Prior to George Lucas saving the Star Wars franchise by effectively firing himself and selling it off to the Disney Empire, much outrage and gnashing of teeth had been happening within the legions of Star Wars fans over the direction in which Lucas had taken it. If, for whatever reason, you’re not familiar with the depth of the consternation Star Wars fans were experiencing, check out this documentary on Youtube called The People Vs George Lucas.
One of Lucas’ biggest sins according to many Start Wars fans was one of the key changes he made to Episode IV: A New Hope when he re-released it with all new CG effects so that it was closer to his original vision. Many of the changes were added eye candy which from a certain point of view enhance the film visually and bring it up to date from a visual standpoint. Not everyone loved these changes, but on their own they did little to decrease the charm and feeling of the original. If that was all he had done, then I don’t think there would have been the outrage that there was. Lucas’ biggest sin was changing a key scene in which Han Solo is confronted by the bounty hunter Greedo.
Most everyone knows what happens next. In the original version, keeping in mind that we’ve only just met Han Solo one scene earlier, Greedo pulls a gun on him as the two of them sit down in a booth in the cantina. Greedo tells him that Jabba the Hut has put a price so large on Solo’s head that every bounty hunter in the galaxy will be looking for him. Solo tells him that he had to drop his shipment because he was being boarded and he didn’t have a choice. Meanwhile the camera pans down under the table and we see Solo is getting his blaster ready without Greedo noticing. Greedo tells Solo to explain it to Jabba and threatens that Jabba may only take his ship. Solo says, “Over my dead body.” Greedo then says that’s the idea and he’s been looking forward to this for a long time. Solo then famously says, “Yes, I’ll bet you have.” and he fires his blaster from under the table, killing Greedo before he even knew what happened.
In the redone version of the film, everything happens the same until Lucas awkwardly cut in a shot of Greedo shooting first and missing (from about two feet away) before Solo shoots him.
Now, talking about Lucas’ motivation for this change is a topic for another blog post. The true importance of this change is the result of how we look at Han Solo as a character. The fact that Han doesn’t shoot first changes his character in three fundamental ways.
I would imagine that one of Lucas’ motivations in having Greedo shoot first is to turn the action for Han into one of self-defense, and thus make the audience more empathetic towards Han. Lucas’ fear must have been that a modern audience might feel alienated by a character who shoots another one in cold blood from under a table in a manner that was tantamount to shooting him in the back. However the argument could be made that Han was already acting in self defense because Greedo had the drop on him and was indicating that he was going to kill him anyway. At the very least, Greedo was going to take him to Jabba which in Han’s mind equaled a death sentence, so Han shot Greedo before he had the chance. This simple act shows us right away that Han is a character who literally shoots first and asks questions later. He will also demonstrate throughout not only the rest of the film, but also the rest of the series right through The Force Awakens that he’s willing to proactively attack every situation. Having Greedo shoot first takes away that trait from Han the first time we see him. Rather than taking control of the situation, he lets the situation dictate the terms to him and he reacts. That is not the way he ever acts in any other situation, and the fact that Greedo shoots first actually makes Han less heroic.
In The Empire Strikes Back Princess Leia calls Solo a scoundrel (several scenes after calling him a Nerfherder). In A New Hope, right before the scene with Greedo, we were introduced to Han when Obi-Wan Kenobi and Luke Skywalker negotiated passage to Alderaan. Solo boasts about how fast his ship is an demands what seems to be an unreasonable price for the passage. Then when they’re on the Death Star he only agrees to attempt to rescue Leia once there’s a promise of a reward. Then finally as Luke Skywalker and the rest of the Rebellion prepare to launch their attack on the Death Star, Han appears to pack up that reward and leave the others behind facing seemingly insurmountable odds. “What good’s a reward if you ain’t around to use it?” he mockingly asks Luke after Luke chastises him for turning his back on them. This is clearly a character who is all about himself and taking care of his own interests. This is a man who seems to be untrustworthy at first. This is a character who walks the line between right and wrong. Having Greedo shoot first completely blunts that notion. Look, all characters need to have depth. No character can be completely good or completely bad. The most interesting heroes have some sort of flaw to their characters, and Solo is a scoundrel. We have to believe that he’s only out for himself because we need it to be a surprise when he shows up at the last second and saves Luke, which allows Luke to blow up the Death Star and be the hero. It needs to be a surprise in order to give the audience that maximum emotional reaction. Characters also need to have character arcs throughout a story, and a guy who shoots an alien in cold blood in a bar in some remote desert planet, only to grow over the course of the story to become one of the heroes of the galaxy is about one of the most complete character arcs in the history of cinema, and it was blunted.
The bottom line is that this is just a bad look for Solo. He lets a 2-bit bounty hunter take the first shot and miss from 2 feet away before blasting him. Solo is introduced to us as the classic anti-hero. He’s mostly a good guy, but there is a darkness and a mystery to him that makes him dangerous. We’ve been following Luke and Obi-Wan and the droids for a while now, and we don’t know what this Han guy is all about. Will be betray them? Will he steal the droids and collect the reward for himself? He dumped a shipment at the first sign of Imperial trouble, will he do the same with Luke and Obi-Wan? The fact that Han shot Greedo in cold blood before Greedo had a chance to do anything makes the audience concerned that Luke and Obi-Wan are putting their trust in a loose cannon who seems to be the farthest thing from trustworthy. Having Han shoot second removes that level of suspense which in turn removes a layer of drama from the story. That simple act makes the character less interesting and in turn makes the story less interesting.