Perhaps no movies have been as hotly debated over the past thirty-odd years as The Star Wars Saga, so let's set a few ground rules. Creator George Lucas doesn't owe me anything, I spent my time and money as I saw fit, and my childhood is still very much my own property, thank you very much. I vehemently disagree with a great many of his choices from 1981 onward, and I do wish that he would make available a best-possible-quality version of my most beloved movie of all time, the unaltered 1977 Star Wars (later renamed Episode IV: A New Hope) but hey, opinions are like Midi-chlorian counts: Everybody's got one.
As you probably know, the first trilogy to hit theaters actually tells the second half of the story, about a distant galaxy long ago that fell under the reign of a tyrannical Empire, with a plucky-but-vastly-outgunned Rebellion the only hope of restoring freedom. Darth Vader is the masked face of said Empire, a supporting character in what has become known as The "Classic" Trilogy (Episodes IV-VI, released between 1977 and 1983, revised for 1997 Special Editions and tinkered with ever since).
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His true identity, Anakin Skywalker, is the focal point of the Prequel Trilogy (I-III, 1999-2005), introduced in 1999's Episode I: The Phantom Menace as a good kid who could have grown into the greatest of all the mystical Jedi Knights, had he not been corrupted by an evil Sith Lord into changing teams. But is his fateful decision irrevocable? Watch both trilogies to find out. Phantom Menace also explains the halcyon pre-Empire Republic, populated by elected teenaged queens, viceroys, chancellors, and a special-needs Gungan named Jar Jar. Yeah, well, Jar Jar. I'd say that this movie was written specifically for Lucas' then-six-year-old-son Jett, were it not for its muddled political morass, unlike anything we'd seen in The Saga before, one that still has me scratching my head 12 years later.
Suffice it to say, a couple of puppet masters are pulling the Republic's strings to create a galaxy-wide war that will ultimately lead to the appointment of the seductive, deceptive Senator Palpatine as Emperor under an oppressive new order that no one saw coming.
Gee, that didn't require seven hours, did it?
Episode II: Attack of the Clones is largely exposition held together by one of the most cringe-worthy screen love stories we will ever witness. Episode III: Revenge of the Sith finally gets down to business, wherein the familiar trappings of The Original Trilogy (set 20 years later) are established at the expense of countless lives following the fabled Clone Wars. Sith is likely the very last Star Wars movie that will come out of Lucasfilm, and was directed with an admirable go-for-broke spirit.
Of course, none could equal the impact of A New Hope, released upon unsuspecting audiences in the largely same-old-same-old era of 1977 filmmaking. (Apologies to the handful of other true '70s innovators. You know who you are.) No other movie looked like this, sounded like this ("What the heck is 'Dolby'?"), or consequently felt like this. We are invited to share a hero's quest--Anakin's callow son Luke rises to trounce The Empire at long last--an archetypal journey enlivened with floating cars, laser swords and robots flaunting more personality that most flesh-and-blooders you know. It spoke to the kid in all of us without ever insulting our intelligence, and in so doing became a timeless cinematic treasure.
Undeterred, The Empire struck back in The Empire Strikes Back, and The Rebellion's collective ass is royally kicked, setting the stage for the final battle between the forces of freedom and not-freedom, and teasing audiences with the exciting possibilities of the concluding chapter, Return of the Jedi. Lucas was determined to prevent A New Hope from being perceived as a fluke and so he gambled big to make Empire all that it could be, and for legions of hardcore fans it is indeed considered the best of the lot.
In many ways however, Jedi plays like the sequel that Empire could have been, at times little more than a suped-up remake of A New Hope just six years later, right down to the climactic space skirmish. It also surrendered to the silly for most of Act I, and whenever those vertically challenged, razor-deprived allies the Ewoks are on the screen. But it is the last time Luke, Han and Princess Leia will fight the good fight side-by-side, and that alone makes it worth the two-plus hours. Well, the princess in the gold bikini is a carrot, too.
I still heartily endorse watching the films in the initial order they were released in theaters, not by their titular numbers, since The Prequel Trilogy just takes for granted information that was skillfully, downright historically revealed across The Original Trilogy. But like I said, everyone on the internet has opinions.
Much has been made in online forums about the latest round of creative additions to the movies as a part of this Blu-ray update. My biggest concern is what has not been changed: The Classic Trilogy utilizes the 2004 video masters, previously used for the DVDs, further digitally polished here and corrected for our viewing pleasure.
