How else am I to begin the review for the most anticipated films ever to be released on the DVD medium?
“A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…”
Who among you doesn’t notice your pulse quickening and your breathing become more slightly more rapid when you see those infamous words appear on the screen? Anyone who has seen my basement will attest that my pulse and respiration don’t just quicken but enter into full anticipation mode (needless to say that a large percentage of my earnin…s as an adult now go into George Lucas’ coffers).
To sum the review of the 4 disc set briefly I will quote some of the more memorable lines of the trilogy…”Impressive…most impressive! (Darth Vader during his battle with Luke on Bespin),” and “Yeeeeeehaaaaa! (Lando Calrissian after the destruction of the second Death Star).”
The Star Wars Trilogy arrives on DVD in the form of a new 4-disc box set, containing not only the much-loved movies, but also a separate disc of all-new bonus material.
Now if you really need a synopsis of the three films…where have you been for the last 30 years?
To summarize briefly the Star Wars trilogy tells of the adventures of Luke Skywalker, a farm boy on a remote planet that get thrust into an intergalactic conflict that has a small band of rebels trying to overthrow the evil Galactic Empire. During his journeys he meets his mentor and Jedi Knight Obi Wan-Kenobi, the charismatic smuggler, rogue and scoundrel Han Solo and his partner Chewbacca, Princess Leia Organa of Alderaan and member of the Rebel Alliance, as well as the devoted droids R2-D2 and C3P0. The story unfolds by pitting Luke against the evil Empire and it’s most sinister agent Darth Vader, Lord of the Sith, former Jedi and as we all learn in the most shocking cliffhanger possibly in movie history, Luke’s father. The Star Wars trilogy tells the story of Luke’s journey to become a Jedi Knight but also tells the story of his father’s redemption. Here we see Anakin Skywalker return to the good side of the Force – the prequel trilogy tells the story of his fall.
So instead of providing a detailed summary of all three movies, I will instead focus on the enhancements and changes provided for the DVD release.
It may be the original trilogy but these are not the original versions. What is presented here is the 1997 Special Edition Versions. Which is great because I thoroughly enjoyed the Special Editions (with exception of the Greedo shoots first scene), the addition of Jabba and Boba Fett in Star Wars allowed a further connection between all three films. There are a number of additions that either enhance the audio and video or once again further connect all 6 movies.
In A New Hope, there is a revised opening shot as Luke’s landspeeder enters Mos Eisley Spaceport (the speeder model is more detailed and moves more naturally), an improved version of the Han/Greedo fight (Greedo still shoots first, but only just – the blasts are much closer together and Han’s movement is smoother), a new CG model of Jabba the Hutt (it’s a revised version of the Episode I model of the character and is much improved) and re-rotoscoped lightsaber blades throughout the film (blade color is more pronounced and the animation is more like the prequel films).
The digital changes to The Empire Strikes Back for this DVD release are fewer than they are in A New Hope. In fact, there are only three major changes. These include the use of Temuera Morrison (Jango Fett in Attack Of The Clones) as the voice of Boba Fett (which makes sense given that Boba is the only unaltered clone of Jango), the elimination of Luke’s scream when he jumps to escape Vader on Cloud City, and the use of actor Ian McDiarmid as the Emperor. I should note that the Emperor alteration also involves a change in the scene’s dialogue. The Emperor now tells Vader that he has no doubt “the young rebel who destroyed the Death Star is the offspring of Anakin Skywalker.”
As with Empire, are three major digital changes to Return of the Jedi, all of which appear at the end of the film. When Luke removes Vader’s mask to reveal his father’s face, the eyebrows of actor Sebastian Shaw have been erased (presumably because Anakin’s face will be badly burned in Episode III). Then, after the second Death Star is destroyed, when the film cuts to the various celebrations around the galaxy, Naboo is now included among the planets we see. Finally, when the Force spirits of Ben, Yoda and Anakin appear to Luke at the very end of the film, actor Sebastian Shaw has been replaced with Hayden Christensen (as he’ll appear in Revenge Of The Sith). Lucas explains briefly in the audio commentary that when Vader joins the Force, he’s able to retain his original identity as he was when he died as Anakin Skywalker. Since Yoda and Ben retained their good identities until they were old, that’s how their Force ghosts appear. There are also a couple minor changes – the shot of Coruscant now includes the Galactic Senate and Jedi Temple on the horizon (as seen in Episodes I & II).
