The '90s 'Star Wars' Special Editions Kicked Off The Never-Finished Movie Era

If George Lucas could digitally enhance you, he would.
The '90s 'Star Wars' Special Editions Kicked Off The Never-Finished Movie Era

The 1990s were an intensely specific historical moment – the Cold War had just ended, everybody had landlines, and pre-internet peoples took to local forests to harvest their precious smut. This week, Cracked's taking a look back at those artifacts of Nineties culture and how they shaped our present. Check out part 1part 2, and part 3.

So much of the original Star Wars trilogy feels of a piece with its '70s and early '80s roots -- like how so many supporting characters have giant sideburns and big honking porno staches that make them look more like the Doobie Brothers' backing band than intergalactic military commanders. But the version that's widely available today is, to the consternation of many fans, a combination of the original theatrical cut and additional, CGI-infused wackiness. 

It's hard to imagine a time when this wasn't the case -- when George Lucas' relentless cinematic tinkering wasn't as much of a touchstone for the franchise as space battles and child abduction. But of course, it all started with the Star Wars Trilogy Special Edition back in 1997. Yes, the same year that Harry Potter first hit bookshelves, Princess Diana died, and Elton John paid tribute to Princess Diana by slightly rewriting a pre-existing song like some kind of morbid "Weird" Al, Star Wars was re-released in theaters -- and the franchise was never the same again.

Long before the Special Editions, Lucas had quietly been modifying Star Wars since day one -- and we mean literally day one; on May 25, 1977, as Star Wars first hit theaters, Lucas was still monkeying with the sound mix. When he saw that the film was drawing sell-out crowds, he tried to get Mark Hammill to redo some of his lines that night, which the actor declined. 

Rolling Stone interviewed Lucas later that summer, and he bemoaned how the movie was insufficient and only "about 25%" of what he wanted it to be, adding: "There is nothing that I would like to do more than go back and redo all the special effects." And that was way back in August 1977. So when the film's 20th anniversary rolled around, and Lucas wanted to update the movie, it shouldn't have come as a shock. Lucas convinced Fox to pony up $10 million in what was advertised as a restoration of George Lucas' artistic vision, which had been tragically ruined by 1977's conspicuous lack of desktop computers.

Lucas seemingly had motives beyond merely "finishing" his original trilogy; he had already begun work on the prequels and was looking to test drive the latest visual effects technology while also marketing Star Wars to a new generation of kids, ensuring that America's youth would have already drunk the Star Wars Kool-Aid by the time The Phantom Menace hit theaters (and toy stores) in '99. But as crazy as it might seem in retrospect, the Special Editions were by no means a guaranteed money-making slam-dunk. Sure, they dropped with all the hype and fanfare of an exciting new blockbuster, complete with a massive promotional campaign that included fast food and soda tie-ins --

And a Fox prime-time special hosted by Star Wars legend … Howie Long? Featuring interviews with everyone from Patrick Stewart to Ice-T, presumably because no one involved in the show had actually seen Star Wars before.

But even Lucas was skeptical about how much money the Special Editions would make at the box office. The world had obviously seen other blockbuster re-releases before; famously, Steven Spielberg made a "special edition" of Close Encounters of the Third Kind with added visual effects that ruined the whole goddamn movie. But there hadn't been a wide re-release like that since the dawn of the home video era, which is why Spielberg withheld issuing E.T. on VHS for so long. No one was totally sure if people would pay to see Star Wars in a theater when they could just as easily watch it in their living room. And Lucas had good reason to be concerned; the previous 1995 home video release of the trilogy, boasting new and improved THX sound, only sold "about three hundred thousand copies."

But, of course, the Special Editions turned out to be a huge financial success, as evidenced by massive lines and the star-studded premiere, which boasted celebrity attendees such as David Schwimmer, Carrie Fisher, and Cantina Jizz Player #3 accompanied by his second wife.


With the trilogy rolling out between January and March, a Star Wars movie was number one at the box office for "six of seven weekends," ceding the top spot only once to Howard Stern's Private Parts, the Star Wars of shock jock biopics. But what served to cement the franchise's generation-spanning place in the pop-culture zeitgeist was also seen as a big problem by a number of fans and media commentators. Lucas never sold the Special Editions as an alternate cut or a supplementary version that would be included in a box set packaged with previous releases like Blade Runner, a strategy Lucas specifically disparaged. No, Lucas trumpeted that he had "gone back and fixed the trilogy." To him, this was Star Wars, and the public had merely gotten accustomed to his rough drafts along the way. And it's not as though we didn't get a heads up about this; the '95 VHS release advertised that it was everybody's "last chance to own the original Star Wars."

