Recent news has come out concerning a new — or rather, an old — edition of the original Star Wars, hearkening back to the old days before it became known as Episode IV, the summer of ’77, when this oddball out-of-nowhere film by the American Graffiti guy basically took over the world and captured the imaginations of an entire generation.
The group responsible, calling itself Negative1, is an anonymous collective of Star Wars fans and video mavens who managed to get hold of multiple low-fade 35mm release prints and spent the last several years doing painstaking cleanup and restoration work, with one fixed goal in mind: to create an experience as faithfully close to the original 1977 cinema experience as possible.
Of course, Negative1 are far from the first to take on recreating the original-original movie. Ever since the 1997 release of the quote-special-unquote edition, fans have clamored for an official release of the unmodified movie they fell in love with. To that end, multiple efforts have been made. For example, Petr “Harmy” Harmecek created what he calls the “Despecialized Edition” using a variety of sources, up to and including stills and composites. Mike Verta, the creator of what he calls the Legacy Edition, claims to have completed his version in 2015, but refuses to release it due to his being well known within the film industry.
And then there are the edits that go off the beaten path. A browse through the archives of Star Wars fanedits reveals dozens of takes and retakes of all six episodes currently available to home editors. From “fix” edits to repair what the creator sees as the bad parts to mashups with other movies to comedic “spoof” retellings, it’s amazing what folks get up to when allowed to chop-and-change their favorite movies. There is even the infamous “Uncut” version, in which people on the internet were allowed to film 15 second chunks of the original movie any way they liked, and then all the pieces were stitched together in a performance that frankly defies description.
Probably the most well known fanedit, however, is the “Revisited” series. Created by a man only known as Adywan, it is an attempt to use the technological cleanup and polish of the Special Edition while removing all of the teeth-grinding “improvements” that Lucas insisted on inserting into it. It is an excellent edit, extremely well-polished, and is this writer’s personal favorite version, far superior to any officially released version. But how would it stack up against the original?
I decided to put it to the test.
I took my copy of Star Wars: Revisited and put it up against a copy of the Negative1 release (known as the “Silver Screen” edition) that happened to fall off a truck while it was driving by my house (this is my story and I am sticking to it). I sacrificed 21 gigs to the 1080p video file, and set about comparing a set of different scenes to see how they looked (note: since the Revisited version is only 720p, I shrank the Silver Screen shots down to fit).
Some interesting differences pop up right away. The Revisited is clearly sharper, with much of the grain removed. Color saturation is more pronounced as well. Silver Screen’s darks are not quite as dark; areas that are plain black sludge in Revisited still have some contrast and detail in Silver Screen. Silver Screen has a bit of “fuzziness” to it, which while rather crude by today’s standards nevertheless fits in well with the era and indeed the whole rough-and-tumble-universe feel of the original trilogy.
In this outdoor shot, you can see that the Revisited version has definitely got a lot more contrast going on. Managing the light-to-darkness curve in a medium with limited dynamic range is always a question of compromises, and it is interesting to see the different approaches taken.
Take, for example, the image below. Once again the Silver Screen version is noticeably brighter. Unfortunately, a good deal of detail in white areas, such as Leia’s dress, gets washed out as a result. This is also noticeable in several storm trooper scenes.
Besides the visual differences, there are many differences in content as well. While the Silver Screen version clocks in at the original 2:01 screen time, the Revisited goes to 2:07. There are various reasons for this: a slightly slower crawl to match the other movies, several bits of “Special Edition” footage have been kept (albeit in a judiciously edited form). There are also a ton of corrections done to bring the movie into continuity, both within itself and with the Star Wars series in general (correct number of moons around Tatooine, restoring props that “disappear” between takes, etc). The Silver Screen edition, it need hardly be said, leaves every little mistake, every head-bumping storm trooper, every shot of Kenny Baker glimpsed through R2’s eyepiece, exactly where it was. It is deliberately imperfect, a warts-and-all reconstruction of a cultural artifact.
So, which one is better? That really depends on your personal taste. Personally, this reviewer appreciates Adywan’s relentless attention to detail and the crisp, bright look he has brought to his restoration. Not to mention the fact that Chewbacca finally gets a medal; no small factor, there. It will most likely remain my go-to edition, but the Silver Screen version does exactly what it sets out to do, recreating faithfully the same movie I watched a long time ago in a childhood far, far away. If you’ve never had the pleasure of seeing the original as it first flashed on the screen all those years ago, I cannot recommend highly enough that you take the opportunity to do so.
The release of The Force Awakens has assuaged fans’ fears about the Star Wars universe being in the hands of The Mouse for the most part; perhaps it might be the time to begin agitation anew for a real, authorized “Original Edition”. Lucas’ claim that all the original negatives were irreparably destroyed or modified in the creation of the Special Edition has now been given the lie by the efforts of the Negative1 team. With the undoubted cultural significance of the original movie, and the near-army of talented film experts and technicians who would leap at the chance, it would not be amiss for Disney to take matters in hand and give its customers what they have been clamoring for.
A pipe dream? Perhaps. But one that is closer to coming true than it has been in a very long time. And even if it doesn’t, we still have the talents and hard work of the internet to fall back on. There’s a place for the shiny and new, and one for the crusty and old.
Fortunately, we no longer have to choose.
(Kelly Luck was replaced with a bad CGI character in ’97, but has since been restored to her regular old grainy self. Her other SciFi4Me work can be read here.)