Saturday, September 17, 2011

STAR WARS: THE COMPLETE SAGA - Bluray (Lucasfilm/Fox 1977-2005) Fox 2011

Long ago in a galaxy that now seems much too far away, a great American sci-fi trilogy was born. It was immediately embraced and much beloved by movie audiences around the world, spawning a mad obsession to collect all things intergalactic. The original Star Wars (1977) (rechristened 'A New Hope by Lucas in 1981) has often been referred to as a 'space opera' and that is a fitting description. In an age of gritty counterculture Star Wars resurrected the heroics a la an Errol Flynn swashbuckler. Yet, at its core the original film is a hybrid of the old morality play; an atypical 'good vs. evil' conflict made palpable for contemporary audiences by being set in outer space - the real 'final frontier' for mankind's daydreams and fantasies. If you don't know the history of this series by now then plot summaries really won't help, but here goes.
Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) is a farmer working the land for his Uncle Owen (Phil Brown) and Aunt Beru (Shelagh Fraser) when he is confronted by a cryptic discovery from two droids, R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) and C3PO (Anthony Daniels). The droids have been sent by Princess Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) in search of Ben Obi Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness); a retired Jedi knight living obscurely on this isolated planet. Leia's diplomatic ship has been captured by Darth Vader (David Prowse for height/James Earl Jones for voice); an Imperial autocrat and his storm troopers.
Vader's men track the droids to the farm and slaughter Luke's uncle and aunt. Obi Wan and Luke hire smuggler Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and his furry sidekick, Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) to take then on their rescue mission to the Death Star, an Imperial space station capable of destroying a small planet. Obi Wan is killed by Vader, but his spirit is transformed into part of 'the force' that will keep Luke, Leia and Han safe for the rest of their adventures.
In The Empire Strikes Back (1980) the rebel forces are on the run as Vader and his evil empire rebuild the Death Star. After a spirited battle on the frozen tundra of Hoth, Luke retreats to a murky bog to begin his technical training as a Jedi knight with Yoda (voiced by Frank Oz), the Jedi master. Luke, Leia and Han are conned by Han's old smuggling buddy, Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams). They arrive at his Cloud City where Vader and his men take them hostage. Han is frozen in carbonite as a prize for smuggler Jabba the Hutt.
Leia and Lando escape from Cloud City leaving Luke and Vader to do battle. In the resulting conflict Luke loses his hand. Vader implores Luke to follow him to the dark side, then confesses that he is his father. Luke defies Vader and is rescued by Leia and Lando. The three vow to fight another day and in Return of the Jedi (1983) that's just what they do with the aid of a cute and cuddly band of Ewok warriors. For the sake of economy I am greatly simplifying these film summaries. The Star Wars Trilogy is among the most covered and revered in movie history. Suffice it to say, most who are reading this review know the rest by heart and don't need me to reiterate it. So why waste precious time and space even if the latter is infinite?
The original Star Wars trilogy was an all-inclusive saga, imaginative and breathtaking in both its scope and execution. It required no prequels to explain away its narrative threads. In fact, for a brief wrinkle in time Lucas himself insisted as much. Ah, but then came his 1987 divorce - a costly separation that threatened to wipe him out financially. Lucas had been developing prequels for some time and in 1993 announced his intentions to resurrect Star Wars by creating a back story to the original films. Logistically it all made sense. The principle actors from the first three movies (now, the last three chronologically speaking) were past their prime to reprise their roles in sequels). But Lucas quickly realized that there were too many loopholes in his original film series that defied 'filling in the blanks' in the prequels without going back into his original films and making alterations to accommodate his new story line.
So, the tampering began. At first it was only minor changes. A slight re-edit here, adding a brief music cue there. But pretty soon Lucas just could not help himself. CGI allowed him to revisit his classics with digital tools, making it all too easy for him to add whole scenes and characters to the series. Jabba now made his debut in A New Hope, not Return of the Jedi. Luke had a battle with the Wampa. Cloud City, a modest fortress grew into a metropolis and the end battle on the moon of Endor had its magnificent John William's music cue excised in favor of a terrible piece of extended disco that in no way captured the epic flavor of the original track.
