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Return to Mos Eisley: The Star Wars Trilogy on DVD

Mos Eisley Spaceport, a landspeeder-drive from Luke Skywalker’s homestead on Tatooine, is the connection between Luke’s farming community and the worlds beyond - like the end of a funnel turned wide-side up to the galaxy, channelling bizarre foreign species and exotic travellers into a single neighbourhood, and specifically into the single dark interior of the Cantina. Mos Eisley is a hub, a centre – a microcosm of the galaxy, representing the diversity of the broader spheres outside Tatooine – and it also concentrates much of the essence, the charm and energy of George Lucas’ 1977 Star Wars: A New Hope into a single sequence. In the twenty-seven years since the movie was first released, it is Mos Eisley – its layout, its inhabitants, the action that takes place there – that has changed the most dramatically, and so this sequence also illustrates the key differences between Lucas’ creation of 1977 and the revised versions – the 1997 Special Edition is now altered further with this DVD release – that supposedly take us closer towards the pure vision that Lucas wanted all along, had he not been constrained by budget and technology.

“Well, you know, its fun to make films for young people,” Lucas muses casually in the DVD set’s core documentary, Empire of Dreams, explaining why he ever began drafting a Flash Gordon-style space opera during the mid-1970s. “It’s a chance to sort of make an impression on them.” Of course, Lucas made a seismic impression on the young people who saw A New Hope and its successors between 1977 and 1983 – some went into filmmaking because of it, some drew a system of religious belief from it, and millions woke up in C-3PO pyjamas, spent the day making laser noises with mini-action figures and fell asleep in the glow of an R2-D2 nightlight. That he originally meant A New Hope to be a children’s film is less obvious, especially given that the saga is frequently accused by today’s adult fans of having become progressively infantile, with return of the Jedi’s Ewoks marking the beginning of a slide that reached its nadir in Episode I’s Jar Jar Binks. The standard messageboard retort to this criticism claims nay-sayers have lost their “inner child” and the sense of innocent wonder with which they approached A New Hope: if they watched the original Star Wars movie now for the first time, as adults, these cynical “bashers” would find fault with its fairy-tale qualities.

Watching the Mos Eisley scenes now, as an adult who first experienced them in 1977 – a time before domestic videocassettes, let alone DVD – there does seem a clear difference in tone between this fourth episode in the saga and the prequel films to date, The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones. Mos Eisley is an adult world presented for a young audience; the urban nightlife in Attack of the Clones is, by contrast, a childish version of an adult world. Coruscant’s Outlander Nightclub where Anakin and Obi-Wan track Zam Wessell is a gaudy neon den, as threatening as a set from the 1960s Batman. The young Jedi weave confidently through the crowds, hassled only by a kid who tries to sell them “death sticks”; even the local drug sounds lame, with a sensible health-warning as its street name. The Nightclub is a set-piece, one more visual spectacle in a sequence that looks like pre-production for a video game; it’s a ten year-old’s idealisation of the kind of “adult” place his big sister goes to when she’s dressed up for the evening.

The Mos Eisley Cantina carries entirely different connotations. This is a stripped-down, basic hole for locals, and it’s immediately clear that while Ben can mingle successfully, the droids are unwelcome and Luke, the point of identification for the young viewer, is a potential target. Despite being of legal drinking age – just about – Skywalker is a farm-boy, gauche and over-eager, fired up on bluff to cover his nerves. He boldly tugs the barkeep’s jacket to get served, but immediately gets bullied by one of the patrons for no reason other than that he’s a new face and an easy mark.

Luke’s behaviour in Mos Eisley is a constant performance, an attempt to act big and keep up a tough-guy front in an environment where, right from the start, he’s out of his depth. “Watch your step,” Ben advises. “This place can be a little rough.” “I’m ready for anything,” Luke boasts, and tries to borrow his mentor’s worldly tone as he in turn advises Threepio, “why don’t you wait out by the speeder. We don’t want any trouble.” Even at the table with Han Solo, Luke squares up to the older man, trying to bargain and brag on an equal level – “I’m not such a bad pilot myself, we don’t have to sit here and listen to all this – ” – while the smuggler lounges back in amusement. It’s in his wondering comment to Ben, though – “I can’t understand how we got by those troopers. I thought we were dead.” – that Luke reveals the more genuine combination of apprehension and awe that Mos Eisley evokes in him. This spaceport, however minor and shabby, is an edgy, dangerous place, and Luke’s reactions cue us to that.

