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A Brief History of Star Wars Re-Releases

A Brief History of Star Wars Re-Releases

Sometimes it’s a little jarring to glance over your neighbor’s shoulder on the bus, the subway or in the park and notice that they’re watching Doctor Who, The Avengers or The Land Before Time Part 27. Anyone can watch anything anywhere these days, but you know what they can’t watch on their digital device? Star Wars! Actually, that was the case until today; because now the six existing Star Wars “episodes” will—for the first time—be available for digital download across a variety of platforms. This re-release of the films will likely be the “special” editions the Star Wars films. There will also be all-new behind-the-scenes special features.

For a long time now, many of us have gotten very used to Star Wars being “re-released.” Here’s a brief history of all the times Star Wars has had a party for itself and how everyone felt about those parties.

NOTE: This is a very incomplete list of the all the specific changes made to Star Wars throughout the years. Instead, it’s basic guide of the re-release chronology which highlights the more “important” changes to the films themselves.

1977/1978 Second-Opening Party

Star Wars came out on May 25th of 1977, but because no one knew it was going to be so popular, there wasn’t a big release-party. But, after the movie became a runaway success 20th Fox Organized another (and very uncommon) release party for that August. This is why when you see old footage of people lining up for Star Wars, it looks like a huge deal. True, Star Wars was well promoted in the “geek" circles but that second release is where most of that footage of people lining up around the block comes from. Needless to say, this was the original version of the movie. And, at that point, it wasn’t called “Episode IV” yet. The film came out again in 1978. Some people claim they remember an extra scene with Biggs. Some people don’t.

1981 Theatrical Re-Release

Back in the 70’s and 80’s (when Star Wars was born) not everyone had VHS players because they were brand new. Having an “older” film be in the theater allowed to generate new buzz for it. Further, back then, movies sometimes stayed in the theatres for up to a year anyway. Still, the theatrical re-release of Star Wars here is funny because it’s the first time the title was changed to Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope. Yep. Lucas was messing with Star Wars even back then. Before Return of the Jedi came out in 1983, Star Wars (and The Empire Strikes Back) were re-released again. Many fans were confused since they assumed the first Star Wars released was "Star Wars Uno," not Star Wars Cuatro.

VHS Releases

In the 80’s and early 90’s, Star Wars was released on both VHS and Laserdisc. Most of these versions don’t contain any significant changes other than Laserdiscs were gigantic, embarrassing early DVDs.

1996 THX VHS Re-Release

Lucasfilm’s THX sound and picture quality-control scheme pre-dated the latest HD craze we’re in today. When Star Wars came out on VHS again in 1996, it was still the “original” theatrical editions, but this time, “cleaned-up.” Ominously, this boxed-set was marketed under the tag that you could own the original trilogy “one last time.” What could that mean?

1997 “Special Editions”

It meant that George Lucas was going to really start changing Star Wars! Without a doubt, the most controversial re-release of Star Wars is the 1997 run of the special editions. Each of the original three Star Wars movies returned to the theaters about a year and a half before the debut of The Phantom Menace. Not only was the marketing campaign for these movies insanely over-the-top, but these versions easily contain the most amount of changes/additions to the movies. Most famously: Greedo shoots “first” at Han Solo in A New Hope. The phrase “Han shot first” comes from this controversy because if Han “shot first” it means he didn't shoot in self-defense. This is significant only because Lucas actually changed the content and meaning of one scene (and arguably both the characters' motivations) by digitally inserting a fairly simple optical effect. Most of the changes to the films in the Special Editions are far prettier. New shots of various spacecraft are added in A New Hope (few get mad about this), the Empire Strikes Back has the fewest changes, though there was a bizarre scream added to the scene in which Luke falls down the chasm in Cloud City. Return of the Jedi featured an insane party-dance sequence not in the original movie. It also replaced some much loved-alien puppets with digital versions.

Speaking of digital versions of loved-puppet characters! Jabba the Hutt appears in the special edition of A New Hope and Han steps on his tail. EVERYONE is still mad about this.

The most relevant thing about the special editions is that Lucas claimed that these would be new “official” versions of the films and that no new versions of the classic trilogy would exist after.

2000/2001 Release of The Phantom Menace

After the release of Episode I: The Phantom Menace, the movie finally came out on… not DVD! Lucas was slow to put Star Wars on DVD, so the Phantom Menace actually came out on VHS even though a bunch of other movies were out on DVD. (Which is similar to Star Wars just now coming out for digital download.) This version of The Phantom Menace contains a way-longer podrace sequence. There’s an extra lap!

2004 DVDs

When the original Star Wars movies finally did come out on DVD, no one was surprised when it was to be the “special editions.” However, these special editions were special editions of the special editions! The CG Jabba the Hutt looked different than before, Han and Greedo now nearly fire their laser-blasts at the EXACT SAME TIME, and suddenly, Hayden Christensen appeared as the ghost of Anakin Skywalker instead of original Return of the Jedi-Anakin actor Sebastian Shaw! Anakin got young when we became a ghost! Boba Fett also began talking with a totally different accent as it had been revealed that his father was Jango Fett, a person who sounded totally different. Because Jango and Boba are clones of each other this makes a little bit of sense, but the voice change ticked off a lot of people.

2011 Blu-Ray Release

Again with the box-sets! This re-release of the whole Star Wars saga featured pretty-much the same versions of the movies as 2004. But now there were more blinking of Ewoks and random rocks around R2-D2. Around this time, the odd screaming Luke from Cloud City went away, too.

3D Releases 

In 2012, it was planned that each Star Wars movie would come out in 3D. The only one that actually did was The Phantom Menace. The advertising for this re-release was hopelessly out of touch and childish. Everyone was furious.


We'll see! These new versions will likely be the most recent 2011 versions of the movies, but who knows! It's possible that a new scene featuring an elderly Jar-Jar Binks telling stories around a campfire will be inserted into a new post-credits sequence at the end of Return of the Jedi. But. We're not sure.

Will you be getting the new digital-download Star Wars? 

Tags: movies, itunes, star wars, the internets

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About the Author
Ryan Britt

Ryan Britt is the author of Luke Skywalker Can't Read and Other Geeky Truths, forthcoming from Plume (Penguin) Books on 11.24.15. He's written for The New York Times, Electric Literature, The Awl, VICE Motherboard, Clarkesworld Magazine, and is a consulting editor for Story Magazine. He lives in New York City.

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