Monday, October 26, 2015
Be careful what you wish for ... you just might get it.
The laments of Star Wars fans about the prequel trilogy are well documented, but of course they've also got vocal laments about what George Lucas has done to their beloved original trilogy. You know, "Greedo shoots first" and all that. Part of "all that" is that it's virtually impossible to watch those three films in their unmolested form, without digital additions of Jabba the Hutt and the like.
Imagine my surprise when I ended up watching the original theatrical version of The Empire Strikes Back this past weekend, as my fifth movie in a year of rewatching the original six movies prior to the release of The Force Awakens.
Here's how it happened. I tried to borrow Empire from the library, as I've done with all four of the previous movies I watched. However, Force Awakens fever must be kicking into high gear, because I was third on the wait list for both available copies of the movie. I was trying to watch Episode V by the end of October, following on with the pattern that dictated I watched the first four by the end of February, the end of April, the end of June and the end of August, respectively. So I knew I'd have to resort to other methods to get my hands on it.
I knew that our friends owned DVD copies of the original trilogy, and my wife was heading over to their house on Saturday to visit (we have sons that are within a year of each other), as well as to return something we borrowed from them. She did indeed come back with Empire -- one of the two discs, anyway. At first we were worried that disc 2 had only bonus features, and that we'd be out of luck, but then we noticed that no, it also houses the original theatrical version (!!!) of the movie.
I had thought numerous times over the years, "Oh, if only I could watch these movies as they were originally released, without all the enhancements and corrections and remasterings that have messed them up." I had heard stories about fan cuts of these movies being available on the internet, but I didn't think they were available in any sanctioned format. I idealized these as some pure and unadulterated version of the movies I loved, thinking that I could unilaterally dismiss the changes that were made to them ... but as it turns out, I cannot dismiss those changes.
Simply put, this Empire Strikes Back looked like junk. Who's scruffy looking? This movie.
For one, the widescreen did not properly fit our TV. It was too scrunched down, filling only about half of the available space with the image. I later learned that this is because it was transferred from laser discs, meaning for some reason that the aspect ratio did not conform properly to a modern TV. (This DVD was released at least a decade ago, which explains the availability of these original theatrical versions in the first place.) I don't entirely understand that, but I'm glad it wasn't my TV at fault -- I spent some time fiddling with the settings, knowing my kids had been mucking around with the remote control.
Then the images themselves just looked so ... 1980. It was then that I realized how I've been spoiled by the digital remastering of Empire that I first saw in 1997 when the special editions were released, and then again in 2007 when I revisited the movie for the first time since then. And as most people know, Empire was the original movie that Lucas messed around with the least, so what we basically got in the Empire special addition was a crisper, nicer-looking image with almost none of the additional bullshit content we didn't want. So Empire was the movie that would least benefit by watching the original version.
These visual factors certainly complicate a conclusion I think I may have reached after this particular viewing:
I actually like Star Wars more than I like The Empire Strikes Back.
I suppose that's not quite as shocking as making it a single-sentence paragraph would indicate, but for someone who has long happily subscribed to the conventional wisdom that Empire was the best Star Wars movie, it felt like a shock indeed.
Why didn't I care so much for Empire this time? It's hard to say exactly. But I'll try.
The first obvious conclusion is that it suffered in comparison to my last Star Wars viewing, which enthralled me so much back in August. The images looked so great on that BluRay version that I almost didn't care about the aforementioned Jabba insertion and the aforementioned display of inept marksmanship by Greedo. Looking as good as it did, it wrapped me up in the story and made me realize how intensely satisfying it is.
During this viewing of Empire, I tended to focus on the ways the story did not leave me satisfied. The story actually felt very rushed to me this time watching it, which is in direct contrast to the very deliberately paced opening of Star Wars. Even though the opening crawl is supposed to do the work of reminding me where we are in the story -- and I had quibbles even with that, as it describes Luke Skywalker as the leader of the rebellion, when he's really more of an instrumental figure than the leader -- it nonetheless felt like the movie was not properly set up. How much time has passed? How did they get to Hoth? If they had time to set up a whole base on Hoth, why is Han Solo still with them? Didn't he have one foot out the door at the end of Star Wars? I feel like I must have known the answers to these questions before, or if I didn't, not knowing didn't bother me.
Then I felt myself getting stuck on the details. If R2D2 calculated the odds of surviving the night out in the Hoth cold as 725 to 1, why did Han basically have no trouble with that, once he found Luke? I mean, his Tauntaun didn't even survive, yet once he set up camp, you get the idea he just passed the night drinking hot chocolate and singing folks songs. He's no worse for the wear in the morning when the search mission finds them, and doesn't need to spend any time in a cauldron of bubbling medical liquid. I was thinking that I'd like to see a movie devoted to the harrowing night passed by Han and Luke on Hoth, when they nearly froze to death and at a million different moments you didn't know if they'd survive. But Han and Luke didn't have that kind of night, so what was all that 725 to 1 talk?
I felt a certain hastiness on Dagobah, as well. How long is Luke there? How much training has he done? If he and the others left Hoth at the same time, and the others only had a couple days at most of fleeing the empire, that means that Luke should only have a couple days at most of training. I mean, yeah, the point is supposed to be that he goes off to face Vader when he isn't yet prepared. But how could Luke think he was even almost prepared? He trained for a day or two with Ben back on the Millennium Falcon, and he trained for a day or two with Yoda here. And only when blowing up the Death Star or getting his lightsaber back in time to slay a Wampa did he really demonstrate any fitness with the Force at all. I remember when I was younger thinking, "Okay, Luke's still a rookie, but he's almost ready to face Darth Vader." For reals? That would be like me going through an intensive week of learning how to play baseball and then thinking I could cut it in the major leagues.
Before I go shuffling my Flickchart rankings, though -- Empire is currently at #5, and Star Wars at #8 -- I think I need to get my hands on the special edition, and see if I still have these problems with the plot. On the one hand, that's kind of an idiotic thing to think, because how a plot functions should have little to do with how the picture looks. On the other hand, could I have really been wrong about The Empire Strikes Back all the other times I watched it? I have to think that unpleasantness of watching this version of Empire -- even as it brought back a certain nostalgia for the quaint version I saw for the first time 35 years ago -- had something to do with my loss of certainty about its narrative.
As I got through the prequels and on to Episode IV, I assumed that the rest of my Star Wars viewing schedule would assume a very pro forma quality, and that few surprises would await me. Now that this Empire shocker has just happened, I wouldn't be surprised at all to find that I think Return of the Jedi is the best Star Wars movie when I watch it sometime before the December 17th release of The Force Awakens.