I spent the past three nights rewatching the original Star Wars trilogy. My resurgence of interest, disregarding the fact that they are some of my favorite films, was sparked by my having learned recently that the original theatrical versions had received a DVD release a few years ago. I have some memories of watching The Empire Strikes Back on my dad's old, tiny, black-and-white TV, so catching them on sometime in the mid-nineties may have been my first exposure to the series. It was through the "Special Edition" VCR boxset, however, that I intimately acquainted myself with the trilogy, and those are still the versions most familiar to me. Therefore, I was excited by this opportunity to watch the movies in their original unaltered state.
And goddamn, do these films look good. Even thirty years on, in an age of CG, a lot of these practical effects hold up impressively. Scenes in space look realistic--I mean, I won't lie, there are many points at which you can see the matte lines on the ships, but when the special effects work seamlessly, it looks better than the vast majority of current CG. The sound design also grabbed my attention this time around, and I think the sound effects often compensate for any visual hiccups.
Also, since I am in my post-screenwriting-class mode and can no longer watch a film without a bit of ruthless analysis, I think I enjoyed all three films in new ways. Each movie follows the 2-hour 3-act structure almost to the letter, which definitely works in their favor. A lot of characters I never completely appreciated stood out to me too, and made these viewings quite fun. R2-D2, for instance, is a fantastic character. The fact that so much personality can ooze from a completely non-anthropomorphic machine which communicates only in unintelligible beeps and whistles is a massive feat. Honestly, I am now convinced that robot is one of the best things to come out of the Star Wars universe. C-3PO is bit more of a one-note comic relief character, but it's an important role, and it works because he plays so well off of the rest of the cast, and vice versa. Han Solo also went up several notches in my book, possibly because he is that "asshole with a heart of gold" archetype that I love so well. And Harrison Ford is just so fucking charming and smarmy and amusing and steals nearly every scene he is in.
It's funny that Return of the Jedi used to be my favorite of the trilogy, but now I am afraid that I agree with the consensus and find it to be the weakest of the three films. I think it is largely the slow second act, which had always somewhat bothered me, but more so now. I still find the first and third acts to be incredible, though, the third in particular. The Empire Strikes Back is my current favorite, and I have a hell of a lot more admiration now for A New Hope, which used to be my least favorite.
Now, in regards to comparing the original theatrical versions to the touched-up versions...I would have to watch the revised versions again to really pin down the changes and comment on them. Of course, that by itself shows that I think a lot of Lucas' revisions were graphical touch-ups, which I really can't fault him for. Like I said, most of the effects look fantastic as is, and digitally removing visible matte cutouts, goofs, and other artifacts of the technology at the time only makes them that much shinier. In regards to adding extra animals in the background, a CG sarlac, and slightly more additive additions, I think those are fine too. Of course, you can run into the problem of the CG now not looking all that realistic, and perhaps anachronistic as well, but I would lump those kinds of things in with the matte lines of the original trilogy, i.e. noticeable, but not distracting. Adding an entire musical number to Return of the Jedi might be a bit questionable, but part of the fun of Star Wars is that it allows itself to have moments of fun (the Cantina band, Yoda as a bonkers little hermit, etc.) in between the otherwise heavy storyline. Also, the music that concluded the original Return of the Jedi is absolutely terrible compared to what replaced it, so that is definitely a good change. On the opposite end of the spectrum, making Han shoot second is an example of Lucas derping hard.
I am pretty much the opposite of a purist, so I am not going to say that the original theatrical versions of these films are unequivocally superior films, or that Lucas went mad with CG power and ruined the series with his revisions. I think he made some needed touch-ups, added/deleted some pretty trivial things, and went a bit overboard in other respects. The debate that has surrounded the revised Star Wars trilogy brings up a good question of at what point, if at any point, does a creator lose license over his creation. It's a really fascinating question, and I do not have a good answer for it. I think the original Star Wars trilogy, however, is a strong enough force to stand apart from any wishes made by its creator or fanbase.