The Empire Strikes Back was released thirty-five years ago today. Our planet seems unanimous in the belief that Empire is the best of the Star Wars films, which of course it is. Dramatic and dream-like yet so human and accessible. Breaks off a lot of the clunk from the first film, avoids the retreads of the third. And those tauntauns sure are some wacky snow-stompin’ bipeds.
Nutty two-legged space camels. Crying out with their distinctive sad gurgle. Filled with weird blue macaroni guts. Namaste, tauntauns.
Please celebrate The Empire Strikes Back’s birthday responsibly, by which I mean do not turn your customized Boba Fett helmet into a gravity bong.
Something to ponder: If Return of the Jedi had never been made, the highest grossing film of 1983 would have been Terms of Endearment. Terms was the only other film that year to hit the nine figure mark, whalloping Flashdance, Trading Places, and even Tom Cruise’s breakout hooker comedy Risky Business. People in ’83 really wanted to watch Debra Winger die (SPOILER ALERT).
Of course, the concept of Return of the Jedi never being made is ludicrous. I recently read an interview where George Lucas was asked what he would have done if Mark Hamill had died in that famous car accident just before Star Wars came out, and King George said something to the effect of, “Oh, I would have introduced another young mystical Jedi person and centered Empire and Jedi around them.” Piss off with your dying, Luke Skywalker. You think you can stop this fucking Star Wars juggernaut? You think being the “main character” means anything? Try again.
I’m sure not even the combined deaths of Mark Hamill, George Lucas, the rest of the cast, and every unnamed talent at Skywalker Ranch would have prevented a franchise. The original SW made too much money—“fuck you” money, as my father would call it. 20th Century Fox would have given us something, even if it was pure z-level schlock that followed Doug McClure around Tunisia as he searched for C-3PO’s evil clone with Chewbacca’s “force sensitive” second cousin at his side. Star Wars was a license to print money. Hell, it still is. How else do you explain those prequels?
Still, I’m fascinated by an alternate universe where, for whatever ungodly reason, Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back exist yet Return of the Jedi doesn’t, leaving fantasy film’s greatest cliffhangers forever unresolved. It would have to be the result of some complicated legal thing, right? Some Day The Clown Cried situation? Imagine if our rigid American copyright laws prevented anyone from ever seeing Darth Vader without his mask, from ever meeting and/or complaining about an Ewok, from ever hearing Admiral Ackbar bellow, “It’s a trap!” If you think Star Wars nerds are fussy now…
An even crazier scenario: George Lucas, burnt out from Empire, vows to never complete the trilogy and has it written into his contract somehow that no one else can ever make Star Wars III. I mean, he’d be assassinated like two days later, right? None of Boba Fett’s helmet polishers would put up with that.
The real question is: in a world without Jedi, does Kenner switch their focus to produce Terms of Endearment action figures? I’d buy a Debra Winger toy in a heartbeat. Like a twelve inch doll of her smiling like she is on the poster? Oh, that’s going right next to my Gremlins bubble gum machine.
George Lucas has been molesting his original Star Wars movies with CGI nonsense since 1997 while simultaneously disavowing the edits that grossed him millions back in the day. Sucky, but lightsaber-wielding nerds aggravated by this nonsense such as myself have long taken solace in what we perceived to be a tiny loophole in George’s quest to stamp out his “first drafts”: The National Film Registry. Established in 1988, the NFR annually selects twenty-five “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” movies to induct and preserve for the rest of history, so after we vaporize each other in the final nuclear war there’ll be some big movie vault for our aliens overlords to discover proving we were an intelligent and artful race. One of the NFR’s first draft picks in ’89? Star Wars.
Ostensibly, the NFR chose Star Wars that year, Lucasfilm sent them a copy, and it’s been sitting there ever since, government property a la the Ark in Raiders. So even though George might digitally scribble The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi to the point of no return, even though he might be able to completely block the commercial availability of previous non-“Special Edition” trilogy releases, at least Uncle Sam has retained an untouched copy of the first film. At some point in the future, cinema restoration people could use that government copy of Star Wars to create a another home video release of what audiences first saw May 25, 1977. At least we could have one regular Star Wars movie some time before the apocalypse…right?
Yeah, about that: Preservation website SaveStarWars.com recently investigated the National Film Registry situation at Washington, D.C.’s Library of Congress, and they’re reporting that the NFR never received the copy of Star Wars they requested in 1989. Apparently Lucasfilm ignored the NFR until 1997…the year the “Special Edition” of Star Wars was completed. When George told the gub’ment that’s what he planned on sending them, they balked. Quoth Reference Librarian of Congress Zoran Sinobad:
“While both Star Wars (1977) and The Empire Strikes Back (1980) are on the National Film Registry, the Library has not yet acquired new prints of either one. When the request was made for Star Wars, Lucasfilm offered us the Special Edition version. The offer was declined as this was obviously not the version that had been selected for the Registry. We have not yet requested a print of The Empire Strikes Back, [which was] added to the Registry late last year.”
Our leaders may have been fucking up the economy and starting unnecessary wars for the past decade, but hey, at least they’ve been trying to do the right thing when it comes to Luke Skywalker.
So there you have it—more Lucas allegedly being Lucas. But what of the separate copyright prints that exist for Star Wars, Empire, and Jedi? A 35mm print of every film in this country has to be sent to the Library of Congress to officially be copyrighted (or had to be sent—I don’t know if they still put movies on 35mm). So yes, the LoC is sitting on at least one set of original original Star Wars films from the years of their release that could prove a total failsafe. Unfortunately, according to Zoran, the copyright version of Empire now boasts “extreme color fading” and there is “no report” on the condition of Return of the Jedi (which one assumes could mean it has turned to finite dust by now).
