I am part of an aging generation that still remembers when there was a movie that was actually called Star Wars. Before Disney, before the prequels, before the special editions, the first way that George Lucas began to tinker with his legacy was by gradually changing the name of the movie originally released as Star Wars in 1977 to initially Star Wars: A New Hope, and finally by 1981 the movie was officially Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. None of this mattered however, as in the early 1990’s when I was growing up and becoming aware of the film series, no one paid any attention to the word “episode” in what was then the Star Wars Trilogy, and the movies were simply known as Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. Despite the marketing and rebranding attempts of Lucasfilm over the previous decade and a half since the now “Original Trilogy” ended, it was not until the late 1990’s that the word “episode” became forever associated with the franchise. This was because a movie marketed as Episode I appeared, and now it is commonplace to refer to the movie formerly known as Star Wars as Episode IV. As I grew up calling the movie Star Wars, it has been difficult for me to make the transition to calling it Episode IV, or even A New Hope. Since there are now 7 movies in the series, and the promise of many more to come, it is difficult to call the movie Star Wars and have people understand which specific movie you mean, therefore it is inevitable that the movie’s title will finally be specified as what Lucasfilm always wanted it to be.
I first saw the movie I then knew as Star Wars on television, which in the days before the internet was the primary way of finding out about anything. On television it was punctuated by commercial advertising breaks, which were very annoying, so I asked my parents for the VHS of the movie that Christmas and could therefore watch uninterrupted. In 1997, it was the 20th Anniversary of the movie (and Lucasfilm needed to remind younger viewers of the series since they had Episode I in production), so they released the so-called ‘Special Editions’ of each of the Original Trilogy into cinemas over the course of three months. I went to see all three. Later that year, the Special Edition Trilogy was released on VHS, and I bought that too. As technology moved away from magnetic media and towards digital, the trilogy was released on DVD in 2004, and I bought them then too.
Now, I count watching a movie with ad breaks in the middle as paying to watch it, so therefore by my count I have paid to see Star Wars (and the other movies in the Original Trilogy) five times, and bought the damn thing three times. I am not even going to list here all the Star Wars merchandising I have bought during my lifetime, as it would probably run into four figures, and probably funded the purchase of a single green screen in the production of the prequel trilogy. I really have thought about this a lot over the past two weeks or so, as in the build-up to The Force Awakens I wanted to rewatch the Original Trilogy so as to be able to recognise details in the new movie that referenced its predecessors. Yet the last time I bought Star Wars was in 2004, and the world is now a very different place. First of all, I have bought a total of one DVD since 2005, when broadband internet finally made it possible to download files of 700mb+ in a reasonable amount of time. I have three copies of Star Wars in my bedroom, yet my bedroom is 2,166km away from where I currently live. Also, I currently possess the technology to play only one of the three different versions of that movie that I own (VHS tragically died sometime in the last century). I obviously feel like I have rewarded the creators of that movie enough and paid them accordingly, so I had absolutely no qualms about downloading it illegally via torrents.
I was fine with that, and they would never know, so it was all good. Then I was searching on YouTube for the trailer for The Force Awakens, and saw this in the search results.
For those who don’t speak German, or can’t work things out based on context, it is the option to watch Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope for €16.99, on YouTube. This annoyed me on several levels. Firstly, €16.99 for an almost 40 year movie, to watch in a web browser must surely be a joke. This is the equivalent of two months of unlimited Netflix streaming, or the cost of a 3D IMAX viewing of the newest movie of the franchise. If you go further into the ‘offer’, you will find that this copy you paid for will be owned by you, unlike the Netflix content that you simply borrow. So for €16.99 you can own the right to access a YouTube video whenever you want, which sounds suspiciously like YouTube not understanding what the internet is.
The cost aside, the main thing that annoyed me about this was that just like me, basically anyone over the age of 25 has already paid to see Star Wars (Episode IV: A New Hope) at least once. Anyone around the age of 50 paid to see it in the cinema, anyone around the age of 40 watched it on TV and suffered through the ad breaks, and anyone under 40 more than likely had a video or DVD copy too. The only people who have never paid to see those movies are probably under 15, and therefore incapable of paying for anything. In all honesty, on rewatching the original Star Wars movie this month, I found it has dated terribly and most of its enjoyment nowadays comes from nostalgia, and therefore no child will be convinced to engage with the franchise from that movie alone. The scale is small, the acting is old-fashioned and the pacing is more like a 1970s detective drama rather than a modern blockbuster. Even I found it boring at times, let alone a millennial child raised on the Transformers and Avengers movies.
So what is to be done? Any adult buying a digital copy of the original Star Wars movie will feel cheated because they have probably paid for ownership of the same product multiple times over their lifetimes (and probably feel that more iterations are still to come), and any child will not be satisfied watching a movie that was the spaceship of its day, but is now nothing more than a slowly paced taster of things to come. At this stage, almost 40 years after it was made, I think the time has come for the powers that be to put the oldest Star Wars movie out to pasture and release it into the public domain. That movie should be free for anyone to watch anytime. Most of us grew up with Star Wars shoved down our throats: it is impossible not to be aware of it, and that is especially apparent in the past few weeks during the build-up to the release of The Force Awakens. Everyone knows Star Wars, everyone gave money to Star Wars, and through constant discussion of the movies everyone advertises Star Wars. Children buy the toys, play the videogames and watch the animated TV shows that expand upon the original story, so there is no excuse for trying to milk them of every last bit of money by forcing them to pay for a movie they won’t enjoy. Similarly there is no reason to lie to older Star Wars fans by telling them if they buy a particular version of the movie, they will own it: we all have owned it, and we all know now that there is no such thing as owning a piece of media.
The makers of the movie I originally knew as Star Wars have changed practically everything about the film since I have been alive, even so far as to dictate to us a new name that it must be called. They re-released it multiple times and charged me for the privilege of possessing each version. They diluted the franchise (probably irreversibly) by producing prequels to explain plot points that nobody needed explained. The least they could do is stop trying to extract money from us for the dated masterpiece that started it all.