The Star Wars movies are unlike any other film series in this galaxy or those far, far away. Not only have they managed to touch different generations with their story of good triumphing over evil, but they're also constantly being tinkered with by their creator, George Lucas. Or at least they were until he sold Lucasfilm and its properties to Disney.
Over the years, fans have voiced their dissent over the changes he made to the original trilogy, but there's one alteration in particular that's a thorn in the side of Star Wars fans everywhere: Lucas's decision to have Greedo fire his blaster at Han Solo in later versions of the film, while Han fires first - without direct provocation - in the 1977 original cut.
The change is egregious because it alters the growth of a beloved main character, but making matters worse has been Lucas's odd tendency to re-cut the scene with each additional release of the Star Wars trilogy - including an unexpected addition, by Lucas's hand, in the 2019 4K release. Here's the full story of that scene - what it was, what it became, and the controversy that has become its legacy.
When the audience first meets Han Solo, he's not at his best. He's on the run from Jabba the Hut and hiding out in the Mos Eisley cantina when he's cornered by Greedo, a fly-like green alien who wants to have a chat with the smuggler while pointing his blaster at him. Greedo tells Han he'll forget he ever saw the human if he hands over the money he owes Jabba.
As Han reaches for his blaster under the table, Greedo tells Han he's run out of patience - and that he's been looking forward to taking him out. Han suddenly fires and leaves the cantina in a cloud of blaster exhaust. The 1977 version of the scene establishes Han as someone who's not afraid to get his hands dirty and take a life if he's backed into a corner, and it makes his arc into one of the head honchos of the Rebel Alliance all the more satisfying.
Changing the scene so he only fires after he's been fired upon also changes the moral logic of the character. The altered versions of the scene telegraph to the audience that Han already has a traditionally "good" moral code, which makes his narrative arc less satisfying.
In 1997, the release of The Phantom Menace was looming. In order to provide better connective tissue between the original trilogy and the prequel trilogy - as well as clean up pieces of the original films that Lucas didn't care for - the director re-cut the original films. All three movies received updates, but the most substantial changes were made to A New Hope.
This sixth and final VHS release of the films has a new THX audio master along with the much-derided CGI Jabba the Hut scene outside the cantina. However, it's Han's face-off with Greedo that drew the most ire from fans. This version of the scene shows Greedo firing at Han first - and missing him at point-blank range - which changes Han's action to something akin to self-defense. According to CNN, Lucas spent $10 million to re-edit A New Hope, which is pretty much the entire budget of the original version of the film.
Following the release of the 1997 edition of the trilogy, fans were upset at the changes made to the film, specifically the new reality created by Greedo firing on Han. The change sparked widespread debate about whether or not creators are in control of their art after it's finished, with many fans outright dismissing Lucas's alterations.
At this time, the phrase "Han Shot First" entered the cultural lexicon, with websites popping up to discuss the topic and fans coming out of the woodwork to discuss how the change made Han into a less morally dubious character. This was the beginning of the backlash against Lucas that's only grown with the rise of the internet and social media. Unfortunately, the late '90s wouldn't be the last time Star Wars fans wanted to build a Death Star and point it at Lucas's Northern California ranch.
While speaking to AFI shortly after the release of the special edition VHS, George Lucas explained that the changes made for the 1997 release of the trilogy were a long time coming. He said that when the films were in production in the '70s and '80s, he didn't have the money or technology to make what he wanted to see on screen; by making the '97 alterations, he finally got closer to his vision. He doesn't mention the Han and Greedo scene specifically, but his statement is important for clarity on the issue:
I was never really able to tell the story I wanted to tell. I had to self-censor the story down to something I knew could be done given the technology I had available... I was frustrated and I got [A New Hope] finished somehow, but it wasn't finished to the level that I wanted it to be finished.