Star Wars Trilogy
A few years ago there was a film that highlighted the summer of 1977, while it detailed such New York centered events like the Son of Sam serial killer and the east coast blackout, one of the most culturally important events was over looked, the premier of one of the most influential and heatedly debated films ever, Star Wars. This unexpectedly popular space odyssey was the third film of the then rising young director George Lucas. Along with the two sequels that followed, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, this franchise formed the basis of an entirely new American mythology. Twenty years after the original theatrical release a new home video format was created, the DVD, and immediately the public shouted their demands for the trilogy’s release. While George Lucas balked at a DVD release he did create a set of special editions for VHS collectors. The outrage of many came about from the numerous alterations Lucas made in the name of perfecting his vision. Well, now we have the DVDs but there is a catch, they represent yet another set of changes. Like it or not Lucas is able to make these changes and once again the public is divided.
The most altered of the three films is without a doubt the first one, known for a while now as Episode IV: A New Hope. The controversial gun fight between Greedo and Han Solo has been redone yet again. While the original version had Han shooting first and the 1997 re-release showed Greedo pulling the trigger first a bit of a compromise was attempted by Lucas. Now Greedo shoots a split second before Han. Some of the newly revised scenes do flow better, the movements are more natural but die hard fans will still balk at the revisionist history. The scene of Han and Jabba is also a lot more natural now. The Jabba model used in Episode One replaces the cobbled together one used in the first revision. There is far greater detail to the character; the skin now shows each crease and bump, the face much more expressive. The scene where the heroes enter the town of Mos Eislely also has received a major face lift. The color palette is pushed to a more realistic balance. The blue of the sky was noticeably deeper; the sand is now a shade of grey. The speeder now swoops in from the side instead of dropping almost from no where. In the light saber showdown between Obi Wan and Vader the sabers are now more vivid in color. There is now greater consistency in the look of the saber giving a more realistic aspect to them. Personally, I felt much of the charm of the original film was the ‘flaws’ Lucas now constantly seeks to correct.
The changes are less with Empire, most notably the substitution of Ian McDiarmid, the actor that played the proto emperor in the two prequel for the elderly actress and voice over artist that created the ghostly image in the prayerful discussion between Vader and his master. Of all the changes in the three films I found this one the most acceptable. I never really bought the original incarnation of the emperor, the makeup was too forced. This not only rectifies this but does provide the consistency Lucas desires with the recent prequels.
As with Empire, Jedi received a less share of revision. What is sure to become a heated point of debate in the end scene where the apparitions of Obi Wan, Yoda and Anakin Skywalker smile at Luke, Sebastian Shaw is gone as Anakin replaced with Hayden Christensen the Anakin of the prequels. Unlike most of the other changes Lucas actually addresses this in the commentary with some back peddling about when a Jedi was last good. He should have confessed he wanted to increase the continuity with his new films instead of trying to alter the mythology yet again. In the final celebration seen Nabo is now inserted as one of the many CGI location shots. The now well recognizable Jedi temple and Council Chambers are now in included in the Coruscant liberation scene.
From a technical standpoint the DVD set is excellent. The new anamorphic video is actually fresher than ever, every detail on display for the discerning eye. The colors, as noted before, a re much more vivid and balanced. Apparently every frame of each film had hundreds of clean up operations performed so that nary a speck can be found on this release. The colors jump off the screen like never before. The special effects are cleaner but again a lot of the fun of the originals is lost. I’m reminded of the famous speech in Inherit the Wind, you can have airplanes but the clouds will forever smell of gasoline. The new video is technically superior but much of the charm is now gone. The new audio mixes are also a new height of technical achievement, the Dolby 5.1 EX audio booms out of all speakers shaking the room. The smallest effort of the Foley artist is crisp and clear. There is a natural sounding flow as characters move about the screen. There are some aberrations noted in Episode IV's audio but over all this sounds great. Each film receives its own disc leaving plenty of room for an excellent bit rate. The four disc contains the extras, mostly self aggrandizing footage of Lucas in control of every shot. The Lucas commentary has its humorous moments as the director looks back at the films that both made him famous and set him up as identified with post-post production changes, unlike most of the drivel that passes for commentaries now this one is worth the listen. The center piece of the forth disc is the 151-minute Empire of Dreams: The Story of the Star Wars Trilogy documentary by Kevin Burns. He was provided unprecedented access to the extensive Lucas library resulting in one of the best making of features ever.
For a director that has made basically five films over a thirty year career, perhaps Lucas should stop revising the same films over and over. He should be proud that his films are so well loved by the public that provided his riches and give us what we want, the films that originally mesmerized us. After all, that is what the DVD seamless branching is for. It worked exceptionally well with Terminator 2 and The Abyss. Like it or not, buy it or not they are finally here.