Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Han Solo and Greedo Shot At Exactly The Same Time

After a long, unbearably cruel embargo,
Christmas came a week early for my four-year-old son, as we finally watched "Star Wars" together
. It was kind of a big deal, because he has been obsessed with all things "Star Wars" for a couple of years now, and because it was the first movie we've watched with him on the wall -- by which I mean the high-def projector in our basement, on which his mother and I have been secretly enjoying nine feet of Blu-ray movies and HD cable when he's asleep and only when he's asleep, while denying him the narcotic effects of any TV or movies until he's older.
To mark the occasion, and to get as close as possible to the experience I had when I first saw the movie in the theater (I was almost exactly his age in the summer of 1977), I bought the Blu-ray of the latest version of the original trilogy. If there were a Blu-ray of the original versions of the movies -- the versions I saw as a kid -- I would have bought those, but that isn't an option, so I had to settle for the "Special Editions," which of course is the versions George Lucas re-released in the 90s with various digital "improvements" to the special effects.

These improvements caused quite an outcry at the time, and people are still bitching about it now -- when these Blu-rays were released a few months ago there was a big kerfuffle because they voiceovered a comically bad "NOOOOOOO!!" into Darth Vader's mouth in the climactic scene in "Return Of The Jedi" where he saves Luke from the Emperor, to match the comically bad moment in "Star Wars -- Episode III" where Anakin/Darth Vader is told that his wife has died.

Anyway, I hadn't seen any of the original "Star Wars" movies since the Special Edition of the first one came out in 1996. I never saw the other two Special Editions -- I know they're on Spike all the time but I can't take that many Bud Light and Axe commercials at once. At some point, while flipping channels, I did happen across the "improved" band sequence at Jabba the Hutt's palace, with an alien Tina Turner singing a terrible song with a terrible alien backing band, and a little part of me died inside. In any case, even though I lived and breathed "Star Wars" as a kid and into my 20s, I haven't seen any of the first three movies in 15 years.

So it was a big occasion to show it to my kid, and he couldn't have been more excited about it, but I was pretty excited to watch it myself. I know a lot of people didn't buy the Blu-rays because we're all fed up with George's lame changes to the movies, but I do not have the luxury of such a principled stand, because I have a 4-year-old boy in my house. (My principled stand is that I will never acknowledge the existence of the prequels. If he wants to learn about that trash, he can pick it up on the streets, but not in my house.)

So I observed the movie in two ways at once: one, just caught up in the experience of watching it nine feet wide with a pristine, restored, high-def picture, seeing it again for the first time (as the ad for one of the eleventeen previous home video releases suggested), with my wide-eyed little boy; and the other, noticing every little lame thing that had been added via computer. It's really not so bad until Luke and Ben Kenobi go to the spaceport town of Mos Eisley, but at that point I found myself so engrossed in the badness of the added effects I almost lost the plot of the movie.

"Star Wars" is a great, timeless movie, but it's a great, timeless movie that was obviously made in the 70s. There's just something about the film stock, and the lighting, and of course the hairstyles that tells you subliminally, even if you're not thinking about it, that this thing is of a certain moment. So adding mid-90s CGI monsters and aliens sticks out just as much as it would if a hand-drawn, animated Scooby Doo walked across the frame.

But even that wasn't such a big deal. It's only a few seconds of that stuff before it's back to Luke and Ben and Han Solo and a roomful of dudes in 70s-appropriate alien masks, and I'm right back in the movie. (It doesn't hurt that this is where Han Solo gives the movie a welcome shot of charisma despite the fact that Harrison Ford is clearly embarrassed to be involved in this project, and can barely suppress a self-conscious smile in any scene). But I started to tighten up a little when I realized that the scene with Greedo was coming up.

I refer to the scene where Han Solo is accosted by a green, buglike bounty hunter named Greedo, who's trying to collect some cash Han owes to Jabba the Hutt, the local giant slug/gangster. Greedo, speaking in an alien tongue, wedges a little exposition (Han is a smuggler, the Empire is repressive and zealously regulates shipping) before making clear he intends to do Han harm ("I've been looking forward to this for a long time.").

In the original movie, Han replies, "Yes, I bet you have," shoots Greedo under the table, and saunters out like the badass this scene was expressly written to show him as. But in the Special Editions, for reasons known only to George Lucas, through the magic of CGI, a laser bolt was superimposed into the frame, making it look like Greedo shot at Han first, and thus that Han acted in self-defense. Apart from the fact that it looked absolutely ridiculous -- Greedo's shot goes off at a skew angle despite sitting at point-blank range -- this change actually changes the meaning of the scene, which is "Han Solo is a badass who will shoot first and ask questions later." The Internet's nerd community (or is it the nerds' Internet community?) howled in outrage and for once, the nerds were right. It's one thing to fiddle with the movie to make the explosions look more realistic, but softening the basic nature of a character -- everyone's favorite character, to boot -- is too much.

I wondered how I would handle this scene when my son and I came to it. Should I pause it and explain to him that they changed the movie, that Han Solo really is a badass? I think we can agree that to have that conversation with a 4-year-old would be crazy. So I figured I'd just let it go. It seems, though, that George is still tinkering with these movies, because the scene with Greedo has been changed again.

In this latest version, the shot is so quick, with laser beams flying in both directions, that it's ambiguous who shoots first. Just as it registered that the movie had been changed yet again, my son turned to me and said, "Why did Han Solo shoot that guy?" "Because he's a badass, buddy." I can't believe I'm saying this, but it looks like George Lucas listened to his deranged fans and gave them what they want.

That made me happy, but it didn't last long because the very next scene was the other big famous change to the first movie: the scene where Han Solo talks to Jabba the Hutt. Jabba was played by a human actor in a robe when this scene was shot -- the giant slug concept hadn't been thought of yet -- and it was cut out of the movie. For the "Special Editions," the scene was restored and a CGI Jabba was superimposed over the human actor. All the fuss about the Greedo scene sort of overshadowed what a total abortion this other addition is.

Even without the CGI vandalism, this is a terrible scene, and it's obvious why it was cut: it's totally unnecessary. Jabba's lines are all verbatim to the lines Greedo delivered two minutes before. The CGI Jabba doesn't look much like the puppet they used for "Return of the Jedi," and faced with the blocking problem that Han Solo circles him in the scene despite the fact that his huge sluglike tail would have been in the way, Lucas went cute (par for the course, sadly) and digitally manipulated Han Solo to make it look like he steps over Jabba's tail like it's a little staircase. It looks (do I even have to say?) terrible -- like the animation on "South Park." Ford is moved around the frame like a paper cutout.  Then, as the scene ends, Boba Fett steps into the center of the frame and looks right into the camera, which might as well have just been a shot of George Lucas stepping out and giving a jolly salute. "Don't forget about me! I'm still working on these movies! They'll never be done! THEY'LL NEVER BE DONE!!"

Overall, I had a great time watching this movie again. If you got it for Christmas, you don't need to be scared to watch it, and your kids will get the point that Han Solo is not to be messed with.

In the absence of a better closing, here's a "Star Wars"-related comedy short I made a couple of years ago:

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