The novelisation of A New Hope, ostensibly by George Lucas himself, confirms this sense of teenage unease and self-consciousness through which we experience the Cantina.

Luke now found himself the subject of some unwanted attention. He abruptly became aware of his isolation and felt as if at one time or another every eye in the place rested a moment on him, that things human and otherwise were smirking about him and making comments behind his back. Trying to maintain an air of quiet confidence, he returned his gaze to old Ben… (pp.95-96)

Rather than a child’s fantasy of adult venues, the Cantina feels like a real adult venue, captured in the way that it appears to a kid: something big and daunting, smoky and noisy, shadowy and dirty. And kind of sexy too – even if the finished movie does cut “the humanoid wench who had been wriggling on [Han]’s lap” (p.101) along with Koo Stark as Luke’s friend Camie (who “wriggled sensuously, her well-worn clothing tugging in various intriguing directions” in the novel (p.18)) – both characters were actually filmed before being edited out of the final cut, and this unpolished, unashamed sensuality still seems to leave its tint, lingering in Mos Eisley like perfume and hinted at in the remaining, brief shot of poised, pretty floozies surveying the bar through hookah-smoke. Though this may be a compromised version of the original conception, it hasn’t lost all the flavour of John Mollo’s pre-production sketches, with their rough fashion-plates of humanoids labelled “2 x Space Girls, Tight Top.” The Cantina owes something to scenes of Harlem bars in 1970s Blaxploitation, as well as Western saloons in John Ford films; Coruscant’s Outlander Nightclub, on the other hand, looks like somewhere the Teletubbies would go for a drink. The funk outfit Meco produced a vinyl rendition of the Cantina Theme soon after A New Hope’s release, and indie band Ash reprised it on a b-side, around the time of their debut album 1977. A generation of Star Wars fans could play that tune on a kazoo as a party piece. I wonder if any fans of whatever age – adult, teenage, under-10 – would even recognise the music playing in the Outlander scene.

One of the pleasant surprises of the DVD documentary is seeing unfamiliar glimpses from a movie so familiar that most viewers can recite whole scenes of its dialogue. Clips of deleted scenes, bloopers, rehearsals – even just the beginnings and ends of shots, with clapperboard and sound-sync beeps – have the sense of something snatched from a real event, like historical archive footage. Producer Gary Kurz said of Lucas’s financial projections in 1975, “I think George thought it could be made like THX [1138], not having a real cameraman and making it in a documentary style.” (Garry Jenkins, Empire Building p.71) Oddly, what captivates about these clips, with their hissy sound, muffled voices and sometimes their black-and-white film stock, is that they do look like documentary. As such, they emphasise Lucas’ achievement in creating a convincing “used universe”, a coherent fantasy world that looked as though it had existed long before the cameras came along; but they also painfully show up CGI’s inability to meet that standard.

André Bazin’s theory that cinematic realism should aspire to using the camera apparatus as an objective, transparent means of recording the “pro-filmic event” were published in the US as What is Cinema by the University of California Press, 1971 – not long after George Lucas graduated from the University of Southern California, and in the year of THX-1138’s theatrical release. This aspect of Bazin’s writing was heavily-critiqued and considered dated even by the time A New Hope came out, but comparing the remains of the filmed Mos Eisley material with the CGI set-dressing that now decorates this original footage, it’s hard not to agree with the conservative notion that “realism” lies in a concrete, physical truth that the camera records, and to hanker for this old-fashioned approach to cinema. In fact, to hanker for cinema itself, or what cinema used to mean: for a set with the solid noises of footsteps and chairs scraping, with lightsabers covered in reflective tape and whirring from a handle motor, with aliens who, even if dressed in cheap fright masks, had a solid presence and took up space on the set.

