanation I can think of is that Mr Lucas is trying to make us associate these original films not with the awesome power of a giant cinema screen that originally made our jaws drop, but with watching it on a poky little telly in the early ’80s while the ‘Special Editoons’ remain grandiose. Those of us buffs likely to be bothered by seeing the original prints are likely to be those who’ve got great big, extravagant, energy-guzzling widescreen TVs – yes, we have – and blowing up a titchy image like that on a bigger screen makes it look small. He’s trying to say, ‘These movies aren’t good enough. You should watch my nice shiny new ones. These should only be run on little TVs using grotty home video; they don’t deserve your rectangular monsters and shiny silver discs.’ If I look closely, he’ll probably have digitally painted in lots of old-fashioned video drop-out lines, just to ram home the point.

But you know what? I bet we’ll still watch it more than the new ones.

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