A look at Project 4K77

A lot of Star Wars fans haven’t seen the original Star Wars. Oh sure, they’ve seen A New Hope, but not the original film as it appeared in 1977 and the years after. In the late ’90s and early 2000s the original film was edited – heavily, in some places – and given the “Special Edition” monicker. It’s this version of the film that’s been the only one available to watch on DVD, Blu-ray, and streaming platforms ever since. So as I said at the beginning – many Star Wars fans haven’t seen the original film.

Even I hadn’t until recently. I’d been lucky enough to see the pre-Special Edition cut on VHS in the early 1990s, but even that version of the film had at least one significant edit – the title. In 1977, Star Wars was just Star Wars. A New Hope was the revised subtitle given to the film after the release of The Empire Strikes Back in 1980, which was also the time it was retroactively declared “Episode IV”. So even I hadn’t seen the original theatrical version!

In one of the most notorious changes made in the Special Edition of A New Hope, Greedo shoots at Han Solo in the Cantina.

The subtitle doesn’t really bother me. I tend to refer to the first film in the series as Star Wars anyway, unless discussing the wider franchise. Then it becomes necessary to differentiate the first film – just like how Star Trek can be called The Original Series. But what does bother me – at least a little – are many of the other edits and changes.

In a way, I can appreciate what George Lucas was trying to do. In 1977, a combination of budget and technical limitations meant that some of his ideas for how scenes could look had to be curtailed, and with the unlimited resources thrown his way in the late 1990s and early 2000s, he evidently felt he could bring the original films more in line with his vision by using CGI.

The opening crawl from the original theatrical version of Star Wars. Note the lack of a subtitle – the film was not called A New Hope in 1977.

The problem is, of course, that CGI in the late ’90s was pretty crap. Heck, CGI can be janky even today – just look at the catastrophic Cats film from last year for an example of that. The result of Lucas’ edits to Star Wars is that the film is, at best, a visually weird mix of poor-quality CGI and the original practical effects. At worst, the crappy CGI can be totally immersion-breaking.

There have been numerous other edits to Star Wars, including when it recently arrived on Disney+. Some fans noted that the currently-available version on both Blu-ray and streaming looks darker and washed-out, as if a filter has been applied.

CGI Stormtroopers, creatures, and ships in the Special Edition.

So what is Project 4K77? It’s a fan-made remaster of the original theatrical release of Star Wars – the 1977 version, digitally transcribed and available to watch in 4k resolution. None of the Special Edition features are included, and there are two versions – with and without digital noise reduction, which can help clean up the old film grain, but at the expense of not being as “pure”. The title is simply a reference to the fact that the finished version is in 4K resolution, and that the original Star Wars was released in 1977. Hence, Project 4K77.

It’s worth noting that the project is completely unofficial and unsupported by Lucasfilm or parent company Disney. The completed film exists in a legal grey area – it’s a copyrighted work, wholly owned by Disney and Lucasfilm, but the team behind Project 4K77 argue that the original version of the film has been abandoned by its parent company and thus is fair game. Big companies like Disney often jump on fan projects as they become aware of them; Project 4K77 has been out in the open since at least 2018, when the finished remaster of Star Wars was released, and in the two years since nothing bad seems to have happened and the website is still online. Perhaps Disney and Lucasfilm simply don’t care – I can’t imagine they’re unaware of the project after two years. But if you’re desperately worried about things like copyright, you should be aware of its status. The people behind the project also say that they expect everyone who downloads it to already own at least one copy of the film through official means.

The original version (top) and Special Edition revision (bottom). Note the difference in colour temperature and lighting for Obi-Wan and the two lightsabers in particular.

I have great admiration for anyone who takes on a big project and sees it to completion, but these fans have gone above and beyond. They’ve worked on this project basically for free in their spare time, and the result has been a complete restoration of the original film. Return of the Jedi has been remastered too, under the title Project 4K83, and The Empire Strikes Back is supposedly still being worked on. The expression “labour of love” can be thrown around very casually sometimes, but it absolutely fits here. There’s no other way to describe what these fans have accomplished.

Star Wars is in an unusual place as a piece of film history. It’s a classic film that spawned an entire franchise, but unlike many other classic works of cinema, the original film that accomplished so much has, in effect, been out of print for decades. When considering other comparable works, even within the sci-fi and fantasy genres, that hasn’t happened before. Alien, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and even films like Flash Gordon can still be found and watched in their original forms. Star Wars can’t – or it couldn’t until recently.

This scene – featuring a crap-looking CGI Jabba the Hutt – wasn’t even included in the pre-Special Edition cuts of the film.

I don’t think it’s possible to understate the importance of what Project 4K77 has done. When future historians come to look back at late-20th Century cinema, there was a real risk that one of the most important works in the sci-fi/fantasy genres would only be available in a reworked, heavily-edited form. Thanks to this project, that’s no longer the case. The original film has been preserved in its original form, and the importance of that is profound.

While we may look at Project 4K77’s remastered Star Wars as an interesting curiosity, it’s so much more than that. And not only for Star Wars fans like myself who hasn’t seen the film in this form – but for countless current and future fans of sci-fi/fantasy and cinema in general. It’s a piece of history, and I’m all for the preservation of important historical documents and artefacts – by whatever means necessary!

Luke’s X-Wing in its original form – a physical model, not a CGI creation.

If you’re going to go looking for a copy, I daresay you’ll be able to find it through the usual methods for acquiring such content. But bear in mind the file size is particularly large – it hasn’t been compressed in any way. I watched it on my television – a 4K display, but just an LCD one, nothing special. On an OLED display it would look stunning, I’m sure – and even better if you have a proper home cinema setup with a 4K projector and screen!

The more copies of Project 4K77 that exist out there in the wild, the greater the chance it will survive long-term, which is important for the reasons discussed. But it’s something I feel every Star Wars fan needs to see at least once; this is where the franchise truly began. Everything that’s happened since in a galaxy far, far away is built on the shoulders of this film – and in particular, this version of the film. It’s a piece of cinematic history that George Lucas tried to bury. Fans decided not to let him, and Project 4K77 is the result.

The Star Wars franchise – including Star Wars and the rest of the original trilogy – remains the copyright of Lucasfilm and Disney. Project 4K77 is unofficial, and it’s your responsibility to stay on the right side of copyright law. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.