Star Wars: The Original Trilogy Review
The MoviesIn 1977 George Lucas changed cinema forever with the release of Star Wars. His take on the cinematic adventure serials of his childhood struck a chord with audiences worldwide, unleashing a cultural phenomenon which shows little sign of abating some 34 years later. This highly-anticipated Blu-ray edition is testament to that, although it's worth mentioning that these are the latest 'Special Edition' cuts of the films and NOT the original theatrical versions.
Star Wars (Episode IV: A New Hope, if you must) is the most fun-filled film of the entire Saga, being the adventures of a boy, a girl, and a universe, to quote the trailer. Young farmboy Luke Skywalker sets off on an incredible journey, after getting caught up in the war against the evil Empire which is being fought by the Rebel Alliance, led by Princess Leia. Luke is played by a fresh-faced Mark Hamill, and Leia is brought to feisty life by Carrie Fisher. Having stolen the plans to the Empire's ultimate weapon, the Princess is chased by Darth Vader (David Prowse), the hulking black-clad enforcer of the Empire, and once her ship is intercepted her only hope of delivering that information to the Rebellion is to get in touch with an old friend of the family: noble Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness), who's been watching over Luke for the last 20 years on the barren desert planet of Tatooine.
The fates conspire to bring Luke and Obi-Wan together via two clumsy but loveable droids, R2D2 and C3PO, into whom Leia has downloaded the crucial stolen plans, and they head off for Leia's home planet of Alderaan to deliver the message to her father. They're in need of a ship, and are aided by rogue smuggler Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and his Wookiee sidekick Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) who fly the Millennium Falcon. But they soon realise that they've bitten off more than they can chew when they catch sight of the Empire's fearsome Death Star, a moon-sized space station capable of destroying an entire planet. Our heroes are pulled aboard the vessel and decide to rescue the captive Princess, while Kenobi has business of his own with Darth Vader. Cue gun fights, space battles and a lightsaber duel, topped with a desperate Rebel attack on the Death Star. Will the Rebels destroy the space station and live to fight another day? Or will Vader and his cronies crush them once and for all? Which do you think is more likely?
Lucas' first Star Wars film remains the most purely enjoyable one of the lot because it's not burdened by too much backstory or the need to set up the next film. It's still saddled with some appalling dialogue and iffy acting, but the key thing is that the characters aren't the formal, exposition-spouting automatons seen in the prequel trilogy (PT). Han and Leia have more passion and feeling in their little fingers than anyone in the PT, and while Luke's whining gets on my nerves at least he has a classical story arc to go through, turning from a stroppy farmboy into a heroic hotshot pilot, redeeming Han in the process. We actually have a proper villain too in the legendary form of Darth Vader, who was given such a distinct voice by James Earl Jones. The iconic production design and stirring action scenes are still a treat for the eyes, and John Williams' superb score does the same for your ears. For this 2011 edition of the film Lucas has changed a few things once again (which I won't bleat about here) but the core of the movie still shines through the superficial CG gloss.
Luke Skywalker's adventures continue with Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back. Despite the Rebels' victory, they're in retreat and have hidden in the far reaches of space on the ice planet of Hoth. It's not long before Vader picks up their trail, causing the Rebels to flee once more. While Leia and Han get to contend with asteroids, bounty hunters, space slugs and their feelings for each other, Luke heads off for the swamp world of Dagobah. This slimy mudhole is home to Yoda, a diminutive Jedi master (performed by Frank Oz) who will complete Luke's training in the ways of the Force. Han and Leia - with Threepio in tow - make a pitstop on the gas mining colony of Cloud City above the planet Bespin, which is run by Han's old gambling buddy Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams). Not everything is as it seems and soon they find themselves at the mercy of Vader, with Han being tortured then frozen in carbonite, all for the simple purpose of drawing Luke into the open. The impatient, impulsive Luke cannot resist the lure and heads into the trap. For all his bravado he has not the skill to beat Vader, and Luke is lucky to escape with his life, but not before Vader unveils a terrible secret. The Rebel fleet masses in deep space, regrouping for an all-or-nothing attack on the mighty Empire.
