Although giddy for the release of brand new, high-definition Blu-Ray versions of their favourite films, Star Wars fans were mostly horrified this week to learn that the Jedi Master of the saga of a galaxy far, far away, the relentless tinkerer George Lucas, had ordered some additional digital changes to his babies – the most egregious of which was the dubbing of additional dialogue for Darth Vader during the climactic sequence in Return of the Jedi where he sacrifices himself to save his son. Where Darth had originally done the deed in silence, he now screams “No. Nooooo!!!!” as he picks up the evil Emperor and hurls him to his doom. No less a luminary than actor (and Star Trek star) Simon Pegg took to Twitter to denounce this latest re-edit, and the Internet nearly melted down from the resulting collective fanboy freak-out. For Wars-ies still miffed by Greedo firing first in the 1997 Special Edition re-cut of A New Hope and the overall existence of Jar Jar Binks, it was one CGI tweak over the line. With the backlash to the Special Edition changes and the general disappointment in the prequel trilogy still fresh in his mind, it’s a little puzzling why George Lucas would want to go back to that same poisoned well. Surely the thought of being digitally burned in effigy across millions of chat boards can’t be a comforting thought to anyone, no matter how many billions of dollars they sleep on at night. But it’s difficult for fans or anyone who’s even aware of the Star Wars phenomenon to remember that Lucas sees Star Wars uniquely and in a different way than anyone else.
Star Wars was made in an era before home video, when special effects could be just okay since they were only designed to be seen once quickly in the theatre, rather than pored over, rewound and scrutinized again on an endless loop – when the audience was meant to be so engrossed in the story they didn’t have time to notice the strings on the spaceship. We know it as we first saw it, and to us, it was and always has been perfect. When Lucas looks at it, he remembers only the pain of making it: the threats from nervous studio executives, the embarrassment of the actors not understanding his dialogue, the frustration of the camera crew and their British union rules, the disappointment of the effects guys wasting money on useless shots, the overall feeling that he was ruining his career. With that baggage, he hasn’t become emotionally attached to every nuanced moment or every cadence in a bit player’s delivery of their only line of dialogue that has managed to entrench itself in popular culture. It is his creation, and he sees it with the eye not of a kid playing make-believe lightsaber, but of a craftsman where every compromised choice made under pressure of deadline and lack of resources sticks out like a hangnail on an otherwise relatively satisfactory manicure. Lucas himself has said that “works of art are never completed, they’re only abandoned.” It’s the same feeling that for those of us who are aspiring writers leads us to tweak endlessly, thinking that every nip and tuck of text brings us inexorably closer to that critical moment when the manuscript will be “ready” – an undefined day that lingers in an unreachable fog.
In the decades since the first Star Wars, we have entered an era where art has become communal – a shared experience where millions of others can take art, bend it, shape it, smash it to bits and reassemble the pieces, with varying degrees of skill and success. Aside from the many mainstream Hollywood homages to and ripoffs of Star Wars, there is a Library of Congress’ worth of amateur art and fiction out there that draws inspiration from Lucas’ universe. Indeed, whatever you are into, chances are someone who didn’t originate it and has no connection with those who did has either written about it, made a video about it, performed a song about it, drawn a picture of it or, eye-rollingly, made porn of it (see “Rule 34 of the Internet”). We live under the impression that once art has been released, it belongs to everyone. It is the hope of every artist, no matter how hipster they claim to be, that what they have created will be embraced by a large following. It truly is a cry into the night hoping for a reply. The ultimate measure of success then is to affix oneself into the zeitgeist as Lucas has done. Star Wars has grown beyond him and become a force – pardon the pun – unto itself. Much as the people of a country react poorly to proposed changes to their centuries-old constitutions, voices rise in anger – mostly in the form of Internet chatter – when George wants to smooth out what he sees as the rough edges in his work. It doesn’t matter if we think it’s perfect. He doesn’t, and no amount of anonymous name-calling will change his mind. As much as we might hate him for “Jedi Rocks” or blinking Ewoks or Hayden Christensen’s ghost, if it were our creation, our universe, we’d reserve the right to do the same and we’d be frustrated by strangers getting sentimental and enraged about what we see as our flaws and personal failings in our work. Whatever one may think of the methods or the results, George Lucas is always trying to improve his art, and there’s something noble in him not being willing to think something is just good enough.
Having said all that, I liked it better when Vader chucked the Emperor over the edge in absolute silence. But that’s just me.