Star Wars DVD Trilogy: Bonus Disk Review
So! The biggest bonus disk to the most-eagerly awaited DVD trilogy of all time, and it's fab! As anyone who owns the sets knows, the menu screens for the films are absolutely stunning and the bonus disk is no exception. Taking its cue from the jaw-dropping asteroid field chase from 'Empire', it throws the viewer into the Millennium Falcon's cockpit, the separate panels of the Falcon's viewscreen showing scenes from the documentaries and the trilogy. Menu choices are four: 'Documentary and Featurettes'; 'Trailers and TV Spots'; 'Video Games and Still Galleries'; and the much-anticipated 'Episode III Preview: The Return of Darth Vader'.
Choose Documentary and Featurettes and you're whisked into the heart of the Rebel fleet, to Mon Mothma's conference prior to the attack on the Death Star from 'Jedi'. Options are two: the 'Empire of Dreams' documentary and a link to the Featurettes page.
The biggie here is the centerpiece of the whole disk, the two and a half hour documentary, 'Empire of Dreams: The Story of The Star Wars Trilogy', with its own chapter selection screen giving you 12 text-only chapter headings. Directed by Edith Becker and Kevin Burns, this documentary charts the inception, development, production and reception of all three movies and their general impact on the culture at large. There's sound-bites (interviews is too generous a term) from a wide range of people including Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Steven Spielberg, director Irvin Kershner, screenplay writer Lawrence Kasdan, famed U.S broadcasters Walter Cronkite and Bill Moyers and many others besides.
"It's hard to remember a time before Star Wars. The world was different then." Thus begins the portentuous voice over, which casts the world, sorry America pre-1977 as a bizarre, almost prehistoric land with no cell phones, PCs or internet. Yikes! In a nation made cynical by inflation, Nixon and Vietnam, it's no surprise that the movies being produced were also gritty and downbeat (and some of the best the U.S ever made, but never mind that).
The documentary provides a quick dose of background and social context, covering a number of subjects in short order: the collapse of the studio system in the 1960s and the rise of the independent film-maker; Lucas' early career (including some fascinating early footage from the 20-minute student film version of THX 1138); the founding of American Zoetrope and Lucas Films; the success of American Grafitti; and the development of the script for what was originally known as 'The Star Wars'. During these sequences, I loved the way that any mention of a major studio or 'corporate entity' was accompanied by the same menacing background music used to signify the presence of the evil Empire in the 'Star Wars' films. Nice touch. Later on, The Director's and Writer's Guilds and, to an extent, Fox become the 'dark side'.
The founding of ILM is followed by the six-month casting process, which features some initeresting early screen tests; Kurt Russell as Han Solo proves quite convincing (he arguably would go on to approximate the role as Snake Plissken in ‘Escape From New York’) while William Katt as Luke is less so. Harrison Ford picking his nose absently while Terri Nunn struggles through her excrutiating lines as Princess Leia is hilarious. The early glimpses of what would become the definitive Star Wars cast are also curiously poignant: for Hamill and Fisher, the films would prove the highpoint of their acting careers, at least in terms of exposure, and however maligned their work may have become subsequently, they're absolutely riveting in these tests. Hamill in particular has a terrific passion and sincerity about him as he negotiates the near-impossible dialogue.
Shooting for 'A New Hope' finally begins in North Africa and the first of many disasters occurs with the first week of filming being rained out by the first rainstorm to hit the desert in 50 years. The whole of the film's troubled creation is covered in depth and looking at it now, it's a wonder the film was made at all; the actors were bewildered by their lines, the producers were baffled by the concept and the whole thing fell behind schedule. Lucas' sole support seemed to come from Alan Ladd Jnr and even he had to step in at a certain stage, giving the director a mere week to complete filming. Then the problems really began: the first cut of the film was a disaster and Lucas had to hire three new editors, including his wife Marcia, who understandably needed a break from editing 'Taxi Driver', to hack it into shape. Meanwhile at ILM, a year had gone by and tens of thousands of dollars had been consumed without a single frame of film being successfully captured. While the effects work was being carried out, the prescient Lucas, battling through chest pains and hypertension, orchestrated a marketing exercise that saw half a million copies of the film's novelisation being sold before the film was even released.
