The latter years of George Lucas’s career are marked by nothing so much as controversy. Not only was there the divisive (at best) reaction to the ‘Star Wars’ prequel trilogy, but perhaps more significantly (or at least more persistently) there was also the backlash to his seemingly compulsive need to tinker with his earlier films, most notably the original ‘Star Wars’ trilogy. This tinkering typically took the form of tweaks to special effects, replacing miniatures with CGI models, adding digital creatures to shots, and so on. It’s something that ‘Star Wars’ fans have continued to rail against, even since Lucas entered semi-retirement, partly due to the often baffling rationale behind the changes that were implemented and partly due to the fact that the original, unaltered versions have been largely unavailable for two decades.
Less infamously (but controversially nonetheless) his friend Steven Spielberg has ventured down that road as well. For the twentieth anniversary of ‘E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial’ in 2002, Spielberg took the opportunity to update the film, adding a handful of CGI effects sequences and (in a decision memorably ridiculed on ‘South Park’) digitally replacing the rifles brandished by federal agents with walkie-talkies. But Spielberg never quite seemed as enamored of these digital revisions as Lucas was, as the intervening years have seen the altered version of ‘E.T.’ lapse out of circulation in favor of the original version. Speaking at a press event to promote his upcoming adaptation of ‘Ready Player One’, Spielberg shared his thoughts on the matter in response to the question of whether or not he’d consider revisiting his other films in such a manner:
“Well, I got in trouble for doing that. When ‘E.T.’ was re-released, I actually digitized five shots where E.T. went from being a puppet to a digital puppet and I also replaced the gun when the FBI runs up on the van, now they’re walkie-talkies. So there’s a really bad version of ‘E.T.’ where I took my cue from ‘Star Wars’ and all of the digital enhancements of ‘A New Hope’ that George put in, and I went ahead, because the marketing at Universal thought we need something to get an audience back and see the movie so I did a few touch ups in the film, and in those days, social media wasn’t as profound as it is today but was just beginning, you know, erupted a loud, negative voice about how could you ruin our favorite childhood film by taking the guns away and putting walkie-talkies in their hands among other things. So I learned a big lesson and that’s the last time I decided to ever mess with the past. What’s done is done, and um, I’ll never go back and do another movie I’ve made and I have control over to enhance or change.”
So there we have it. Those of us who worried that the next milestone anniversary might bring a version of ‘Jaws’ that replaces Bruce the mechanical shark with a CGI rendering can breathe a sigh of relief.