Star Wars has gone digital – but how should you actually watch it?

Star Wars

Now that the entire franchise is available to watch digitally, are you more ‘Narrative Structure’ or ‘Machete’?

With Star Wars: The Force Awakens looming on the horizon like a beguiling planet, it’s no surprise that LucasFilm and Disney have discovered a new way to sell the preceding six movies to fans. From 10 April, you’ll be able to purchase the whole set digitally for the first time (well, for the first time legally), each download coming with brand new bonus features and a smattering of deleted scenes – where do they keep finding these things?

So once again the question arises: how should you actually watch this sequence of space movies? For true connoisseurs this leads to a much more complex answer than simply, “download them from iTunes and press play”. For a start, there’s the whole question of order. George Lucas would like you to watch them from I to VI, but as many fans have pointed out in the past, this would ruin the shocking revelation about Darth Vader and Luke. It also means that viewers will meet Jar Jar Binks really early and consequently many viewings will just abort right there.

However, if you show the movies in production order - i.e. the original trilogy followed by the prequel trilogy – then all you’re doing is giving yourself six hours of backstory after the epic all-singing, all-ewok-dancing finale. That’s like being shown an amazing magic trick and then having the performer drily explain the whole thing to you in unending monotone.

Fortunately, there are alternatives. In the mid-2000s, writer Earnest Rister came up with what he called the Narrative Structure Order – IV, V, I, II, III, VI – which retains both the chronological sense and the Vader shock (as well as protecting other revelations to do with Yoda that we encounter in Empire Strikes Back). Here, the prequel trilogy becomes a sort of incredibly long flashback, preparing us for – rather than completely buggering up – the climatic drama of Return of the Jedi. It’s sort of fine.

Later, programmer and Star Wars fan Rod Hilton devised an intriguing variation that he called the Machete Version, which is now so well-known it was the centre piece of a Star Wars discussion in an episode of The Big Bang Theory. This ordering retains the basic structure of Rister’s but makes one incredible change. Can you spot it? IV, V, II, III, VI. That’s right, he kills Phantom Menace. His reasoning – apart from the fact that Phantom Menace is just terrible – is that almost every major character introduced in that movie is either dead or irrelevant by the end. Removing Phantom Menace also gets rid of the whole midichlorians nightmare, as well as ejecting awkward-to-watch mini-Anakin Jake Lloyd, pod racing and most of Jar Jar. It also saves you money as you’ll only be downloading five films rather than six.

But of course, this doesn’t get around another important problem about viewing Star Wars (and I realise that, for a lot of people, I am massively misusing the word “important” here). The HD downloads will doubtless be based on the 2004 DVD reissues of the original trilogy where George Lucas did a heck of a lot of CGI tinkering, and also singularly failed to restore the Han/Greedo shoot-out to its original state after the debacle introduced in the 1997 edition. In that infamous remaster, Greedo is shown shooting first because Lucas got all worried about depicting Han as a cold-blooded killer, as he was in the 1977 cinematic version. This is Han Solo, lest we forget, the seasoned space smuggler, who presumably didn’t survive for years in the galactic underworld by just being super polite to everyone.

Anyway, over the years, the movies have been subjected to lots of other tweaks and additions (such as a weirdly leering Hayden Christensen being photoshopped into the dead Jedi scene at the end of Episode VI, instead of poor old Sebastian Shaw), and the whole thing now just feels like a computer graphics showcase. This was brilliantly lampooned in a fan version of the Force Awakens trailer, which imagines what it would have looked like had George Lucas made it – i.e. lots of massively unnecessary extraneous detail.

If all of this appals you, a Czech teacher, Petr Harmáček, has painstakingly produced a de-mastered version of the original trilogy using scenes spliced from a range of earlier sources. Known as Star Wars: The Despecialized Edition, it can be downloaded from the web and even has its own Facebook page.

The thing is, so much of Star Wars is tied up in nostalgia, both in terms of the movies themselves and the experience of re-viewing them through subsequent home formats. I have bought the original UK video releases of all three films on eBay because that is the format I most viewed them in. The blurry VHS reproductions, in their awful, screen-chopped 4:3 aspect ratio, is how I experienced the great moments again and again and again – for me, the patina of that video tape is inextricably linked with the events depicted onscreen.

So what is the right way to view Star Wars? There are a hundred answers to that question. Those six films have become a form of modern folklore, their various iterations existing like the multitudinous forms of classic fairy tales, subverted and repurposed through years of oral storytelling. As much as Lucas may want these digital HD versions to be definitive, and as much as they perhaps will be to a new generation, there will always be shadows of doubt about form and sequence – at least for those who care, and were there at the beginning, a long time ago in a galaxy that feels far far away.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Keith Stuart, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 7th April 2015 12.44 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010