Note: Puccio wrote the primary review and the Parting Thoughts paragraph. Feng wrote about the Video and Audio quality of the DVDs. Both Puccio and Feng wrote about the Extras.
For a lot of people who watched the original "Star Wars" in 1977, the movie is now probably not so much a movie as it is an experience. It's a cultural event in one's life, a milestone, a point of demarcation, and remembering just where you saw the movie and with whom is as much a part of the film today as anything that actually happens in the story.
For me, it was just a curiosity in 1977. George Lucas had taken out a big ad in the San Francisco "Chronicle," and on a whim my wife and I traveled to the Coronet Theater on Geary Blvd. for the movie's first matinee performance. What we expected, as I recall, was some juvenile sci-fi flick, and we were in the mood for something light. What we got was overwhelming. Neither of us had seen anything like this since "2001" some years before. The closing credits alone left me stunned. They seemed to go on forever in a production that was staggering. Clearly, the movie was a blockbuster, and, what's more, groundbreaking. Thanks to "Star Wars," "A Space Odyssey" before it, and Lucas's buddy Steven Spielberg's "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" just after it, the three movies basically changed the shape of science fiction on the screen forever.
Gone were the days of corny scripts, corny acting, and corny special effects, replaced by visions of other worlds, space aliens, and rocket ships that even today look more like the real thing than the real thing. Or haven't you, too, wondered why shots of astronauts working around the Hubble Space Telescope look less authentic than Stanley Kubrick's space station? Anyway, "Star Wars" became a landmark, both in audience reaction and in marketing. Then came the sequels, the re-releases, the video tapes, the games, the action figures, the laser discs, and now the DVDs. And they have nicely provided for Mr. Lucas's old age. To say nothing of Skywalker Ranch, Lucasfilm, and Industrial Light and Magic.
They have been a long time coming, but they're finally here, probably the most-anticipated films ever to appear on DVD. While I suppose the next big wait will be for the trilogy's appearance on high-definition discs, this is as close to Cloud Nine as we're going to get for a while. Although that is not to say everything is perfect. For one thing, the three movies are only available in a four-disc box set. For another, and a matter of some concern to die-hard purists, they're only available in their later, digitally enhanced Special Editions with Lucas's added CGI effects, with some new attractions. So those of us looking forward to recreating that first, long-ago theatrical-release "Star Wars" occasion will still have to hang on to our old LDs or video tapes.
Star Wars: Episode IV--A New Hope
By now everyone knows Lucas's inspirations for "Star Wars." Besides the adventure serials he so loved so well, Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, and the like, Lucas acknowledged the influence of mythologist and mythographer Joseph Campbell, which also helps explains why the plot and characters in "Star Wars" seem so familiar. They've been around for thousands of years, perhaps since the beginning of Mankind. In Campbell's two most celebrated books about the influence of myth in the world, "The Hero With a Thousand Faces," 1968, and "The Power of Myth," 1988, he suggests that the Hero is "...someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself." For Campbell the Hero myth, sometimes known as the "Hero's Journey" or the "Hero Schema," is important as being applicable to every individual. (A schema provides a structure or guide for understanding.) He argues that the ultimate trial is the giving of one's self to some higher end, and when the individual ceases to think primarily of his own preservation, a heroic transformation of consciousness takes place. This, of course, would be the fate of Luke Skywalker and ultimately even of Han Solo.
Continued study of the "Hero's Journey" suggests an eight-step process, all of which can be seen in the "Star Wars" episodes. Step one is the call to action; two is the threshold of action, with the help of guardians, helpers, and a mentor; three is an initiation and transformation, which come with challenges; then there's the abyss; the transformation; the revelation; the atonement; and finally, the step eight, the return to the known world. Again, following the exploits of Luke, Han, Leia, Yoda, and the rest would indicate Lucas's reliance upon such schema. In psychological terms, this journey is seen as a process that each of us undergoes as we advance toward growth and change. The Hero's Journey is intended to duplicate the various stages of our individual rites of passage. We face separation from the known, familiar world; we undergo initiation and transformation, where our old ways of thinking and acting are altered or destroyed, and this opens the way to a new level of awareness. Thus, after successfully meeting these challenges, it is hoped we find freshened confidence to cope with a new, adult world. I'd say Luke successfully completes that journey.