And all of this was done to satisfy the meandering narrative threads present in three prequel movies. Tragically, The Phantom Menace (1999), Attack of the Clones (2002) and Revenge of the Sith (2005) are poor precursors to the original trilogy. They shift the focus of the first three movies from Luke and Leia to Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader. The resulting six films become a sort of psychological exploration of what makes a virtuous man turn to evil. But these prequels, and the theatrical reissue of 'new' cuts of the original films made Lucas a lot of money. And money - more of it - is really what this latest Blu-ray release is all about.
So hold on to your laserdiscs because here we go again. George Lucas trundles out The Star Wars Saga on Blu-ray with his predictable litany of 'improvements', though not necessarily the ones we might have expected to see. The original Star Wars trilogy was art. But its retreads and prequels are mere manipulations designed to mine the consumer market (repeatedly and shamelessly) with reissues, all the while dangling the carrot in front of our noses that someday we will get the original films in their original theatrical cut to add to our home video catalogues. No such luck on this outing or in the foreseeable future. So, at present we have to be contented with this set. Or perhaps 'contented' is the wrong word. Tolerate is more like it.
You would think that the delay of Star Wars on Blu-ray would herald all brand new image harvest in 1080p. I mean, surely that's what Lucas and his minions must has been up to all this time, right? Wrong! These films come to Blu-ray by way of the same HD scans created for DVD back in 2004. What?!? The scans are not 8k, 6k or even 4k resolution. They are 1k and many moons removed from the current 'state of the art' in hi-def mastering. Many will recall from the DVD release that these scans were rife with video anomalies. Lucasfilm and Lowry Digital have done wonders improving the overall image quality for these Blu-ray reissues but this is decidedly not the best that Star Wars can be. Nor is it a fitting tribute to one of the most spectacular franchises in cinema history.
Color timing, the biggest issue on the DVDs, has been corrected for the most part. Lightsabers, as expected, are now searing white hot in the middle rather than looking like pink, blue and frosty green sherbet. So far, so good. But don't expect pristine quality elsewhere. In fact, we still have edge enhancement cropping up as well as some hold over artifacts like static grain and filtering and even a mis-registration problem on Return of the Jedi that creates a bizarre loss of resolution about fifty to sixty minutes into the film.
If anything, Lucas' inserted scenes and digital manipulations in his original trilogy are even more obvious on Blu-ray. The CGI creations are more in focus, with crisper detail than the rest of the film based footage. We don't really get the ultra-resolution that contemporary Blu-ray offers on vintage catalogue titles. In fact, fine detail in flesh and hair in the original series is remarkably subdued and, on occasion, even softly focused. Color on all the films is much brighter but perhaps just a tad oversaturated. The best looking film in this 6 collection is Revenge of the Sith - not surprising since it is the last film to be shot chronologically and therefore benefited from all the contemporary film making technologies at its disposal. The audio is the big revelation on these discs. 6.1 DTS delivers a sonic kick to your speakers never before heard on home video. There's nothing to complain about here and you'll know it from your first listen.
Extras weigh in at over 40 hours. I must confess I have only had the opportunity to superficially review a handful of them. The audio commentaries on all the films are carried over from the DVD releases and remain informative, fascinating and comprehensive. On Disc Seven we get an extensive archive dedicated to Episodes One to Three. Disc Eight does the same for Episodes Four through Six. Here you'll find original concept art, matte paintings, alternate scenes, outtakes and other archived materials - many never before seen.
Disc Nine contains a back log of documentaries. The newest in this batch include 2011's Star Wars Spoofs, a look back at The Empire Strikes Back (2010) and Star Warriors (2007); a rather bizarre chronicle of diehard fans who aspire to 'be' their filmic counterparts through meticulous costume recreations. We also get the original 'making of' featurettes for all three classic Star Wars films made at the time each film was being shot, as well as 'Classic Creatures' (1983) a behind the scenes look at the creation of vintage Star Wars monster makeup. There's also a pair of vintage featurettes on the SFX and technical aspects of weaponry featured in the films.
Bottom line: This is Star Wars. Regardless of the tampering Lucas continues to do he knows you're probably going to run out and buy this set because it is the first release on Blu-ray. Just don't expect it to be the last. Is it worth your money? Probably. Is it the last time you're likely to see 'improvements' made on this epic saga? Don't count on it. May the force - and your wallet - be with you. You'll need both to keep up.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
The Phantom Menace 2
The Clone Wars 2.5
Revenge of the Sith 3
A New Hope 5
The Empire Strikes Back 5+
Return of the Jedi 4.5

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