Simply put, the Star Wars films have never (and I mean EVER) looked this good before. The films presented on these discs absolutely sparkle, in all their anamorphic widescreen glory. The technical wizards at THX and Lowry Digital worked for months to create new high-definition digital masters of these films, transferred directly from the original negatives. Once the films were transferred, painstaking efforts were made to clean the digital masters of dust, dirt, scratches and excessive grain. To give you an idea of just how much work was involved, more than 100 bits of debris were digitally removed from EACH FRAME – ultimately entailing the removal of over 10 million such blemishes in all over the three films combined. As a result, you will not find a single speck ANYWHERE on any of these films. The snow-white slopes of Hoth and the sand-baked dunes of Tatooine have never looked so pure.
Because the transfers were done from the original negatives, you’re going to see detail in these films that you’ve never seen before. You’ll notice this right from the opening shot of A New Hope, when the Star Destroyer chases the Rebel Blaockade Runner over the surface of Tatooine. Just look at the subtle swirl of cloud patterns on the planet below – astonishing. Best of all, not a single bit of added edge enhancement was required to bring out this detail. The color palette here is more lush and accurate than ever before. You’re going to be blown away by everything from subtle flesh tones to the vibrant gold plating on C-3PO’s chest (my jaw literally dropped the first time I saw C-3PO) to the bright orange flightsuits of the Rebel pilots. Contrast is also spectacular, with deep detailed blacks and clear, accurate whites. All three films in this set are just going to absolutely blow you away, and the bigger your screen the better it gets. The Star Wars Trilogy on DVD a reason to go out and buy yourself a good anamorphic widescreen display. Until true high-definition arrives, it just doesn’t get better than this.
On the audio side, all three films have been fully re-mixed in true Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround EX. The dynamic range in these mixes is impressive (…most impressive – I just love that line!!!) – everything from the softest passages of John Williams’ signature score to the most explosive moments of action will fill your home theater space with natural, immersive sound. In any case, the mixes are packed with atmospheric fill, active panning and surround play. The Surround EX center back channel is nicely active – you’ll definitely be glad you have an extra speaker back there. Dialogue is always clear. In the mixes for all three films, the low frequencies will really give your subwoofer a workout. Whenever Darth Vader “dealt with” one of the Imperial officers who disappointed him the subwoofer shook so much I thought the house might come down…now that’s the power of the Force! The new 5.1 EX mixes are a generally appropriate match to the near perfect image quality.
In terms of extras, each movie disc also features a full-length audio commentary track with members of the cast and crew. For all three films, George Lucas provides his thoughts on the overall themes and concepts, as well as interesting anecdotes on the characters and production. Actress Carrie Fisher chimes in as well with her thoughts and shares some particularly funny behind-the-scenes stories about working on the films. Sound designer Ben Burtt discusses his audio work and the creation of various sounds for each character, vehicle, prop and environment. Dennis Muren addresses the elaborate special effects work. For the Empire commentary, director Irvin Kershner joins this group to provide his insights on the making of the film. As with the The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones commentaries, the name of the person talking will occasionally appear at the top of the screen to help you identify them. The commentaries are fascinating and absolutely worth listening to.
The majority of the extras in this set are contained on its fourth disc, appropriately titled Bonus Material. This opens with an animated menu that depicts the Falcon flying through the asteroid field in Empire (you eventually end up in the Falcon’s cockpit to make your selections). I should also note here that nearly every item on this disc is presented in anamorphic widescreen video.
Arguably the most important bonus feature on the disc is Kevin Burns’ 151-minute Empire of Dreams: The Story of the Star Wars Trilogy documentary. Burns was given full access to the expansive Lucasfilm Archives and was able to uncover hours of behind-the-scenes footage from the making of these films that you’ve definitely never seen before. The documentary begins with Lucas’ original idea for the films, then covers the development, pre-production, filming and post-production of the original Star Wars in tremendous depth. Burns’ idea was to take you back to 1977, to relive not only the struggle that was the making of the original film but also the film-going climate into which it was ultimately released. You are there are at the Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, waiting in line to see the film for the first time. You actually get to see the original version of the opening crawl, without the Episode IV – A New Hope tag. You get to hear from absolutely everyone involved in the making of these films. Over 40 new, in-depth and original interviews were conducted with all the major cast members, the production staffers, etc. They’re all here to give you their thoughts on the films.
