Let’s imagine: you’re watching Star Wars Episode IV, “A New Hope,” and you’ve gotten to the Mos Eisley cantina scene, when Luke and Obi-Wan meet Han and Chewbacca. It was your favorite from when you were a kid! But then you remember you’re watching the remastered DVD version, since your taped edition from 1991 was accidentally put down the garbage disposal by your hamster. Han has his famous encounter with Greedo, retaliating a split-second after Greedo fires a blaster with a laser bolt of his own. You mutter in disgust “Han shot first.”
He did; that’s not what we’re arguing. But what if he shouldn’t have?
Han shot first because:
In writing, there is a masterful technique called “show, don’t tell.” This means that, if you want to convey a piece of information, reveal it naturally instead of having a character (or the narration) say it point-blank. This may be even more important in filmmaking, since it’s primarily a visual art. A lot can be shown in scenes without dialogue, narration, or even many actions.
Say for instance you’re making a space opera film in the seventies. You have a loveable rogue character, someone that guys want to be and women want to be with. He’s smug, cocky, and skilled. You have two main options to display him: the first is to have another character, a farm kid out on an adventure let’s say, tell another, perhaps older character that this rogue character is “Smug, cocky, and skilled.” The rogue character looks on with pleasure. Maybe not a bad idea, as long as your character proceeds to act accordingly.
Your second option is through the character’s actions. He’s got his foot up on a table, arm draped over the back of his booth, and he’s telling a bounty hunter “don’t worry; I’ll get Jorba the money.” The bounty hunter threatens to kill him if he doesn’t, so your rogue blasts away. The bounty hunter smolders, the rogue flips a coin to the bar owner and tells him “sorry about the mess.”
The character has described himself by saying nothing about himself, only through his actions and body. We’re being shown the character, instead of having it told to us. So when Han fires at Greedo mere moments after Greedo has threatened to kill him, Han is set up as someone not afraid to break the rules, someone who shoots first, asks questions later, and someone who has to act fast to keep himself safe. Han’s actions later in the movie build on this formative scene, fleshing out everyone’s favorite bad boy space captain.
Let’s look at another example. So your space opera story is a hit, and you decide to make an unrelated sequel, using the space-rogue’s son as the main character. The son is a failed revolutionary, captain to a small smuggling ship with a diverse and interesting crew that flees the ruling empire, constantly breaking down, running out of gas, and coming into contact with flesh-eating humanoids from the edges of space.
This description may sound familiar to an entirely unrelated character, Malcolm Reynolds from Firefly. Multiple times in the short-lived series, Captain Mal unloads on unsuspecting, defenseless, and even surrendered enemies because it keeps him, his crew, and his ship safe. Mal is a close second on our all-time favorite space rogue list, so it’s no surprise the parallels are drawn so smoothly. He’s dangerous, crafty, and refuses to back down.
Why Greedo shot first:
That said, and understood, there’s something that needs to be recognized: Malcolm Reynolds is not a good guy. He is the bad guy. We see him fight against the “Alliance,” the show’s Empire analogue, and even lose a civil war, so we’re meant to root for him. But why? The Alliance has created space fleets, we see boxes upon boxes of medicine, and any planet under their control is flourishing. On the other hand, the planets on the fringes are ruled by lunatics, killers, and space mafiosos. The only things we see the Alliance do that can be construed as absolutely bad (the experiments on River and SPOILER their turning the citizens of Miranda into the reavers) can easily be called the unfortunate and unforeseen consequences of attempts to do good.
But Han isn’t a bad guy. He saved Chewbacca from space-death after the wookie tried to kill him, is actually attempting to pay Jabba back, and offers to fly a couple of backwater hicks to Alderaan, even without the money up front. He kills Greedo because Greedo will absolutely kill him if he doesn’t get Jabba’s money. In fact, the struggle between Han’s rogue side and his “good” side is apparent in the very first movie; a good example would be his triumphant return to the Death Star run.
Han is constantly at odds with himself on how to act. Save the Princess and help the rebellion, or get a reward and clear his debt with Jabba? His attitude flips on a dime a number of times in the original trilogy.
Yes, certainly, the ham-fisted change to the original scene is jarring, and Lucas’ desire to adjust the original movie is unwarranted, but there may be more here than changes just for changes’ sake.