Of course, as we all know, 'Star Wars' was eventually released to instant and massive public acclaim, breaking all box office records and becoming the most successful movie in history. Lucas' far-sighted precaution of attributing the merchandising rights and ownership of all sequels exclusively to himself put him in the unique position of being able to organise financing for the second film independent of the big Hollywood studios. Fox would distribute the film, but they wouldn't own it...
..and, as we all know, while Lucas would own 'The Empire Strikes Back', he wouldn't direct it. That honour would go to his old colllege tutor Irvin Kershner, better known for directing 'The Eyes of Laura Mars'; a competent enough thriller, but not exactly the sort of movie that would make you think its director could helm the second installment of the biggest movie series of all time. Quite how 'Empire' turned out as it good as it did remains something of a mystery. The documentary begins with the filming in Norway of the Hoth battle scene that starts the picture (featuring the arrival of the AT-ATs, still the favourite scene of many a Star Wars fan) and the introduction of the three major new characters to the saga: Lando Calrissian, Boba Fett and Yoda. It's delightful to see the sketches of the latter character in development (he originally looked like a combination of a garden gnome and Bilbo Baggins) and also how closely the final creature was modelled on its creator, the joyfully named Stuart Freeborn. The creation of the massive sets and the problems encountered in filming are covered in detail as is the even greater contribution ILM makes, now that they've got more time and money. I was disappointed, however, that cinematographer Peter Suschitzky wasn't given more credit for his work, as I believe his stunning camerawork is a big part of the reason why many people choose 'Empire' as their favourite 'Star Wars' film.
With the huge success of 'Empire', Lucas finally had the absolute independence and creative freedom he had always craved, and rapidly set about creating his own Empire in tangible, physical form. Buying a huge tract of land in Marin County, California he built Skywalker Ranch which housed LucasFilm and its subsidiaries: LucasArts, THX, Skywalker Sound and ILM. Over the next two decades, the research and development undertaken by all these entities, but the latter particularly, was to have a profound effect on how movies looked and were made.
But George had more immediate problems: coming up with episode six. Initially titled 'Return of the Jedi' it was changed early on at the suggestion of a producer to the racier 'Revenge of the Jedi'. Originally slated to direct was Spielberg, an impossibility due to DGA regulations, so Richard Marquand was brought in, a choice that still puzzles, unless Lucas was deliberately bringing in people whom he knew and could count on to be easy going (Kershner) or felt were professional enough to carry out the job but inexperienced enough for him to be able to exercise a degree of control over (Marquand). On the plot front, Kasdan and Ford both wanted Solo, or somebody, to die, but George nixed it.
Stop motion animator Phil Tippett describes the creation of Jabba the Hutt and the Rancor, and the joy here is in seeing the early conceptual models for our favourite galactic gangster, including a wonderful, moustachieod four-armed creature on a throne. The Redwood forests of Northern California are the location for the shooting of the speeder bike chase, the brainchild of Visual Effects whizz Dennis Muren, who had the idea of walking for hours through the forest with a steadicam, shooting one frame a second. Less welcome were the Ewoks, a race of psychotic teddy bears with primitive, atavistic beliefs.
'Return' receives the least amount of time in the documentary, perhaps because - generally speaking - it's the least favoured Trilogy movie. The documentary glances at its opening weekend take and before you know it, we're moving on to cover Lucas' post Star Wars work at the Ranch: developing the precursor to the first non-linear editing system, the Pixar animation application and the creation of the photorealistic effects seen in 'Jurassic Park'. This brings us neatly full circle, to the controversially-tweaked 'Special Edition' trilogy release in 1997 and Episodes I and II (referred to in the briefest possible time).
This may not be the most objective appraisal of the 'Star Wars' phenomenon, but it is the most comprehensive and wide-ranging documentary available on DVD and its production values are second to none. Like the rest of the bonus disk, the whole thing is absolutely stuffed with gorgeous illustrations, storyboards, conceptual sketches, jottings and designs, including the crucial early paintings by Ralph McQuarrie (see below) that helped convince the Fox board of directors that 'Star Wars' was worth funding. No-one is allowed to ramble on for too long and some of the speakers are actually quite interesting. Fisher gives good sound bite throughout, noting that you're not really famous until you're a Pez dispenser, and that the licensing agreements the cast signed with Lucas are so comprehensive, she needs to give him a few dollars every time she looks in the mirror.