Seeing the crew at work in behind-the-scenes footage that captures the energy, the innovation, the geeky youth of these skinny, bearded filmmakers – they share an insomniac spirit of experiment with the Atari games designers and console builders of the same period, not just pushing an envelope but mailing it first-class into the future – still makes you want to shoot films yourself. Seeing Lucas looking over someone’s shoulder at a wire-frame computer model of Jar-Jar rotating on a screen doesn’t carry the same buzz. Sure, CGI and live-action Star Wars fan-films are still being produced now, twenty year since I animated my mini-action figures for Super-8 stop-motion home movies, so Lucas’ saga clearly still has the power to inspire; but behind-the-scenes shots of Episode III, all blue-screen and motion-capture as one team works on the movie and another prepares the tie-in video game, barely resemble filmmaking – or at least, what filmmaking used to mean.

The crew, nerds given the opportunity to create worlds, are having a blast making the first Star Wars movie; and so are the stars. Again, the plain fact of having Mark Hamill and Harrison Ford opposite each other and surrounded by costumed extras, in a convincing simulation of a seedy bar, gives the two performers a chance to spark off each other like stage actors, Ford playing the sardonic old-hand to Hamill’s naïve eagerness – but they even do it in audition, wearing street clothes. The Empire of Dreams documentary sometimes lapses charmingly into home-video compilation, showing the main characters goofing and corpsing. We see Chewbacca talking in Peter Mayhew’s accent, Luke and Leia kicking their feet on the edge of a Death Star chasm, looking just like bored twins, and the gang in the Millennium Falcon cockpit whooping it up as though they’re about to go on a family vacation.

There’s a chemistry here that seems almost entirely missing in the formal exchanges of Episodes I and II – some of that may be due to the more constrained society depicted in the prequel movies, some to the dead air between all the principal actors, but much of the energy seems to be sucked into the green-screens that pass for setting and even secondary character in the new Star Wars movies. Once more, it would be a mistake to get suckered entirely into too-simple dichotomies about the good old ways versus soulless, new-fangled methods. Even in 1977, post-production transformed the raw material – Lucas comforted Hamill, who was worried that the Cantina looked quaint as the Nutcracker Suite, “we’re gonna fix all of this.” But in 1977, there was a lot more raw material to work with, and that material was substantial enough to tell a story, to carry character on its own, to enchant. Maybe the Cantina extras, with their rag-bag masks, did look like the Nutcracker; but maybe it’s better for your mythical fable to look like a theatrical fairy-story than a construction site with green curtains.

The teaser trailers from 1977 pick up on this “used universe” solidity and plausibility, asking the viewer to imagine “what if” this was really going on, right now? Star Wars, a saga “a billion years in the making”, was initially pitched to audiences almost as though it came in a time-capsule from a distant civilisation, a Voyager message from the stars much like Princess Leia’s distress call. A New Hope captivated because it convinced. The CGI additions to the movie can never convince in the same way, because some deep-seated instinct within us rejects them as fundamentally unreal. The original Mos Eisley was shot on celluloid in 1976 at a geographical location in Tunisia. The expanded CGI Mos Eisley never existed in time or space: it was pure data. Inevitably, despite the skills of the Special Edition animators, their creation could not duplicate organic movement or physical environment to the precise extent that would allow the viewer to accept them wholesale as real: there is always an awkwardness about a landspeeder’s bounce, an artificial sheen to a creature’s hide, a figure’s stilted stride, a flatness or falseness in the visual planes. The raw footage of the Cantina scene, even without music, is filled with the background noise of a crowded bar, a hubbub of adult conversation carrying the acoustic resonance of voices within a specific interior: what sound recordists call “atmos”. CGI, inescapably, is shot in a place without atmos.

The justification for the Special Edition changes has always been that this is the way Lucas would have made the movies the first time round, had the technology been in place. To resist the CGI updating is, according to this argument, to deny Lucas the fulfilment of his personal vision. Yet the DVD’s further changes to the 1997 Special Editions undermine this theory, or at least question the wisdom of Lucas’ approach to his creation. The 1997 version was presented at the time as the story its director had always wanted to see, but the fact that Luke’s initial landspeeder approach to Mos Eisley, already replaced with a CGI shot in the Special Edition, has been improved once more is a clear admission that the previous effect was imperfect. Given that even the more recent version of that shot still has the artificial fluidity of computer-physics, no matter how many bounces and dust-clouds the animators throw in, it has to be asked when this process of continuous improvement will end. Already the 2004 landspeeder fails to cut in smoothly with the subsequent, circa-1997 shot, which features a noticeably inferior computer-model of C-3PO with dull yellow rather than convincingly golden plate.

