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Star Wars’ gets lavish DVD treatment

Observer Scene | Tuesday, September 28, 2004

George Lucas’ Star Wars Trilogy finally comes to DVD in a four-disc box set after seven years of waiting. When the then-young writer/director set out to make a nostalgic Flash Gordon-esque space opera, nobody realized that he was revolutionizing film forever. Everything from the Wachowski Brothers’ The Matrix to Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings owes a debt to Lucas’ science fiction opus. Fans have been clamoring for the original trilogy on DVD and it has at long last arrived in an excellent package that will please all but the most ardent detractors.The FilmsA New Hope, written and directed by George Lucas, follows two droids, R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), as they meet a young Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). The film traces Skywalker from his humble origins as a farm boy to heroic status as the savior of The Rebel Alliance in their struggle against the Evil Empire. Along the way the audience is introduced to strange new worlds and interesting characters, including the feisty Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), the wise old Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness), the world-weary Han Solo (Harrison Ford), and of course, the evil Darth Vader (David Prowse, voiced by James Earl Jones). This is one of the most successful motion pictures of all time, and it’s easy to see why: the rapid pace, stylish action sequences, groundbreaking special effects, and quasi-deep mythology became trademarks of the series.The Empire Strikes Back was written by Lawrence Kasdan and directed by Irvin Kershner. The darkest and best film in the trilogy follows Luke as he trains with Yoda (controlled and voiced by Frank Oz) while Han Solo and Princess Leia attempt to escape the menacing Darth Vader. Notable new characters include Boba Fett and the shifty Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams). The mythology is deeper and the series becomes more serious and epic. As the title implies, the Rebels get pummeled and the film ends on an ominous cliffhanger. The Empire Strikes Back actually cemented the Star Wars legacy, introducing such notable touches as The Imperial March (Darth Vader’s theme), the asteroid chase and one of the most famous revelations in film history.Return of the Jedi, scripted by Lawrence Kasdan and directed by Richard Marquand, is easily the weakest in the trilogy. In some ways it is the most complex of the three films, with Luke’s choice between the Light Side and the Dark Side accentuated by his attempts to convert Darth Vader and the presence of The Emperor (Ian McDiarmid) adding a darkly sinister touch. Meanwhile, the Rebels amass a final assault against The Empire, led by Lando Calrissian and augmented on the ground by Han Solo and Princess Leia. Unfortunately, the film is bogged down by the Ewoks, which points toward Lucas’ childish prequel mentality, and an overly long preamble which features the gangster slug Jabba the Hutt. Still, Return of the Jedi is a satisfying conclusion and, unlike Episode I, does not collapse into embarrassing silliness.Video QualityAll three films are presented in anamorphic widescreen, which preserves the original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. This ratio preserves some pretty precise framing, which is lost in pan/scan, so avoid the full screen version at all costs if you want to see the epic battles in all their glory. That being said, the picture quality is absolutely fantastic. These three films have never looked this good in a home format of any kind. Neither VHS nor Laserdisc received the restoration work that Lowry Digital (the same company that did the restoration on Indiana Jones) performed on these DVDs and it clearly shows; they used 600 Mac G5s to clean nearly every speck and scratch from the original negatives, resulting in a beautiful final transfer. Until true high-definition, the films will never look this good. The colors are particularly well-reproduced: from the sand-baked yellows of Tatooine to the pure white ice plains of Hoth, to the grimy greens of Dagobah, colors are lush and precise. A New Hope, understandably, looks slightly more worn than the sequels; this seems to result from limitations of the source material itself and has less to do with the restoration.Audio QualityThe remixed 5.1 EX audio tracks for these films are, for the most part, excellent. It’s hard to believe that these films were not originally mixed in this sound setting, as the surrounds are active and clear across the entire field and the subwoofer in particular gets a satisfying workout. That being said, the dialogue is still clear and the overall mix of the film