I'm not sure I buy into this "Hero's Journey" material completely, but it doesn't matter. What's important is that Campbell may have explained it, but Lucas was smart enough to entertain us with it and profit by it. Now, add to this myth business the fact that Lucas borrowed his plot for "Star Wars" from Japanese director Akira Kurosawa's "The Hidden Fortress," 1958, and we can see that his sci-fi epic has more to it than meets the eye.
Of course, "Star Wars" isn't really science fiction at all, and no "Star Wars" fan cares. The film draws upon mythology, history, literature, philosophy, and religion. There's so much referenced in the film that one can make almost any interpretation of it one choses. What's more, the film is clearly based as much on traditional Hollywood Westerns (of the kind Kurosawa so favored when growing up and upon which he himself based so many of his Samurai movies) as on Campbell's mythology. Note the cocky young hero (Luke); the dastardly villain in the black hat (Darth); the cocky gunslinger (Han); the beautiful but plucky damsel in distress (Leia). They're all here, along with an authentic Wild West saloon full of colorful characters, plenty of shoot-outs, and chases that head 'em off at the pass. Substitute space ships for horses, lasers for six-guns, and all of outer space for the wide-open ranges of Monument Valley, and you've got, well, you've got "Star Wars."
Yes, "Star Wars" is fun and exciting, and the outer-space sequences are imaginative, but I believe the key to the movie's success is its creation of a family of characters we can love and believe in. Unlike the characters in Lucas's later trilogy of movies, who are largely distant and cold, the early characters are people we want to know, people we trust, whether they're good or evil. Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) is the innocent young fellow we can all relate to, ready and chomping at the bit to leave home, begin his journey in life, and find himself. Han Solo (Harrison Ford) is the cocky rogue, the smuggler with the heart of gold and the fastest spaceship in the galaxy, the cool dude we all want to be like. Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) is the beautiful damsel in distress who turns out to be not so helpless and not so much in distress as we might have thought. Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) is the perfect sidekick, big and sweet and loveable, the kind of giant stuffed animal we all had as children (and patterned, Lucas says, after his Alaskan malamute dog). Ben Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) is the wise old wizard, the literary descendent of the Arthur tales' Merlin and Tolkien's Gandalf, who gives us all comfort and reassurance. C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) are the Laurel-and-Hardy vaudeville act that adds a touch of comic relief to the proceedings; yet, they are just as loveable and just as valuable to the success of the heroes' venture as anyone else in the picture.
And then there is Darth Vader (David Prowse), whose very name strikes fear into audiences and whose vaguely sinister baritone voice (James Earl Jones) will forever be lodged in our minds. It's not surprising that a lot of viewers like Vader better than anyone else in the show; villains are almost always more interesting than heroes because their personalities stand out so resonantly. Besides, this villain even wears the proper dark duds to go with his proper dark heart. No wonder this material became the stuff of legend.
Not to forget John Dykstra's special effects; the production department's still-amazing miniatures, modelled after the pioneering work in "2001"; John Williams' epic soundtrack music; Gilbert Taylor's sweeping cinematography; and the work of a legion of filmmakers and crafts people who brought it all to life.
Of course, there are critics who think Hamill's acting is wooden or Lucas's pacing is awkward, but they're few and far between. For me the film holds up to the best action tales of old, and I've yet to get tired of the characters. Part "Flash Gordon," part "Adventures of Robin Hood," with John Williams' music inspired by things like "The Sea Hawk," the cliff-hanger situations and hairbreadth escapes of "Star Wars" are not only fun in their own right, they would be the precursors of the "Indiana Jones" series to come. "Star Wars" was a significant film in more ways than one.