A New Hope was exquisitely photographed by Gilbert Taylor, and the Blu-ray unleashes detail that has been lurking on that 2004 master unappreciated for years. But especially when watched after I-III, the image here looks soft, grainy and noisy by comparison, while the blacks have an unfortunate murkiness, which can be particularly unpleasant in darker scenes, pulling in characters like a famished Dianoga. Some nice nuances emerge, such as an exhaust plume from a ship leaving faraway Mos Eisley spaceport, while the color and appearance of the lightsabers--long a problem on home video--is improved but not perfect.
Unwelcome, seemingly random geometric "garbage mattes" around vehicles--inherent to the original film element but seldom seen in the theater--have been all but banished here, while Empire and Jedi are still awash in these ugly things, with the TIE Fighters getting the worst of it. These spindly little Imperial ships also have a tendency to get lost in the unforgiving blacks of these video masters, although detail appears superior to that in A New Hope, particularly in actor close-ups.
Those blacks are no friend to Vader, who at times is little more than a silhouette with blinking lights on his chest. Jedi has quite a bit of precise image detail, quite pleasingly in the vibrant foliage of Endor and in the range of human/creature hairs, but keep in mind that The Original Trilogy was old-school in every way, so the look of the models for example might be a bit more "fake" than some would like. I'll tell you what though: The stars really pop against the stark black of outer space in Episodes IV-VI.
Phantom Menace is the only installment of The Prequel Trilogy to be shot on film (although it was all over the news at the time for its DLP digital theatrical presentation on four screens), and as such it has a unique look, superior to the aged Classic Trilogy but not quite on a par with the clarity of the all-digital Episodes II and III.
We can surely appreciate the smooth texture of Ben's Jedi robe here before it got all ratty from 20 years of desert wear. Like The Classic Trilogy, Phantom Menace shows a kiss of noise and film grain, and its blacks are severe and unrealistic, but well-lit scenes are rife with razor-sharp detail.
Across the entire Prequel Trilogy, the "perfection" of the digital effects Photoshopped together with live action is revealed as a less-than-ideal match, the organic combined with the inorganic. The 100%-computer-generated scenes (all spaceships or virtual environments), designed to impress on the big screen, absolutely kill in the home theater, with the exception of the goofier creatures which don't quite convince.
Colors are rich and splendid in Episodes I-III, and we soon gain the sense that flicker and other flaws in holograms and on video screens or an expanse of city lights are deliberate effects. The blacks on Attack of the Clones are an immediate cut above Phantom Menace, inky and natural with some intermittent video noise but undeniably stunning overall.
Outer space in Revenge of the Sith is good and black, with the really distant stars twinkling, as they do in real life according to a popular song. The extended first shot of the movie indicates how ambitious the saga had become by this last-produced chapter, in terms of its scope but also all the delicious little minutiae that make it so spectacular. Episode III is one of the best home video masters I have ever seen.
All six films are presented at 2.35:1.
Original sound designer Ben Burtt and his padawan Matthew Wood (who has since gone on to become a master himself) understood the importance of grounding this fantasy world with the embrace of a credible audio environment. Even the mono mix of Star Wars was amazing, so it's no surprise that the latest and greatest rendition of Star Wars audio is a thriller.
If something happens in front of us, don't expect the accompanying audio to be limited to the front soundstage, as the mix is quite aggressive in the surrounds, backed by more than ample bass, marked by strong directionality and a solid 360-degree presence. I watched The Saga at slightly higher than normal volume for a more immersive effect and it held up beautifully, without strain in the trebles.
The highlight of Episode I is the pod race, with its teeming audience, revving engines, high-speed competition and wicked explosions. When young Skywalker flies through the debris of an exploding pod, it literally flies over our heads and directly behind us with deliciously discrete directionality. More subtle but just as impressive is the echo in the vast senate chamber on Coruscant. We are also reminded from the first moments of Phantom Menace onward what a brilliant composer/conductor John Williams has always been.
The weather on rainy Camino is appropriately overwhelming, while spaceships and speeders continue to zip and roar over and around us in Episode II. The Fett Family's seismic charges make for a brief but fun system demo, and the arena crowd on Geonosis is pretty wild, with air horns and vuvuzelas I never even heard before. Episode III proudly encompasses all of the assets I've mentioned and more of them, along with quieter touches like the sizzling of General Grievous' flesh, the steely cocking of weapons, and the clatter of armored body parts landing on a wooden floor. And the high-pitched, crackling energy of Force lightning sounds its best here.
Episode IV now exhibits a real sparkle as a sure benefit of its remix, remaster and the high resolution of the DTS-HD Master Audio 6.1 format common to these Blu-rays. (A bit of an oddball format I know, but selected for valid reasons.) Noises inside the belly of the sandcrawler are many, varied and fittingly mysterious, voices in certain environments take on a palpable resonance, and Vader makes an almost embarrassing whooshing when he walks in at least one scene, as if he's wearing corduroy. The separation of the cantina band instruments is enjoyably pronounced, and their music possesses a quality that suggests that they really are playing in that seedy venue. Moments such as Han's laser blast ricocheting all around the garbage masher remain textbook multichannel home theater fodder.
