For better or worse, the day is finally here – George Lucas's magnum opus is out today on Blu-ray. I'm sure you've all heard by now that they're not the versions we all know and love, and they're not even the versions we've begrudgingly had to live with for the last 10 years. However, they are now in full HD and the 9 disc set is packed with hours worth of extras and documentaries. So who better to review them than the man who took it upon himself to create feature length visual commentaries for all three original trilogy films, Jamie Benning?
It's been years in the making. Lucas had even dismissed Blu-ray as a viable format. But it looks, for a while at least, that Blu-ray will remain. So, this week sees the release of the Star Wars Saga
across the world (though we Brits got them first) and no doubt it will be the biggest seller ever. But like most of the Star Wars releases, this box set comes with its own baggage.
Firstly, as any Star Wars fan now knows, Lucas has been tinkering again. Not only were they tweaked in the 1997 Special Editions in the cinema, but Lucasfilm went back and made further alterations for the 2004 DVD
release. Well, the Force-fueled OCD continues with this Blu-ray release. Not only does Ben Kenobi's Krayt Dragon call now sound like he's stepped on a Lego brick with no shoes on, Darth Vader now shouts "Nooooo!" at the end of RotJ mirroring the characters most cringe-worthy moment from the Prequel finale. Both are unwelcome additions for any Original Trilogy fan, as is the fact that no room was found to include the original versions of the films. But, the compromise for me is that there are some 40 hours of extras with this set. That, after all, is why I have shelled out my hard earned cash… once again.
Before and after - not all the changes are for the worse
Discs 1 – 3 The Prequels
They are what they are. I am not a fan, I never have been. That said, the transfers are of a good resolution with a good level of detail. Colours are over saturated for my taste but they sit well alongside the Clone Wars animated series as a live-action companion. The biggest change here is swapping out the puppet of Yoda in Episode One for a CGI version – at least this fits better with his fight scenes in the other two prequels.
Rating: 2 out of 5
Discs 4 – 6 The Original Trilogy
The alterations really don't work. Ben Kenobi's original Krayt Dragon call in Star Wars (I refuse to call it A New Hope), sounded organic yet otherworldly and fit perfectly with the rest of the soundscape of the film. Now, the sound of man stepping on Lego, or a teenager stubbing his toe mixed with what can only be described as a cheap sounding electronic harmony from a Casio keyboard has been integrated. When I first heard it when it was ‘leaked' online, I gave a hearty laugh, assuming it was a joke. Unfortunately, it's not. I do wonder whether the people at LFL gave Lucas an alternative so bad that he was bound to reject it, only to find that he gave it the stamp of approval.
The addition of more rocks at the entrance of the cave that R2-D2 hides in not only looks synthetic, but we now begin to question just how he got in there in the first place (insert Prequel rocket launcher joke here). With all the shots of fishing wire pulling droids along and huge holes in the prequel's storyline, it amazes me that these are the changes that are being made. Furthermore the 1997/2004 additions are really shown up at this resolution. They look like they've been pasted on. Things just don't gel together. It's like that old pair of jeans your mum patched up with denim from elsewhere.
Whilst the color timing is once again the same as the 2004 DVD releases, the level of detail is great. There will be cosplay fans across the world enthusiastically adding dirt and scratches to every inch of their costumes and props.
I don't really want to get into too much of discussion about whether Star Wars, or any film for that matter, belongs to its audience or its creator, but from a purely technical point of view the color ‘corrections' don't make a great deal of sense. The pictures are clearly over saturated and the crushed blacks, at times, look like holes in the screen.
The Empire Strikes Back, the most respected and loved of the trilogy has been left mostly untouched. The alterations are minimal and sensitively done. Again though, we have to endure a blue-tinged Hoth and a cartoonish Cloud City.
Still no medal for Chewie, you'll have to watch "Star Wars Revisited" for that
Now comes the big one, Darth Vader's additional "Nooooo" in Return of the Jedi. Geeky actor Simon Pegg spoke for many of us on Twitter, saying that he'd "always loved Vader's word-less self sacrifice." It was supposed to be a moment of clarity for the character; he knew what he had to be done. Remember, in 1983 Vader wasn't inhabited by that grumpy teenager from the prequels. What's happening here is that the prequels are contaminating the original trilogy when ironically it should be the other way round.
As you have probably heard, Ewoks now blink, yet Leia still remembers her mother, her "real mother." It's this lack of respect for the storyline of the originals that frustrates fans the most. Well, fans of my age anyway.
The ‘Archival Commentaries' are fantastic and vaguely familiar. I used some of the same interviews on my filmumentary projects. In fact, whoever edited these commentaries together seems to have been thinking along the same lines as I was when making Star Wars Begins. At last we hear not only from Lucas, Muren, Burtt and Fisher (in the case of RotJ) but from Hamill, Ford, Freeborn, Diamond and so many other names that are finally recognized and rewarded for their part in making the films. Anthony Daniels even has something nice to say about his colleague Kenny Baker! Now that has to be a first. Many of the voices are clearly culled from interviews done for Empire of Dreams, the documentary on the 2004 DVD box set, but nonetheless, for people like me who are clearly obsessed with the creation process, it adds great value to the Blu-ray set. We also hear expanded chat from the 2004 commentary contributors. Carrie Fisher in particular is a delight, making jibes at Lucas and company whenever possible.
