Lights, Camera, Conversation… “What a Crock of Sith!”

Posted on September 9, 2011


George Lucas, clearly, is never going to stop tinkering with the three “Star Wars” films we love (and the three we love to hate).

So here’s the scenario. Darth Vader has brought his son, Luke Skywalker, to his master, the evil Emperor Palpatine. Skywalker, like any self-respecting hero, refuses to submit to the Emperor’s wishes that he give in to his anger and cross over to the dark side, which is the cosy nook of the Force where Vader and the Emperor reside, hatching plans about dominating the universe. Growing impatient with Skywalker’s stubborn adherence to the good and the right, the Emperor unleashes what at the time appeared to be chilling arcs of lightning from his fingertips and what look today like an embarrassing remnant from the nascent age of computer-generated special effects. Vader is in the middle of the action both literally (he occupies the space between Skywalker and the Emperor) and figuratively (he’s torn between his son and his master), and when he sees the life being leached out of Luke, he says, in that echo-chamber voice, “No!” Then again, “No!”

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If you don’t remember this last occurrence from Return of the Jedi (sorry, Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi), you’re in good company – neither does the rest of the world. This is one of the many additions and revisions in the upcoming Blu-Ray release of the entire Star Wars saga. The first instinct, of course, is to roll the eyes. Not again! We’ve grown so used to announcements about George Lucas and his tweaks to the franchise that made him at once a name and a nabob that there isn’t even a sense of outrage anymore. When Lucas altered the cantina scene in the first film (now fourth in the series) to show that Greedo fired first – not Han Solo – and that Solo was only retaliating, my blood boiled like the lava on Mustafar. Solo was no longer the irresistibly shady pilot who’d open fire from under the table on an opponent pointing a weapon at him but someone merely obeying the rules of combat. He was only defending himself, and it was unforgivable.

My reaction, today, is more muted, essentially a giant shrug. Like Solo’s transition from attack to defence, Vader’s “No!” softens an inscrutable character. In the original, Vader’s dilemma was silent, and till the moment he lunged at the Emperor and tossed him down that endless chute, we were never sure what was going to happen. Now we know what will happen a few seconds before Vader makes that lunge, which changes very little except that we are now aware of what he was thinking. It would be great, so great, to be a fly on the inside of Lucas’ cranium and understand the way he thinks. At least when Greedo fired first (and missed, strangely, at point-blank range), the scene’s meaning was altered. What does the “No!” accomplish here? Why does Lucas think it’s so important to have this “No!” and tell us what Vader is thinking, thus shrinking the suspense of his actions? Or is it yet another attempt to tell us that the six films are really one interconnected organism, and that Vader’s “No!” here is but an echo of Vader’s “No!” in Revenge of the Sith? (That’s the first word Anakin Skywalker utters after his rebirth as a man-machine in a helmet and a cape, the sci-fi equivalent of a newborn’s squalling protests on leaving the warmth of the womb.)

The real question, possibly, is whether anyone still cares – at least, anyone whose sacred-childhood memories of the Star Wars movies were forever scarred upon the release of The Phantom Menace. A bigger question may hinge on the right of a creator to keep revising. Perhaps “right” is the wrong word – it’s his film and he can do what he wants with it. But at what point does the tinkering stop? Lucas’ excuse for releasing the Special Editions twenty years after the first film was that technology had caught up with his original vision for these films and that they could now be seen by us the way he first saw them inside his head. And then he unleashed a further set of changes to reflect the prequels – we now saw Hayden Christensen’s face in the ending of Return of the Jedi, when a ghostly Anakin Skywalker returned with Obi-Wan Kenobi to smile benevolently on the revelry of the rebel force that toppled the Empire. But now, these changes have begun to resemble the efforts of a chauffeur flinching at imaginary specks of grime on his master’s Rolls. He keeps scrubbing and scrubbing and instead of admiring his labours you just want to snatch away the can of polish.

Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here.

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