The Star Wars Trilogy: Special Edition at 20
On January 31st 1997, audiences took a trip to a galaxy far far away like never before, when Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope returned to theatres in a brand new, digitally remastered version.
To celebrate the 20th anniversary of A New Hope, each of the original Star Wars films came back to theatres in monthly intervals, though the amount of hype that surrounded the original led to it being a box-office smash (opening with $37 million and ending with $140 million) and helping to briefly restore its title as the all-time highest grossing film at the domestic box office.
The first trailer for this re-release, which played in theatres before screenings of Independence Day in 1996, showed off a number of visual improvements to the overall film, which in creator George Lucas's defense, was meant to make the film closer to his original vision. Lucas spent $10 million reworking the film's visual effects and sound, as well as adding new scenes - a cost which nearly rivalled the original $12 million budget of the 1977 film. The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi only had approximately $2 million spent on edits and improvements, but this disparity was due to the poor condition of the original negative for A New Hope, which had to be painstakingly restored in order to insert new footage, of which 4 minutes was added to the overall runtime. Such changes to the film include the notorious "Who shot first?" issue between Han Solo and Greedo, an appearance by Jabba the Hutt that foreshadows his role in Return of the Jedi, as well as more obvious instances of CGI throughout the film that were not there before.
The impact of this Star Wars re-release was felt in more ways than one, especially outside of the theatrical context where an incredibly spread out marketing campaign - covering everything from Super Bowl ads to Taco Bell toys made its presence known. While re-releases of major blockbusters throughout the 1980s and 1990s was hardly a singular thing, and the original Star Wars trilogy had been privy to the same treatment, there had never been such a concentrated effort to bring back a major film like this before.
Following the release of Return of the Jedi in 1983, the overall franchise experienced a brief decline in popularity for a number of years, as Lucas moved on to developing new projects and fans began to focus their interests towards other sci-fi properties. This prolonged absence of interest began to dissipate in 1991, when the novel Star Wars: Heir to the Empire - the first in writer Timothy Zahn's Thrawn trilogy was released. The book became an instant bestseller and was the impetus for the massive array of stories told in the expanded universe canon, but more importantly it helped to make Star Wars viable again for introducing it to a new group of people who had never watched the films before. It only took a few more years for the Star Wars merchandising machine to kick back into full gear, and with that, the decision to bring the films back to theatres was made final. One last release of the unaltered films on VHS came in 1995, prompting fans to pick up the films again as it would be their last chance to do so.
Certainly the Force was strong in 1997, but it was merely a pre-amble to get audiences excited for the future releases of Lucas's prequel trilogy of films - starting with Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace in 1999. Perhaps the most eagerly awaited film of the millennium-era, The Phantom Menace ushered in a pop-culture explosion and was inescapable from an advertising standpoint. But it would not have been possible to get to that level were it not for the massive amount of enthusiasm which contained the Special Edition releases. Lucas began writing The Phantom Menace in 1994, right around when enthusiasm for new, 'official' stories was reaching a boiling point.
Although I personally never got to see the Special Edition in theatres, as I was too young at the time, it was one of the most watched films across my entire childhood on VHS. Having not been exposed to the original versions of the films or the grave impact of the changes which Lucas made until later in life, it wasn't something that bothered me much, though by the time the films were changed again in 2004 with the release of the Star Wars Trilogy on DVD, and then reverted back to their 1993 Laserdisc versions in 2006 with the Limited Theatrical Edition DVDs, it became something that I could not disregard much longer.
Lucas has said before that the Special Edition versions of Star Wars are the definitive ones, though his days of altering with the past came to an end after Lucasfilm was sold to Disney in 2012. As of now, 20th Century Fox still holds the definitive rights to A New Hope but not the sequels which follow, making it tricky for a potential re-release by Disney of the original, unedited films, the way they were meant to be seen. I'm sure that while many people my age who grew up with only the Special Edition would love to see the films the way that audiences in 1970s and 1980s did, as its a perspective that is lost to time, although some independent fan groups have taken the task of seeking out 35mm prints and doing their own digital restorations of the films.
After 20 years of the Special Edition Trilogy reigning as the legitimate, and sadly, the only widely available versions of Star Wars to watch on home media, maybe its finally time to give a whole generation of fans what they've been longing for. Given the massive popularity of the Disney produced-and-released The Force Awakens and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, interest is at the highest its been since the late 1990s, making now the optimal time to make such an announcement, especially given that A New Hope celebrates its 40th anniversary this May. It may be too optimistic to proclaim, but I'm sure that audiences would be lining up around the block for it, just as they did when those films opened in theatres for the first time.