Nor have I yet to get tired of the plot line, which, according to Lucas, was always supposed to be one of the middle portions of a nine-part series. But clearly Lucas was hedging his bets with "Star Wars." The movie is pretty much a stand-alone narrative, with a definable beginning, middle, and end, despite its sequels and prequels. I doubt that Lucas had any idea the movie was going to hit it off with the public as big as it did. So we don't need any real back-story to introduce us to the characters and events of "Star Wars," and the grand finale after the defeat of the Death Star is big enough to make people forget that Vader and company have gotten away scot-free. However, I recall my wife and I looking at each other when at the end Vader's little craft goes careening off into space and saying, "He'll be back." Little did we realize.
Star Wars: Episode V--The Empire Strikes Back
The 1980 follow-up segment, "The Empire Strikes Back," is the deepest, darkest, most mature, and most thoughtful entry in the series, bar none. For many viewers, including myself, it is the high-water mark in the entire "Star Wars" saga. There are many sequels that approach their progenitors, let alone surpass them; maybe "Terminator 2," for some viewers "Godfather II," but most certainly "The Empire Strikes Back."
This is Luke's coming-of-age picture. In "Star Wars" Luke was a brash, impetuous, naive young man, itching to leave home and get out on his own, ready to face the world, determined to conquer the universe. In "The Empire Strikes Back" he is able finally to see into himself, to recognize his own limitations, to understand that the "dark side" exists not somewhere out there in the metaphysical void but within each of us.
Somebody on the Message Board once asked how there could be an imbalance in the Force, which is something Luke must come to understand. I suggested at the time that a "balance" implied an equal distribution of weight or amount, a measure of different, sometimes opposing, elements, but not necessarily in equal proportions. The human psyche, for instance, is said to be made up of the id, the ego, and the superego, forces within us that govern our impulsive, subconscious desires and reactions as well as our outward, mindful behavior. Sublimating the "dark side" of our nature to the will of the more socially acceptable side is what most civilized humans do on a daily basis. But without that dark side in us, we really wouldn't know what acceptable behaviour was. We need the balance of good and evil in the world to understand the character of each. Without good, there can be no bad. Without bad, there can be no good. There is a balance in all things, even in the Force. In "The Empire Strikes Back," Luke learns this lesson all too well by having to face his inner demons and fight them off.
Of course, "The Empire Strikes Back" isn't all psychological and philosophical mumbo-jumbo. Left in the capable hands of director Irving Kershner, Lucas's story (cowritten with Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan) is a terrific action yarn, too, starting with that great battle on the Ice Planet Hoth, with the Imperial Walkers and all. Classic stuff. Then, remember the Cloud City, Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), Luke's confrontation with his father, and, of course, the introduction of the diminutive Jedi Master, Yoda (voiced by Frank Oz).
In "The Empire Strikes Back" Lucas was not constrained by having to "end" his story, as he was in the very first "Star Wars." Yes, Lucas always envisioned three movies; he hoped for a second set of three beyond that; and looked forward to maybe even a final trilogy, making nine films in the series. But that didn't stop him from ending the original "Star Wars" on a note of finality. He was hedging his bets. If the first "Star Wars" failed and there weren't going to be any more, he want to be sure the movie ended with a victory for the good guys and a sense of closure. But for "Empire," he knew full well there would be a part three, so he had no hesitation in ending on a cliff-hanger, with Han being handed over to Jabba the Hut as a wall decoration, the galaxy left hanging in the wind, and Luke still puzzling over his identity and his fate.
Star Wars: Episode VI--Return of the Jedi
The Wife-O-Meter and I agree that "Return of the Jedi" (1983) was Lucas's first serious decline into juvenilia for the "Star Wars" saga. It was as if Lucas thought he had already captured the adult market and now needed to make a conscious effort to draw more youngsters into the fold. The inclusion of the cartoonish guards and creatures in Jabba's stronghold and then the teddy-bear Ewoks at the end of the movie pointed the way toward the completely out-of-place comic relief of Jar Jar Binks and the silly space aliens in Episode One years later.
