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Interest in the Star Wars trilogy had been slowly building up again since the early 90's with the release of new toys and an "expanded universe" of books and comics that told the stories beyond the film. While Lucasfilm approved these stories, Lucas himself would contradict many of them when it came time to write the prequel trilogy.

While Lucas started writing Episode I of the saga in 1994, it was another Star Wars project that first caught the public's attention. It was announced that the original trilogy would be re-released in 1997 for the 20th anniversary of the first film. To prepare for this, the original versions of the films had been released on VHS in 1995, supposedly for "the last time".

As exciting as the prospect of seeing the films on the big screen again (or for the first time for younger fans) was, Lucas would also use digital technology to bring the films closer to his alleged original vision. Unlike most special editions or director's cuts these new versions would also feature brand new footage, the first new Star Wars footage shot in around fifteen years.

However, before any new scenes or updated effects could be added, Lucas and his technicians had to deal with a more urgent matter. The original negative for Episode IV: A New Hope was in such bad shape that it was almost unusable. It had to be repaired and cleaned up before a theatrical re-release was even viable. Once A New Hope and its two sequels were sufficiently remastered, work began in earnest on inserting previously unseen footage into the films together with state of the art computer effects and new footage.

The majority of the money (reportedly $10 million, which is what the film cost originally without taking into account inflation) was spent on Episode IV, which would run around four minutes longer than the original version. Aside from improving many of the dated optical composites and inserting new digital characters in the background of existing shots, the new version would finally include the legendary Jabba the Hutt scene.

The scene was originally filmed with Irish actor Declan Mulholland interacting with Harrison Ford. The crew at ILM would have to digitally superimpose a 3D model of Jabba as seen in Return of the Jedi on top of the actor. This led to a number of technical problems, such as the fact that Ford actually walked around the back of the actor at one point (who of course didn't have a tail like Jabba). This meant Ford had to be cut out and actually shifted up to make it look like he was stepping onto Jabba's tail.

The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi would have less dramatic changes, with the former gaining around two extra minutes and the latter around three minutes (most of which would consist of a new dance number in Jabba's palace and an extended celebration scene at the end).

When the trailer for the Star Wars Trilogy Special Edition was shown before Independence Day in 1996, it caused quite a stir. The excitement for the trailer was just a hint of how close Star Wars still was to audiences' hearts, even after two decades.

The Star Wars Special Edition was released in January 1997. Lucas was typically modest about the box office chances of the film. Re-releases were not big business anymore, and he would be happy if it simply returned the investment that went into the special editions. It did that, and a whole lot more.

The film opened to an astonishing $37 million - more than most new releases make in their first weekend. It went on to become the most successful single re-release in history, earning almost $140 million in the U.S. alone. That was enough to reclaim the all-time champ position from that little punk E.T. (although James Cameron's Titanic would take that position a little over a year later).

Star Wars nostalgia was at an all-time high and critical reviews for the special edition were even more favourable than the original reviews for the film, showing how much critical opinion had shifted towards popular opinion over the years. A new generation became fans of the film, and Star Wars proved it could still hold its own against the more fast-paced modern blockbusters. The Special Editions of Empire and Jedi were also successful at the box office, though not quite as much as the first film. But what of the actual changes for the special editions (some of them highly controversial among fans)?

The opening sequence of A New Hope probably won't seem different to most people, but thanks to the restoration job it actually looks better than it originally did. The first noticeable changes come when the plot shifts to Tatooine.

The dewbacks, only glimpsed as immobile beasts in the original version, are now living, moving computer animated creatures. The animation is impressive, though the CGI stormtrooper riding one of the bests doesn't quite cut it (human movement has always been notoriously difficult to capture accurately on computer).

There's also an improved shot of the Jawa sandcrawler that shows more of the scale of the vehicle. Ben's hut is now atop an impressive peak (which you think would make it more of a target).

The rest of the changes are merely cosmetic until our heroes reach Mos Eisley. Here the CGI additions are in full force, and drew the ire of some fans. While there's something to be said for Lucas's claim that in the original version Mos Eisley looked less like a bustling spaceport and more like a sleepy town, some of the added effects are simply overkill.

It's nice to see Luke's landspeeder actually floating and not sitting on top of a Vaseline blur (jokingly referred to as a "force field" by the crew during the original production), but other changes are less welcome. In particular, the shot of a speeder bike almost colliding with a ronto (causing the Jawa riding the beast to fall off and dangle helplessly) is a rather feeble and unnecessary attempt at slapstick. Seeing another of the beasts walk across frame while a droid buzzes in the background during the stormtrooper inspection scene also lessened the impact of Ben's Jedi mind trick for some.

