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STAR WARS: THE COMPLETE SAGA
Blu-ray Edition

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Alec Guinness, Peter Mayhew, David Prowse, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, Billy Dee Williams, Frank Oz, Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Hayden Christensen, Samuel L. Jackson, voice of James Earl Jones
Directors:  George Lucas, Irvin Kershner, Richard Marquand
Audio:  DTS HD 6.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  20th Century Fox
Features:  See Review
Lengths:  805 Minutes
Release Date:  September 19, 2011

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…

Overview:

In the summer of 1977, a new phenomenon took over the culture of the world, and it’s never really released its grip.  It was a science fiction fantasy with an evil empire, brave rebels, a princess, a farm boy, a space pirate, and the most dysfunctional father-son relationship since Abraham tried to sacrifice Isaac.  It was called Star Wars, and unless you were a hermit in a cave, you couldn’t escape it.  It was in movie theatres, in record shops, in toy stores, on T-shirts and lunchboxes and just about any other inanimate object imaginable.  In fact, I take it back…I could have sworn I saw that hermit wearing a shirt with Darth Vader’s image on it and sporting the caption, “Who’s your daddy?”

It was a great year to be an eight year old boy and starting my third grade year fully equipped with my favorite Star Wars characters all over my folders, notebooks and Thermos bottle.  It was fun to collect the action figures and wage my own battles against the Empire after classes and on weekends, or re-enacting my favorite scenes with my friends while shooting those rather insipid official Star Wars laser pistols that made goofy noises and didn’t do much else.  It was a year when “Hey, how’s it going?” was replaced by “May the Force be with you.”

It was the film that turned a mild mannered young moviemaker from California into the master of an empire of his own.  George Lucas had earned acclaim for his work on THX 1138 and American Graffiti, but with Star Wars, he attained a new level of success and a cult status few artists have ever matched.

His fans ate it up, and they wanted seconds…and fortunately for us, Lucas had always intended to craft a full trilogy to bring his characters and story full circles.  The only thing in my youth that could have compared to the event of Star Wars was the 1980 release of The Empire Strikes Back, in which Lucas’ original vision stretched further and filled even more of our cultural expanse.  A new mythology was being created, and we were all getting indoctrinated.

He rounded out his original concept in 1983 with Return of the Jedi, but he always spoke of a trilogy of trilogies.  The first movie had been intriguingly subtitled Episode IV, meaning we hadn’t come in at the beginning of the story, but arrived at one already in progress.  Lucas had hoped to eventually give the world Episodes I-III and Episodes VII-IX.  The former reached it's conclusion, and the prequel trilogy is included in this set. The latter was summarily abandoned by its creator.

But there was always something special and unflappable about that original trilogy.  The greatly hyped new films of recent years have satisfied, but the experiences of the first ones can’t quite be replicated.  Those of us who were kids at the time have looked back fondly for decades now and realized it was really a special time to be boys or girls and have our imaginations opened by what was nothing short of a quantum leap forward in cinema history.

Now, after years and years of VHS and Beta tapes and laserdiscs, the complete saga has made Blu-ray.  That’s the good news.  The not-so-good news is that they’re not quite the movies we remembered from our youths.  Everything we loved about them is still there, but Lucas has never reached a plateau of satisfaction with those films.  In 1997 he re-issued them for theatres with restored picture and sound, updated special effects, and even some new footage.  But now, these DVDs have been tinkered with even further.  You’ll notice differences; some subtle, like cleaned-up lightsabers or a better Jabba in Episode IV, some not-so-subtle, like the fact that Ian McDiarmid now plays the Emperor in Empire and Hayden Christensen is the ghost of Anakin in Jedi. 

Are they necessary changes that enhance the experience, or are they artistic blasphemies akin to rewriting the Bible?  That’s a question that I believe will be kicked around for many years to come, and may even pass from generation to generation.  For my own part, I wish Lucas had opted to release both the original, untouched trilogy AND his new revamped ones on Blu-ray at the same time.  I would have bought both…and I bet I wouldn’t have been alone.

