Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope Review
I remember George Lucas making two rather bold statements about Star Wars on DVD, the first; none of the Star Wars films would be available on DVD until after the release of the final movie. Second; the original versions of Star Wars would never come to DVD. Ever. Fan pressure (or possibly the idea of missing out on a hell of a lot of money) led to that first one crumbling, but to the dismay of many, Lucas never wavered on that second point.
So, a mere five years after The Matrix ignited the nations interest in DVD, the most requested discs of all time have arrived, in all new extra special edition forms. Lucas seems unable to stop tweaking the films, which on its own isn’t a problem as – and I may be opening myself up to some incredible geek wrath here – the majority of them are actually rather good. I’m not the biggest fan of Star Wars, but like many others they are films I grew up with, and as such the nostalgia value alone makes them a must own. This release contains only a few touches in addition to the large scale changes Lucas made with the Special Editions, It’s been a long time since I last saw them, and maybe my memories have been tainted by the new trilogy, but I’d forgotten just how enjoyable Star Wars really is.
The saga got off to a magnificent start with A New Hope (even if that wasn’t the official title when it was released) it captured the imagination of the world with its look into space. Science fiction had long been the realm of horrendous acting and bad costumes, and although much of that was still present here Lucas did do one thing very differently – he took us into space, rather than bringing space to us. We’re really thrown straight into a galaxy far, far away as the film begins, space ships roar overhead the first looks big, and then that Star Destroyer comes into view and you realise just how big big can be. The basic plot revolves around the plans for the ‘Death Star’ an intergalactic battle station with a power never seen before. The rebel alliance has stolen these plans, hoping to find a weakness in the evil empire’s war machine, and naturally the empire wants them back. Which is where the drois come into things. C-3PO and R2-D2, two unassuming robots who have ended up being central to all the Star Wars movies. Stealing a plot device from Akira Kurosawa, George Lucas decided that rather than focusing on the traditional heroes his story would be told through the eyes of the lowest characters, and we’ll follow them as they get swept long on an adventure with the people that will become instrumental in the fight against the Empire. There’s a beautiful princess, a wise old master, a naïve young boy with powers yet unknown to him, and a cheeky rogue who only appears to be in it for the money, combine that with a faceless villain with a terrifying voice and the amazing setting of alien worlds, and it’s easy to see why Star Wars enthralled so many, it was a classic story thrillingly told in a whole new light.
It’s also the only part of the series that can stand alone, as when Lucas made it although he had many more ideas for a larger story he just didn’t know if he’d ever be able to make sequels, so A New Hope was tweaked to become a complete story rather than just a beginning. It makes it the most well rounded movie of the five produced to date, and whilst it lacks the darkness of The Empire Strikes Back in many ways it’s a better film. Empire is only so good because of what came before and after it, as a movie standing alone it doesn’t work, there’s no doubt that Empire is great, but it was the beginning of Lucas’s sprawling movie making that has left his still needing to make more movies and adjust the ones he’d ‘finished’ more than 20 years later. Most fans would agree that their beloved movies didn’t need adjustment, and this is certainly true of A New Hope as it stood on its own two feet and showed the world – for the last time – just what Lucas could accomplish when he didn’t have carte blanche; some people just need someone staring over their shoulder.
So to the differences, whilst they weren’t required (I think most people would have preferred Lucas to be making new films rather than polishing his old ones) many do actually improve the experience. It’s fun to see the grandeur of the Mos Eisley space port, it’s fun to see new fantastic beasts being ridden by storm troopers across the desert, and it’s easier to watch the space battles when you can’t see every matte line. Those are all changes any Star Wars fan can not only live with, but will probably welcome, but when you start tinkering with the plot of a movie people have been watching repeatedly since they were children, you’re likely to get some much stronger reactions. And so to the movie’s most talked about change, Han vs. Greedo, version 2.1. I say 2.1 because this is mostly the same as the version seen in the previous Special Edition version of the film, that’s right Greedo still shoots first. I’d read that they were to shoot at the same time, but this wasn’t to be, whilst the gap has been reduced, it’s still very clear that Greedo fires the first shot, followed by a swift two by Han. Where to begin on this being a bad idea? It’s obvious that Lucas understands the fans hated the change in the Special Edition, and that this is an attempt to stem the flow of complaints but it’s a foolish gesture. If Lucas has his reasons for casting Han in a different light by giving him the chivalrous (or foolish) need to wait until Greedo, inevitably, tries to kill him before making a move, then he should have stuck to his guns – so to speak. This reeks of a man who knows he’s made a mistake but can’t bear to admit it.