Rating: 4 out of 5 (though only because of the commentaries)
Disc 7 – The Prequel Bonus Disc
I didn't look yet! There are so many original trilogy extras to look through first. But I hear it's full of deleted scenes and interviews. I wonder if I will find time to watch it, ever.
Not yet rated
Disc 8 – Original Trilogy Bonus Disc
As you can imagine, this was the disc I was most excited about and it really doesn't disappoint. All of the research I did for Star Wars Begins, Building Empire and Returning to Jedi on deleted scenes, all of the hours I spent painstakingly putting them together from comics, stills and available footage is finally put to bed. Here we see Luke and Biggs, the Wampa attack, Jerjerrod's scenes, the Sandstorm, the Calamari Rebel pilots to name a few. There are some surprises in there too, even for me! Yet bizarrely the human Jabba scene from Star Wars is not here. At least there's still a reason to watch Star Wars Begins then!
The Sandstorm deleted scene from RotJ, via Wookieepedia
The ‘windowed' interviews also reveal some new behind the scenes shots but are clearly unused segments of Empire of Dreams. Some of them are oddly edited and rather short. The 360 degree turnarounds don't add much for me but no doubt props collectors will be excited at their addition.
This really is the disc I paid £60 for, and I am glad I did. As I have now become somewhat of a Star Wars historian, it's so pleasing to finally see these infamous scenes. I also like to think, if only in some small part, that my filmumentaries may have influenced the producers of the box set. Maybe I have delusions of grandeur, but there must have been pressure on them to get these deleted scenes released in some official capacity.
Rating: 4 out of 5
Disc 9 – The Star Wars Documentaries
The Making of Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back: SPFX and Classic Creatures: Return of the Jedi, have previously been available on VHS and with the VHS Executor box set. I was therefore surprised to see them appear here, particularly without the the best in the 'series' From Star Wars to Jedi: The Making of a Saga. They are great documentaries nonetheless and very much products of their time.
London's BT Tower, dressed up as a lightsaber, photo courtesy of Simon Kisner
I had also secretly hoped to see the ‘lost' The Making of the Empire Strikes Back, shown only by Sigma Television in France. I have been trying to track down a copy of this documentary for a decade. So I guess the search continues.
Star Warriors is an unusual addition but represents the most Lucasfilm friendly aspect of Star Wars fandom. People choosing to spend their spare time dressed up as characters from the films. What is great about these fans though is their charity work. They have raised millions of dollars world wide and for that they must be applauded. We get to see how these troops interact with LFL and how they go about organising the various events. It really is like a military operation at times. So many of these people have used their Star Wars fandom in a positive way. Their work for kids in particular is something I really admire them for. Even if my slightly reserved Britishness had me cringing from time to time, it's a nicely put together documentary.
There is no doubt that Star Wars has inspired millions of people around the world and Star Wars Tech details how the films have inspired many fields of science. For me, the pinning down of Star Wars technology is not what it's about and this documentary is pseudo intellectual at best. I would have preferred an HD extended version of Empire of Dreams taking up this space.
Anatomy of a Dewback is a Special Edition era documentary and is oddly the worst quality video in the set but actually quite interesting. Putting the 1997 updates and tweaks aside, I always get a thrill from seeing the stacks of film reels in the Lucasfilm archives as the ILM editors search for the elements they require for the restoration. George Lucas tantalisingly tells us that he has kept all of the negatives and elements and is by nature a hoarder. So George, let's be having those unaltered versions on Blu-ray please!
A Conversation with the Masters is apparently the last interview with Irvin Kershner and for that alone it's great to see it on the Blu-ray set. It's a little short, but is a nice piece giving a nod to what is the most loved film in the series.
Star Wars Spoofs is essentially like one of those annoying clips episodes of Seinfeld or Friends. We see a collection of funnies that have a Star Wars theme. It's over an hour and a half long, and clearly belongs on YouTube rather than this box set. In fact many of them are from YouTube! I could easily have provided LFL with a list of things fans really wanted to see. If only they'd called…
The box set artwork is worth a late mention. Let's be honest here, Lucasfilm: these films have inspired artists all over the world, and this is what you chose to represent the saga? A rendering of the child Anakin walking towards us, as a ghost (yep a ghost) of Luke walks away from us. I am baffled as to what they are trying to convey. The inner sleeve artwork looks amateurish. My six year old daughter asked me why the people look "all melty" the moment she looked at it. The addition of the 35mm film cell is like a twist of the knife. Mine was a frame from Revenge of the Sith. Maybe everybody gets a film cell from a movie that was shot entirely with digitalcameras? Odd.
In summary then: this box set is exciting as much as it is disappointing. The color correction problems and silly additions aside, this set does tick many boxes for me as a fan of both the Original Trilogy and the process of getting the films to the big screen. With simple discussions with the fan community maybe we could have got something to please the masses as well as the hardcore fans. Steven Spielberg just this week asked an audience at the Raiders of the Lost Ark screening about their preference for the E.T. Blu-ray. Do you know what they said?
One more thing, please leave the remixing to the (non) professionals George.
Overall rating: 3.5 out of 5