But, as my wife always reminds me when I gripe and grumble, sometimes the glass IS half full.  I’m very happy to finally own the full set, especially considering they’ve never looked or sounded so good on home video before.  Spotting the changes added a bit of fun and made it a little like seeing the movies for the first time all over again.  Yes…life is good.

Writing about the individual films is kind of a challenge, considering there can’t be many who haven’t seen them (and probably plenty like me who know them by heart).  But the release of the saga is arguably the biggest event in the brief history of Blu-ray, so I have to try.

No…try not; do or do not.  There is no try.

Episode IV:  A New Hope ****

“That’s no moon…it’s a space station…”

The Star Wars saga begins with a galaxy in turmoil.  An evil empire has all but quashed freedom from star system to star system.  The only hope is a ragtag rebellion led by Princess Leia Organa (Fisher), but she falls prisoner to the dark lord Darth Vader (Prowse, voiced by James Earl Jones).  Her only hope is two droids, C-3PO (Daniels) and R2-D2 (Baker), who carry her message of distress and top secret plans to an aged Jedi Knight named Obi-Wan Kenobi (Guinness).  But the droids first fall into the possession of a moisture farmer on the arid planet of Tatooine, and his restless nephew Luke Skywalker (Hamill).

Luke and Obi-Wan meet up with a renegade pilot and smuggler called Han Solo (Ford) and his furry Wookie companion Chewbacca (Mayhew) and pay him for transport, but the heroes soon stumble upon the Empire’s greatest secret:  the Death Star, a gigantic space station with weaponry that can destroy entire planets.  They find themselves prisoners of the Death Star, but Luke has other ideas…namely rescuing the Princess, escaping, and returning with the station’s plans to the rebel base so they can do battle against the Empire.  But first, Obi-Wan has unfinished business with his one-time apprentice, Vader…

This was the movie spectacle that defined a decade.  The climactic battle in and around the Death Star took audiences faster and more into the action than anything they had seen before.  The visual and audio effects marked the beginning of a new era in cinema technology.  And John Williams’ Wagner-esque score would become one of the most recognizable themes in movie history.

The picture not only set worldwide box office records and raked in millions more in merchandising cash, it earned critical praise as well, and even scored an impressive seven wins on Oscar night.  But the death knell of the Death Star wasn’t the ending of the story…not by a long shot.

Episode V:  The Empire Strikes Back ****

“I don’t believe it.”

“That is why you fail.”

With The Empire Strikes Back, George Lucas stepped back from the director’s chair in favor of Irvin Kershner while still maintaining a strong sense of control over his vision.  And he ended up accomplishing the unthinkable…he made a sequel even better than an already great original.

With Darth Vader and the Empire more determined than ever to crush the rebellion, they take the fight to the secret rebel base on the ice planet Hoth (a spectacular battle with giant walkers).  The survivors take flight after a crushing defeat.  Luke, following the advice of the apparition of Obi-Wan, travels to the Dagobah system to seek the legendary Jedi Master Yoda (voiced and puppeted by Frank Oz).  Meanwhile, Han, Leia, Chewbacca and the droids risk a dangerous getaway through an asteroid belt to meet up with Han’s old companion Lando Calrissian (Williams). 

But all is not well.  The Empire wants Luke, and have rigged a trap for him using his friends as bait.  Luke abandons his Jedi training to finally confront Vader face to face, only to find Vader holding a card over him that he could have never imagined.  I can still remember the chills in my spine, my hairs standing on end, my eyes widening and the color draining from my face when I heard those immortal words for the first time: 

“I AM YOUR FATHER.” 

And for Star Wars fans, it became the most pivotal moment of all the movies combined.

Empire is the best of the lot easily…true, there’s still one picture left to come out, but I’m wagering it won’t dethrone the movie that fans universally claim as their favorite.  It was an honest second installment of a trilogy:  it took the story forward with a darker sense of purpose, and it left fans wondering just what would be the outcome of it all.  It would again be a three year wait to learn the answer.