After the incredible stress of directing the first film, Lucas handed over the reigns for the much-anticipated sequel to his friend Irvin Kershner. While George was off building his personal empire - entirely reliant on the potential success of the second film - Kershner and producer Gary Kurtz were enduring a nightmare of a shoot, from the terrible weather on location in Norway to the dank, wet, smoke-filled stages in London. But Kershner still encouraged his players to get to the root of the story and to perform in a somewhat looser manner than Lucas would've preferred. One of the most famous lines from the entire saga is Han's unscripted reply to Leia's declaration of love: "I know". It's simple, classic and absolutely perfect. A silly space opera this may be, but Kershner's dedication to the material bestowed upon it a gravitas (not necessarily a "darkness") missing from the first movie, and that serious approach meant that a two-foot-high latex muppet was transformed into an 800-year-old Jedi Master - and we believed every second of it thanks to Frank Oz' amazing performance.
Amongst all this is yet more ground-breaking visual effects, including a stunning sequence where Rebel snowspeeders attack giant Imperial Walkers, plus the usual breathtaking space battles. There's a good deal of symbolism in the film as well; look at the spider-web design of the carbon freeze chamber, and the intense red gels used to light it are an allusion to hell itself, ironically placed among the heavenly clouds. Last but not least, John Willams surpassed his earlier score by delivering a raft of amazing new cues, such as the gentle strings of 'Yoda's Theme' and the militaristic might of the 'Imperial March'.
The trilogy, and indeed the Saga, concludes with Episode VI: Return Of The Jedi. Luke Skywalker heads back to Tatooine to free Han Solo from the clutches of local crime lord Jabba The Hutt, a disgusting blob of a creature who's hung the frozen Solo on his palace wall. With Lando, Chewie and the droids in place, Luke executes a daring raid aboard the Hutt's grand Sail Barge, and saves his friends from being lunch for the almighty Sarlacc. Skywalker once again flies off to Dagobah to visit the ailing Yoda, while Han and co. rejoin the Rebels and prepare for the endgame, a huge assault on the second as-yet-unfinished Death Star. It's orbiting the forest moon of Endor, which houses the shield generator for the space station, so Han and Leia lead a strike team onto the moon to knock out the energy shield. They encounter the Ewoks, a curious race of short furry tree-dwellers who ultimately help the Rebel cause. While they struggle to destroy the generator, Lando is spearheading the space battle in the Falcon. Luke returns to face Vader and the Emperor (Ian McDiarmid), and the stage is set for a climactic showdown which will determine the fate of the galaxy.
The final instalment of the original trilogy is a bit of a let down after the quality of Empire, Lucas having parted ways with Gary Kurtz and Irvin Kershner not willing to return to the franchise. Producer Howard Kanzanjian came on board, as did director Richard Marquand, seen as safe options by Lucas after the overruns on Empire which almost cost him dearly. The movie has some wonderful set pieces, but it feels like a technical exercise and lacks Star Wars' giddy sense of adventure and the pathos of Empire. It doesn't help that the previously strong-willed Han is now Leia's bitch, and while Luke has become a Jedi Knight, he's also had a personality bypass (not that he was all that interesting to begin with). The look of the film is merely perfunctory, returning to Tatooine again and then taking us to the forest moon of Endor, which handily looks just like the Redwood National Park in northern California. The sense of otherworldliness from Empire's locales is long gone, and even the mighty form of the incomplete Death Star II is badly wasted (imagine Luke and Vader duelling amongst the skeletal structure). And did I mention that an entire legion of the Emperor's best troops is taken out by a bunch of teddy bears?
Jedi is surprisingly prequel-esque, as it's saddled with leaden contributions from the actors, bland dialogue, a plot which has already started to disregard itself ("from a certain point of view") and there's a palpable emphasis on shilling as much merchandise as humanly possible. Lucas thought much the same about Empire with regards to it being a marketable product, but the film turned out as good as it did in spite of his involvement. That's not the case this time around, although there are still positives to be found. The action scenes truly sparkle (apart from the badly choreographed Sail Barge attack, which relies too much on slapstick), and the final confrontation between Luke, Vader and the Emperor is as stirring a piece of cinema as anything seen in the entire Saga. John Williams doesn't quite bring his 'A' game, having created all the key music themes in the first two films, but he still manages to provide an indelible sonic backdrop.
So, while Jedi has its shortcomings it's not enough to dull the enjoyment of the trilogy as a whole. The first two are bona fide classics of popular cinema, and they will all be entertaining us for generations to come. The scores on the doors are: Star Wars 9/10, Empire 9/10, Jedi 7/10.