It’s not the only scene I take issue with, Han and Jabba’s confrontation beside the Millennium Falcon is not only unnecessary, but the way Han has to walk over Jabba’s tail due to Jabba being originally cast as a human (or at least humanoid) rather than a slimy blob should have forced the scene to be left on the cutting room floor. Jabba is supposed to be a gangster feared throughout the galaxy, it’s like kicking Marlon Brando up the arse as you walk behind him, he’s just not going to stand for it. On the plus side the CGI rendering of Jabba has been redone so he matches the version seen in The Phantom Menace, it’s a little less jarring now he doesn’t look like he’s been rendered on a Playstation, but the scene still stinks. I don’t mind at all Lucas wanting to improve upon his work (at least this film was his own work) director’s cuts have become a very common part of modern moviemaking, even the new version of Alien 3 was well received, despite David Fincher having little to do with it, but Lucas has to remember that a director’s cut won’t always be an improvement. The film may be closer to his original vision but maybe not everything he originally pictured was perfect, it may be getting ever closer to the Star Wars George always wanted, but a hell of a lot of people were very happy with what they enjoyed for 20 years. It’s disheartening to see these releases no longer carry any kind of Special Edition tag, this is Star Wars, no special edition, no director’s cut, no the version you’ve never seen, its move that has more than a whiff of George Orwell about it, as Lucas’s Ministry of Information gradually deletes the existence of the former versions. With any luck when our generation dies out nobody will ever remember that this wasn’t the way things used to be, and George can finally be happy (yes he’ll probably still be alive, but he’ll be more machine than man by then.) That said, the heart of the film remains, the fun is still there, and this is still a very enjoyable experience. I’ve seen Star Wars in numerous polls lauded as the best film ever made, and whilst it certainly isn’t that, it’s still a hugely enjoyable film, and one that changed cinema as we know it. It’s hard to imagine a world without Star Wars anymore, and nearly as hard to imagine a DVD collection without this disc.
If this isn’t the cut of Star Wars you wanted to arrive on DVD, leaving you as one of the disgruntled fans that has vowed to boycott this release then you’d better make sure you never lay eyes on this DVD, because the picture quality is nothing short of fantastic. You may crave Han shooting first, but you’ll never be able to look at your VHS copies the same way again. The transfer is spotless – and I know that’s one of those statements that usually brings out people with 8 foot projector screens and magnifying glasses to prove me wrong, but for once their efforts may be wasted as Star Wars looks brand new, and until some new super dvd format arrives that can store the movie without any level of compression this is as good as it’s ever going to look.
Whilst the few that own laserdisc players may have been enjoying a 5.1 soundtrack on Star Wars for a long, long time, most of us will have never experienced it in glorious Dolby Digital, and I do mean glorious. I remember on the Gamecube version of Rogue Squadron there was a surround test that was simply a Tie Fighter circling the room, it was such a tease, leaving me desperate to hear their whining thought the battle of Yavin, and this Dolby Digital 5.1 EX track is everything you could hope it to be. Tie fighters scream around the room, blasters pierce your ears and those star destroyers create one hell of a rumble from the sub. It’s a fantastic listen and an incredibly immersive experience, and one more reason to ditch the VHS – at least for your regular viewing of the movie. Sadly there have been some – rather well publicised – reports of problems with the soundtrack, they are minor, and odds are you won’t even notice them until you’re told, so if you don’t want to know skip on to the extras. It seems that somebody made a boo-boo at Lucasfilm, as the orchestral track has been improperly transferred, whilst all the instruments are there – the score sounds like it should – it doesn’t come from all the right places. The left and right rear channels have been switched – only for the instruments, not the sound effects – so when you hear an instrument it comes from the left front speaker and the right rear, this gives the effect of having two orchestras playing, one far away behind you and another close in front, and whilst I found I had to stop paying attention to the film and focus on the music to notice, there are some that claim the problem is a constant annoyance to their listening. Nobody I’ve watch the film with has actually noticed – I once read when you’re watching a film something like 80% of your brain activity is processing the visual data, so sound errors slip by far more easily than picture ones – but the mistake is worrying, at least for Lucasfilm. They’ve set a record for the most DVD box sets sold in a single week, more than half a million people went out and bought Star Wars, I’m guessing the folks at Lucasfilm have sat down and applied ‘the formula’ from Fight Club on this one, right now there aren’t enough people complaining about it to make it worth doing a recall, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the error is quietly fixed in a later pressing of the disc.
Commentary from George Lucas, Carrie Fisher, Ben Burtt and Dennis Murren
The majority of the extras in the box set are housed on the fourth disc, so all you’ll find here is this commentary, which, sadly, could be better. The four participants were recorded separately, which gives the whole thing a rather studious and even dull tone, and naturally Lucas gets the majority of the time to talk. And talk he does, in depth about the problems of shooting the film, it’s almost too hard to imagine now – with episodes I and II being the most expensive independently produced movies ever – but Lucas didn’t have a lot of money behind him on the shoot, and not much faith from the studio either, not to mention annoying a few weather gods who seemed determined to destroy every set they built. I didn’t learn much from this commentary, I’ve read numerous interviews with Lucas about the making of Star Wars, and a book here and there, there won’t be much here for the hardened fan to learn, but for the casual Star Wars viewer there are a fair few pieces of pub ammunition to be gleaned. Sadly, the moment I waited for on tenterhooks on this commentary – the Han/Greedo confrontation, saw no comment from Lucas, sad really that he didn’t even take the time to defend the series most controversial change.
The presentation is fantastic, with video and audio quality to die for (well aside from the slight audio mix up), and whilst it would have been nice to get commentary tracks from more of the cast the only thing that is really missing from this disc is the original cut of the film. Whilst Lucas can weave all he wants with smokescreens about what the original version really is he’s never, never, going to convince the people that grew up with the film that they don’t need the version they remember. It’s saddening to see that Lucas is so stubborn on the issue, I’m sure there would be far less criticism about the new version if fans could just choose to ignore it and watch the original, but that doesn’t look like it will happen. What is clear though, is that any fan that chooses to not buy this release because of the differing version is losing out in a big way. It may not be the ultimate way to enjoy Star Wars, but it’s the best there’s ever been.