Episode VI:  Return of the Jedi ***

“I can’t leave you…I’ve got to save you!”

“You already have.”

Return of the Jedi, under the direction of Richard Marquand, brought Lucas’ original trilogy to a mostly satisfying conclusion.  Story threads that had been woven since A New Hope were finally completing their picture.  Luke and Vader would finally square off not as merely enemies, but as father and son.  The Emperor’s (McDiarmid) evil design would be realized.  Oh yes, and the Star Wars universe would also be overrun by gibbering teddy bears.

Those cuddly rascals called Ewoks were always a little too precious to be in a Star Wars movie to my way of thinking, but in hindsight, I’d rather Lucas had brought them back in Episode I in place of Jar-Jar Binks.  They were furry and primitive, yet managed to help our intrepid heroes in their efforts to knock out the Empire’s shield generator on the forest planet of Endor so that the rebels could try to destroy the Empire’s new in-progress Death Star.

The cutesy-cutesy factor notwithstanding, the real meat of the final installment was Luke having to face down the evil and powerful Emperor and his plans to turn the son to the Dark Side of the Force just as he had done the father.  Not only did the future of the rebellion hang in the balance, but so did Luke’s last chance to redeem his father, who had fallen a long way from the once promising Jedi Anakin Skywalker into the villainous machine-like Darth Vader.

All good things must come to an end, but of course, the genius of Lucas was that it didn’t really…he left room to go back to the beginning and start all over again, which he would do some 16 years after the fact.  The new Star Wars entries have been welcomed by fans, but I don’t think anything will replace the experience of the original Star Wars Trilogy.  They were the films that created the new myths and advanced the scientific art of motion picture making to a new level, and as such, they will always serve as distinct bookmarks in the history of cinema.  

Still, the story continues...or in this case, begins...

Episode I:  The Phantom Menace ***

“Fear is the path to the Dark Side.  Fear leads to anger.  Anger leads to hate.  Hate leads to suffering.

I sense much fear in you…”

Sixteen years later after it officially ended, the saga begins…

When Star Wars first flickered on movie screens across the world in 1977, George Lucas had always planned to go back to the beginning and tell the story of how it all started…the Jedi Knights in their heyday, the birth of Luke and Leia, the evolution of the Empire, and of course, the most intriguing aspect of all, how a good young Jedi named Anakin Skywalker gets seduced by the Dark Side of the Force to become Darth Vadar.

The long-awaited Episode One finally came to be in 1999, drawing huge box office numbers worldwide but decidedly mixed reviews.  George Lucas, master of fantasy that he is, imagined and created worlds the likes of which had never been viewed on a screen before.  But his storytelling, once the heart of his beloved films, seemed to take a bit of a back seat.

I like the film well enough, myself…it has its flaws, to be sure, but overall, it works as pure escapist entertainment.  I liken it to a big junk sculpture:  sometimes, it seems as though Lucas assembled his movie with scrap material and throwaway pieces, but managed to put them together in such a way as to make an interesting and amusing new creation out of it.  It works as long as you stay back and view it as a whole.  If you start looking too closely, all you see is the junk.

Cardboard characters were kind of a staple of the first trilogy, so the fact that they exist here isn’t much of a bother to me.  At least there are some worthwhile actors to flesh them out on screen.  Liam Neeson has long been a favorite of mine, and he brings a strength and quiet dignity to the role of Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn.  Equally impressive is Ewan McGregor, faced with the difficult task of realizing the young version of Obi-Wan Kenobi.  In speech and mannerisms, he really does remind one of a young Alec Guinness, and what at first seemed to be odd casting for an edgy independent cinema actor turned out to be a perfect choice.

In the midrange is the usually good Natalie Portman.  As Queen Amidala, she is buried under too much funky make-up and weird hair to project, and as Padme, she is trying to build on a watery foundation.  Knowing the basic path of the future story, one can only assume that her best work in this series is still ahead.

