As I write this in 2021, it’s bizarre to look back at a time when we didn’t have a firehose of Star Wars content pouring out on screens everywhere. Yet for all of my childhood after 1983 until I got my first post-college job in 1999, the original trilogy was pretty much… it. Sure, there were those two horrid Ewok films, the Droids and Ewok cartoons, books, and comics, but in essence, a generation of Star Wars fans grew up with only three movies to feed its enthusiasm and hunger.
It was such a testament to the greatness of these movies and the iconic designs and roles that we still thought that Star Wars was really cool even well into the 1990s. But yeah, when you look at the timeline, consider that in 1997, we hadn’t had a real, proper new Star Wars movie for 14 years. This explains why everyone initially went bananas over The Phantom Menace and why there was such a blind spot for it, but that’s not what this article is about.
No, I want to scoot back two years before The Phantom Menace to another major Star Wars event — perhaps the BIGGEST Star Wars event I had ever seen since Return of the Jedi came out in theaters. This was the year that Lucasfilms announced that it would be bringing all three movies back to theaters. That was amazing in and of itself, but the studio went on to say that each of the three movies would be remastered, have their special effects cleaned up and enhanced, and that they would even include previously cut material.
This was the Special Edition. And it was crazy.
Again, you have to shed a whole lot of accumulated opinion and hindsight to understand how much of a Big Deal this was in 1997 to all of us. There were many Star Wars fans who had never been able to see any of the films in the theater, period. I myself had only seen Jedi (I was 1 when the original was released and 4 when Empire Strikes Back came on the scene). Simply having this opportunity after a decade and a half of no Star Wars movies was amazing by itself.
At the time, I was in college — and had just helped launch this very website. That’s right, Mutant Reviewers was born the same year that Star Wars’ special editions came out. How nutty is that? Our whole dorm group made darn well sure we had tickets for each of these shows, as they weren’t all pushed out at the same time. The three movies were staggered in their release: the original movie, now titled A New Hope, came out on January 31st, followed by Empire on February 21st and Jedi on March 14th. So effectively, it became Star Wars season for the first three months of that year.
I’ll say that just having that moviegoing experience was definitely worth the price of admission. Even though we all knew these films by heart, seeing them on a huge screen with that full surround sound and alongside hundreds of other fans was totally different than watching it on VHS in your dorm room.
Lucasfilms made big money on it, too. The studio spent something like $10 million to rework the movies, but got $138.26 million in return. Six of the seven initial weeks of 1997 saw a Star Wars movie top the box office charts. For a franchise that was 25 years old, that was amazing. Again, in retrospect, it’s easy to see Lucas priming the pump for Phantom Menace two years later, but hey, it made January cinema exciting for once.
Of course, the theatrical re-release and the box office isn’t why the special editions became so famous. Lucas couldn’t resist tinkering with his classics, and with the special editions, he started a trend of reworking his movies up until he sold them all to Disney. While I would say that some of the special effects clean-up — removing matte lines, etc — was welcome, most all of the other additions and changes either added nothing to the movies or even damaged them in some way.
This was when Greedo started to shoot first, not Han. And when Boba Fett popped up all over the place. And when Jabba the Hutt got his unfortunate scene reinstated into the first movie, spoiling his appearance in the third. There was a terrible music number shoved into Jedi. The CGI shots were pretty to behold but also very noticeable, as 1997 technology wasn’t what the field would become.
Even before the internet was at full power, there was still an enormous uproar over the changes among a fanbase that had seen the original trilogy as being sacrosanct. By the time spring 1997 had rolled around and the thrill of seeing the movies in the theaters again had worn off, the debate over the adjustments was in full swing. This ultimately would be the special editions’ legacy, a start to Lucas’ bizarre fixation on trying to make a great thing slightly less great.
Still, it was one of the best Star Wars theater experiences I’ve ever had in my life, and I’m not entirely sorry it happened.