Of course, the very notion that anyone but George Lucas/Lucasfilm will ever control the ultimate fate of Star Wars is laughable. I’m sure it’s written in blood somewhere that public domain doesn’t exist in Obi Wan’s dojo and that no other entity can ever even consider purchasing the rights to those movies. Related tidbit: The aforelinked report throws out a claim that Lucasfilm’s contract with Fox RE: Star Wars has some foreboding clause which demands versions of the pre-’97 trilogy must be “hunted up and destroyed.”
This sounds like fabricated fanboy fear-mongering, but who knows. It seemed just as crazy thirty years ago that a relatively unknown filmmaker would give up his studio paycheck in favor of merchandising rights for the characters in his cheap little space movie everyone and their uncle thought would bomb. Today, Darth Vader’s face is on every household item imaginable and George Lucas is so goddamn rich he can just blatantly fuck with the government (allegedly).
Private collectors, it looks like the future of unaltered Star Wars may be up to you. Don’t let your moms clean out your basements!
Digital Bits Editor Bill Hunt, who is, like, the dude when it comes to home theater stuff, posted his review of the Star Wars Blu-Rays today. Hunt sings the same refrain as so many others: While this set is far from what’s best in terms of current technology and many screw ups from the ’04 DVDs have carried over, it’s still the best Star Wars has looked since you paid to see it during Reagan’s presidency. Bill spilled an interesting/exclusive tidbit, however, while kvetching about the CGI revisions Lucasfilm whipped up for these Blu-Rays. To wit:
“For those of you who hate the past changes [to Star Wars] (and the new BD changes), believe me I get it. Let me just say, it could be a LOT worse. Sources well-positioned to know have told me that Lucas actually seriously considered replacing the puppet Yoda from The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi with the all-digital version, and even had tests conducted to see how it would look. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed…”
Emphasis added. It goes without saying that the “cooler heads” in this situation should be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Painting over Frank Oz’s superb puppetry would have been some cold, disrespectful shit. Just thinking about it makes me want to draw giant magic marker penises on every American Graffiti poster I can find.
HOW WOULD YOU LIKE THAT, GEORGE LUCAS? IF I JUST DREW GIANT PENISES ALL OVER RON HOWARD’S CARTOONY FRECKLED FACE? YOU WOULDN’T BE ABLE TO STOP ME, YOU COULDN’T POSSIBLY BE IN FRONT OF EVERY AMERICAN GRAFFITI POSTER AT ONCE.
Meanwhile, Howard the Duck is still atrocious, and Lucas does nothing to try and correct that.
Bluray.com posted their take on the Star Wars Blu-Ray set Monday, the final sentence of which finds writer Casey Broadwater triumphantly stating “the films have never looked or sounded better.” Sure, things aren’t perfect—Broadwater is especially disappointed with the soft image quality of Phantom Menace and tags the latest round of CGI updates as “goofy”—but that’s small potatoes since the original trilogy now looks “amazing,” apparently free here of the wild color fluctuations that plagued the 2004 DVDs.
Geoff Dearth of The Digital Fix disagrees on that last point, stating in his write-up (also posted Monday) that the colors of the original films on Blu-Ray are “still far too oversaturated.” “Skin tones vary wildy,” Dearth notes, “looking lobster-pink in one shot and golden brown the next.” Various audio elements also let down, particularly the ADR work heard in Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi. In the end, Dearth laments that these Blu-Rays “don’t quite do [the Star Wars movies] justice.”
Strangely, Dearth’s review makes no mention of Lucasfilm’s highly contentious digital revisions. Either Geoff is one of those “ain’t gonna dignify that kinda stupidity with a remark” type of guys or this whole “Special Edition” nightmare is the hallucinogenic result of too much plastic in our drinking water. All I’m trying to say is I never noticed Greedo shooting first until around the first time I put my lips to an Evian bottle.
So, if we’re gonna keep talking about this hot Star Wars Blu-Ray mess, we need to come up with a catchier name. I vote for Vadergate. Let me know how you feel about that, Wampa jockeys. Also acceptable: Lucasgate, Jedigate, the Krayt Dragon Rock n’ Roll Swindle.
Phil Tippett (pictured) is a special effects master who’s worked on such incredible pieces of cinema as Jurassic Park, RoboCop, and—ahem—the original Star Wars trilogy. On Wednesday morning, Movies.com spoke with Tippett, a guy who spent countless hours whipping up creatures and spaceships for George Lucas at the dawn of the ’80s, and asked his opinion of the Star Wars creator’s continued CGI brush-stroking over the years.
“They’re shit,” Phil responded, damning all of Lucasfilm’s digital scribbling since 1997 as unnecessary. A not unexpected reaction from the co-genius behind Empire Strikes Back’s still-impressive Imperial Walkers. Tippett, who won an Oscar for his work on Return of the Jedi, also shared a behind-the-scenes story from that film which will surely not garner Georgie Boy any more cool points:
“[Industrial Light & Magic] had a little room where you could get chips and drinks and I was getting something. George and Richard Marquand, [Return of the Jedi’s] director, came in and Richard was saying, ‘George, I don’t totally get where we need to go with this picture.’ And George said, ‘Well, did you see Benji?’ ‘No George, I didn’t see Benji. ‘Well, what we’re doing now is kind of like a cross between Benji and what we did on Empire Strikes Back.'”
Ewok haters: You have a new enemy.