First for the news: we have no shortage of rumors concerning some essential movies due on Blu-ray either this year or during 2012 (The Abyss, Lawrence of Arabia, The Right Stuff), but at least two of the near certainties belong to Steven Spielberg. His 1993 blockbuster, Jurassic Park is scheduled for late this year. Unfortunately for those of you who have an allergic reaction to its two lesser sequels, it appears that all we’re getting at first is a trilogy boxset.
To answer the question made explicit by their domain name: Yes, that is cool, but cooler still are some of the things that Spielberg said late in the interview. To wit, he is now adamantly opposed to the sort of digital enhancements that pollute George Lucas’ “Special” Editions of the original Star Wars trilogy. In other words, the 37th Anniversary edition of Jaws will be the same movie you saw in the theaters in 1975, assuming that you were alive at the time. There will be no CGI effects to replace the shots that Spielberg couldn’t get because that goddamn mechanical shark wasn’t working. The director understands as well as anybody that the workarounds devised to compensate for “Bruce’s” little idiosyncrasies dramatically improved the film. Adversity, in that case, was the mother of gargantuan success.
With any luck, when E.T. The Extraterrestrial appears on Blu-ray, we will be getting the 1982 theatrical version. The alien and the kids will not be threatened by federal agents with computer generated walkie-talkies and, presumably, Elliot will still call his brother, “Penis-breath.”
Spielberg even went on to say that, if 1941 ever comes to Blu-ray, he will not even make any effort to digitally remove the wires in the airplane model shots over Hollywood Blvd. As admirable as his stance is, that might be taking this “purity” thing a little overboard. That’s the kind of digital “enhancement” that nobody really objects to. When Ridley Scott erased the wires holding up the “Spinners” in the Final Cut of Blade Runner, there were no hardcore cineastes setting themselves on fire in protest outside the Warner lot. If all George Lucas had done was remove the painfully obvious matte lines in his Star Wars model shots, the phrase “George Lucas raped my childhood” would never have entered the lexicon.
This does beg the question, of course, when are these sort of digital enhancements permissible under the Unwritten Laws of Artistic Integrity and when are they abominations before the gods of Cinematic Purity?
In other words, why does Ridley Scott get a pass for all the changes in the Final Cut of Blade Runner while we bust Lucas’ balls over every little change to the original Star Wars trilogy?
Well, it’s a matter of intent, how much control the two filmmakers had over the original cut and, just as important, whether or not the changes actually improved the final product.
The 1982 theatrical release of Blade Runner was anything but Ridley Scott’s baby. Because he had gone over budget and fallen behind schedule, he lost control of the film before it even hit theaters. The new owners insisted on the ill-advised happy ending and a voiceover track that neither Harrison Ford nor Ridley Scott thought was a good idea. The 1992 pseudo-Director’s Cut was released to capitalize on the publicity around a festival screening of Scott’s pre-release workprint, but Scott never actually had input into the cut itself. He did approve of it and it was a dramatic improvement over the theatrical version, removing the voiceover and happy ending, but it was still not Scott’s film. It was another fifteen years of legal wrangling and bad blood before Scott and the film’s owners buried the hatchet and the director was able to release his Final Cut in 2007.
In comparison, George Lucas never lost control of Star Wars. In 1976, it was just a modestly-budgeted space fantasy that no one had high expectations for, not even George Lucas. He was so convinced that Star Wars was going to flop, and that Close Encounters was going to be a smash, that he convinced Steven Spielberg to swap a small percentage of his movie for a small percentage of George’s, which is how Spielberg came to own a slice of Star Wars.
But George never lost control of the film, mostly because 20th Century Fox thought so little of it, they couldn’t be bothered. The studio signed over almost everything but the kitchen sink to Lucas, thinking that nothing about Star Wars was going to make them any money, so if the director wanted the merchandising rights, he could have them for all the good they would do him.
So any initial shortcomings to Star Wars weren’t the result of studio interference but simply a product of the film’s modest $9 million budget. When the movie hit theaters on May 25, 1977, no one but George cared. From that day on and for the next 20 years, what George Lucas now calls a “workprint” was more than good enough for the rest of the planet.
