Star Wars Explained is our ongoing series where we delve into the latest Star Wars shows, movies, trailers, and news stories to divine the franchise’s future. This entry reevaluates the Star Wars Special Editions to celebrate their 25th anniversary.
Twenty-five years ago, Star Wars changed. The franchise was in a bit of a limbo state, but it was ramping toward a revival that would solidify in 1999 with The Phantom Menace. Riding an ever-growing wave of expanded universe stories told through comics and novels, Hasbro was making a mint with their Power of the Force toyline. An aching hunger rumbled throughout fandom. George Lucas believed we were ready for new tales told in that galaxy a long time ago, far, far away. He just had to test us first.
The Star Wars: A New Hope Special Edition arrived in theaters on January 31, 1997. Three weeks later, on February 21, 1997, the Special Edition of The Empire Strikes Back arrived. And three weeks after that, on March 14, 1997, the revamped Return of the Jedi. Slathered with tweaks and additions, they were a lot to take in. Some changes were welcome. Other changes were definitely not. Mostly, we were just thrilled to watch Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Princess Leia on the big screen again.
The furor around Han shooting first and the Yub Nub erasure built in the following years. With each new video, DVD, Blu-ray, and streaming re-release came further tweaks, and it became apparent that we may never see the original cuts ever again. We had hope when Disney acquired Lucasfilm in 2012, but while rumors of “Despecialized” editions circulated, no actual evidence ever did.
We’re stuck with these things. And that hurts. We don’t like being told Star Wars doesn’t belong to us. We may champion the original trilogy’s entrance into the National Film Registry, but that doesn’t mean Lucas needs to pony up our preferred edits. He’s a painter forever tinkering on his work, stacking atop, and ignoring the public’s initial encounter with it. Sure, they’re Disney’s babies now, but the Mouse House seems perfectly happy to underscore the Special Editions as Definitive Editions, going so far as to validate the Sarlacc’s goofy 1997 beak in The Book of Boba Fett.
Happiness comes with accepting the Special Editions as is. Having spent far too many years grumbling over what these edits got wrong, I’m tired of the moans of others, and I’m certainly tired of my own. And maybe, just maybe, they’re not actually as bad as we make them out to be. Maybe there’s some real quality stuff to be found in the three Special Editions.
The animated TV shows have helped tremendously in this hopeful endeavor. Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Star Wars: Rebels, and Star Wars: The Bad Batch have recontextualized many aspects of the prequel trilogy, and with their input, I’ve discovered a new respect for the films. Seeing the Sarlacc beak in The Book of Boba Fett also purged some anger. It doesn’t look that awful; it actually gives the Great Pit of Carkoon a bit more character, a bit more life.
With this open mindset, I returned to the Special Editions, hunting for what I liked, not what I didn’t like. Here’s what I found, the five Special Edition changes that improve Star Wars as a whole.
A New Hope for Jabba the Hutt
Even with improvements made since 1997, Jabba the Hutt in A New Hope still sticks out as a digital effects sore spot. His cartoon body doesn’t appear connected to the set or the performers around him and acts as an affront to the ’70s-era practical effects. On the other hand, in the decades since the Special Editions, we’ve also seen way more Hutts than Jabba on screen in Star Wars media, including The Twins in The Book of Boba Fett and Uncle Ziro in The Clone Wars. These Hutts feel, in tone and design, akin to A New Hope‘s Jabba. We can only infer that between the first film and Return of the Jedi, Jabba stopped his Tatooine strolls and cemented himself to his throne. His sedentary life transformed him into the muppet monster we first saw him as in the third film.
Narratively, the gangster confronting Han as he’s slithering his escape carries significant menace. Jabba’s like, “Look, mah boogie, I know I just sent Greedo to do you in, but really, I want what you owe me. Yer gonna deliver, right?” It’s a Carlito‘s Way moment. Han is trying to get the hell outta there, and he’ll say anything to make it happen, but this castaway conversation will return to bite him in the butt when he least suspects it. The scene’s final punctuation is a glaring Boba Fett. Han will regret this failure of smooth talk; he has damned himself to carbonite.
The Return of Biggs Darklighter
Originally, we first come across Biggs Darklighter briefly within the Battle of Yavin. During their X-wing cockpit conversations, we can kinda gain some flickering idea that there is history between Biggs and Luke Skywalker. And then Biggs dies. Just another Porkins obliterated into oblivion.
In the Special Edition of A New Hope, Biggs finds his old friend in the hanger. It’s a reunion; the two Tatooine farmboys somehow found themselves in the Rebellion. Mark Hamill and Garrick Hagon shine as besties, delivering joy and pride in each other. When Biggs finally does go down in the fight, we feel the loss in a way we previously didn’t. The destruction of the Death Star is no longer a video game. Victory has a cost.
The Battle of Yavin
The Special Edition Battle of Yavin has an electric charge lacking from the original. Again, some of the CGI looks a little apart from the scene, but the uncanny wobbliness of those few X-wings is far more fleeting than Jabba’s lingering Han Solo chitchat. Frankly, the matte box cleanup ILM does around the vehicles is astonishing, and you’d probably be hardpressed to find a fan who misses those awkward square halos.
The X-wings and Y-wings also have a pep in their step that the OGs don’t, which sells the speed of the Death Star run even better. The Special Edtion Battle of Yavin is a time-crunch. Here the Rebel base really does feel like it’s minutes away from being destroyed before Luke sinks that final torpedo.
More Wampa in Empire Strikes Back
The initial cut of the Wampa sequence is scarier than the one delivered in The Empire Strikes Back Special Edition. George Lucas was unhappy with the Wampa suit on the day, similar to what Steven Spielberg went through with Jaws and the big blob Bruce, so he cut around it. Less being more, and certainly more goosebump-inducing.
However, in 1997, the Wampa they built to extend the sequence is so rad looking. The mystery is defeated, and the fright weakened a bit, but we were also very familiar with the Hasbro toy replica by this point. We didn’t need our imagination to fill in the gaps; the plastic figurine had already done it. If that’s the case, let’s revel in that gnarly yeti design. Now, I want more Wampa than we got in the Star Wars Special Editions. It would be nice if The Mandalorian Season 3 did for the Wampa what The Book of Boba Fett did for the Rancor.
Return of the Jedi Celebration
No, don’t worry. “Yub Nub” for life. Its eradication from the Return of the Jedi‘s climax is abysmal, and John Williams’ reedy replacement tune is an attack on Ewok culture. I dislike it. And I also still do not like Hayden Christensen’s insertion into the Force ghost scene (later added to the Special Edition, in 2004). Why would Anakin get his young body back while Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda hang onto their ancient physiques? No thanks.
The camera pulling off-world, though, that’s important. The second Death Star’s decimation is Star Wars‘ V-E Day. Ding dong, the witch is dead, and we need to see the resulting party rockin’ across the cosmos, especially if we choose to watch these films in chronological order starting with The Phantom Menace. Viewed that way, there is triumph in seeing the unchecked revelry on Naboo and Coruscant (the former added and the latter added to in the 2004 release). This is a moment; this is the moment. It belongs to more than just Luke, Leia, and Han.