George Lucas Puts His Final Mark on Star Wars
With the launch of the streaming service Disney+ on November 12th 2019, probably the most unexpected surprise was the release of George Lucas's final cuts of the Star Wars films.
Fans know that 'The Maker' has often tinkered with his work in the over 4 decades since its' creation. In fact he once echoed Da Vinci when he said, "A movie is never finished, only abandoned". When the original Star Wars was released in 1977, Lucas didn't know if he would ever be able to make the rest of the story he had in mind. But with the greenlight of Empire Strikes Back he immediately started numbering the episodes, (both this and Return of the Jedi were numbered V and VI from the very beginning) and the very next year re-released the original with the title "Episode IV: A New Hope".
This set the stage for the prequels almost twenty years later. While changes in vision and story details happened in the interim, the basic plot and even different tone were always part of the plan. In a 1982 interview he said of the upcoming prequels, that they "will not be as much of an action adventure kind of thing. Maybe we'll make it have some humor, but right now it's much more humorless than this one . . . a little more Machiavellian."
The original trilogy had already pioneered special effects such as blue screens and green screens to isolate props and actors and make new layered shots that would otherwise be impossible to film (such as shots of the Death Star, spaceship battles and Leia and Luke flying on speeder-bikes). The prequel trilogy continued this, as well as digital cameras and computer graphics, which completely revolutionized how movies are made and projected today.
But before the prequels came out, Lucas wanted to bring his originals into the 20th century as a smooth segue, besides the opportunity to bring them back to theaters for a new generation. The result was what is known as the "special editions", the original trilogy with new scenes and special effects added. While some were major, like making the port town more bustling and reinventing a deleted scene that introduced Jabba the Hutt, others were minor, such as Greedo shooting before he was killed by Han.
When the originals came to DVD for the first time in 2004, two major problems were fixed. One was the aforementioned Jabba scene, the CGI of which was awkward looking in the initial version, but was now updated to look more like the actual Jabba puppet from Return of the Jedi. But arguably the biggest change was that of the Emperor, who was played by an actress with a different costume in the original version of Empire Strikes Back but was now played by Ian McDiarmid, reprising his role from the rest of the saga.
The last episode of the prequels came out the following year, and the year after that, 2006, another DVD release would bring more changes, including the addition of Hayden Christensen as Anakin at the conclusion of Return of the Jedi, connecting both trilogies even further.
The 2011 high definition release on Blu-ray disc brought with it some more tweaks, including one major and almost universally welcomed change: the replacement of puppet Yoda from The Phantom Menace with a better looking CGI Yoda that better resembled the other movies, besides being more suited to bodily action and facial emotion. The stage was now set for Lucas's truly final sign-off on the films that defined his career.
Lucas had been secretly planning a sequel trilogy, the other end cap if you will of a trilogy of trilogies. As he did with the special editions in the lead up to the prequels, he wanted to introduce another generation to the films in a theatrical setting to set the stage for the sequels, this time using cutting edge 3D conversion technology. Episode I: The Phantom Menace was released in 3D in 2012 to a very successful box office run, and Episodes II and III were fully converted and set to be released thereafter. By this point, the technology had become equal to or better than traditional 3D methods, and the same technology would be used for the 3D in the upcoming sequel trilogy. However, with the sale of Lucasfilm to Disney later that year, the plans for multiple projects that Lucas had trusted would be continued as planned were discontinued or altered. Among the casualties were the 3D releases, or any theatrical re-releases for that matter. The already completed 3D Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith were shelved except for a few specialty showings, and the conversion of the original trilogy was cancelled altogether.
However in preparation for this final release, Lucas had already approved another remaster, as the 3D conversions would have been based off of the best quality base elements. Rumors have said that these last versions signed off on by the director would make their way to Ultra-HD Blu-ray sometime in 2020 as part of a complete saga box set. But for now, anyone can see them if they subscribe to the Disney+ streaming service. What we've got here as far as changes is nothing major. There is yet another tweak to the scene with Han and Greedo, including an additional line and re-rendered effects, but for the most part this is about being the best looking version of Lucas's current vision that is possible from vintage elements, mastered in 4K with HDR.