And I hate to be critical of little kids, but Jake Lloyd as young Anakin is just another in a never-ending parade of cute but unqualified child actors that has been coming out of Hollywood for decades.  Lucas settled for far too little with his blossoming character here, so I don’t entirely fault Lloyd.  But neither can I fully overlook that certain scenes with him just don’t work well at all.

As for Jar Jar Binks, the first completely CGI rendered character in a “real” movie, the bad sentiments have already been far, wide and famous.  This was perhaps Lucas’ most gross miscalculation.  The best I can say about him is that, having seen the picture three times now, I think he gets slightly less annoying each time.  I don’t think I’ll ever like him, but I haven’t given up hope that by the time I’ve seen Episode One as many times as I’ve seen the original Star Wars, I’ll be able to simply ignore him.

For the epic’s beginning, Lucas seems to be following the old analogy about dropping a small pebble into a big pond…the tiny ripples eventually disrupt the entire calm of the water.  He starts with a planet, Naboo, and a Federation trying to force it into treaty.  A seemingly small event, to be sure, but this humble beginning would eventually lead to the fall of the Galactic Republic and the birth of the Empire…but that’s getting too far ahead.

The strength and the problem of Episode One is its dependence on the greater whole.  To accept it as merely the beginning of a much larger story is to appreciate it a little more, I think…but mere beginnings by themselves don’t necessarily amount to much.  Imagine, if you will, somebody filming ONLY the first one-sixth of Moby Dick.  What you would see on screen could never be as impressive as what you know will come later.

Yet for all its difficulties, Episode One has merit.  It’s one of the most visually striking and imaginative films I’ve ever seen, creating astonishing new worlds and landscapes for its story and characters.  The underwater city (as well as the subsequent journey to Naboo) is a jaw dropping sequence, and it’s only the beginning.  The now-legendary pod race sequence is a thrill ride, and the final battle with its cross-cutting between three plains of action is a worthy climax.  And through it all, the story Lucas wanted to tell does get told…how young Anakin goes from slave child to Jedi apprentice.

Certain scenes still require some fan imagination for impact, though.  How about when Anakin meets Obi-Wan for the first time?  It’s treated almost as nothing…my God, some forty years later, the younger is going to kill the elder!

But there is foreshadowing in other places.  Jedi Master Yoda senses something wrong with the boy when they first meet.  “Clouded, his future seems,” he intones.  (Vague, his worries are.)  But we all know what happens, don’t we?

Nevertheless, in the end, I have to say I enjoy Episode One, both at face value and as part of a greater sum, despite some flagrant flaws.  Ultimately, it’s a film just for the Star Wars fans, and there are certainly enough of us out there that helped make it work.

Episode II:  Attack of the Clones ***

“It’s all Obi-Wan's fault…he’s holding me back!”

Episode II picks up ten years after the events of Episode I.  Anakin Skywalker, now played by the dreamy eyed and definitely handsome Hayden Christensen, is a Jedi Knight in training, under the watchful eye of Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi.  Anakin is a headstrong, arrogant, yet extremely talented Padawan Learner. Obi-Wan thinks he’s still too rough around the edges, but Anakin thinks it’s time for the trials, and his promotion to Jedi Knight! Ewan McGregor shines brilliantly as Obi-Wan in this episode.   He has the perfect balance of intensity and heroism that makes you understand why George Lucas picked him to play the younger version of old Ben! 

Natalie Portman is back as the beautiful and politically correct Padme Amidala.  This go round, Padme has traded in her Queenly regalia for Senatorial robes.  Don’t let that worry you Portman fans too much though, because she’s still got more costumes than Liberace and more hairdos than Cher could ever dream of!  We got to see Leia’s abs of steel in Return Of The Jedi and Padme shows us all at the end of Episode II that they definitely run in the family.