All three films are derived from the 1080p HD 'restorations' which were performed by Lowry Digital for the 2004 DVD releases, using the SE negatives for the transfer and applying an extensive digital clean-up. While the images were spotlessly clean (and still are on Blu), the colour was heavily reworked, pumping up the saturation to near-ridiculous levels which induced some very odd artefacts, most notably the bizarre blue haze which surrounds the exploding Death Star in the first film. Contrast was also a contentious issue, certain scenes having been dulled so much that the lightsaber composites were affected, showing up most noticeably when the 'sabers cross in front of the Emperor in Jedi, losing the white cores and revealing the crude optical overlay underneath. We were promised by Lucasfilm that all these problems and more would be corrected on the Blu-rays.
Star Wars, unfortunately, isn't the home run that it should be. The colour is still far too oversaturated, although the overall blue push of the DVD has been reigned in slightly and the blue haze around the Death Star explosion has been eradicated. Skin tones vary wildly, looking lobster-pink in one shot and golden brown the next. Bluescreen shots often have very funky looking colour too, which was unavoidable when using the compositing techniques of the time. Detail looks great in the close-ups although mid-to-long shots are quite indistinct (the anamorphic photography doesn't help in that regard). The image still looks quite dim, and there isn't much to see in the blacks. There's some evidence of edge halos too, but it looks more like lens aberrations in certain shots and it isn't obnoxious by any means. My biggest complaint is the frozen grain (typical of Lowry remasters) that pervades the early Tatooine scenes; it just hangs there in the sky, reacting only when something passes through it. It's not quite as laggy as some of the Lowry efforts I've seen, but the staccato movement of Threepio shuffling through the desert shows it up quite badly, akin to a force field following him around.
Empire continues that theme, with static grain that covers the broad tundra of Hoth and gives those scenes a very 'digital' look. The colour is incredibly overbearing once again, looking superficially pleasing but it just doesn't have any consistency. Some shots early on in Echo Base have a noticeable flicker which distorts the skin tones (it was present on the DVD and has not been corrected here). The bluescreen colour problems from the first film are also present in Empire. Detail doesn't seem quite as strong as it does on the first movie (Lucas notes in one of the commentaries that it was shot with a more diffuse look than Star Wars). Edge halos are more obvious too, mostly on the optical shots. I doubt that it's an artefact of the original compositing; more likely it was done by Lowry to compensate for the reduced detail in those shots. The blacks again tend to swallow up shadow detail.
Jedi is more of the same, with colour that really pops but, again, lacks continuity. That damned frozen grain is there too, chiefly in the blue skies over Tatooine. Fine detail is sharper than its predecessor though, and you can now fully appreciate the intricacies of the various matte paintings which were used as backgrounds throughout the show. Detail does harden up slightly in the optical shots which is to be expected, although there isn't the requisite increase in grain thanks to Lowry's processing. There is a strange sequence about halfway through where the picture quality gets quite fuzzy and indistinct for a few minutes, but it doesn't look like an optical or a dupe, more like it's missing horizontal resolution (for whatever reasons). Edge halos occur frequently. Once again there's noticeable black crush. The lightsabers are back to their vibrant best, although Vader's 'saber is still hot pink rather than the deeper red which it should be.
These Blu-rays certainly have their problems, but nothing that's as chronically bad as what Universal or Paramount usually vomit up. That said, some may feel that the cumulative effect of the various issues is just as distracting as, say, a singular overdone application of DNR. I'll give them all a charitable 8 out of 10 because they're still the best looking home video versions we've ever had, but your mileage will undoubtedly vary.
The films have been given lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 6.1 (discrete) treatment, following on from the 5.1 EX Dolby Digital audio from the DVDs. There were a surprising amount of fresh additions to Star Wars' mix in 2004, including new dialogue and new sound effects, but these came at the expense of certain original elements which were either omitted or dialled so low as to be virtually inaudible. They went back to the original stems to re-record the dialogue, which revealed some crystal clear speech but also ruthlessly exposed the poor quality of the ADR track, and switching between the two was noticeably jarring. Also, the music track lacked surround information, so a fake reverb effect was added by flopping the music in the surround channels. This gave the mix an off-kilter feel which was almost disorienting at times.
Because of all of that, Star Wars was remixed yet again for the Blu-ray release, sound designer Matthew Wood reportedly at pains to restore the balance which had been lost with the 2004 mix. The Blu-ray track certainly has a bit more integrity, the music now coming from the rears in the correct configuration, but the music itself is still dialled down quite low. This is especially noticeable in the opening scene, although it's never quite as muted as that again, and thankfully the Force fanfare has been added back to the X-Wing dive.