Inside the cantina, the fondly remembered (by some at least) wolfman is gone, replaced by a non-descript alien (though we still hear the wolfman's growl and even glimpse him in the background of some shots). The cantina sequence also features the biggest single change that enraged fans, which has now gone down in history as the infamous "Greedo shoots first" controversy.

Whereas in the original Han shot Greedo in cold blood (though it was pretty obvious that Greedo intended to kill him) in the new version Greedo shoots at Han first, allowing the smuggler to blast the bounty hunter in clear self defence. Whether or not Han needed this whitewashing of his character (his heroics at the end should be more than enough to redeem him) it simply makes no sense that Greedo would shoot at point blank range and miss. The anger from fans over this revision (especially online) was an early indicator of how loud and obnoxious Star Wars fans could be when Lucas did something that displeased them.

The Jabba the Hutt sequence was one of the big selling points of the special edition, and it is fun to see the introduction of Jabba as Lucas originally intended. Having said that, the scene is slightly redundant, since much of Jabba's exposition has already been said by Greedo (Lucas rewrote the Greedo scene to explain Han's predicament once he knew the Jabba scene wouldn't be in the original version of the film).

The CGI model of Jabba isn't bad, but it's clearly occupying a space intended for a human. This takes some of the believability away from the scene, as does Han's body language (Ford clearly wasn't told that the actor playing Jabba might be later replaced by a giant slug). Han even calls Jabba a "wonderful human being" at the end of the scene.

Showing Jabba so early also takes some of the mystery away for first time viewers of the trilogy. People who watched the films on their original release will remember the pleasure of wondering exactly who or what this Jabba the Hutt was during the six years before Jedi came out.

The scene also finds time for a quick cameo for Boba Fett. While this is a nice a nod to the fans that had made him one of the most iconic figures in the trilogy (despite his brief screen time), it makes little sense why the best bounty hunter in the galaxy would be acting as a glorified bodyguard.

As our heroes leave Mos Eisley, there's an improved shot of the Falcon taking off that fits quite well into the old footage. Later, when Alderaan is destroyed, there's a ripple type explosion (which ILM first developed for Star Trek VI) that gives the scene a bit more of a visual kick.

The sequences aboard the Death Star have been mostly left alone, apart from having a whole army of stormtroopers chase Han around the corridors instead of the smaller band seen in the original. No attempt seems to have been made to touch up the lightsabers in the Obi-Wan vs Vader duel, which is odd as the blade of Obi-Wan's lightsaber clearly disappears in a few shots.

Some minor changes that most people missed (except those fans obsessed enough to freeze frame the special edition when it was released on home video) is that the Imperial officers who are killed by Han and Luke no longer have smoking holes in their blast wounds. Whether these shots were removed for moral (the officers being the only visibly human villains our heroes kill) or just cosmetic reasons is unclear. Fortunately Lucas's desire to remove flaws didn't mean the famous shot of the stormtrooper banging his head was taken out.

On Yavin there are some improved shots of the Falcon arriving. Then comes the addition probably most welcomed by fans. We actually get to meet Biggs before the battle as Luke is reunited with his old friend. This add some extra emotion to the final battle, as well as offering some explanation for how an untrained pilot like Luke is allowed to man an X-Wing (Biggs brags to Red Leader that Luke is "the best bush pilot in the outer rim").

Interestingly, some dialogue from the end of this scene was not put back in - Red Leader originally told Luke that he met his father once. This was probably because it would have conflicted with the prequels Lucas was currently writing.

As the Rebel ships leave Yavin, we can actually see 30 ships now and not the blurs of light seen in the original. There are many similar additions throughout the battle, replacing optically composited models with improved 3D ships. This allows for some more dynamic shots were the ships fly over and even into the camera. However, there are still boxes around the TIE Fighters that weren't fixed for some reason.

The explosion of the Death Star is also given the ripple effect treatment, though this was perhaps less necessary than the improvement to the Alderaan explosion. Finally, back on Yavin, the rather obvious 2D painting of Rebels standing either side as Luke and Han walk down to receive their medals has been replaced with more realistic stand-ins. The credits for the film also run significantly longer with all the extra names of people who worked on the special edition.