The main focus of this episode was to establish a bridge between the sweet innocent Anakin we were introduced to in the first film to the rash young man that seems to be teetering on the edge of darkness (insert ominous Vader breath here)!  George also had to incorporate the love story of Anakin and Padme as well as bring more fully into focus the political intrigue surrounding the start of the Clone Wars.  I think he was able to pull this off in a very nice way without it seeming to dwell too long on any one thing.  I would have preferred it if the powers that be had chosen to group the sections of the movie pertaining to the love story a little closer together because it’s mentally very hard to go from Obi-Wan blasting through an asteroid field to Anakin and Padme rolling around on the grass giggling. 

We get to see Shaft himself, the great Samuel L. Jackson, working that purple lightsaber of his this go round, and he definitely shows us all how to get a-HEAD in the world they live in.  As for Count Dooku (or is it Lord Tyranus?)…well, either personality will do as long as it’s Christopher Lee behind the dialogue.  He definitely proves that an older ex-Jedi knows how to light up the stage, when given the proper materials to work with.  

Last and certainly not least (well, unless your talking about height, that is), we have the new and improved digital YODA DA MAN!   Ever since Empire Strikes Back I have wondered what it was about Yoda that was so great.  He’s just a tiny little green guy running around a swamp talking in riddles, or so I thought.  My whole perception of the amazing creature that is the Master of all Jedi exploded before my eyes as I saw what the marvels of modern, technology, can do for a three foot tall, green guy with a lightsaber!  There really is no way of explaining why Yoda is now my all time favorite action star, except to say…YODA DA MAN!!!!! 

The story this time around was a bit better as all the characters seemed to balance out against each in a more realistic way.   We get to see a little more into the heart of Anakin as he wages a war with himself over the two women in his life and the father figure he fears will never let him prove himself.  Christensen goes a long way in proving George was right for choosing him to play this part when he morphs his character from the sweet and charming Anakin into a Vaderesque madman to wipe out and entire camp of Tusken Raiders.

We get to see Boba’s beginnings and a bounty hunter get his due.   There’s action, intrigue, suspense, and technological advancements that I have never seen paralleled.  R2-D2 and C3PO provide the comic relief this time out, and you start to get that old familiar Star Wars feeling after you’ve viewed this movie.

Episode III:  Revenge of the Sith ***

"Anakin...I'm afraid."

"Have faith, my love...everything will soon be set right."

It took a long time to get here...most of my life, as a matter of fact...but at long last, George Lucas' extraordinary vision is complete.

Star Wars: Episode III finally grants us fans what we've wanted to see for decades:  mainly, how a promising young Jedi Knight named Anakin Skywalker falls from grace to become Darth Vader, the darkest of all intergalactic villains.  The first two episodes were merely prologue; Revenge of the Sith is the chapter that really delivers.

Since we last left the story, the Clone Wars have been fought and are ending (see the two animated volumes from Fox for that story, if you wish).  Anakin (Christensen) has grown more powerful under the close tutelage of Obi-Wan Kenobi (McGregor), and the watchful eye of Chancellor Palpatine (McDiarmid).  In the opening stretch, the two Jedis stage a rescue of Palpatine from Count Dooku (Lee).  Anakin is the hero, but it's only the beginning of his troubles.

He remains secretly married to Padme Amidala (Portman), and she has news:  she's pregnant.  But instead of happiness, it brings Anakin a new set of nightmares:  dreams of Padme's death in childbirth.  The last time he had such dreams, they were about the death of his mother...and that time, he had not been able to save her. 

While the Chancellor grows more and more powerful within the Galactic Senate, he also begins to turn Anakin's fears to his own advantage.  There is more to the Force than what the Jedi teach.  With the powers of the Dark Side, he muses, anything is possible.  Even unnatural things.

Call it the Last Temptation of Anakin.  His fears of losing his love make him susceptible to the Chancellor's suggestions, while the Jedi Council, led by Yoda (voiced by Oz) and Mace Windu (Jackson) begin to trust him less and less.  With the fate of the Republic in the balance, Anakin has to choose sides.  And I'm sure every fan realizes what choice he makes.

