From what they say in the movie that they destroyed the original films when they made the SEs and can't go back.
I know they released the Original Editions in 2006 as a 2nd disc (transfers from the Laserdisc set) and I have those and for now, that is all I need. Sure they aren't super duper cleaned up and all that jazz but I don't really care that much about any of that stuff.
They neglected to say that in the movie
I can't imagine that the original elements have been destroyed. That is a total LFL excuse. They do mention that in the film.
From The Secret History of Star Wars: Saving Star Wars: The Special Edition Restoration Process and its Changing Physicality
. . .Since the negs themselves can't be physically altered, the restoration's final product must have been a new IP with correct coloring. Whenever films are color-timed, it is the Interpositives from which theatrical prints work from--original negatives do not contain any color-timing information, so whenever a release goes back to the original negatives, all the color-timing is lost and the film must be re-timed from scratch all over again. It is doubtful that an entirely new negative was struck from the corrected IP for Star Wars, which might explain why Lucas enacted a second color-timing effort in 2004 when he returned to the original negatives.
Had the film remained like this, we would have a restored version of Star Wars, perfectly matching the original release but with pristine quality, even to the point where it was better than what could have been possible back then (as with the higher quality optical transitions). However, this was only part of the process of making what was eventually called "The Special Edition." ILM was working on many dozens of new shots, and an even larger amount of enhanced shots, using digital effects to re-do, expand, re-edit and otherwise alter many scenes in the film. When these were completed, they apparently were printed onto film and re-cut into the negative, replacing the original negs, which were undoubtedly put back into storage. As a result, the negative for Star Wars is filled with CGI-laden modern alterations. When Lucas says that the original version physically does not exist, this is what he really means--the negative is conformed to the Special Edition. Of course, it would be very easy to simply put the original pieces back and conform it to the original version, or use the separation masters and IPs, or simply scan the old pieces for a digital restoration, but I digress.
. . .It is also incredibly hard to imagine that Star Wars will never be restored to its original version. Perhaps it will take Lucas' passing to see this enacted--or perhaps not, given that he allowed the original versions to be released on DVD in 2006, even if they were just Laserdisk ports. In any case, I would be willing to bet a good amount of money that in some years in the future efforts were made to somehow save the original version of Star Wars--from Lucas himself, it may seem, as his Special Edition would have to be somehow worked around in gathering original elements. The negative could be re-conformed to its original configuration, using the original, saved pieces, but this is problematic due to handling issues (and losing more frames). When Robert Harris restored Godfather last year, he had to do it entirely digitally, saying that if any pin-registered mechanism were to touch the negative it would crumble. In Star Wars' case, using scans of the separation masters is perfectly viable, and though IPs and Technicolor prints are not ideal for masters they could be usable if cleaned up digitally. Perhaps the easiest option would be to simply follow the 1997 restoration pattern but in the digital realm: scan the negative in 8K, then scan the stored pre-SE shots or re-comp them, and fill in any damaged areas with IPs or separation masters, reconstructing the original cut, then digitally remove dirt and damage, and finally use a Technicolor print as a color reference for the Digital Intermediate created. Such a product would be theatrically viable, as pristine as when it had been shot, and 100% faithful in image and color to the original release.
The pricetag of doing a project like this would likely be under a million dollars. Jim Ward claims that Lucasfilm sold $100 million in DVDs in a single day when the refurbished Star Wars films came out in 2004, and while this figure might not be replicated (though in my opinion it probably would, if given a comparable marketing campaign) clearly there would be worthwhile profit. One day, I predict this process will happen, but that day does not seem to be anywhere in the near future. It will remain to be seen if the negative to Star Wars is in a salvageable state by the time this happens or if it has become a brittle relic, faded to black and white. It wouldn't be the first time the negative of a famous film has been lost--Criterion's restoration of Seven Samurai, for instance, does not work from a negative, nor did the gorgeous 35mm print of Rashomon that toured theatres this year. With fine-grain masters, IPs, and Separation masters available, the negative need not be the only source for a new master.
Backlash has, of course, occurred because of all this drama. The last dedicated release of the original version was a Laserdisk and VHS in 1995 (using the 1985 IP, which was then mastered in THX, according to Into the Digital Realm--the in-progress restoration couldn't be used for this release because it was still in-progress). By 2006, originaltrilogy.com had petitioned over 70,000 signatures to get the original versions released, and while the Laserdisk-port release of that year was at least admission of defeat of Lucas' crusade to erase the originals from existence, it also frustrated fans and experts alike, especially since the release wasn't even anamorphic (as the Laserdisk wasn't). When a letter-writing campaign reached Lucasfilm they responded by saying that the Laserdisk was the best source for the originals--which it would be without having to spend money, that is. Robert Harris, the man who had hand-restored Vertigo and Lawrence of Arabia, and later The Godfather, went on record saying he knew there were pristine 35mm elements available for use, and offered his services to restore the film. Lucasfilm did not respond. The efforts of fans and professionals like these will probably result in the aforementioned restoration at some point, if only for the callousness of making money, but it seems that day is not today.
The story of Star Wars' negative is both the story of advancing technology and the story of Lucas' ego. Showing how fragile negative film can be, how all sorts of old-fashioned tricks and the most advanced of analog technology was used to photo-chemically restore the elements, which were then embellished by select digital pieces in the infant technology, like some kind of emerging cyborg; by 2004, the film had been entirely consumed by digital technology, existing only as a digital negative. At the same time, a crusade of revisionism took over, moving from a project to preserve Star Wars so that future generations could see it, to an enhanced anniversary celebration for the fans that Lucas could use as an excuse to play with emerging digital technology, to finally a consummation of his prequel storyline and a nail in the coffin for the original version that so many had loved and that had given him his empire in the first place, while the quality of the negative itself seemed perpetually sliding downward in resolution.