Yesterday news broke that the six Star Wars movies would finally be coming to digital-download storefronts like iTunes, Amazon Video, PlayStation Video and so on for the first time in what was being called the “Digital Movie Collection,” with the movies available individually and as a bundle. The news got me thinking about my history with the Star Wars film franchise, specifically about how in my mind those movies and the evolving home video formats is irreversibly linked.
Outside of the handful of times I’ve seen the movies in theaters, my biggest experience with them is through home video in some form or another.
For many years when I was a kid both my parents were working and so my brother and I would spend summer days at my grandparents’ house. And while the video collection there would provide my first experience with movies like Just One of The Guys and the fact that they had cable while we didn’t would mean I was watching lots of other movies over and over again, Star Wars was the go-to in terms of “What do you want to watch today?” But home video at that time isn’t what it is now. So we would have to plan ahead and rent The Empire Strikes Back or Return of the Jedi from the local video store (Nu-Time Video in downtown Elmhurst, IL) or from the rental kiosk (an early version of something like Redbox, but with VHS tapes) at the Dominick’s my grandparents frequented.
Later on the Original Trilogy would finally get a VHS release at a price that was geared toward ownership, again at a time when owning a video collection was still largely unheard of. This would be the primary way I would watch the movies for years and years. They were my movies of choice on days I was sick and home from school or, really, any other time. They were not great transfers and, even outside of the quality of the picture, they were pan-and-scan transfers, what at the time was called “full frame” because they would fill the entirety of the standard TVs of the time. So for a decade I watched the movies missing 2/3 of the action.
In 1995 the scales fell from my eyes and I saw clearly for the first time. That’s when Lucasfilm/Fox released a set of VHS tapes featuring not only a remastered version of the movies but a *widescreen* remastered version of the movies. Yes, there was a “full frame” version available, but come on. These were a revelation. It had been years – since they were in theaters – since I had seen the movies in all their 1×2.35 glory and wow. I kept the full frame versions for nostalgic reasons, but with this new edition they remained unplayed.
Then three or so years later I would, yes, buy the widescreen Special Editions on VHS. I know, I know. But I still liked the movies and even liked some of the changes Lucas made. And the Special Editions themselves represented a moment in time for me that I wanted to capture, specifically the opportunity to see the movies on the big screen again. And having the tapes reminded me of that.
So at one point I had three versions of the original trilogy on VHS on my shelf. Getting rid of any one of them wasn’t an option because they were all essential components in my “having it all” plan that also included me collecting all available adaptions. That included novelizations, comic collections, the outstanding Radio Dramas, script reproductions (which I remember buying at Suncoast Video, if that tells you anything) and more.
As they came out I would pick up the Prequel Trilogy movies (which, as I’ve admitted on previous occasions, I mostly like) on DVD, frantically waiting for the day the OT would be made available on that format. Prior to that, even, I bought the VHS Collector’s Edition of Episode I that came with a nice art-of book and some other goodies. But that was quickly discarded when the DVD came out.
That day finally came in 2004, when the first set of the Original Trilogy hit DVD. This was the controversial release that included not only the changes made for the Special Editions but also the addition of Hayden Christiansen as Anakin at the end of Return of the Jedi, replacing Sebastian Shaw, who originally played Darth Vader not just during the fateful “unmasking” scene toward the end of the movie but also the iconic “ghost Jedi” scene at the very end, showing the Anakin had come back to the Light Side of the Force. Again, though, that didn’t matter: I had *this* release and it represented another part of the saga’s release history.
At this point I still had my VHS tapes (probably not the original versions but definitely the THX remasters and Special Editions) so that was fine: I still had the original, unaltered releases. They could change things all they wanted, I had history, the ones I had grown up with.
But eventually I got rid of all my VHS tapes, Star Wars included. So for a while these heavily-changed versions were the only version of the OT I had. That changed, though, in I think 2008, when I got the Limited Edition version of the movies on DVD as a gift one Christmas.
These two-disc sets for each movie had both the Special Editions AND the original theatrical versions, though the latter was unfortunately non-anomorphic. But hey, neither were my old VHS tapes and at least once again I had the original versions of the movies I loved so much.
There are, much to my chagrin, some releases I’ve skipped. I haven’t bought any of the Blu-ray editions. And there was a new version of the Special Editions released in 2000 that included a teaser for Episode II that I didn’t feel was worth the time or money, though I admit I was still tempted at times.
Does all this sound a little obsessive? Absolutely. But each one of these represents not only the obvious need to be a completist in some manner but also where I was at different points in my life. So it’s impossible for me to think back on all these – and the money I spent on them – and not think about that period as a whole and everything that was going on. Even more than the movies themselves, thinking back on the various iterations I’ve bought on home video are touch points that lead to other, fuller memories of my life. That’s why something as simple as a digital release announcement has me reflecting back on Star Wars as whole and the role all these releases has played in my life.