The main points of the story were known by fans even before viewing the third installment, but there are still surprises in store.  Though the end destination is known, the real pleasure of the film is the journey.  For about the first hour, I was actually wondering if we were going to get the full effective payoff we'd been imagining.  There are large but empty action sequences in which Lucas fills his screen with so many images that it's hard to know where to look.  And some of the dialogue between Anakin and Padme still borders on painfully banal.

But there is a turning point at about the hour and ten minute mark.  Suddenly, the tone turns to something darker than ever seen in a Star Wars film before (hence the PG-13 rating).  We witness Anakin getting closer and closer to his destiny, and we finally see the point of no return.  I wouldn't dream of disclosing it, but I can say there is a definite moment when we know this once good, promising hero is irretrievably lost.

The climactic scene in which Obi-Wan and Anakin face off as enemies is one of the most thrilling sequences in the entire saga.  Set against the background of a volcanic planet, and fueled by Anakin's newfound hatred, the battle is exciting and haunting at the same time.  And it's juxtaposed against another spectacular battle:  the sprightly Yoda against the man who would be Emperor.

There is a great sense of finality to Episode III, even though fans know from here we return to the beginning and start again.  Lucas has given us a circle in perpetual motion; a story that folds in on itself and opens up again.  This may now be the darkest installment in the series, but it ends with a glimmer of hope that we know isn't false.  The children in the movie, as in life, are the future.   

Video ****

This is where it gets fun...these movies look as good as hoped for on Blu-ray, and even better than that.  I almost had tears when I saw the original film fire up in high definition glory...the details and crispness of the images and the brightness of the colors was more than I dreamed.  And it gets better...by the time you reach the second and third episodes, which were filmed digitally, you get a pure digital-to-digital transfer that is just about beyond anything you've seen in the medium.  Trust me...this is a surefire winner.

Audio ****

If the video quality is breathtaking, wait until you hear the sounds of John Williams' classic score in full HD surround glory...I mean, the orchestration is impeccable.  You can hear the individual symphonic instruments...amazing!  But of course, the saga offers more than just the great music.  The dynamic range and use of surrounds is definitely one of the most striking I've had the pleasure of hearing.  You'll be right in the middle of space travel, light saber duels, laser battles and more.  Everything is well balanced and POWERFUL!

Features ****

Each disc of the original trilogy has an audio commentary with George Lucas and crew members which are all enjoyable listens.  Can you believe we finally get to see the trilogy with Lucas commentary?  Fantastic!  But all of the discs contain new commentaries compiled of various interviews with cast and crew members, so enjoy those as well.

The three remaining discs have the remainder of the bonus materials.  “Empire of Dreams” is one of the best and most comprehensive (2 ˝ hours) documentaries ever made for home video.  It chronicles all of the trilogy with plenty of archival footage and new interviews with cast and crew.  Three additional featurettes showcase “The Birth of the Lightsaber”, “The Characters of Star Wars” and the legacy. 

There are three bits focusing on the Battlefront video games, plus teaser, trailer and re-launch trailers for each episode, and loads of TV spots.  The 1997 Special Edition trailer is included as well.  Most interesting of the lot is the teaser for Episode VI, which still showed it as Revenge of the Jedi!  You also get a collection of spoofs from television that recall the films with humor and joy, and even "Weird Al" Yankovic's parody video for "The Saga Begins", as well as 45 deleted scenes and SEVEN retrospective featurettes.

Rounding out are some cool animated menus on all discs.  Only complaint?  While the packaging is beautiful, I really hate it when discs are slipped into cardboard sleeves, which in this case are like pages in a book.  They're hard to get out at all, and impossible to do so without getting your fingerprints all over them.

Summary:

George Lucas always manages to get his fans to wait for the goods, but when he delivers, he always makes it worthwhile.  Star Wars: The Complete Saga rounds out his vision in the most perfect way possible on a stellar quality Blu-ray set.  I only hope he sees to release the unaltered original trilogy in high definition as well, but until then, hang on to those DVDs.

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