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How the original Star Wars and The Force Awakens were rescued from being car-crashes.

How the original Star Wars and The Force Awakens were rescued from being car-crashes.

Did you have worries going into The Force Awakens?  I had worries. Fortunately not “Oh hell, George Lucas has been allowed to make another one” worries (in which case, frankly, I would not have been at the cinema) but some well-founded ones all the same. 

JJ Abram’s two films going into this were also giant sci-fi franchise movies; Star Trek. The first one is mainly a success, because the thrilling moments manage to outweigh the stupid ones (Spock throws Kirk off the ship onto a random planet where not only does he happens to magically meet Old-Spock, but also Scotty - a genius engineer who possesses the knowledge of how to make spaceships go really fast - something no one else has ever figured out how to do and should be impossible. You know, so Kirk can catch up to the Enterprise.  All of that could happen, sure). It was no surprise that the geniuses who write the Transformers flicks had a hand in the scripts. 
Don't even get me started on the second one - it's truly horrible and much of it doesn't make any damn sense. I'm convinced it's actually a video-art installation that belongs in The Tate Modern art gallery; the wrong package was picked up from a video-processing lab and then thousands of copies made and mistakenly sent out to cinemas round the world. It still made a ton of money, so there was no need to correct the mistake. 
Admittedly, Abram’s didn't write the things but he was in charge of them. He couldn't see that the script for the second one was a horrible mess? 

Spock gets into a long boring fist-fight that completely that has no respect for the character or audience.  Written by the Transformers dudes.

So yes, I had concerns. 

So, you're in charge of the new Star Wars film -  what do you do?  First you work out what people love.  They love actual characters who have actual, natural, personalities.  They like snappy dialogue.  They like practical effects and the films to be filmed in real locations; because that way you get a sense that these things could actually exist (George's prequels were entirely shot on blank-walled digital backlots, with the environments and many characters painted in later; no wonder every actors’ performance is so wooden, they had no sense of place or anything to ground themselves in). 

They don't like their science fiction, escapist, action films to primarily be about intergalactic trade agreements.  Well I don't, anyway.  And horrible dialogue - they're not so keen on that, or a “hero” they'd rather see dead than have to watch for more than five minutes. 
Also, annoying, vaguely racist sidekicks aren't going to fly well. 

Interesting fact - George Lucas shot all the live footage for those prequel films in 1080p, convinced we'd reached the pinnacle of visual technology.  So watching them at home on a big 4k HD in the future will be like watching a betamax videotape that's been sat at the bottom of a lake for 30 years.  Meanwhile the original films that introduced us to Han, Leia, Luke and the rest?  Shot on 35mm film.  You can make insanely good high-definition quality copies with that.  With some remastering the originals are going to look amazing for years. 

It's been said of the original Star Wars that it was a film that was made in the editing room. Famously the cast and crew thought it was a going to be a massive bomb. It's true.  It's always had a brisk, knockabout, quality to it that was part of its charm but the feeling a classic was rescued from being a massive car-crash by inventive editing and presentation is enhanced by the fact that I've seen the Silver-Screen edition.  A bunch of fans purchased an original 35mm copy of the movie that was sent out to cinemas and drive-ins back in 1977 and cleaned it up.  It's not the version most of us grew up watching on TV, video, DVD and Blu-ray.  Many scenes aren't framed particularly well and are unengaging wide shots (lots of them), the camera often captures props to the sides of the picture that are cheap and unconvincing, the lighting goes from being decent to being occasionally poor (and it's nothing to do with the quality of the film print).  The experience is often not unlike watching a cheap Italian ripoff made a year later, after the proper Hollywood version had come out.  George Lucas shot lots of footage and the people around him managed to assemble something decent out of it. 

I can't use images from the "Silver-Screen Edition" for legal reasons, but many set props like the coloured control-panels featured in the background of this scene are more prominent and bright in the original version and look very cheap.  This particular scene has been darkened and that area looks like it might have even been also blurred to hide the problem.  The lights in the panelling above it are not blurred.

It was a big hit and sold lots of toys, but there's been lots of films down the years that managed to briefly connect with the zeitgeist be big hits and sell lots of toys.  The reason Star Wars endured was the emergency rescue work performed on it before and after cinema release and a realisation that the sequels needed to be handled differently.

And then after the cinema release they recut it; reframed much of it.  Wide shots of conversations that were dull and static were made closeups with snappy editing between characters so you could actually see expressions of peoples faces and the like; they colour-corrected scenes to hide cheap sets, brightened others so you could see what was happening better, sharpened things up.  After the cinema release an insane amount of work went into making it look and feel better.  A ridiculous amount of work. And it is this reworked version that we all know so well, not the original cinema version.  The original held up in 1977 because it was something different and fun, but it would have dated terribly and fast if all that reworking hadn't happened.

It's telling that he doesn't direct the sequels; he gets people in who know and love what they're doing.  As a result -  The Empire Strikes Back.  Fantastic.  George keeps his hands off the franchise until he decides not enough toys are being sold and he forces a bunch of Ewoks into Return of the Jedi. 

George leaves Empire and Jedi alone with the exception of these things.  Because kid's will buy them, apparently.

Then he later takes full control and we get three films of complete drek.

Mostly what people want from Star Wars is for George Lucas not to be involved. And he isn't now, so we're already onto a winner there. 

Now, you may wonder why you had to read all of that.  Star Wars as a franchise was rescued because Lucas was surrounded by people who actually knew what they were doing.  The two original sequels are far more polished experiences because he barely had anything to do with them (Ewok’s aside).  The Force Awakens credits roll. Lead writer?  Lawrence freaking Kasdan - writer of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi

Number one priority of rebooting Star Wars?  Get the guy in who knows how to write the damn things.

So, what do we get in the new film?  We get a mixture of what we already know - much of the film is basically a retread of the original.  And the rest?  Some incredibly brave decisions that pay off spectacularly well.  

Next up, a review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Chris Coates

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