As stated, The Empire Strikes Back has the least changes of the trilogy, possibly because Lucas realised it didn't need messing with. Some new footage of the Wampa in the cave was shot using an actor in costume. While this means the Wampa seems more like a monster and slightly less like a glove puppet, it also reduces some of the tension from the original version where the Wampa was kept mostly off-screen until it attacked Luke.

During the Battle of Hoth, there are some cosmetic touch ups such as improving the matte lines around the snow speeders (apparently in the original version the cockpits of the speeders were made semi-transparent to try and avoid the bluescreen lines standing out against the snow). However, it's rather odd that these almost imperceptible flaws were fixed, when more obvious things like the rather fake looking Tauntauns and some badly composited explosions during the battle were left alone.

The middle section of the film is mostly left unchanged (it would be hard to improve on the asteroid chase) though many people noticed some dialogue changes, such as Luke saying, "You were lucky to get out of there" to R2 after the monster spits him out, rather than the original, "You're lucky you don't taste very good." This was actually an alternate dialogue take that was heard in some versions of the film prior to the special edition.

The shot of Boba Fett's Slave 1 pursuing the Falcon when it escapes in the garbage has been improved, as have the shots of the Falcon entering Cloud City, which gives Lando's domain a more impressive, sprawling look. There are also added windows inside with panoramic views that make Cloud City feel less claustrophobic.

Up until this point it's hard to complain about any of the changes in Empire's special edition. However, when Luke falls (to his seeming death) after refusing to join Vader, Lucas for some reason felt the need to add a rather cowardly scream. This definitely takes away some of the impact of Luke sacrificing himself rather than join the Dark Side, and makes it seem like he just fell by accident!

Another change some fans were unhappy with was the visually striking, but admittedly unnecessary, scene of Vader boarding his Star Destroyer after Luke escapes him in Cloud City. While it's nice to see a shot of the Imperial shuttle from Jedi, the scene somewhat slows down the tension of the final chase and even uses stock footage (Vader boarding the Death Star II from Jedi, taken from a slightly different angle) which is a big no-no, unless you're Ed Wood. However, overall the changes don't detract from the film and it remains the best of the trilogy.

Return of the Jedi has almost as many changes as A New Hope, and again they're a mixed bag. The music sequence in Jabba's palace has been given an overhaul, with more CG critters, more musicians and more dancers. "Lapti Nek" has also been replaced with a new song, rather incongruously titled "Jedi Rocks".

While Lucas claims that he always wanted a big dance number in the film, simply because he thought it would be funny in a Star Wars film, the sequence is pretty much a waste of time in an already slow part of the film. The new song is frankly obnoxious, and shows why there should never be music in a Star Wars film that isn't written by John Williams.

The end of the sequence also includes an extended version of Oola's death. We see her fall into the pit and scream as the Rancor's gate is opened. Actress Femi Taylor was brought back to film new footage and remarkably looks no different fourteen years later. This addition at least adds a little more tension to her death. Boba Fett gets to flirt with some dancing girls in a new shot.

After our heroes are sentenced to death there's a stunning shot of a herd of Banthas crossing a sand dune (which reminds one of how unfortunate the wooly mammoths are to live on a desert planet). The Sarlacc has also been given a makeover, with an added beak. It does make the creature seem more alive, though the beak bears an uncomfortable resemblance to Audrey II in Little Shop of Horrors.

The rest of the film is mostly left untouched (aside from another ripple effect when the DSII explodes), until we get to the final celebrations. The fondly remembered Ewok yub-nub song has been replaced with a new piece composed by Williams, and we get to see celebrations taking place on Tatooine, Bespin and (shown for the first time in any of the films) Coruscant, the capital of the galaxy, the name of which came from the expanded universe books. News of the Emperor's demise certainly seems to have traveled fast!

The new scenes gives the ending a more epic feel, and also offered a taste of the digital worlds audiences would see in the prequels. The new score was criticised by some as being too new-worldy and out of place, though it probably fits better with the added scenes than the Yub-nub song would have done.

Overall the Special Editions were an interesting experiment by Lucas, with some good parts and some bad. There probably would have been fewer objections to them if Lucas hadn't insisted that the Special Editions were the true versions of the films that matched his original vision, thereby negating the films that the previous generation had grown up watching. Lucas's stance created a debate over the artist's right to alter his work versus the audience's right to view the films as they were originally released that still rages to this day.

With the Special Editions out of the way Lucas could turn his full attention to the project that excited fans even more, Episode I of the new trilogy.






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