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George Lucas: The New Bard

Hayden Christensen may be the only major actor to appear as an adult in a movie that was released when he was two years old. It happens at the end of the 2004 DVD release of Star Wars, Episode VI:…
June 17, 2005

Hayden Christensen may be the only major actor to appear as an adult in a movie that was released when he was two years old.

It happens at the end of the 2004 DVD release of Star Wars, Episode VI: Return of the Jedi. During a celebration following the destruction of the second Death Star, the ethereal spirit of Anakin Skywalker – who has just killed the Emperor and thereby rejoined the light side of the Force – appears to Luke alongside the spirits of Yoda and 0bi-wan Kenobi. In the original 1983 release, Anakin was played by a middle-aged Sebastian Shaw. In the 2004 release, Shaw has been digitally replaced by Christensen, who, as everyone knows, plays Anakin in Episode II: Attack of the Clones and Episode III: Revenge of the Sith.

I bought the DVDs last year but didn’t get around to viewing them until after I’d seen Episode III. I was impressed by how how well that movie tied up loose ends, answered nagging questions, and set the stage for events coming in Episode IV. (Why is C-3PO so clueless about the Rebellion in Episodes IV-VI? Because Senator Organa ordered in Episode III that Threepio’s mind be wiped.)

I tried to watch the DVDs as if they were true sequels to the prequels. It was an interesting experience – especially when Christensen appeared. Lucas must have felt that substituting Christensen for Shaw would add continuity to the two trilogies. I certainly thought it was clever when I first saw the altered scene. But the more I thought about it, the less sense it made in the context of the story. (My geeky Star Wars fan analysis: The implication is that Anakin was lost to the light side of the Force when he became Darth Vader, and that his younger incarnation was therefore the one redeemed. But to me, the whole point of Episode VI is that there is still good in Vader, and that Luke’s love finally helps him break free of the Emperor. This is Vader’s achievement, not the younger Anakin’s.) Many other fans also have mixed feelings about this change.

But there’s a more interesting point here – one that gives me an excuse to blog about Star Wars at work. In the age of digital moviemaking, a film need no longer be seen as a finished work of art, like a painting in a museum. The director can keep tinkering with it indefinitely.

Lucas is on the vanguard here. The Shaw/Christensen switch is only one in a long list of changes in the 1990s Special Editions and the 2004 DVDs. But he didn’t invent the idea that old films can be improved. Film restoration projects, for example, sometimes go beyond correcting problems with faded or damaged negatives and actually add new elements that weren’t audible or visible in the original.

For Universal’s 1998 restoration of Hitchcock’s Vertigo, restorers reconstructed the musical score from the original studio recordings and even created new sound effects. The new Vertigo is indisputably better than previous theatrical or video releases. In a few respects, such as color vibrancy, it may even be better than what viewers experienced in 1958, when the film was first released. Whether it’s still Hitchcock’s film after all these alterations is a matter for literary theorists to decide.

In the case of Star Wars Episodes IV, V, and VI, most of the changes made for the Special Editions and the 2004 DVDs were for the good, I thought. They can be put into four categories:

  • Restorations of original colors, elimination of scratches, warping, and graininess in the old negatives, etc.

  • Corrections of elements that were sub-standard in the original releases. For example, distracting “chroma boxes” around flying spacecraft (artifacts of the compositing technique Lucas used for the original films) were eliminated. Inconsistencies in the way light sabers glowed in various scenes were partially corrected. Even bloopers left in the original film were enhanced for humor’s sake: One Episode IV scene in which a stormtrooper hits his head against a blast door has been augmented with a “bonk” sound.

  • New scenes that add context or excitement. For example: the street scenes of Mos Eisley in Episode IV, fly-through views of Cloud City in Episode V, and scenes of post-Empire celebrations on Tatooine, Cloud City, Naboo, and Coruscant at the end of Episode VI.

  • Most interesting: scenes that were altered to enhance the continuity between Episodes IV-VI and Episodes I-III. Christensen’s cameo in Episode VI falls into this category. So does the fact that English text on the Death Star tractor-beam controls in Episode IV was replaced by the alien glyphs used in Episodes I-III. But the changes to one scene in Episode V are probably the most significant for the storyline. In this scene, Vader, aboard his command ship Executor, takes a holographic phone call from the Emperor. The female actor who played the Emperor in the original release and in the Special Edition, and the voice-over by Clive Revell, have been replaced by the the image and voice of Ian McDiarmid, who plays Chancellor Palpatine/Darth Sidious in Episodes I, II, III, and VI. But that’s not all: the dialogue has been altered, to make it clear that the Emperor knows that Luke Skywalker is Anakin/Vader’s son and that it was he who destroyed the Death Star. In the previous releases, these points were always a bit fuzzy. (Listen to the original dialogue here and the new dialogue here.)

Now that the Star Wars feature films are over, maybe Lucas will stop tinkering with them. But somehow I doubt it. The Star Wars story lives on. A live-action TV series, set in the time between Episodes III and IV, is reportedly in the works for 2006. Because Lucas isn’t overly protective of his intellectual property, there’s a thriving community of fans making their own films set in the Star Wars universe; Star Wars: Revelations is a stunning example. At some point, perhaps around 2020, there will inevitably be a new “Special Edition” of all six films. And I have to believe that someone will make another trilogy eventually – Episodes VII, VIII, and IX, in which Luke, Leia, Han, and the rest struggle to build a new Republic and reestablish the Jedi Order. The stakes are too high for this not to happen.

We all know that in the digital age, the news media are growing more fluid every day. If a print newspaper or magazine makes an error, they run a correction the next day or the next month – but if a blogger makes an error, he or she can fix it immediately. The continual rebirth of the Star Wars films suggests that art is moving in the same direction. As the popular films, TV shows, and other narratives that function as cultural reference points for billions of people go digital, they are becoming far more than static artifacts – they’re living stories that can evolve in the telling and re-telling. It’s almost reminiscent of the way oral epics like the Iliad evolved as they were transmitted from bard to bard. Add elements like fanfic and transmedia storytelling and you may get something even more potent: a society that continually creates and recreates its narratives in multiple media, with multiple storylines and multiple authors.

Which version of each Star Wars movie is the “real” one? It doesn’t matter anymore. What matters is how the version you’re watching at any given moment fits into the grander mythos that Lucas is still spinning.

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