To say that this was a big thing when it came would be a severe understatement. I don't think even we die-hard Star Wars fans were expecting what happened starting that day in the winter of 1997. It was truly a wonderful time whether you were an old-timer fan or a newcomer to the series (and there were more than you might have thought). The Special Editions were such a huge event that I felt it was worth commemorating here.
George Lucas first said in 1994 that he was considering re-releasing the first Star Wars movie with "upgraded special effects". It wasn't long afterward that word came that before he started working in earnest on the prequels, that he was going to give this "enhanced" treatment to all three of the original movies for a theatrical re-release in time for the Star Wars 20th anniversary.
The hype for what would become known as the Special Editions started to crank up in the spring of 1996. This in itself would be important to note because I can't help but think that how word on the Special Editions came out really did become the model for how info about movies gets dispersed across the Internet. First came a series of pilfered photos from the upgraded version of A New Hope showing the newly CGI-enhanced dewbacks (those lizard things that the Stormtroopers rode on) and it wasn't long afterward that the public got a look at the computer-animated Jabba the Hutt, for a scene that was cut from the original release of the first movie. Then a list of some of the forthcoming changes got leaked. I think the one that really whetted the appetites of a lot of die-hard fans was the news that the final scenes from the re-issue of Return of the Jedi would show celebrations all over the place, including on the galactic capital planet Coruscant: a place that had been written about but never shown in a Star Wars movie. Every time something new came out it was all good.
It went on like this throughout the summer and then fall of 1997...
...and then it got out that among the changes that Lucas was implementing was making Greedo shoot first.
Then all Hell broke loose.
There's no way I could describe the furor this caused and do it any justice. And it absolutely has to be mentioned in the context of talking about the coming of the Special Editions. A lot of fans said Lucas had no right to change his own story like this. Some started leveling the charge that Lucas was "raping our childhood". My take on it? If Lucas was doing all of these other things to enhance and make better his legend, I didn't have any problem with it. Having Greedo shoot first actually made a lot of sense to me: it didn't make Han out to be such a cold-blooded killer. Although how Greedo could have shot and missed from that close-by is still something I struggle with cognitive dissonance about.
January 1997 arrived and the public hype machine went full-tilt wacko. Pepsi led the way with its gonzo promotional product tie-ins: something that everyone got to see in a big way with this commercial that ran during Super Bowl XXXI...
...and we had to sit through at least fifteen minutes of trailers for upcoming movies! It might have been closer to twenty. There were so many trailers that by the time a new one started up most of the people in the audience were groaning "NOOOOO!!" (as one guy screamed out "We've waited twenty years for this!").
Well, at last, there was that 20th Century Fox intro. Then the "new" Lucasfilm logo: the fancy one that turns into gold or bronze or whatever (instead of the plain static blue "old" logo that was regular text). Then the "A long time ago..."
When that honkin' big yellow Star Wars logo filled the screen I went pure nuts. Ed and Gary had to hold me down. Lord help me, I was in tears...
We watched the movie, and were "oohing" and "ahhing" every "new" little thing that we could spot. One funny thing that happened was the scene where Luke is playing with the model of his T-16 Skyhopper: as soon as he did that someone's arm stood up out of the audience... holding the real-life toy of the T-16 and started playing with it along with Luke!
We had a great time watching A New Hope Special Edition. I saw that one four more times in the theaters while it was out. Three weeks after A New Hope's re-release came the Special Edition of The Empire Strikes Back, and then three weeks after that (it was originally going to be two) it was Return of the Jedi's turn. So for a month or so after that, all three of the original Star Wars movies were playing in theaters simultaneously, with some theaters running all three. Counting all three movies, I saw the Special Editions fifteen times during their theatrical run, most of those times with people I knew.
Well, there's not much else I know to add to what's already been said except that I naturally went a little nuts for the merchandising, like the soundtracks for all three Special Editions and more action figures 'course. My favorite piece of Star Wars memorabilia that I bought during that time is still the Darth Vader cap that I bought at the Air and Space Museum in Washington while we were there for a winter term class a few weeks before the Special Editions debuted.
It was an amazing time to be a Star Wars fan: one that I don't know if the release of the prequels even approximated. Maybe in another ten years or so, for the 40th anniversary, and after there's been plenty enough time since a Star Wars movie was shown in a theater, there could be something like this happening again but with all six movies. I don't know if it's possible to capture lightning in a bottle again, but it would sure be fun if it did happen.
So let's hoist aloft our glasses of blue milk and raise a toast to Star Wars: Special Edition on the occasion of its 10th birthday as we remember how it brought a legend fully back into public consciousness... and this time, to stay.