In general, whenever the action starts in any of the movies, we'd do well to hang on and enjoy a bold sonic ride. The best and most violent example in Episode V would be the prolonged snow battle on Hoth, a royal ass-kicking on ice. Episode VI offers up more of the same, although the speeder bike chase certainly stands alone, and the vile gangster Jabba the Hutt has quite a few hangers-on, riff-raff of every species that we can hear in the shadows even when we can't see them.
The only shortcoming I noticed was in A New Hope, wherein a couple shouts can get a bit thin, but this problem was extremely rare and extremely minor, not enough to cost it even half a star.
[editor's note: though it did not occur on Chris Chiarella's system, I and a few others have noticed some audio glitches with this set on certain receivers, notably during the intro battle scene of "Star Wars Ep. IV: A New Hope" with high frequency hash in the audio and again at 36:55 into the same film. At 36:55, during the transition between scenes, there is a brief spike in the audio level, then a brief drop-out. Twentieth Century Fox Home entertainment and LucasFilm, Ltd have examined the issue and determined that it is not a problem in the discs but hardware-related. Their official reponse, "Should you encounter audio drop outs or an audio playback anomaly within your center surround speaker channel, simply switch your Blu-ray Disc player Audio Output setting from Bitstream to PCM, or consult your AV Receiver manufacturer for further assistance." We have identified several receivers affected by this issue and will post updates on our forum thread: Audio drop-outs on Star Wars Complete Saga Blu-ray].
Each movie packs a pair of audio commentaries from Lucas and others, the first ported from the DVDs, the second track newly edited together from archival interviews by a deep sampling of the cast and crew, including names you thought you'd never see listed as commentary participants. A complete roster is provided below. This is a masterful feat, although we need to engage the appropriate subtitles to tell us who's talking... unless you're a supreme fanboy and can recognize all of those different voices. Just sayin'.
Exclusive to The Complete Saga set are three bonus Blu-ray discs of supplementary content, the first dedicated to the prequels and the second covering the classics. Deleted scenes are one of the most coveted extras for enthusiasts and I am happy to report that this is by far the most comprehensive assembly of cut/lengthened/alternate scenes ever for The Saga, although some previously shown content is missing here. I can't say that I like the navigation, however: It's fancy and pretty, but there's no way to "Play All" on the cut scenes, which is what I (and all of my geek friends) want to do. Instead, we need to choose a movie, then pick a location within that movie, and then go to "Deleted/Extended Scene(s)." Some are in black-and-white, some have only crude production audio, while some contain no audio at all.
If we delve into The Archive, Lucas' personal menagerie of priceless, iconic Saga artifacts, we have to skip past matte paintings, models and prototypes to get to the one or two costumes per section. In other words, there's no simple, dedicated heading for, say, Costumes for each movie, or Props or whatever. Once we find the one thing we're looking for though, we are treated to a variety of precisely-focused angles, invaluable to replica-makers, including 360-degree turnarounds. Here, if we're eager yet patient, we will also find a great many on-camera cast and crew interviews, as well as a gallery of concept artwork.
The third bonus disc pulls together the original TV "making of" for each of the classic three, none of which were ever available on DVD. These are joined by documentaries from 1997 (Anatomy of a Dewback), 2007 (Star Warriors and Star Wars Tech) and the 2010's exclusive Star Wars Celebration (A Conversation with the Masters). Star Wars Tech is in full HD, while Conversations and a generous program of Star Wars parodies from disparate sources spanning decades are presented here at 1080i/60Hz. All the rest are in standard definition. The Making ofs are goofy, vintage fun, but at 84 minutes, Star Warriors is really only of interest if you or someone you love is a member of the 501st Legion of aspiring Stormtroopers.
All told, the supplements are touted as "over 40 hours of special features" and I believe it, but the lion's share is comprised of previously existing content, perhaps re-edited and presented in a new way. Conspicuously absent are the made-for-DVD documentaries, most of which are outstanding, and sadly none of the countless trailers are included here.
The boardbook package (similar to Fox's Alien Anthology) stows the discs inside tight little cardboard pockets within the thick pages. It's quite lovely to look but not really practical if we intend to, y'know, take the discs out and put them back in more than once.
As they should be, all six movies are stepped up visually and sonically at least incrementally from their DVD incarnations, while Episodes II and III are high-def jaw-droppers. As a fan, I am extremely glad to have these many extras all in one place, but is this really the last hope for Star Wars on Blu-ray? Something tells me, there will be another....
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