The first hour of Empire of Dreams is devoted exclusively to A New Hope, and then the remaining time is split between the making of Empire and Jedi. As I said, you’re going to see things you never knew existed – footage of the cast clowning around on the set, a couple alternate versions of scenes from the films, plenty of production artwork and still photos – you name it. Irvin Kershner tells a great story about how the secret of Luke’s parentage was kept hidden from the cast, crew and fans. It’s pretty amazing stuff.
Also on this disc are a set of three production featurettes. The Characters of Star Wars tells of the development of each character within the story and how each major role was cast. This includes some great, never-before-seen video of actors who tried out for the parts but didn’t get them. Can you imagine Kurt Russell as Han Solo? Cindy Williams as Leia? William Katt (yeah… The Greatest American Hero) as Luke? It’s great stuff.
The Birth of the Lightsaber addresses how the traditional weapon of the Jedi came to be. We get to see rare video of fight rehearsals and on-set raw footage (without the blades rotoscoped in). Ben Burtt tells you how he came up with the sound, etc. Again, good stuff.
The Force is with Them: The Legacy of Star Wars looks at the influence the Star Wars films have had on Hollywood filmmaking (and filmmakers) as a whole. It features new interviews with the likes of Peter Jackson, Ridley Scott, Steven Spielberg, James Cameron and many others as they each talk about how the success of these films affected their careers and their work.
Fans of Star Wars minutiae will be pleased to learn that a whole gallery of rare theatrical trailers and TV spots for each film has been included on this disc, each in anamorphic widescreen video and presented in quality you’ve never seen before. There are also galleries of original poster art for the films, as well as a gallery of rare production photos. The production photos are very cool to see, but they’re also a little frustrating because they include images from many deleted scenes we’ve all been waiting to see for years. That’s all fine and good… except none of these actual scenes are included on the disc. That’s right – you will not get to see Luke and Biggs on Tatooine from A New Hope, the Wampa attack from Empire, or the sandstorm from Jedi. The fact that they’re not here is deliberate and tells you something else – they’ve been held back for inclusion on a more elaborate special edition release of these films in the future (possibly that Lucasfilm is already planning the high-definition box set of the whole 6-film saga, possibly for the original film’s 30th anniversary in 2007?).
There are three other cool extras on this disc you’ll want to check out. The cool stuff includes a long-awaited sneak peek at the forthcoming Revenge Of The Sith. This takes the form of a featurette on the return of Darth Vader. We get to see the production staff building the new Vader costume, actor Hayden Christensen talking about what it’s like to don the familiar black helmet, and Christensen and co-star Ewan McGregor practicing the infamous lightsaber duel that will climax the film. I actually had a chill run down my spine to see Christiansen put on the amour of everyone’s favorite Sith Lord.
Speaking of trailers, as with the previous Star Wars DVDs, these discs include DVD-ROM weblinks to an exclusive online site where you may get the first look at additional footage from these films, the Episode III trailer, etc.
There is a trailer for the Star Wars Battlefront Xbox game and a preview teasing the making of the forthcoming Episode III videogame. If you put this disc in your Xbox, you’ll get to play a complete preview level of Star Wars Battlefront.
Star Wars is here! Star Wars is here! The movies that influenced a generation have finally come to DVD. George Lucas stated that he wanted to wait to see if DVD would be the proper media form to do his epic space saga justice. He did a dry run with the Indiana Jones Trilogy last year and pushed the format to its limits. Star Wars pushes those limits even further to a “galaxy far, far away…” That is until 2007 when hopefully we can expect a HIGH DEFINITION set of the complete Star Wars saga (Episodes I-VI). If you haven’t already…buy this set. This is truly what DVD is all about.
May The Force Be With You.
Special Features List
- Three Commentary Tracks (one per film)
- “Empire of Dreams: The Story of the Star Wars Trilogy”
- Featurettes: The Legendary Creatures of Star Wars, The Birth of the Lightsaber, The Legacy of Star Wars
- Teasers, trailers, TV spots, still galleries
- Playable Xbox demo of the new Lucasarts game Star Wars Battlefront
- The making of the Episode III videogame
- Exclusive preview of Star Wars: Episode III
- Much More…