I'm not sure why Lucas felt the need to include the Ewoks at the end. In addition to their pleasing kids, I suspect he liked the irony of the galaxy being saved from the Evil Empire by a bunch of teddy bears. I mean, what child didn't have a teddy bear or a doll to comfort him in his youth? Bringing on the teddies reassures us that all is right with the world. It's an idea along the same lines as making Chewbacca a big, lovable stuffed animal and Yoda a tiny, so-ugly-he's-cute fellow with immense power and wisdom. But with regard to Chewbacca and Yoda, the strategy worked perfectly, and in the case of the Ewoks it falls flat for most everyone but tikes. I also didn't much care for Vader's deathbed repentance, but I suppose it's there to remind us the whole series is still a fairy tale after all.
This is not, of course, to suggest that "Return of the Jedi" is without merit. Director Richard Marquand does a good job moving Lucas's script along (cowritten again by Lawrence Kasdan, with the help of an uncredited David Webb Peoples, "Blade Runner," "Unforgiven," "Twelve Monkeys"). The movie does have Luke's struggle with the giant beast in Jabba's cave; that thrilling chase through the Redwoods; the outer-space battles; and, of course, the climactic confrontation between Luke and Vader and the Emperor that brings the whole trilogy to a close. Plus, it's also the best-looking of the first three "Star Wars" movies, the one that involved the most special effects.
Now, if only it weren't for those darned Ewoks. I remember my wife turning to me in the theater when the Ewoks finally got to her and saying something about airlines providing barf bags. I really thought she was going to get up and leave early. But we've all learned to stay the course for this one, too, now that we know what to expect.
By the way, before I discuss the video quality of the newly-restored movies, let me confirm that Lucas and his people made enhancements and changes to some of the movies' visuals. For example, some vehicles and Jabba the Hutt look better now than they did in 1997 (the year of the "Special Editions" theatrical releases), and Ian McDiarmid replaces the actor who appeared as a holographic projection of Emperor Palpatine in Episode V. The most controversial addition may be that of replacing the original Anakin Skywalker ghost with a ghostly image of Hayden Christensen, who plays the young Anakin in Episodes II and III. I'm glad that they kept the goof of a storm trooper banging his head on a door in Episode IV.
The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen images are so clean and sharp and generally good-looking that they are essentially embarrassments to Lucas because they demonstrate how good film and "real" objects such as miniatures, puppets, and animatronics look compared to the nearly-completely-computer-generated world of Episode II. I don't have anything philosophical against the use of digital video or the use of computer graphics, but at this point in time, when judging Episodes IV, V, or VI against Episode II, you can see that digital video's current high-definition resolution of 1080 horizontal lines (1K) pales greatly in comparison to film's resolution of at least 5000 horizontal lines (5K). The movies look so good that you can tell what has been done by Lowry Digital to clean up the prints. Basically, scratches, nicks, and tons of dust have been removed to reveal the contrasts and rich colors of the cinematography.
Big-time fans will rejoice that you can still hear Mark Hamill shouting "Carrie!" instead of "Leia!" towards the end of Episode IV. Aside from that one trivia note, I don't know if Lucas and Co. added or got rid of certain "tricks". However, I do know that Lucasfilm officially admits that previous Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks for the movies weren't true 5.1 mixes. My guess is that the rear surrounds used the same feeds, so you really had 4.1 tracks. At any rate, the DVDs feature newly-engineered Dolby Digital 5.1 EX English tracks, and the audio is tremendous. People have always thought of the "Star Wars" movies as extravaganzas of directionality-effects and deep low-ends. The new DVDs significantly expand the scope of the sound fields. Therefore, not only are you immersed in a crisply, cleanly, and evocatively created audio environment, you also feel as if you are part of a large, living world.