Similarly, the revamped Jabba sequence in the 2004 New Hope serves as tacit acceptance that 1997’s incarnation was hopelessly below-standard – it now looks grotesquely, embarrassingly primitive, a worse graphic effect than commercial PS2 software – but even the new Jabba, for all the clever shadow-effects, works only in the same way as a successful Photoshop montage. We admire the artistry behind placing Jabba next to Han Solo precisely because we know it’s an impossible image. We should be experiencing the scene as an interaction between characters, not as an impressive piece of digital manipulation. Even in this state-of-the-art update, there’s little chance of that; and yet, the illusion was achieved in 1983 simply by building a massive, foam-rubber Jabba who sat in the same physical space as the actors. Ironically, twenty-one years of CGI innovation have not yet produced a Jabba who looks as good as the original – though Lucas’ repeated tinkerings suggest that he’s going to keep on trying.

The continuous updating might be acceptable if viewed as a steady progress towards Lucas’ pure ideal of the saga, even if it throws off interim versions along the way that are later written off as unacceptable and stripped of the “Special Edition” label, which now gets slapped onto the DVD version until the next revamp comes along. However, it sometimes becomes hard to believe that Lucas does have a consistent vision of the way the films should look or even how they should sound. The 1997 edition, for instance, added a scream to Luke’s plunge down the Cloud City exhaust shaft as he sacrifices himself rather than join Vader. The 2004 release decides that he fell silently. This change quite reasonably suggests the calm strategy of a Jedi-in-training rather than an anguished mistake, but it also strongly implies that there is no single pure vision motivating Lucas’ alterations.

The most notorious example of Star Wars history rewritten is the 1997 version of Han Solo’s showdown with Greedo, in which the smuggler shoots only in defence rather than in cold blood. A blast was added to Greedo’s pistol, and Han’s immobile head was morphed into an unconvincing dodge before he fired back. In 2004, the opponents fire at virtually the same time, a detail that, crucially, can only fully be appreciated on the frame-by-frame slomo of DVD. Watched at normal speed, this sequence is now a confusion of criss-crossing energy bolts and impact explosions. Fans complained that the 1997 rewriting softened Han’s character from a coolly selfish pirate into a more honourable figure, therefore weakening the effect of his change of heart and loyalties throughout the trilogy as a whole. This recent tweaking seems to cast Han in a subtly new light: but the key point about the scene currently stands is that it makes very little sense as cinema. A viewer in 1977 knew immediately that Han had eased his pistol out from his hip while they spoke, and ended their conversation with an exclamation point as he blasted Greedo nonchalantly through the table. A viewer in 2004, especially one with no knowledge of the “who-shot-first” debate, would have to rewind, freeze the image and examine the still shot to grasp what had happened. This is now a scene made for DVD, designed for current technology and an entirely different way of watching visual texts; which is interesting in what it confirms about our changing engagement with screen narrative through the medium of ever-more-precise home technology, but disturbing in what it takes away from the original, a wide-screen space opera designed to be watched in movie theatres.

The freeze-frame, home-viewing aesthetic dominates – some might say contaminates – the CGI additions to A New Hope, and continues to inform the prequel trilogy. Each image is packed with background detail, “Easter Eggs” for the sharp-eyed fan to hunt, identify and analyse on websites. The 1997 Mos Eisley includes cross-references to the Expanded Universe of spin-off novels – opening up the canon to authorise other writers’ inventions such as the swoop bike and the Outrider spacecraft, which again casts doubt on the notion that the updates represent a steady progression towards Lucas’ personal dream from the late 1970s. The backgrounds are now busy, scurrying with activity; much of it a wearying slapstick. A jawa tumbles from his mount, one droid slaps down another. This is the Muppet Show clowning that crept into Return of the Jedi, went hyperactive in the 1997 remake – disrupting the suspense of the Jabba’s Palace scene through an extended musical number – then sprawled out over The Phantom Menace’s Pod-Race. Humour emerging from character and dry interaction – the banter between Han, Leia and Luke in A New Hope spills over with playful rivalry – is now offset by the distracting antics of computer-animated doodles in the corner of the screen.