Lucas isn't so full of himself that he can't make out the irony of his position, an independent filmmaker who fought for years to avoid the censorious hand of corporations is now himself head of a corporation: "I have become the very thing that I was trying to avoid, which is basically what part of 'Star Wars' is about... but at the same time I feel good that I'm able to make my movies the way I want them to be." As this superb documentary comes to an end with Lucas' creations being lauded to the skies by a plethora of commentators as, variously, a philosophy, a cultural phenomenon and the very 'Empire of Dreams' of the title, the key question pertaining to his final statement must be, yes George, but do the movies you’re doing now make anyone else feel good?
There are three Featurettes accompanying the major documentary: The Characters of Star Wars; The Birth of the Lightsaber; and The Force is with them: The Legacy of Star Wars.
The 19-minute The Characters of Star Wars begins with Lucas' two-year development of the screenplay (originally the character Luke Starkiller was going to be father to twins) and his early adoption of what was to become his signature technique, getting Ralph McQuarrie to draw scenes, characters and ideas. Each of the major characters is then dealt with separately. Much is made of mythological archetypes and associated legends and there's plentiful references to Joseph Campbell, although interestingly no-one can actually say which characters from myth and legend the Star Wars characters are supposed to resemble, except in the most general way. Lucas even admits that the inspiration for Chewbacca came from his dog Indianna. He also attributes C3PO and R2D2 to the two peasants in Kurosawa's 1958 classic, 'The Hidden Fortress', while the former robot's design is drawn from the female android in Fritz Lang's 'Metropolis'. As in 'Empire of Dreams' it's fascinating to see the many sketches and designs showing how the concept of Threepio was tinkered with and what Lucas' original idea for the character was. Han Solo was originally going to be a green-skinned giant alien with gills. Anakin and Darth Vader were originally going to be two different characters before Lucas' decision to combine them.
The Birth of the Lightsaber lasts 16 minutes and follows the development of Star Wars' most famous weapon. Wishing to cast his movies in the tradition of the great romantic swashbucklers of the past - 'Robin Hood', 'Captain Blood' et al - George came up with a weapon compatible with the ideals of his order of intergalactic peacekeepers, one created primarily for defense, rather than attack. In real terms, the lightsaber was actually a camera flash attachment attached to a rod wrapped in movie screen material that reflected light back more intensely. As the movie developed, so did the complexity of the fights and the capacity of the special effects. By the time of 'Jedi', all the lightsaber effects were being done in post production, but a short rod was still used during filming to give the actors something to focus with. An excellent split-screen effect applied to several lightsaber duels allows us to compare the original footage with the final post-FX shot. In the prequels, with fully-trained Jedi and Sith at their peak, the fights are more intricate and demanding than in the original trilogy. Sound designer Ben Burtt describes how the hum of a broken TV set inspired him to create the saber's distinctive tone and wryly notes that when he first presented the sounds synched to the Obi-Wan/Vader duel in 'Star Wars', there was no comment at all from George: something that he realizes now is the highest possible praise.
The Force is with them: The Legacy of Star Wars is 13 minutes long and features Peter Jackson, James Cameron, Ridley Scott, John Singleton, Dean Devlin, Roland Emmerich and others discussing the colossal impact the original film had on them. This is quite affecting in its way. One doesn't necessarily think of successful and famous film-makers as being touched by 'Star Wars' in the same way that oneself or one's friends were when, of course, the main reason why many of them became film-makers in the first place (as they candidly admit here) or, as in the case of Scott and Cameron, were so heavily influenced by the film that their best movies would be in the science-fiction genre, was because of it. Cameron neatly summarises the breakthroughs the film achieved in special effects: movement, detail, depth and what Lucas calls the 'used future' effect, adding layers of grime and dirt to surfaces that had previously been pristine and clean in science fiction movies. Scott notes the particular influence this latter innovation had on 'Alien' but so, more unexpectedly, does Jackson, making the point that the first step to getting the audience to believe in your characters is to place them in a believable world. It's self-confessed sci-fi/fantasy nerd Jackson who ultimately puts his finger on the core of the ‘Star Wars’ appeal: "It legitimised the way we were and who we were and the fact that I could go home from school and make spaceships out of cardboard tube."
Episode III: The Return of Darth Vader is only nine minutes and doesn't give us a huge chunk of next year's final installment, as much as we may wish for it, but it's still quite compelling. Lucas explains the background to the film and the process of how Anakin becomes Vader. We're taken stage by stage through the creation of the new Darth Vader suit, that Christensen will wear at the end of the new film. Most interesting of all were the scenes of Ewan McGregor and Hayden Christensen rehearsing the climactic duel, which looks fab.