Dialogue is a mixed bag. Anything that's been ADR'd still sounds dull and lifeless, and there's some obvious distortion during the trash compactor scene, but most of the on-set dialogue recording is terrifically clean and fresh, sounding even better than it did on the DVD mix. Peter Cushing's lines during the Leia/Alderaan scene were of poor quality on the DVD track, yet now they sound beautifully clear. The mix has an ever-present layer of ambience which adds to the other-worldly feel. There's a collection of little bleeps and bloops in the background of Obi-Wan's hut, and the Falcon has its own background hum, as does the Death Star. The surround steerage is effectively used across all three rear channels but isn't overplayed, thankfully. The same is true of the LFE.
Empire hasn't been given such an overhaul and it actually sounds a touch harsher than its predecessor, especially regarding the rear effects which can be quite coarse at times, notably the more aggressive spaceship flybys. Dialogue is fine, presented at a consistently average level of quality rather than the great-one-minute-duff-the-next aspect of Star Wars. The music has a bit more punch to it, especially the opening title, although it's still lower in the mix than I would like. The bass is very bloated, delivering plenty of overpowering 'oomph' but little in the way of nuance. This will fool plenty of people into thinking they're hearing a great sound mix, but it's merely an average one in my book.
Jedi's mix is a bit more satisfying, as the rear effects are somewhat smoother (for the most part). There's a little more atmosphere than Empire too, the sound field filled with chattering Ewoks, the swirling winds of Tatooine or the moaning denizens of Jabba's dungeons. No problems with dialogue. The low end is once again pumped up to silly levels. If it's not nailed down then Jabba's Sail Barge blowing up will shake it loose, although the PCM 2.0 sound mix from the Definitive Collection Laserdisc was similarly bass-crazy (unlike Empire's LD mix). Jabba's voice lacks the gut-rumbling resonance heard on that same Laserdisc, but that's a minor nerd-level complaint. John Williams' score isn't reproduced with the precision and clarity that it deserves, and even sounds a bit fluttery during the Emperor's arrival on the Death Star, but the overall treatment of the music is not bad by any means.
Star Wars' sound gets 8/10 easily, although the slight harshness of Empire's audio garners a 7/10. Jedi gets things back on track with another 8/10.
The original commentaries are the same ones from the 2004 DVDs, featuring George Lucas, Carrie Fisher, Ben Burtt and Dennis Muren on all three movies, with Irvin Kershner also appearing on Empire. They're okay but not terribly insightful, because they tend to cover the same ground as the Empire Of Dreams documentary from the DVD set. But if you haven't got that doc memorised - and it's not included on the Blu-rays - then the 2004 chat tracks will be worth another listen.
The new commentaries, made up of various archival sources including alternate material from the 2004 commentary sessions, are much more interesting. It's great to hear comments from most of the main cast and FX crew (too many to list here), and much of what Lucas says is fairly insightful, talking about certain plot points, his stance on revising the films and so on. Gary Kurtz is on there too, which I found surprising given the enmity between him and Lucas (I'm assuming that his contributions came from the interviews for Empire Of Dreams). Carrie Fisher is great value as always; she chunters away about how quiet Leia is when held captive by Jabba, and her anecdote about a day's work on Empire consisting of falling headfirst into a pile of white powder is laced with hidden meaning, I'm sure.
Both commentaries are subtitled in all the languages listed in the specs above, so you can run them as pseudo 'trivia tracks' over the movie if you don't want to listen to the actual commentary. But that's it for this 3-disc set. If you want the whole enchilada, including some terrific deleted scenes, you'll have to get the 9-disc Complete Saga.
OverallThe Original Star Wars Trilogy is still the best darned set of space operas you'll ever see, in spite of the incessant tinkering by its creator. These Blu-rays don't quite do them justice, using 7-year-old transfers which are finely detailed but are still beset with colour problems and artefacts from the then-state-of-the-art digital restoration by Lowry. They will look lovely on smaller screens, but from 60" upwards their flaws become more apparent. The audio has more to recommend it than the picture yet it's still not perfect, hampered by the variable quality of the original sound elements which are pushed to their limits by these raucous 6.1 mixes. The extras are slim on this 3-film set, but the two commentaries are worth your time, especially the newly compiled 'archival' tracks.
9 out of 10
8 out of 10
8 out of 10
5 out of 10