I think that George Lucas, after years of fielding questions about Alderaanian nerf-herding and Dathomirian rancor-riding, genuinely hates his fans. As proof, I submit the addition of Jabba the Hutt into the “special edition” of Star Wars: A New Hope. Jabba appears in a scene that was added thirty years after the movie’s original release and is now attached to every DVD and Blu-Ray release. In other words, Lucas has made this scene all but impossible to avoid.In the scene, Jabba the Hutt, a nefarious gangster, gives our hero Han Solo a good tongue-lashing.* Solo had dumped cargo that he had been smuggling for Jabba, and Jabba is understandably upset. Solo promises to pay him pack, Jabba says “Cool, ‘tevs,” in Huttese and they go their separate ways. What’s so wrong with that, you may ask? Am I just whining because I fear change?
Actually, as a child of the ’90s, the Jabba version of Star Wars was the one that I saw first. I didn’t have any particular problem with it, but bear in mind that at that point I also liked rat tails, pogs, and Return of Jafar. So I’m not complaining out of a sense of nostalgia for the original. I’m complaining out of a sense of this-is-a-friggin-terrible-piece-of-movie-making.
1. Every fact this scene gives us is redundant. Approximately 90 seconds earlier, Han Solo had been cornered by a bounty hunter who told him (and the audience) the EXACT SAME information. We learn that Han owes money, that Han jettisoned his cargo, that Han has a price on his head. The audience begins to understand that behind his posturing, Han is actually kind of a desperate lowlife deeply in dept.
If anything, the added scene dilutes this information, because when Han actually meets with his creditor, Jabba sounds a lot more reasonable than expected. Han breezily buys himself more time and goes about his business. Most of the tension is lost, all thanks to Jabba the Hutt actually being a patient and understanding guy. Which leads me to…
2. CGI Jabba the Hutt is completely different from his first appearance in Return of the Jedi. As I just mentioned, Jabba the Hutt in Star Wars Special Edition is a complete pushover. He butters Han with compliments, yelps and pouts when Han steps on him, and is quickly shouted down when trying to set the interest rate that Han will pay. There doesn’t seem to me much reason for Han (or the audience) to be afraid of him, which is sort of weird, since he is a bad guy.
Compare that to how Jabba first appeared in Return of the Jedi: as a cruel and stubborn psychopath. He feeds people to monsters for fun and laughs at their screams. When Han begs for release in exchange for tripling his money, Jabba doesn’t let him finish his sentence. He has slaves and a torture chamber. He’s not exactly scary in the horror movie sense of the word, but it is clear that he is a Bad Guy, and not to be messed with.
Also, consider how his appearance changes.
3. CGI Jabba is bad for acting. Harrison Ford as Han Solo is, without a doubt, the best thing about the Star Wars trilogy, thanks to his unflappable charisma and sardonic humor. And yet Ford can’t quite pull this scene off. His eyes never quite focus on the green worm in front of him (understandably), and the longer the scene goes on, the stronger our sense that he is talking to himself. We’re reminded that we’re watching actors in a movie, that the spaceport is really a studio lot in L.A.
4. CGI Jabba is bad for storytelling. Lucas says he wanted to “introduce” Jabba to the people watching Star Wars. First of all, who wants to introduce a character long before the character has anything to contribute to the story? Second of all, if a character’s purpose is to be a figure of dread, it’s far more effective to have them unseen until the last moment; this way, a viewer’s imagination can do the work. If Jaws had started with three minutes of footage of the shark swimming around eating chum, the movie wouldn’t have been nearly as effective.
5. CGI Jabba looks fake. No one would describe Jedi‘s puppet Jabba as “realistic,” but it had a physical presence. It looked like you could reach out your hand, touch the skin, and get your hand slimy. But watch the way Han walks around Jabba in the new scene: check out the video at 52 seconds and tell me it doesn’t look like he’s walking through a ghost. If Han doesn’t actually step through virtual Jabba, he certainly invades his personal space, thus ignoring the ancient proverb, “Angle your face away from those who eat raw frogs.”
Watching it as an adult, it’s agonizing just how inescapably BAD this scene is, a rancid fart that lingers in the air even after it has passed. It’s only a minute and thirty seconds, but it takes me completely out of the movie. I’m reminded of the cartoonish and insubstantial nature of the prequels, of their terrible acting, of the propensity for self-indulgence that has become Lucas’ trademark. And while I’m thinking of these things, it’s awfully hard to focus on the story that is taking place far, far away.
A postscript: There are a total of four special edition changes that are acceptable to me. 1) Digitally restoring color, 2) digitally restoring sound, 3) Replacing candle-faced emperor with Ian McDiarmid in Empire,** 4) Replacing “Yub yub” song with a new orchestral piece at the end of Jedi. All other changes are crap.
*Not literally. Sorry for the mental image.
** This change is on thin ice, but Ian McDiarmid is awesome. He’s possibly the best thing about Return of the Jedi, and certainly the best thing about Revenge of the Sith.