LucasFilm, under pressure from fanboys everywhere, recently announced that it would release the original theatrical cuts of the Star Wars trilogy on DVD later this year.
Star Wars fanboys are interesting in that most of them ceased to be "boys" about twenty years ago and "fan" doesn't really cut it either. Most of them are probably borderline autistic.
I like the fact, however, that "fan pressure" has paid off. Let's be clear: Lucas is basically a total hack. Irvine Kershner, not 'The Beard', directed the best Star Wars Film, 'The Empire Strikes Back'. Whereas Lucas was responsible things like the frankly rubbish 'Ewoks'(the only creature that could make you root for the Empire), not to mention the roundly pitiful, cynical exercise which has been the prequel trilogy (the third one wasn't bad, but it wasn't good either). But, despite that, the original trilogy has remained an absolutely gold-plated piece of pop culture, probably the most important cultural artefact of the 20th century.
So, when it came to the DVD release of the original trilogy last year, most people hoped that they would get what they wanted: the original trilogy on DVD. Instead, Lucas thought that he might "tinker" with it a little. He felt the original movies were "missing something", they were "incomplete". What did they need then? You guessed it! Lots more CGI.
Lucas is like a kid with a new toy: fidgety, he needs to "show everyone" what he can do with it. He can't help it. Aploplectic with excitement, he heads back to the original unblemished films and begins to prod and poke. Every little dodgy effect, every sense that the original trilogy represented something "real" is removed and replaced with a collection of pixels. The films are not improved in any real sense, they just look "modern" and "up to date". Which means they look fake.
The world in which the original movies took place was, of course, "fake", it was "fiction". But it was a particular type of fiction, a fiction you could believe existed somewhere. The Mos Eisley Cantina was a place with History. A clapped out joint where blood had been spilled and scores had been settled.
The Millennium Falcon looked like a piece of shit, because it was a piece of shit. It looked like it had fallen apart and been put back together again. It looked broken and used and abused. It looked worn, like it had seen too many decrepit space ports and took on too many quicker, newer Imperial vessels. Like an old racehorse, out for one last moment of glory before it was put out to grass, and a well-earned rest. It was corroded.
An image made on a computer can "look corroded", it can have all the proper shading, texture and "signs" of corrosion, but it can't, by definition, be corroded. The effects in the original movie were made possible principally by modelling. The moviemakers made lscale replicas that they would then manoeuvre on wires, using the trickery of cameras and, yes, a little computer work to add "authenticity". And that's important. We used computers to make us believe that this model was an "actual" spaceship, traversing a galaxy that exists, or existed, "far, far away".
That is not what CGI does. As the science fiction author China Mieville has noted, the purpose of CGI is not to deceive, to make you believe that what you're seeing is real. No, no, no. The purpose of CGI is to make things look less real, less authentic. An indication of this fact is the way in which the use of CGI is advertised. Filmmakers want to let you know that they've used CGI, they're proud of the fact. In fact, CGI isn't useful unless the viewer knows that they're watching CGI. The Matrix Reloaded and the Star Wars prequels are probably the prime examples of this phenomenon.
If you think about it, it's a bit odd. It's like the Magic Circle issuing a press release in which they reveal that there isn't really such a thing as magic; instead, they're just a bunch of devious cranks out to make people believe that the impossible is possible using cheap gimmicks and a bit of showmanship. Well, yes! They are out to do that. And sawing a woman in half isn't going to impress anybody if you say beforehand, "well, actually, this is all a load of nonsense, it's just a trick of mirrors, she'll be fine, we've done this loads of time". The point, in movies as in magic, is to maintain the illusion, not to reveal it.
Back to Lucas. After "going over" the originals with his new brush, he wanted to "show" everyone where he had made improvements. He wanted people to "see the difference". Why? He wasn't adding anything to the story. Star Wars wasn't made any more interesting or exciting by the addition of CGI. If anything, as I'm sure most fans noted, it made the films considerably worse. The scenes at Mos Eisley or the Cloud City weren't improved by the inclusion of some rather bogus looking computer generated imagery. It just looked silly. Before, here you were in Mos Eisley: a really crappy spaceport in the middle of some god forsaken Solar system out in the middle of nowhere, with Alec Guinness and Luke Skywalker and the two gay robots. What does this scene need? Ah, yes, of course. A 10-second master shot of the speeder entering Mos Eisley port, in which the characters look absolutely fake, the city looks like something from a (bad) computer game and the sound bears no resemblance to the images on screen. (This was actually one of the inclusions in the "Special Edition" version of the trilogy, which I have on video). Way to go, George!
Why this then? For one, CGI is expensive and time consuming. If a film has a lot of CGI in it, then it must be important. What other reason could there be? Using models and makeup and camera trickery would be much less expensive and less time consuming. The Wachowskis wanted everyone to know that the Matrix sequels had more and better CGI than the original movie - it's a sign of success. But how was their famed effect from the first movie, Bullet Time, created? With the aid of computers? Sure, computers were involved in the creative process. But at the centre of the creation was the genius idea of John Gaeta of placing hundreds of cameras in a circle around a scene, which were timed to go off at ever so slightly different times, one after the other (watch 'The Matrix Revisited' DVD for a much better explanation of this technique). In other words, human ingenuity and cameras, machines that catch moments of "The Real", were responsible for probably the most exhilarating moment in Science fiction movies since the Imperial vessel lurched onto the screen in the opening shot of 'A New Hope' in 1977.
Now, I'm not, I promise you, some kind of primitivist technophobe. Computer technology has contributed to great moments in Cinema - when it's done right, with care and taste. The Battle of Pelennor Fields in the Return of The King astonished me, as I'm sure it did most people who saw it on the big screen.
However, the obsession with CGI in Hollywood (actually, there has been a bit of backlash against it recently) is indicative of a lazy commercialism, not a thriving creative impulse. If large amounts of crap, vulgar CGI can add $10 million to an opening weekend, then in it goes, regardless of the artistic merit of the addition. Executives figure that most people who go to the movies, certainly movies like 'The Matrix' and Star Wars, are young boys. And what do young boys do a lot of? No, not that, the other thing. Yes, they play computer games! Make going to the movies more like sitting in front of your PlayStation, that'll be a crowd pleaser. Forget narrative coherence, characterisation or witty dialogue, they're so passe and dull. Emotional integrity? Fuck that! Look at that big explosion.
But while you may look, you'll soon realise something. It's not an explosion. It's not real fire engulfing a real building. It's not stunt men, or cameras on the end of cranes that have made this image possible. It's some bleary eyed geek, hunched over his keyboard, spilling Diet Coke on the mouse mat.
This is the future.