is appropriately balanced. Everything from the hum of the light sabers to Vader’s breathing to John Williams’ dynamic score flows across the five channels from the softest passages and effects to the most bombastic fanfares with aplomb. Despite this, there is one major and bizarre caveat with the 5.1 audio track on A New Hope. Williams’ score in the rear channels has been reversed so that the music that should be emitting from the left rear channel emits from the right rear and vice-versa. This is only noticeable in a few spots – the opening titles and the final throne room scene – but it is distracting nonetheless, especially since the sound effects are in the correct channels. While Lucasfilm has attributed this to “creative decision” it seems unlikely that the score would be unbalanced for A New Hope and not the other two films. More plausible is that this was a serious quality-control error on Lucasfilm’s part, which is particularly frustrating considering the demand for the set.Changes to a classicFor those familiar with the films, be forewarned: these aren’t the same versions exhibited in the late seventies/early eighties, nor are they the 1997 Special Editions. Instead, Lucas has once again gone and re-edited his films, adding even more special effects and fixing what he probably considers continuity problems. Some of these changes include:u A New Hope: a newly computer generated image of Jabba the Hutt (which is still rather shoddy looking), reprocessed vocal effects on Darth Vader and re-done light sabersu The Empire Strikes Back: the dubbing of Temuera Morrison as Boba Fett and the insertion of Ian McDiarmid as The Emperor (which, puzzlingly enough, features new dialogue between McDiarmid and James Earl Jones)u Return of the Jedi: the addition of Naboo to the celebrations at the end (which, if you listen carefully, features Jar-Jar Binks), and, perhaps most egregiously, the addition of Hayden Christensen as the spirit of Anakin Skywalker. Additionally, many of the special effects have been cleaned up or digitally enhanced. While some of these changes are welcome, many of the others are bafflingly unnecessary. Though these changes may be in keeping with Lucas’ overall vision, they are not the films that were originally released in 1977, 1980 and 1983. Lucas has a responsibility to film history and this revisionism is both needless and inexcusable; as a film school graduate himself, he of all people should understand that responsibility.Extra FeaturesEach of the films contains an audio commentary track by Lucas, Fisher and sound designer Ben Burtt. These commentaries are engaging and interesting, although it’s obvious that they were recorded separately and spliced together. The most informative is probably Burtt, who vividly describes the stellar sound design of the films, but the most notable is Empire’s Irvin Kershner, whose grasp of the film’s depth and mythology is impressive.At the core of the fourth disc is the documentary “Empire of Dreams,” which, at 150 minutes, runs longer than any of the films themselves. This is an engaging and interesting documentary that features much of the cast, crew and executives involved in the making of the three films. The first hour and a half traces George Lucas from his days as a USC film student through THX-1138 and American Graffiti to A New Hope. The last hour is almost equally split between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. The documentary is bolstered by the many notable participants, including Alan Ladd Jr. (former Fox executive and Lucas supporter), Jones, Hamill, and Ford. Additionally, the documentary features many of the technical personnel from the film as it explores the birth of Industrial Light and Magic, Skywalker Sound, and THX. “Empire of Dreams” is a complete look at all three films and contains enough interesting information and anecdotes that it justifies its 150-minute runtime.Other extras include three featurettes about the characters, light sabers and legacy of the films. These featurettes are much less substantial than Empire of Dreams, but still have their share of interesting information. Perhaps most notable is the participation of filmmakers such as Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings) and Ridley Scott (Alien, Black Hawk Down), who talk about the impact the films had in their lives and careers.The Star Wars Trilogy finally comes to DVD with mostly stellar results. While Lucas’ filmmaking has certainly deteriorated over the years – as the prequels have glaringly demonstrated – the original films still retain their power after all these years, despite Lucas’ tinkering. Those reservations aside, this set comes highly recommended. Star Wars will never look or sound this good on DVD again and the films are a timeless addition to any personal collection.