Is it just me? or are the Star Wars Special Editions better than the originals?

In our regular polarising-opinion series, Total Film contributor Steve O’Brien asks, ‘Is it just me? …or are the Star Wars Special Editions better than the originals?’

With Disney’s $4bn acquisition of Lucasfilm last year, a good number of Star Wars fans gleefully waved off George Lucas and giddily waved in J.J. Abrams. And with that passing of the lightsaber, hopes arose that the revision-heavy 1997 Special Editions (which have themselves been since revised, at least twice) might be quietly consigned to the shit-tip.

All across the fan-scape, fingers are currently crossed for Disney to release a brightly buffed Blu-ray boxset of the original 1977/1980/1983 cuts, with the SEs a shame-faced extra, like Ted Turner’s colourised version of It’s A Wonderful Life or Giorgio Moroder’s rescored Metropolis .

The Special Edition decriers tend to shout louder and spit harder than its defenders. You don’t see many ‘Greedo shot first’ t-shirts or people belting out the ‘Jedi Rocks’ song at Comic-Con meet-ups. But SE supporters exist, and there are plenty of us.

Of course, the odd change needles. Slotted in for the 2011 Blu-ray release, Vader’s “Nooooooo!!!” is thunderously ill-conceived. And yes, the 1997 version of the Han/Greedo stand-off seems cowardly revisionist. It’s been amended since, so that Greedo only shoots a fraction earlier than Han, but it’s still epically wrong.

Lucas’ argument in 1997 was that all art is only ever abandoned, and rarely finished. But with this new digital wonderland he was finally able to polish off those first three Star Wars movies. Isn’t Mos Eisley now better for being as bustling as it is? And don’t those CGI townscapes and now-moving Dewback lizards provide some desired connective tissue between the original trilogy and the digitally drenched prequels?

Lucas’ use of CGI in the SEs is remarkably low-key by his standards. We could have had a Cantina completely redone with pixels rather than the odd new monster, but we didn’t. Lucas doesn’t get enough credit for that.

Who could say that Cloud City didn’t benefit from the CG windows that opened up the set, which in its original form could have made on a Blake’s 7 budget? And surely The Empire Strikes Back ’s new Emperor scene, with footage of Ian McDiarmid replacing the image of Elaine Baker (wife of make-up guru Rick) with chimpanzee eyes, works better in the context of the six-film series.

And what about Hayden Christensen nudging out Sebastian Shaw as the de-helmeted Vader in those final shots of Episode VI ? Surely someone we’d spent three films with packs a heftier emotional punch than some old fella we’ve only just been introduced to?

The SEs smooth over that rattling gear change between Episodes III and IV and keep that slow-burn, analogue spirit of the original trilogy alive alongside some (mostly) light-fingered nips and tucks.

Check out the felt-tip matte lines and occasionally underpowered, under-realised special effects of the originals. There’s no doubt the films are now better for a dab of digital foundation. Or is it just me?

Freelance Writer

Steve is a freelance entertainment and lifestyle journalist, sub-editor, and editor. His bylines have appeared in print at publications including SFX, Classic Pop, The Guardian, Vintage Rock, Doctor Who Magazine, Esquire, SciFiNow, Crime Scene, Empire, Filmstar, CLiNT, Total Film, and Yours Retro, as well as websites including The New Statesman, Cineworld, Digital Spy, Radio Times, GamesRadar, Yahoo, and Den Of Geek. He's been featured on several TV documentary shows such as BBC Four’s The Cult Of… and The Cinema Show and has also co-written the books Whographica and Buffy The Vampire Slayer: Slayer Stats. He currently edit the quarterly magazine Vintage Rock Presents.