Some of the changes, then, merely supplement, set-dress and fill space, providing bonus features for those who like to freezeframe movies to examine the details while annoying traditionalists who prefer a focus on the main characters. Others fundamentally change character, structure and story. Han Solo’s retroactive characterisation as the kind of guy who never shoots without being fired upon is the most controversial example, but the very addition of Jabba the Hutt to the 1997 and 2004 editions of A New Hope slows the pace of the Mos Eisley scenes for the sake of repeating information we were given in the Greedo sequence: Han even reels off the same line, “Even I get boarded sometimes, do you think I had a choice?” twice within five minutes.

Although Jabba was scheduled to appear in the 1977 cut, and the dialogue remains in the original screenplay, this alone doesn’t necessarily justify its reinstatement: many scenes from that script, including Luke’s first appearance with Biggs and Camie, were shot, discarded and never reinserted. Jabba’s cameo in A New Hope may be an amusing novelty and a showcase for the improvements in CGI between 1997 and 2004, but it radically diminishes the impact of his appearance in Return of the Jedi, which originally worked as the revelation of an arch-villain following two movies where his name hung over Solo, vague and ominous.

Slipping Boba Fett as an extra into this Mos Eisley encounter must have seemed the ultimate in “kewl” to the Fett fanboys who hung on each one of his twenty-seven words in Empire Strikes Back, but this fleeting visual bonus also confuses what basic sense the original films gave of the bounty hunter’s alignment and motivations: in 1980 he appeared as a freelancer serving the highest bidder, but this 1997 addition suggests he has a steady job on retainer for the Hutt. Those twenty-seven words, incidentally, have just been redubbed for 2004 by Temura Morrison, Attack of the Clones’ Jango Fett: the original voice-talent, Jason Wingreen, has been wiped out of Star Wars history, just like Declan Mulholland.

This is arguably the most contentious aspect of Lucas’ revamp: not just the obsessive adjustment of characters he did, after all, create himself and donate to the public imagination, but a purging of actors who contributed their talents to the original movies, were considered more than adequate for approximately twenty-five years, but no longer fit in with the revised, prequel-era continuity. So the Emperor’s revised appearance in the 2004 Empire Strikes Back now includes the subtle character-shift of Vader denying all knowledge of Skywalker’s son, despite referring to Luke by his surname earlier in the film; it also replaces an unbilled, elderly actress and the voice of Clive Revill with a new performance by Ian McDiarmid. The shot of Obi-Wan, Yoda and Anakin as glowing blue Force-ghosts, as Luke torches Vader’s armour on an Endor funeral pyre, now asks us to believe that Luke recognises his father as a young man, rather than as the battered but kindly older figure who was revealed under Vader’s mask; it also replaces actor Sebastian Shaw with Hayden Christensen. The ethics of such changes are open to debate: Lucas claims a right to change his creation as often as he likes, and the voice-actors like Jason Wingreen and Clive Revill were just doing a day’s work, but there remains something chilling about the retroactive continuity that rewrites history with every revision.

Each new release of the Star Wars saga is offered as the definitive version; within Lucas’ official canon, any inconsistencies in previous cuts of the film are now ruled not to exist. While glimpses of the alternate history starring Sebastian Shaw are offered on the documentary, these are presented as, at best, archive clips from a more primitive era. Any viewer who clings to the previous version of the saga – the one he or she probably grew up on – is left with the markedly inferior quality of an old VHS cassette, tolerating the muted colour and soundtrack until the tape inevitably wears thin, until the fan gives in and trades up to the glorious quality of the DVD. Ironically, a visual medium that could easily have preserved all three versions of A New Hope as equally-valid choices – perhaps allowing interactive story-branches at key moments such as the Greedo scene, so that fans could select the variant they prefer – is instead being used to privilege a single “truth”, polishing it and presenting it in a gleaming showcase to tempt all but the most stubborn traditionalists. The old timeline will fade into quaint novelty and diehard memory. A newer generation of fans will accept more readily what Lucas tells them: Mos Eisley always looked that way. Anakin Skywalker’s ghost always appeared as Hayden Christensen. Vader always feigned ignorance of Luke to his Emperor. Luke never screamed as he fell from Cloud City. Greedo never shot first.

