I know i'm hardly the only one who was irritated by the revamped Star Wars films of the late 1990s (Han shot first!), but one of the main reasons I disliked them is that it – along with the re-releases of E.T., Apocalypse Now, etc – makes it difficult to determine which version of the film truly represents the director's vision. Even when it's the original creator spearheading things, there is obviously a large difference between the George Lucas of 1977 and the Lucas of 1997 (demonstrated rather clearly by the quality of the Star Wars prequels). However, this could just as easily represent my own inability to accept a film as being a fluid and evolving thing that can be manipulated into an unlimited number of forms. Perhaps my wish to categorize a certain version of a film as being the 'true' version comes out of my own need to critique and compare.
Which brings me to the fairly recent practice of unauthorized re-editing of films, made possible by the preponderance of video editing software and an organized community of, well, geeks. I recall first hearing rumblings of this practice after the initial DVD release of The Phantom Menace, where a group of fans re-edited the film to remove all traces of the annoying Jar Jar Binks and bring it closer to what they believed a 'true' Star Wars prequel should be. This Phantom Edit got quite a bit of press at the time, and communities started to pop up to try their own hands at “improving” their favorite films. Now, I doubt that any of these fan efforts could replace the originals in the eyes of anyone but the most devoted dork, but the practice does bring some interesting questions to the forefront. These re-edited films are made with comparatively small amounts of resources, but with plenty of passion for the material and (generally) with a respectable amount of care. Which in turn opens the door for a certain amount of experimentation. Enter The War of the Stars.
The War of the Stars is a re-edit of Star Wars: A New Hope which uses outtakes, new musical cues, judicious editing – as well as a surprising amount of added special effects – to create a film more in line with the Grindhouse exploitation films of the 1970s. It's an often interesting and fun exercise, and one certainly not designed to replace the original film in any way, but instead to show the potential artistic possibilities of re-editing. George Lucas might not agree with adding judicious splashes of gore to scenes of Stormtroopers being blasted by lasers, and if a fan were to consider such changes sacrilege i'm not sure I could disagree – but for someone wanting to view the original film in a slightly different light the result can be fascinating.
Beginning with an appropriately decrepit widescreen print of A New Hope – with added grain and damage for good measure – the changes come fast and furious from the opening frames. The famous opening story crawl has been changed (and significantly simplified) and runs over a desert scene instead of the traditional starscape. Soon we're being introduced to C-3P0 and R2-D2 (now with subtitles!), and the evil Darth Vader – whose dialogue has sometimes been altered with quotes from other James Earl Jones films, and whose eyes now helpfully glow red every time he uses the force. We also get an opening credits sequence (“Alec Guinness in..”), as well as the inclusion of quite a bit of outtake footage of Luke Skywalker's friendship with Biggs Darklighter. And this is just in the first ten minutes.
Many of the changes are played for laughs, particularly in the Cantina (featuring Neil Young onstage, as well as brief snippets from the Star Wars Holiday Special) and in a brief inserted clip from the Star Wars fan film TROOPS, but they are integrated fairly smoothly. In one of my favorite sections, when Luke returns to home to find his aunt and uncle dead a Judas Priest song plays in the background as he imagines the faces of his dead relatives in the planet's two suns. The quality of the inserted footage does vary wildly, and plenty of exposition has been cut out – total run time is only 97 minutes – but I would imagine most of the people likely to watch this would already be plenty familiar with the original film.
It doesn't all work – the opening credits look pretty cheaply done, and the choice to occasionally switch to black and white to help match up footage is needlessly distracting – and it sometimes gets a little silly, but in some ways that's the point. The War of the Stars isn't meant to be taken seriously, and while it doesn't really feel like a grindhouse film (even with the now trademark burning film reel skip) it does feel very different and when it comes to material this familiar that is definitely a good thing.
Complaining about the image quality would be sort of redundant, since half the point is that the film is supposed to be gritty looking, and the editor here (The Man Behind The Mask) has a text special feature describing the compilation of this 16mm print that has been used and altered for the project. The audio is a mono mix from a Swedish print of the film, and when music has been added it's been done quite skillfully.
The creator has been good enough to include a few special features. First is a music video for "Bob Dylan's Prequels Homesick Blues". Basically a song parody (by The Great Luke Ski) of Dylan's famous Subterranean Homesick Blues edited to a combination of footage from a Bob Dylan concert and footage from the Star Wars prequels. Entertaining enough, though it wears a bit thin. Next is “Laisse Tomber Les Filles” which pairs the famous french song (the english version, “Chick Habit” of which is used by Quentin Tarantino for the closing credits of Death Proof) with footage of Carrie Fisher on Saturday Night Live. Odd, but a fun diversion. Finally, there's a reel of all of the effects that have been added to the film. As suggested on the DVD, watching this reel is better left until after seeing the film.
More a fun exercise than a serious attempt to improve upon the original, The War of the Stars still represents a rather incredible amount of effort to create something (relatively) original out of familiar material. Your appreciation of the result would likely be tied to your ability to see something you theoretically love sliced and diced, but as a bit of ridiculous fun at the expense of a movie that is embedded in our collective consciousnesses it definitely is worth checking out.