- Rated PG
- Buy the DVD
Reviewed by Jason Zingale
fter years of anticipation and countless rumors about how much of the original “Star Wars” trilogy George Lucas would tinker with when he finally released the three films to DVD, I’m happy to report that the changes are for the better. The original versions aren’t available on disc so stop you’re whining right now, but finally fans can experience all three films digitally re-mastered and restored in the long-awaited four-disc DVD set, which includes Lucas’ brand new edition of the classic films along with a remarkable selection of extras that have been collecting cobwebs at Skywalker Ranch for the past 20 years. The eventual release of the DVD set is not completely to Lucas’ delight, however, since he was virtually forced by his production company to throw together a collector’s edition before the increasing piracy problem made it impossible to do so.
Presented in a nifty slide-case package that also includes an individual snap case for each of the three films and the fourth disc, which is filled with more than three hours of supplemental material, the “Star Wars Trilogy” box set is a treasure worth picking up. The cover art on the first three cases is designed to match the current DVD releases of Lucas’ prequel trilogy, but every disc face features the poster art for each original theatrical release and they look simply amazing while sliding them into your DVD player. Now, when shopping for your copy of the trilogy, be sure to pick up the widescreen version packaged in the silver-and-black slide-case, because even though the gold packaging is far more appealing, true fans are going to want the widescreen 16:9 presentation of the film over the pan-and-scan copy that cuts out a third of the frame.
Even more important are the audio and video transfers of the film, which are both visually stunning and consistently crisp. Compared to the original versions, the video transfer boasts brighter and more vibrant colors, but still maintains the gritty “used future” that Lucas paints throughout his fictional galaxy. Even C-3P0’s scratched-up golden body no longer gets lost in the hazy sand dunes of Tatooine. The audio track for “Star Wars” really needs to pack a punch to achieve the full effect, and the Dolby 5.1 transfer gets the job done by delivering a well-balanced recording of Ben Burtt’s legendary SFX and John Williams’ treasured score.
Before diving into the numerous special features on disc four that will have fans drooling all over their remotes, let’s address everybody’s biggest concern: George Lucas’ much-hated quirk for messing with his original films. First off, I’d like to take the filmmaker’s side on this one and agree that the artist is entitled to make alterations to his work as much as he wants. If Lucas had possessed the technological capabilities of today in the late-70s (even though he became his own pioneer of FX), the films you saw and loved as a child would probably look a lot more like the 1997 Special Edition films that were re-released into theaters.
Getting back on track, the changes made to “A New Hope” aren’t very alarming, but include new adjustments to the infamous Han/Greedo who-shot-first debacle, a CGI-makeover of the Jabba scene inserted into the ’97 edition, smoother lightsabers to match the ones that appear in the later films, and newly added alien lettering on the walls and inside the Rebel ships. “The Empire Strikes Back” has even fewer additions, with the only real changes worth mentioning being the decision to replace the old woman Emperor with Ian McDiarmid (the actor who portrayed the Emperor in “Return of the Jedi” and Senator Palpatine in the prequel films) and the re-dubbing of Boba Fett’s voice with “Attack of the Clones” actor Temuera Morrison.
In fact, all of the bitter feedback seems to center on the modifications of “Return of the Jedi,” and there’s not much to complain about here either: New buildings are added to the background, the planet of Naboo is now included in the celebration at the end of the film, and the eyebrows of actor Sebastian Shaw (portraying the bionic Anakin Skywalker) have been removed to match the horrible lava burn Anakin will reportedly suffer in Episode III. The major criticism popping up in Internet chat rooms and message boards focuses on the decision to replace the ghost of Anakin (Sebastian Shaw) with Hayden Christensen. Fans are furious about the change, but if you listen to Lucas’ reasoning, it makes sense: The ghosts of Jedi are supposed to only reflect the good spirit, and since Yoda and Obi-Wan have been on the Light Side since this whole intergalactic war got underway, they remain the same after passing away. Anakin, on the other hand, left the Light Side at a younger age so his spirit technically dies when he becomes Darth Vader. All these changes, with the exception of the Shaw/Christensen switch, help to keep the continuity between Episodes I-III and IV-VI, and while “Star Wars” nerds will probably be arguing about this small pratfall until the end of time, many others will likely be completely comfortable with the end result.
