The phrase “Special Editions” is one of the scariest things in all of Star Wars. No one can forget the way, 20 years ago this month, George Lucas updated his iconic films with new effects, sounds, scenes, then basically tried to erase the original versions from existence.
However, while the connotation around the Special Editions is predominantly negative, it was their release that reinvigorated the once fledgling Star Wars franchise, setting the table for a world of prequels, sequels, spinoffs and introducing a whole new generation of fans to a galaxy far, far away. In the history of Star Wars, they’re as important as they are polarizing.
Before the release of the Special Editions, most fans hadn’t seen a Star Wars movie on the big screen since Return of the Jedi in 1983. Though still popular on TV, video stores and conventions all over the world, a slowdown in merchandising and lack of new content contributed to the franchise fading significantly. Similar blockbusters like Terminator 2, Jurassic Park and Batman dominated the box office. And most fans didn’t expect to ever see another Star Wars movie. “It was something the older kids I knew all liked,” said musician and graphic designer Sam Smith, a Star Wars fan who was first introduced to the films via the Special Editions. “I knew it was their thing. They ‘grew up’ with it, and I didn’t think about it much more than that.”
But in January 1997 that all changed and Star Wars exploded back into the public consciousness in a huge, huge way.
For me, it all started with a movie poster (of course). That movie poster, in fact. In 1996, most people weren’t using the Internet and no one got their movie news from there. So walking through the mall, a simple black poster with a gold emblem stopped me dead in my tracks. It said the original Star Wars films were coming back to theaters. I jotted down the dates, made plans and when January 31 came around, I got to the theater only to find a line wrapped around it. I had never seen anything so crazy but, this was Star Wars.
Growing up, my parents had turned me onto the films so I already knew every single line. And yet, these movies had new changes, additions, not to mention picture and sound improvements that blew away the old VHS tapes I’d been wearing out. I had no concept of how controversial the changes would be until three months later, as I furrowed my brow at the addition of the “Jedi Rocks” musical number, and the loss of the lovely “Yub Nub” Ewoks ending. And yet, it was Star Wars on the big screen, once again mainstream, and I was a part of it.
I wasn’t the only one.
“The Special Editions were my introduction to Star Wars,” said Amy Ratcliffe, a journalist and frequent StarWars.com contributor. “Flaws, ugly CGI Jabba, whatever, the Special Editions hold a place in my heart and I’ll stand by them. Were the alterations necessary? Ehhh. Probably not, but it’s beside the point for me. If they wouldn’t have been released, I don’t know when I would have ended up seeing Star Wars, and if I wouldn’t have seen Star Wars when I did, I don’t think my life and career would be what it is now.”
“I respected that the original trilogy belonged more to an older group of kids than me,” said Smith. “But in the back of my mind, I knew that we were all now coming of age, and we’d all be experiencing the re-release together. A big part of me was happy I hadn’t seen them [before], knowing I’d see them for the first time in a theater with great sound, as a fully grown teenager.”
A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back. and Return of the Jedi, movies that were 20, 17 and 14 years old respectively, each opened at number one, grossing $138, $68 and $45 million, also respectively, on their opening weekends. By the end of the year, A New Hope was the eighth-highest grossing film of 1997. And based off that success, 20th Century Fox and Lucasfilm got to work, releasing new lines of toys, new VHS editions, eventual DVDs and more.
When asked about the legacy of the Special Editions, Lucasfilm gave io9 the following statement:
In 1997, the Special Editions provided a rare opportunity for Lucasfilm to introduce a whole new generation of fans to the big screen experience of the original trilogy stories, which had not been formally released together in the US since an extremely limited run in 1985. The theatrical Special Editions offered a far richer experience than what home entertainment could provide at the time, since high-definition presentations in the home were still quite a few years off. Most importantly, though, the Special Editions allowed parents who had fond memories of seeing the movies in their local theater as kids to share that experience with their own kids among a community of like-minded fans. It set the stage for families of all generations to come together for the prequel movies that followed and for the newest adventures that began with The Force Awakens.
It set the stage for a whole new generation of Star Wars fans, most of whom used it as a jumping-off point. But by bringing Star Wars back into the mainstream and the public consciousness, Lucasfilm also paved the way for the prequel films, beginning with The Phantom Menace in 1999.
“I enjoyed the hell out of the [Special Editions] and I don’t think I had enough history with Star Wars to either love or hate the prequels,” said Ratcliffe, who admitted her true fandom didn’t click in until The Clone Wars movie and TV show. “The accessibility/welcoming quality of it hit me in the fandom feels. That’s when I became obsessed.”
For Smith, though the Special Editions were his gateway, it was the lead up to the prequels that really sucked him in. “I think in that moment I was more excited for the prequels because they would be mine,” he said.
And it was everyone’s in other ways too. After the Special Editions set the table, anticipation for the prequels gave birth to a new wave of film promotion and excitement. Websites were built around that fervor and fans began to interact with the franchise in completely new ways. Lucasfilm created its Star Wars website, began posting clips from behind the scenes of the prequels, and more.
If the Special Editions had been released and weren’t a success, maybe none of that happened. Maybe George Lucas would have deemed Star Wars past its prime and decided not to make the prequels. Years later, maybe Disney doesn’t buy the rights. Then we don’t get sequels, we don’t get new merchandise, and Star Wars continues to fade away. Maybe this anniversary article is about the death rattle of an ancient space saga instead of the rebirth of what is undeniably one of the most popular franchises in the world.
Thankfully, the experiment worked.
And no, the Special Editions aren’t the original versions. Plus the fact we’re forced to watch them without having the opportunity to also see the original versions is indeed infuriating. But, and it bears repeating time and time again, George Lucas considers the Special Editions to be his definitive versions of his movies. It’s something even Rogue One director Gareth Edwards only understood once he started making movies himself.
“Looking back at George doing the Special Editions, initially I was like, ‘What are you doing? No, they’re brilliant! They’re masterpieces, don’t touch them!” said Edwards, a self-described Star Wars nut, after the release of Rogue One. “And now I feel like, ‘Oh I get it.’ There are always little things you want to tweak or didn’t work out the way you wanted. That’s the beauty of being an audience versus being a filmmaker is you don’t bring any of that baggage with you. It just hits you with what it is.”
Fans, however, still struggle with their place in history.
“It’s clear that they represented, and paved the way fo all of the limitless, overthought indulgence with CG that has crippled the industry’s creativity ever since,” said Smith. “But these things were far outweighed by the awe of simply being introduced to this universe of stories and characters for the first time. And no amount of CG tinkering can tarnish the original power and magic of the world Lucas and co-created for all generations to discover.”
Without the Special Editions—yes, even including that horrible “Jedi Rocks” number in Jabba’s palace—chances are Star Wars fandom would have been limited to the original generation that saw them, and then most likely faded away. Instead, people of all ages have been able to discover the magic of Star Wars, it’s something parents can introduce to their children, and we can expect future generations to fall in love with a galaxy far, far away, just as the people who originally saw them in theaters did.
So even if you don’t like the Special Editions, you should definitely be grateful they came out 20 years ago, this very month. Because they’re the movies that truly saved Star Wars.