2.35:1 (16x9 Enhanced; also available Full Frame)
Dolby Digital 5.1EX, 2.0
20th Century Fox Home Video, $69.98
George Lucas’ original Star Wars trilogy comprising Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi is one of the most eagerly anticipated series of titles to be released on DVD. Much has already been written about his “tinkering” with the original films; he expanded on his original vision by adding shots, scenes and computer-generated characters. There are dozens of articles detailing the changes, additions and refinements and comparing the altered versions to the original theatrical releases, so I won’t get into those differences here, other than to say that some of the nicest enhancements are cleaned-up lightsaber effects.
The four-disc set comes in paper packaging, and rather ordinary artwork adorns the standard DVD case for each film. I was hoping for something a little more, perhaps a metal box or new Ralph McQuarrie artwork. When the “Definitive Collection” laserdisc set was released in 1996, it included a wonderful book on Lucas and Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), but alas, no such extra is included with these DVDs.
Once that booming John Williams Star Wars fanfare came up on the speakers, I couldn’t help being transported back to childhood in a sweeping moment of nostalgia. The DVD menus are very well designed, clean and fun, with plenty of animation to keep them lively. Selections are easily seen so that you clearly know where you are at all times (an advantage many DVD designers overlook in exchange for a cool look). The menus for each film feature three different “themes” that are randomly selected by the DVD player, so each time you put in the DVD, you might see a different menu. For example, the themes for the Star Wars menu feature visuals and audio from the Death Star, the rebel base on the Yavin moon, and Luke Skywalker’s home planet of Tatooine. Each menu area features 20-second full-motion scene clips for each chapter that are creatively integrated into the menu design.
When I began watching Star Wars, from the moment I saw C-3PO and R2-D2 on the blockade-runner I knew something was amiss; something didn’t feel right. I kept watching with an odd, unbalanced feeling in my stomach, and it wasn’t until the story cut to Tatooine that I realized the cause: this was not the Star Wars I knew. A new color pass has been done, and the soft (nearly flashed), pastel color palette created by Gilbert Taylor, BSC has been replaced by very sharp, high-contrast, super-saturated imagery. The blues were nearly popping off my screen, and the blacks were so crushed that in certain scenes especially those that take place in the Sandcrawler the image was losing significant detail. The over-saturated blues have also washed out a lot of sky detail and appear to have negated some ND grads that appeared in the original photography.
Taylor’s photography on Star Wars was part of what made it unique the picture didn’t have the sharp, high-contrast, snappy look of most fantasy films. Like John Barry’s inspired production design, which looks aged and worn, Taylor’s desaturated palette and use of nets created a muted, somewhat tattered look that helped ground the story in reality. With this new transfer, that look has been completely destroyed. The new color timing does, however, make Star Wars more closely resemble the other five films in the series, especially the latter ones shot by David Tattersall, BSC. Nevertheless, this change was jolting.
The only technical glitch I noticed in the transfers of the three films occurs in Star Wars, during the digitally altered scene shared by Han Solo and Greedo in the cantina: there is a mysterious frame that seems to have two frames mixed into one.
Overall, the clarity of the images in all three films is astounding. Though detrimental to the first film’s visual scheme, the increased sharpness reveals new details in production design and wardrobe. A restoration team at Lowry Digital spent three months working with more than 600 Power Mac G5s (making up more than 378 terabytes of space) to clean the original films and create pristine digital masters. The color transfers for The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi are nowhere near as problematic as the one for Star Wars; although contrast has been slightly increased in both films, the differences are not nearly as stark. Both Empire and Jedi look fantastic, and some color-correction tweaks have improved previously lackluster visual-effects moments, such as Luke Skywalker’s fight with the Rancor in Jedi. The new color-correction of this scene has cleaned up the composite shots, matching the live-action photography with the stop-motion-animated monster much more precisely, rendering a more effective sequence.
All three films feature audio commentaries that include Lucas, actress Carrie Fisher, sound designer Ben Burtt and visual-effects supervisor Dennis Muren, ASC. Since playing Princess Leia, Fisher has proven to be a brilliant, funny writer, but I couldn’t help but feel that she was sorely out of place in this commentary. Her comments are often simple anecdotes or laments about her limited wardrobe and dialogue. Muren is the least-used contributor to the commentaries and the most esoteric in terms of technical details. Lucas is often thoughtful and insightful and occasionally droll, and he spends a lot of time extolling the virtues of digital filmmaking tools. (He is noticeably non-apologetic about his alterations to these films, which have angered and frustrated the franchise’s fans.) The commentary on Empire also features remarks by director Irvin Kershner, who seems uncomfortable; he often simply explains the scene at hand rather than providing any insight.
The most interesting commentary contributor is Burtt, who earned a Special Achievement Academy Award for the creation of alien, creature and robot voices in Star Wars. Now an eminent sound-effects editor at Skywalker Sound, Burtt dissects some of his most significant work the beeps and chirps of R2-D2, the imposing breath of Darth Vader, the hum of the lightsabers, and the twang of the laser guns element by element, offering a window onto his contributions not only to the series, but also to popular culture. (Each disc in this package includes the fantastic THX Optimizer, which helps you properly calibrate your TV for the best audiovisual experience.)
A fourth disc consists entirely of supplements, including photo galleries from all three films; stills of the theatrical-release posters; theatrical trailers and TV spots and a 10-minute preview of Episode III, which is due in theaters this summer. Also included are three short documentaries by Gary Leva: The Characters of Star Wars, The Birth of the Lightsaber and The Force Is With Them: The Legacy of Star Wars. The latter featurette runs 13 minutes and includes interviews with James Cameron, Ridley Scott, Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson, Dean Devlin, Lawrence Kasdan, John Singleton and other filmmakers. The biggest plum in this package, however, is the two-hour documentary Empire of Dreams. Directed by Edith Becker and Kevin Burns, this chronicle includes some wonderful outtakes, screen tests, new interviews and behind-the-scenes footage that has never been seen before.