Yet these last two are already double-switches, reversing back to a previous decision and undoing the 1997 version of the “truth”. Just as the DVD casts doubt on Lucas’ claim that he always planned for Luke and Leia to be twins – in that case, why sanction a trailer focussing on their affair, titled “Forbidden Love”? – and fudges the issue on whether the director originally planned three, six or nine films in the saga, so it’s difficult to believe that Lucas is guided by a shaping vision, without caprice, changes of plan or snap decisions. It is, perhaps, going too far to compare his elimination of character actors to the Soviet propaganda that wiped Trotsky from official photographs and rewrote his role in history, but the process irresistibly recalls George Orwell’s comment in “The Prevention of Literature”, written in 1945 and a clear precursor of Ninteen Eighty-Four’s doublethink: “What is new in totalitarianism is that its doctrines are not only unchallengeable but also unstable. They have to be accepted on pain of damnation, but on the other hand they are always liable to be altered at a moment’s notice.” (p.167)

In a 2001 interview, Shaun of the Dead actor and Star Wars fan Simon Pegg told me why he felt increasingly disillusioned by Lucas. “When he made Star Wars, he was Luke, when he made The Phantom Menace he was Jabba. Go figure.” The Empire of Dreams does, unflatteringly, show Lucas as a stodgy, jowly figure, his face barely moving on a thick neck; but in the documentary’s final moments, Lucas drops the comfortable, smug banalities and shruggingly reveals a self-critical awareness.

What I was trying to do was stay independent… but at the same time I was sort of fighting the corporate system, which I didn’t like. And I’m not happy with the fact that corporations have taken over the film industry. But now I find myself being the head of a corporation. So there’s a certain irony there, in that I’ve become the very thing that I was trying to, uh, avoid. Which is basically what part of Star Wars is about.

Rather than the intergalactic gangster-slug, then, Lucas accepts that he has, at least in part, taken the role of the Empire – an interpretation with which many fans, especially those whose online fiction or amateur movies have been stamped out by Lucasfilm’s cease-and-desist copyright orders, would resignedly agree.

It may be difficult to reconcile the stolid, snowy-haired George Lucas with the stereotype of an independent filmmaker, even if we accept that strictly speaking, the label can’t be denied him; from his resistance to studio interference in the 1970s to his obsessive authorial control over the DVD Star Wars in 2004, Lucas has kept a dogged, two-handed grip on his personal creations. But at the start of his career, the nervy young director did fit the stereotype a lot more neatly, and while the Star Wars saga was in many ways startlingly innovative, Lucas’ earlier films were distinctly avant-garde. Jean-Luc Godard had visited USC in 1966, and Lucas, already a fan of the Nouvelle Vague director, explicitly modelled THX1138: 4EB on Godard’s 1965 science fiction film Alphaville. A New Hope took the breezier space operas of Flash Gordon serials as its more direct inspiration, but the leap from THX’s “Electronic Labyrinth” is not as vast as it might appear: the re-released, feature-length THX was prefaced with a clip from Flash Gordon, and its dystopic future includes the germ of familiar Star Wars icons like the Jawas and trash compactor monster.

It would be fruitless, though perhaps fascinating, to try to redefine A New Hope as avant-garde cinema. However, the documentary disc’s snatched black-and-white production footage, often silent and grainy, does give the Death Star corridors an uncanny resemblance to both THX and Alphaville. An unexpected bonus of Lucas’ Star Wars DVD is this reminder of the vibrant, raw cinematic energy, the edge of experiment, that still lies, still visible for the moment at least, behind his CGI confection.

Read Will's book USING THE FORCE now available on Amazon.com

Will Brooker
TheForce.net
September 29th, 2004

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