What’s So Special About The Sci-Fi Special Edition?
Jordan Farley looks back over the choppy history of science fiction and fantasy’s best, worst and most baffling extended cuts
Leonardo da Vinci once said: “Art is never finished, only abandoned,” a painfully true statement for everyone from a renaissance artist to a humble hack on a deadline.
This was paraphrased in recent years by George Lucas, who said: “Films are never finished, only abandoned.” The difference between Lucas and da Vinci (among many) is that da Vinci didn’t have a damn near unlimited revenue stream and a lifetime to go back and “finish” his art. Lucas did, but he’s only one example of the many film makers to return to former glories for “special editions”, “director’s cuts” or “extended editions”; whether it be to rectify something compromised for commercial/studio-imposed reasons, to achieve an effect that wasn’t technologically possible in the past, to alter an aspect the film-maker is no longer happy with (or never was), or simply to cash-in on an anniversary re-release.
Movie and TV makers, it seems, can’t resist the urge to tinker with their work, and there’s no indication the trend is slowing down. The advent of DVD ushered in a gamut of “special editions” – most adding nothing more than a couple extra minutes that would have been better left in the Deleted Scenes section – all to make a release more desirable. Our list ignores these, so shouldn’t be considered a “complete” list in any way, and instead focuses on 27 of the most significant “special editions” of the past 30-odd years, from the essential to the appalling, the must-watch to the must-obliterate. It’s going to be special.
The Films: Star Wars Episodes I-VI
What makes them special? Think of special editions in science fiction and one name springs to mind first – George Lucas. The most significant of his childhood-castrating Special Edition Star Wars re-releases (and the only ones to bear that specific name) were the 1997 Special Editions, released in cinemas and on VHS with digitally-remastered sound, dozens of new digital effects shots (most notably a CGI Jabba The Hut, a new dance number from the Max Rebo Band in Jabba’s palace and, sigh, Greedo shooting first), and newly filmed sequences (such as a glimpse at the Wampa creature that captures Luke at the beginning of Empire). Lucas changed things again for the 2004 DVD release (biggest differences – Ian McDiarmid replacing chimp lady in Empire, Hayden Christensen’s punchable mug appearing as a force spirit in place of Sebastian Shaw and a goofy “Noooooo!” as Luke falls down Cloud City). Lucas wasn’t finished fiddling with Star Wars, however, tinkering yet again for the 2011 Blu-ray release (more goofy “Nooo”s, this time from Vader, and a CGI Yoda in The Phantom Menace).
Lucas, however, has been tinkering with the films since the very beginning – the consequence of having a bad experience making the biggest movie on the planet. In 1977, for example, he created a version with a mono soundmix for cinemas unable to support Dolby Stereo. This version also contained a couple of audio alterations, such as changing the line “Blast it, Biggs, where are you?” to “Blast it Wedge, where are you?” In 1980 Star Wars was re-released in cinemas with the addition of a pre-crawl title sequence reading “Episode IV: A New Hope”, while in the same year the 70mm version of Episode V contained a number of differences to the more widely seen 30mm version, including additional optical wipes and a missing radar dish from Cloud City.
This handy infographic contains a comprehensive breakdown of all the various Star Wars releases over the years. What’s clear is that it’s unlikely Lucas will ever be happy with the original trilogy. A combination of near-unlimited revenue (fuelled by an extended universe) and almost unlimited freedom to make these changes means he has developed a poisonous reputation among fans for bludgeoning their cherished childhood memories. This isn’t helped by the fact Lucasfilm refuse to release cleaned-up versions of the original films – citing cost as the reason. The prequels aren’t immune to the special edition treatment either. The first Phantom Menace DVD release, for example, contained an extended pod race sequence; however, the changes to both Attack Of The Clones and Revenge Of The Sith were minimal – perhaps because the amount of control Lucas had became greater and greater with each film. Love ’em or hate ’em Star Wars epitomises the Special Edition release cycle, and while more often than not they’re a means to make the innumerable re-releases another essential purchase for hardcore fans, some of the changes are for the better. No one is going to complain about a good surround sound mix for example, or the breathtaking vistas added to Bespin, so that Cloud City doesn’t look so studio bound.
The Film: THX 1138
What makes it special? Having caught the special edition bug so early on in his career, the most surprising thing about the THX 1138 Director’s Cut is how long it took to get made. THX was Lucas’ feature length directorial debut – a dystopian drama where the human population are controlled by emotion-suppressing drugs and faceless android enforcers. The most noticeable changes to the 2004 special edition are CG extensions to the environment, a computer generated sequence with THX working on a robot, colour corrections, cleaned up holograms, additions to the number of people in crowd scenes, CGI elements in the final car chase sequence and the appearance of new creatures in the tunnels including mutant scorpions and monkeys. There are also less noticeable changes to the order of shots in certain sequences (such as an early scene where LUH and THX are “watching” each other on monitors).
For the most part the changes are for the better, creating a greater sense of scale in the world, while cleaning up some of the more dated effects work. However several of the new CG elements are jarring additions – most notably the mutant monkeys – immediately pulling you out of the experience. It’s not perfect, but it’s our preferred version.
Tags: Alien, Alien 3, Alien Resurrection, Aliens, Avatar, Blade Runner, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, Daredevil, Doctor Who, Donnie Darko, George Lucas, James Cameron, King Kong, Lord Of The Rings, Peter Jackson, Ridley Scott, Robocop, Star Trek, Star Wars, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, Star Wars Episode II: Attack Of The Clones, Star Wars Episode III: Revenge Of The Sith, Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, Star Wars Episode VI: Return Of The Jedi, Steven Speilberg, Superman II, Terminator 2, The Abyss, The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers, THX 1138, Watchmen