While fans of Blade Runner were rooting for Ridley Scott to finally have the chance to finish the film his way, Star Wars fans were happy from day one. There’s something perfect about a film that, for a couple of hours, lets you be a twelve-year-old again. Even when it wasn’t perfect, it was perfect enough.
Then there’s the nature of the changes to the two films. The changes found in the Final Cut of Blade Runner amount to little more than popping out a few dents to make a classic car look cherry again. They redid Harrison Ford’s lip movements to match his dialog in one small scene. They inserted Joanna Cassidy’s face over that of a stunt woman who looked nothing like her. They removed some scratches from Harrison Ford’s face that, thanks to changes from script to editing, now amounted to a continuity error. Finally, they replaced a bland background and incongruously blue sky behind the dove that flies out of Rutger Hauer’s hand.
None of these changes alter the story in any way, and represent a few modest seconds out of a two hour movie. But while the Final Cut could be compared to a little body work on a classic car, the “Special” edition of Star Wars can only be compared to building a strip mall with a Wal-Mart right on the Gettysburg battlefield.
Not only was the original fine the way it was (in the mind of everyone but George Lucas), which made the changes wholly unnecessary, but none of these changes improved the film in any substantive way and, in many cases, hurt the film. Beyond the seemingly random insertions of CGI characters into various shots, there is an often juvenile slapstick humor to them, like it was something that one of George’s kids thought would be funny. Also, some effects shots were completely replaced which, in the case of the final Death Star battle, has the impact of diluting that sequence’s near-perfect editing and pacing.
Of course, as any forty-something Star Wars fan can tell you, the real travesty occurs in the showdown between Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and the bounty hunter, Greedo. In the original, Solo knows that Greedo is there to kill him, so he gets the drop on him, smoking the alien before he fires a shot. This helps establish Ford’s character as a hard-edged badass very different from the idealistic Leia and the naive Luke. Between 1977 and 1997, Lucas decided that it was not politically correct to have a good guy shoot first and modified the shot so that the supposedly professional bounty hunter shot first. And missed. At a range of about two feet. It was hard to hear the dialog in the next scene over the collective gnashing of teeth.
Not only does this change water down the character but it also serves to nullify the effect of his change of heart later in the trilogy. To add insult to injury, the visual effect to accomplish this is twice as amateurish as anything found in the original $9 million “workprint.” Taken together, it amounts to Lucas failing to trust himself as an artist, his inability to grasp the concept of “art is never finished, only abandoned.”1
Even if George has taken to loathing the original cut of his seminal work with every fiber of his existence, it doesn’t change some inescapable facts. One, it wasn’t the “Special” edition that rewrote the definition of a summer blockbuster, taking what Jaws established just two summers before and strapping on rocket boosters. Two, it wasn’t the “Special” edition that represented the same quantum leap in special effects technology that the original King Kong had in 1933. Lucas waited for James Cameron and Steven Spielberg to blaze the necessary computer-generated trails with Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park before committing to the “Special” editions and, ultimately, the prequels.
Three, it wasn’t the “Special” editions that made Lucas a fantastically rich man. Without the revenue generated by the “workprint,” Lucas ultimately doesn’t have the money and the clout to make the prequels on his terms. Without the “workprint,” THX is just half of someone’s license plate and ILM is just another effects house, if it exists at all. Without the “workprint,” there probably is no Indiana Jones trilogy. Without the “workprint,” Skywalker Ranch would today probably be a Wal-Mart and some condos.
So, even if Lucas doesn’t respect his own creation’s place in cinema history, even if disregards the opinion of millions of fans, maybe he could find a warm place in his heart for the hundreds of millions of dollars that the original film has added to his bottom line.
I don’t even begrudge Lucas the right to make whatever changes he sees fit, but I would like to point out that, when I bought Blade Runner on Blu-ray, I had access to all four cuts of the film plus the early workprint. Close Encounters of the Third Kind came with all three cuts, including the 1977 theatrical cut that had been out of circulation since the Laserdisc era. Both Scott and Spielberg may have their own preferred versions of their films, but both men also recognize the place of the earlier cuts in the evolution of their respective creations and in film history. For this reason, they enjoy a certain respect among film buffs that George Lucas has long since squandered.
The bearded one up in Marin Country is under no legal or moral obligation to follow the example of his two colleagues, but at least he could think about it.