In preparation for The Force Awakens, I’m rewatching all six Star Wars films and sharing my thoughts here. This week, I look at A New Hope, the film that started it all. (originally published at Legendarium Media)
What is there left to say about Star Wars: A New Hope that hasn’t already been said? The original Star Wars is perhaps the single most successful movie of all time, launching a multibillion dollar franchise that has profoundly affected the lives of millions of people. It has wonderful characters, impressive special effects, and a heartening story.
Of course, the movie most of us watch today is not the same as what was shown in theaters in 1977. In 1997, Lucas tweaked the film for its 20th anniversary. Most of the changes were relatively straightforward, such as improving the special effects, which after 20 years had begun to look dated (particularly the matte lines around ships in space). However, Lucas also made changes that affected the story, many of which have become extremely controversial (to this day, Lucas finds himself forced to defend these alterations).*
After rewatching both the original version and special edition for the hundredth time, I started to focus on one small scene that says much about the film, both as it was and as it is now. In the infamous Mos Eisley Cantina, Obi-Wan Kenobi cuts off the arm of a drunken alien with his lightsaber. In the background, a man with a moustache and a hat briefly glances at Obi-Wan before leaving. The camera then pans outside to focus on R2-D2 and C-3PO. The droids are looking at that same man talking to a Sandtrooper, while C-3PO says, “I don’t like the look of this.”
This small scene is actually a wonderfully effortless piece of world building. The man is clearly an informant for the Empire. Soon after he talks to the Sandtroopers, a squad enters the Cantina to investigate. We don’t actually have to overhear what he says to the Sandtrooper commander. Indeed, the camera never focuses on this anonymous character for more than a second. Unlike most films, which would hit viewers over the head with a scene like this, A New Hope trusts that viewers will learn about the world by paying attention. It’s one of the things that makes the film so rich and why it rewards multiple viewings.
Moreover, the scene serves as a reminder that not everybody supports the Rebellion. For the most part, Star Wars is a story of good versus evil, but here the film acknowledges that things are never quite so simple. Just as in real-world dictatorships, many people remain apathetic in the face of oppression. Some people submit to fear, while others collaborate in the hopes of some reward. It’s refreshing to see the movie depict this complexity, even if in this brief moment.
In the 1997 Special Edition, the scene remains largely the same, with one big addition. There is now a CGI Dewback on the lefthand side of the screen with a Stormtrooper dismounting it (for a side-by-side comparison, see this film clip). This is just a minor change, something to fill the empty space on the screen and make Mos Eisley seem more alive. Unfortunately, even this small change has implications for the effectiveness of the world building. With all of its movement and noises, the Dewback draws the viewer’s attention from the most important part of the scene. Large, noisy animals are always distracting.
Unlike many older fans, I generally don’t mind the Special Editions. If I rewatch A New Hope with family or friends, I’ll generally go for the iTunes or blu-ray version. However, I worry that the changes in the Special Edition will make it harder for viewers to pick up on the subtle world building cues because they’ll be so distracted by the special effects. As a whole, the changes to the Special Edition are small, but they can have a big effect on the experience. As such, I hope that every Star Wars fan has a chance to see the original 1977 version of the film at least once.