My only complaint is that some dialogue gets lost in the sonic tumult that seems to be the rule in the "Star Wars" universe. This is both a major and a minor quibble--major because a movie viewer needs to know about what is happening and minor because it's actually appropriate that the actors' voices get drowned out sometimes. It's a tough judgment call, but I'm going to go out on a limb and say that the dialogue need not have been buried. An overly "hot" or aggressive mix isn't pleasant.
Each movie also has DD 2.0 surround English, DD 2.0 surround French, and DD 2.0 surround Spanish tracks. Optional English subtitles as well as optional English closed captions support the audio.
Like Lucasfilm's collaboration with Paramount for the "Indiana Jones" box set, the movies come in a four-disc box set, with the first three discs containing the movies and audio commentaries and with the fourth disc devoted to bonus materials. In any case, it's a sensible idea because at least the viewer has a pretty good idea where to find everything.
There are audio commentaries that are must-listens for every "Star Wars" fan. Lucas and the other participants not only provide a wealth of practical, behind-the-scenes information but also give us a ton of trivia, too. True, much of this minutiae can be found at the Internet Movie Database, among other places, but it's fun to hear it straight from the horse's mouth. Specifically, here's what's on the four discs.
Disc One contains the first feature film, "A New Hope", with an audio commentary by George Lucas, Ben Burtt, Dennis Muren, and Carrie Fisher. Disc Two contains "The Empire Strikes Back" with an audio commentary by George Lucas, Irvin Kershner, Lawrence Kasdan, Ben Burtt, Dennis Muren, and Carrie Fisher. Disc Three contains "Return of the Jedi" with an audio commentary by George Lucas, Ben Burtt, Dennis Muren, and Carrie Fisher.
On Disc Four, you'll find the most important extra created for this DVD release--the two-and-a-half hour documentary "Empire of Dreams: The Story of the Star Wars Trilogy". This is where we learn everything we could possibly want to know about the unfolding of the trilogy's beginnings. The documentary is quite extensive and includes behind-the-scenes shots from all three original films, plus new interviews with the writer/director and many members of the original cast and crew, along with quite a few other filmmakers and film people.
There are three featurettes that complement the "Empire of Dreams" documentary. "The Birth of the Lightsaber" and "The Characters of Star Wars" have self-explanatory titles. "The Force Is With Them" is a collection of interviews with moviemakers who have been influenced by "Star Wars".
"Episode III Behind the Scenes Preview: The Return of Darth Vader" is a promo for "Star Wars: Episode III--Revenge of the Sith" that explains how the young, noble Anakin becomes the ruthless Darth Vader. In the featurette, Lucas tells us about Anakin's fall and gives us a look at Vader's wardrobe.
Then, there's a promo for "Star Wars Battlefront" as well as a playable Xbox demo for the game. The full version of "Star Wars Battlefront" will be available for the PlayStation 2, Xbox, and PCs. There is also a "Star Wars: Episode III--Making the Game" preview. This video game is based on Episode III, and the featurette tells about its production and play.
Finally, there are bonuses that are considered to be "archival" in nature--trailers and TV spots galore, a gallery of hundreds of still photos, and posters and printwork from the original advertising campaigns.
Each disc in the set allows you to access web materials if you use the DVDs with a computer. For the moment, there are few such bonuses worthy of mention, but Lucasfilm will undoubtedly enhance consumers' experience as street date approaches.
Each movie is housed in its own keepcase with an insert that provides chapter listings. The DVD for the extras is housed in its own keepcase, too, and it also has its own insert that guides viewers in navigating the disc. The keepcases are stored inside two cardboard slipcases.
There is no doubt that the original three "Star Wars" movies are classics. It's good to have them on DVD, at long last. Individually, by the way, I'd rate them 9/10 for "Star Wars," 10/10 for "The Empire Strikes Back," and 7/10 "Return of the Jedi." A 9/10 seems to me a fair evaluation of the complete trilogy.