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STAR WARS TRILOGY

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, voice of James Earl Jones
Directors:  George Lucas, Irvin Kershner, Richard Marquand
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  20th Century Fox
Features:  See Review
Lengths:  123 Minutes, 129 Minutes, 136 Minutes
Release Date:  September 21, 2004

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 will reach full completion with next year’s release of Revenge of the Sith.  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 original trilogy has made DVD.  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 at the same time.  I would have bought both…and I bet I wouldn’t have been alone.

But, as my sister always reminds me when I gripe and grumble, sometimes the glass IS half full.  I’m very happy to finally own the trilogy on DVD, 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 trilogy is arguably the biggest event in the brief history of DVD, 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.

Video ****

With these sets, DVD has made the jump to hyperspace.  If you’re like me, you’ve probably seen every home video incarnation of these movies, from tape to tape, laserdisc and so on.  But you’ve never seen anything like this.  These anamorphic transfers are spectacular.  I used to think movies with scenes in space were some of the most problematic to render correctly in a digital format, but I was quite wrong.  Images are crisp, clear, and well defined, objects against black starry backgrounds look lifelike and vibrant, and the colors are so bright and beautiful, you’d swear these movies were only a few years old (well, okay, some parts of them ARE). 

Though pan & scan versions are available, PLEASE, for the love of Boba Fett, opt for the widescreen ones, or you may as well watch them with one eye closed.

Audio ****

Nothing is quite as thrilling as to hear the opening strains of the Star Wars main title theme in glorious, full digital 5.1.  As soon as it strikes up, you smile, knowing you’re in for a heckuva listening experience.  The Oscar winning sound is better than ever, with all channels opened up fully to keep you in the center of the action.  Dialogue is clean and clear, and dynamic range is so full, it’s like millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and suddenly silenced.  Or at least close.  It took a while to get these movies rolled out on DVD, but friends, it was worth the wait.

Features ****

Each disc has an audio commentary with George Lucas, sound designer Ben Burtt, visual effects supervisor Dennis Muran and actress Carrie Fisher (Irvin Kershner also appears on Empire), which are all enjoyable listens.  Can you believe we finally get to see the trilogy with Lucas commentary?  Fantastic!

The fourth disc has the remainder of the bonus materials.  “Empire of Dreams” is one of the best and most comprehensive (2 ˝ hours) documentaries ever made for DVD.  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.  A third featurette looks at the upcoming Episode III, focusing on the return of Darth Vader.  You’ll see stars Ewan McGregor and Hayden Christensen practicing for their big duel, plus Christensen donning the legendary mask!

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!

Rounding out are some cool animated menus on all discs. 

Summary:

George Lucas always manages to get his fans to wait for the goods, but when he delivers, he always makes it worthwhile.  Having the Star Wars Trilogy on DVD just makes any good movie library seem more complete, and these reference quality discs are just what the doctor ordered.

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