Trailers and TV Spots does what it suggests, offering a different selection of content for each of the films. The menu screen for this one, by the way, is on the deck of the Devastator.
The Trailers for 'A New Hope' are the original, non-effects, non-John Williams Teaser which is plain weird; the full 'Luke Skywalker was just a farmboy' Trailer; the re-release trailer of a few years later; and the 1997 Special Edition trailer. 'The Empire Strikes Back' trailers follow the same format, obviously without the 1997 trailer. The Teaser trailer uses no footage from the film itself (none was available), only drawings and a wonderfully cheesy 'ripple' video effect'; the full Launch trailer with car salesman voice over; and the Re-release. 'Return of the Jedi' includes the famous 'Revenge' teaser before the name was changed; the full Launch trailer and the Re-release.
The TV spots are many and cheesy, and are presented through a great menu screen inside Darth Vader's meditation chamber. 'A New Hope' has the Farmboy spot with the only sexy shot in the film, of Leia dryly delivering her Bacall-esque "Aren't you a little short for a stormtrooper?" line, What if?, Adventure and Forbidden Love which highlights what would become the rather dubious romance between Luke and Leia. 'The Empire Strikes Back' has New Chapter, Battle, Old and New and Heroes. 'Return of the Jedi' has It Began for which the sound is terrible, Climactic Chapter and Return. Exit the menu and Vader says conclusively 'That's it!"
Video Games and Still Galleries has some great stuff including, firstly, one of the best menu screens on the disk, featuring Luke's remote training onboard the Falcon from 'A New Hope'. There's 'Exclusive Production Photos', 'One Sheet Posters', 'Episode III: Making the Game' and the Star Wars Battlefront 'XBox Game Demo' and 'Game Trailer'.
The 'Exclusive Production Photos'offer "...never-before-seen" photos from the LucasFilm archives, viewable with captions or as full-frame pictures without captions. Caption languages are English, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish and Finnish and range from the informative ("George Lucas discusses a scene with Mark Hamill") to the amusing ("But.. Kenny Baker was in here when we sealed R2 this morning!"). I was intrigued by the shot of Vader stalking the Tantive IV and the shots from the deleted Mos Eisley sequence (I had no idea that one-time girlfriend of Prince Andrew Koo Stark was in this!) but it brought to my attention one of the bonus disk's deficiencies: no 'deleted footage' or 'missing scenes' section. OK, so this footage has been available in different ways for some time, but it still feels like an obvious omission.
One Sheet Posters offers a selection of the trilogy's movie posters as they appeared in different countries. I loved the Italian Star Wars one ('Guerre Stellari!') which seemed to have more in common with a sexed-up Flash Gordon than George Lucas' earnest story, and the Polish 'Jedi' poster, which made the most effects-sodden movie ever made (up to that point) look like a compelling psychological drama about a robot.
Episode III: Making the Game is just six minutes long and, perhaps surprisingly, fascinating. LucasArts Director Jon Knoles and Lead Artist Ian Milham outline their aim for the Xbox/PlayStation 2 title ("The best lightsaber duels you've ever seen in a game. Period."). There's footage of the shooting of Episode III in Sydney, although it's only Christensen and McGregor fighting against a green screen, much like in the 'Return of Darth Vader' segment elsewhere on the disk. More amusing are the scenes where Stunt coordinator Nick Gillard, who choreographed the fight scenes in Episode III, attempts to turn the mouse-pushing boffins from the games department into athletic Jedi (with some success) and Christensen, an eager video gamer himself, telling them exactly how he wants his virtual counterpart to slouch.
The Star Wars Battlefront Xbox Game Demo I can't comment on, not owning a XBox but the Game Trailer looked pretty impressive.
There is also a link to exclusive content on the Starwars.com website.
All of the new content and film clips (except for the old trailers) are presented in pristine, anamorphically-enhanced widescreen, and you'll already know from reading the separate reviews of the films how good this is.
Obviously the main element in the documentaries is the dialogue and this comes across as perfect. There's plentiful use of John Williams' famous score throughout and it sounds full and clear.
A superb bonus disk even if the lack of deleted footage is a disappointment. Why didn't George put it in this set? I may be getting cynical in my old age, but one wonders if, in a few years' time, a six-disk 'Ultimate Collection' box set we will see...