It's like hearing a new verse of an old familiar song. The "Star Wars" movies are being released to a new format, Blu-Ray. We'll be getting some new extras that the hardcore fans have been looking forward to, as well as better quality picture, sound and presentation. On the other hand, it's come out that George Lucas has been tinkering with them again. The puppet Yoda from "The Phantom Menace" will be swapped out for a digital version. Darth Vader is getting new lines in the most climactic scene of "Return of the Jedi." There are other, subtler changes rumored, such as blinking Ewoks, beefed up Krayt dragon calls, and more color-changing lightsabres. And once again, some "Star Wars" fans are outraged, some are defending George Lucas's right to edit the films how he likes, and some are scolding both for caring so much about a couple of space-cowboy shoot-em-ups.
As I've mentioned before, I'm generally on the side of the purists who would prefer that Lucas leave the existing films alone, aside from some basic restoration. However, there's nothing wrong with him creating new versions as long as he makes it clear to potential buyers that they're not getting the original "Star Wars" movies. Director's cuts and special editions are a very common marketing tactic, and Lucas is not the only one who has withheld the original theatrical cuts of his movies in favor of pushing new and improved ones. Disney made edits to several of their Renaissance era animated films, including "The Lion King" and "Beauty and the Beast" for Special Editions. Though less noticeable than Lucas's alterations to "Star Wars," the current official versions of these Disney films are not the ones that played in theaters. In fact, the unaltered originals have never been released on DVD.
The concern for fans and film lovers is maintaining access to the older versions of these films. The first "Star Wars" film in particular is such an important piece of cinema historically, artistically, and culturally, it has long been recognized to have considerable value beyond the simply commercial. In 1989, it was among the first films to be preserved by the National Film Registry, and "The Empire Strikes Back" followed in 2010. After the release of the Special Editions of the first "Star Wars" trilogy in 1997, however, Lucasfilm seemed determined to replace the original versions of the films with the altered ones, and for several years the theatrical versions were not shown on TV, not screened for the public in any setting, and were unavailable except on VHS after 1995.
However, Lucasfilm did eventually release the original theatrical cuts on DVD in 2006, after the "Star Wars" fan base made their displeasure clear. George Lucas may be stubborn about treating the new versions of the "Star Wars" films as the definitive ones, but he's not stupid. So I expect that Lucasfilm will probably release the unedited theatrical versions of the "Star Wars" films on Blu-Ray if there proves to be enough demand for them in the future. Heck, I wouldn't be surprised if the current controversy was planned - Lucas baits his older fans with yet more edits, which generate publicity and press, which generate disc sales, and after all the hubbub has died down he'll give the purists exactly what they want, just like last time. When the films are transitioned to the next new format, be it an intangible digital file or something else, we'll probably see the cycle repeat itself again.
I'm not happy that George Lucas has chosen to expend so much of his time and energy on continuously improving and revamping these few existing films. However, I can think of a few benefits to the way "Star Wars" has been handled so far. For one thing, with Lucas continuously updating the specials effects, there is much less of an incentive for others to try to remake the first "Star Wars" trilogy, which is a prime piece of nostalgia that the reboot-obsessed studios would probably love to pounce on. Also, the first "Star Wars" is quickly approaching its 35th anniversary, and no matter how much the original fans love it, the visuals have become dated and thus less accessible to the current generation of kids who like CGI-slathered summer blockbusters. I see no reason why there shouldn't be different versions with continuously updated effects.
In his own way, Lucas's actions have probably drastically improved the longevity of the original trilogy. So he wants to make 3D versions next to draw in new audiences? As long as the originals are still around for us creaky old geezer fans, bring it on.