The only thing extra you’re going to find on the first three discs are full-length audio commentaries with George Lucas, sound designer Ben Burtt, cameraman Dennis Muren and Princess Leia herself, Carrie Fisher. This is one of the richest commentaries I’ve ever heard, but it is very different from the common DVD track in that it isn’t recorded as a conversation between the participants; instead, each person only discusses the parts of the films that they were involved in. Of course, this means that it’s mainly Lucas’ show, but his highly detailed look into the making of the trilogy is exactly what fans have been waiting for. It would have been nice to see Mark Hamill or Harrison Ford step in on at least one of the commentaries, because the only actor that does show up (Fisher) is the least interesting of the bunch. Regardless of the few should-haves that don’t appear in the audio tracks, Lucas and crew create an interesting and informative commentary that is the perfect appetizer for the separate bonus material found on disc four.
The fourth disc of the set is purely dedicated to the special features that Lucas could scrounge together, but for a DVD release of this magnitude, you’d expect to find more than just one disc of extras. The most notable feature is the documentary, “The Empire of Dreams,” and at two-and-a-half hours long, it is practically a separate film in its own right. Produced and directed by Kevin Burns, the making-of documentary follows the production of the entire “Star Wars” trilogy from the very beginning of Lucas’ career to the release of “Return of the Jedi,” using archival footage and numerous interviews along the way to help tell the remarkable story. Particularly entertaining are the casting auditions with Han Solo hopeful Kurt Russell and William Katt as Luke Skywalker, but the entire documentary gives even more insight into the making of “Star Wars” following the earlier Lucas commentary.
Herded together alongside “The Empire of Dreams” are three additional featurettes that shed even more light onto the production process of the films. First is “The Characters of Star Wars,” a 19-minute survey of the development and casting of each major role in the trilogy, with some especially noteworthy comments about the original ideas and concept art for Han Solo and Chewie. The 15-minute “The Birth of a Lightsaber” special takes a closer look at the design of and inspiration for the beloved Jedi weapon that has become a staple in pop culture history, and “The Force is with Them: The Legacy of ‘Star Wars’” tracks the effect that the first film had in motivating other filmmakers like Ridley Scott (“Alien”) and Peter Jackson (“Lord of the Rings”). Also included in another portion of the disc are theatrical trailers, teasers and an abundance of TV spots from the launch, re-release and 1997 update of all three films.
The final section of the bonus material is divided into a menu page entitled “The Video Games and Still Galleries.” While you’re on the menu, punch “1138” (the title of George Lucas’ student film) on your DVD remote and you will access a hidden gag reel filled with slip-ups and goof-offs on the set. The still gallery that is offered on the disc is fantastic, displaying production photos with amusing captions and one-sheet posters from the various releases of the film, as well as many international posters. Along with the still gallery is a short “Episode III: Making the Game” special, a trailer for the “Star Wars: Battlefront” video game and “Episode III: The Return of Darth Vader,” a nine-minute spoiler that focuses on the re-creation of the Vader costume and the intense sword-fighting choreography that Christensen and Ewan McGregor have battled through for the final fight sequence between Obi-Wan and Anakin. This is where the special features ultimately get on my nerves, because I was pretty sure when I picked up my copy of the “Star Wars Trilogy” that the bonus material would only reflect Episodes IV-VI. Instead, Lucas included a tell-all clip that will surely spoil the excitement of his final film and also was convinced by marketing twits to insert commercials for their latest products.
It’s quite obvious that this release of the “Star Wars Trilogy” isn’t exactly an ideal collector’s edition. Ultimately, a future “Star Wars” release of all six films would realistically contain 12 discs (two discs per film), but die-hard fans probably won’t see that version for at least another decade. Until then, “Star Wars” fans will just have to settle for what we’ve been given. The films look and sound amazing, and that is what’s more important at the end of the day, right? Kudos to George Lucas for finally releasing this amazing trilogy on DVD, because it’s better to have something than nothing, and I’m not one to hold a grudge.