Darth Vader: "Nooo!"

Thanks to the burgeoning entertainment media and the Internet, movie fans have become increasingly savvy about the art and craft of moviemaking over the last few decades. And home-video hobbyists have learned a lot about the process of prepping films for home video releases. Mostly, film buffs are grateful for the wizardry that goes into approximating the look of a 35mm print for DVD or Blu-ray release. But sometimes, when alterations are made to the films they remember, they push back.

Fans of The Last Emperor and Apocalypse Now complained long and loud when, at cinematographer Vittorio Storaro’s insistence, those scope films were cropped to 2:1 for DVD release. (See Wikipedia for more information on Storaro’s Univisium format.) Director William Friedkin was all but ridiculed by Web-based reviewers for mastering the Blu-ray version of The French Connection with a radically cooler, desaturated color palette. (Cinematographer Owen Roizman called the transfer “atrocious.”) And Steven Spielberg took his lumps over changes made to remove guns from a 2002 reissue of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, finally declaring this summer, “There’s going to be no more digital enhancements or digital additions to anything based on any film I direct.”

But there is no more contentious relationship between a director and his audience than that between George Lucas and longtime fans of his Star Wars movies. With a brand-new, lavish Blu-ray release of all six Star Wars movies, plus copious never-before-seen special features, making its worldwide debut today (it shows up in North America on Friday), you’d think everyone at Lucasfilm would be taking a well-earned victory lap over a job well done. And maybe they are. But the special occasion is marred by a fan contingent — perhaps a small minority, but a very vocal one — that complains that Lucas won’t stop making changes to the original Star Wars trilogy.

Lucas seems driven by two impulses. One of them is his desire to make the films work as a single story viewed in narrative order, starting with 1999’s The Phantom Menace, rather than as a work of cinema viewed in chronological order, starting with 1977’s Star Wars (now renamed Star Wars: Episode 4 – A New Hope). That necessitates extreme measures like compositing Hayden Christiansen, Anakin Skywalker from the 1999-2005 trilogy of films, into a shot at the very end of 1983’s Return of the Jedi or going back to The Phantom Menace and replacing muppet Yoda with a CG character. Lucas also had ILM touch up the visual-effects work from the original trilogy, including shots that longtime Star Wars VFX wizard Dennis Muren thought were lacking.

The other factor in Star Wars revisionism seems to be a desire on Lucas’s part to remake all of the films in the manner he would like to see them made today. Some of the changes Lucas wants to make to the world envisioned by his younger self stem from a moral imperative. He won’t back down from a decision to tinker with the first film to alter a confrontation between space pirate Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and the alien bounty hunter Greedo that ends with Solo emptying his blaster into the mercenary sitting across the table. Concerned about the message this sent to young viewers, Lucas added a special effect to the scene so that it depicted Greedo shooting at Solo and missing, forcing Solo to retaliate purely in self-defense. Fans were having none of it, and “Han shot first” became a common rallying cry and in-joke among Star Wars aficianados.

Other changes — redubbed lines, altered sound effects — seem more arbitrary, and the flames of fan disapproval were stoked again late in August, when copies of the Blu-ray Discs leaked online and some of the changes, including a highly suspect “Nooooooo!” from Darth Vader during a key Return of the Jedi scene, showed up on YouTube, where millions of fans watched them and negative feedback outnumbered positive by about five to one.

Despite the sustained backlash, Lucas has remained staunchly opposed to prepping the unaltered versions of the original films for a proper release on DVD or Blu-ray, basically insisting that, because creating the “special editions” of the films meant recutting their negatives so that certain optical effects could be reconstituted, the letterboxed D1 masters originally generated for their last laserdisc release were the only surviving versions of those films. (An exhaustive chronology is available at The Secret History of Star Wars.) Those laserdisc masters were dusted off one last time and included as special features on a DVD reissue of the first three Star Wars movies in 2006, when viewers understandably found them underwhelming. And many observers are of the opinion that the original trilogy could be properly restored. It’s just a matter of resources, and of will.

When it comes to studio revisionism, movie fans tend to eventually get their way. The final movement of The Magnificent Ambersons may well be lost forever, but Orson Welles devotees eventually saw a loving reconstruction of the director’s Touch of Evil released in theaters and on DVD. Apocalypse Now was recently issued on Blu-ray at its 2.35:1 35mm theatrical aspect ratio, presumably with director Francis Ford Coppola overriding Storaro’s wishes. And who knows? The French Connection may eventually get a re-release (in 3D?) with its original color restored.

It’s unclear whether perturbed Star Wars superfans will be able to resist shelling out for the Blu-ray debut of their favorite film series. But Lucas seems to have dug in his heels regardless. It seems unlikely that he’ll ever feel the kind of obligation to history that would persuade him to prep his original, unaltered creation for one last hurrah in front of fans. What do you think? Does a filmmaker like Lucas have a responsibility to the fans who beg him to release the films they grew up with? Or do his rights as an artist make him blameless for anyone else’s unhappiness with his work?