While many of the new effects blew away audiences at the time, other changes immediately rubbed some fans the wrong way. Most notoriously, the awkward shot of Greedo ineptly firing his blaster milliseconds before Han drew fan outrage even before the film hit theaters, thanks to primordial internet communities. This lone alteration made it very clear that Lucas' decisions weren't solely restricted to updating old effects with CGI wizardry. This was clearly an attempt to sand down some of the franchise's harder edges. After all, in hindsight, why would a trilogy that ends with a tribe of woodland teddy bears begin with a dude murdering someone in cold blood?

More than any other, this scene also illustrates just how naive Lucas may have been when bragging to reporters in '97 that he had finally finished his trilogy. Only a few years later, Lucas changed the scene again for the 2004 DVD release, calling the re-edit "a correction." But then it was changed yet again for the 2011 Blu-Ray release. And if that wasn't enough, when the 4K version hit Disney+ everyone was shocked to see that Lucas, long since withdrawn from the franchise, had randomly added the word "Maclunkey" -- which was presumably Huttese for "I can't hear you complaining about this scene because I'm currently swimming naked in $4 billions-worth of gold bullion."

Even what was arguably the centerpiece of the Special Edition's additional content, the new scene with Jabba the Hutt, filmed in '77 with a stand-in, succumbs to these same problems. For one thing, it's unnecessary; when Lucas was forced to cut it back in '77, he instead extended the scene with Greedo in order to fill in the information gaps, thus making most of the Jabba scene completely redundant from a narrative standpoint. For another, since Jabba had yet to be designed when Harrison Ford walked around the actor, Lucas opted to make Han stomp on his tail, which makes the fearsome, murderous gangster squeal, but oddly doesn't make him the slightest bit upset. 

When the visual effects artists questioned if this might be too much, Lucas reassured them that "you can never go over the top with this movie." And because visual effects continued to evolve, as with the Han-Greedo scene, Lucas was forced to adjust the scene for the DVD release -- and even then, Jabba is still about as convincing as the Geico Gecko or the Cool World gang.

So, ultimately, the Special Editions ended up doing the opposite of what Lucas intended them to. He set out to finish a project that he felt like he'd abandoned and instead turned his trilogy into a shapeshifting monstrosity perpetually in flux. There were always subtle revisions in previous re-releases (like assigning the episode number and subtitle to what became A New Hope in 1981), but following the Special Editions, Star Wars became less of a movie series and more of a shambolic mish-mash of confounding revisions. The '90s kids who grew up loving the theatrical Special Editions can't even watch those versions (the ones with some CGI additions but zero Hayden Christensen ghosts) anymore, except for on old VHS tapes.

The financial success of the Special Editions had an impact beyond Lucasfilm, too, leading studios to greenlight alternate cut vanity projects that, arguably, would never have been given a wide release prior to Lucas' gamble. 

In 1998, Universal released a new cut of Touch of Evilallegedly in keeping with Orson Welles' original vision. In 2001, Lucas' friend and mentor Francis Ford Coppola released Apocalypse Now Redux, which crammed the movie full of deleted scenes that mostly involved ghost sex. Like Lucas, Coppola wasn't done with the movie, releasing Apocalypse Now: Final Cut in 2019. And in 2000, there was The Exorcist: The Version You've Never Seen, which was spearheaded not by director William Friedkin but by screenwriter William Peter Blatty. The new cut tacked on a happy ending and added the infamous "spider-walk" scene, which was originally removed for technical reasons but was improved by, you guessed it, digital technology.

Director's cuts obviously already existed, but this was something different. In the case of The Exorcist, Friedkin had to be convinced to go along with the new cut, which he initially resisted. And on home video we got, not just director's cuts but more extended cuts, be it The Lord of the Rings or an onslaught of "unrated" DVDs of horror movies and sex comedies. The idea that a movie would eventually be modified in some form wasn't an anomaly; it was standard. The "digitally enhanced" trend, however, hit a rough patch when Steven Spielberg, who had previously sullied Close Encounters with new and improved footage, released the 20th-anniversary version of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, famously replacing all the guns with walkie talkies, lest we worry that this family classic will end with E.T.'s brains being blown out.

While Spielberg later regretted the changes (and made the un-Lucas-like decision to release both versions on Blu-Ray), all this certainly changed the way we think about movies today. Fan-led demands for alternate cuts, or entirely new movies, may sometimes be annoying, but we don't consider movies to be immutable pieces of art anymore -- because that's what we were taught by Hollywood for decades. Director's cuts typically restored films back to pre-existing cuts, but what Lucas popularized was the idea that the filmmaking process is never finished. He also monetized it, and Hollywood followed.

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Top Image: Lucasfilm

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