[box cover]

The Star Wars Trilogy

20th Century Fox Home Video

Starring Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher,
Anthony Daniels, Alec Guinness, Kenny Baker,
Billy Dee Williams, Peter Mayhew, Peter Cushing,
Frank Oz, David Prowse, Ian McDiarmid,
and Sebastian Shaw

Written by George Lucas, Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan

Directed by George Lucas, Irvin Kershner, and Richard Marquand

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Review by Alexandra DuPont                    

"What I was trying to do was stay independent so I could make the movies I wanted to make — but at the same time I was sort of fighting the corporate system, which I didn't like (and I'm not happy with the fact that corporations have taken over the film industry). But now I find myself being the head of a corporation. So there's a certain irony there: I have become the very thing that I was trying to avoid — which is basically what part of Star Wars is about."

— George Lucas, in a self-reflective moment at the end of the "Empire of Dreams" documentary on the Star Wars Trilogy DVD set

I had the ridiculous good luck to watch the Star Wars Special Edition at London's aptly named Empire Theatre in 1997. The screen was roughly the size of the Death Star, and the British were letting down their communal reserve and enjoying the film as if it were a boisterous footy match. My favorite moment was when Mark Hamill rushed into Princess Leia's prison cell and doofily exclaimed, "I'm Luke Skywalker! I'm here to rescue you!" The audience laughed sort of derisively — but within a second they burst into warm applause that erupted into loud cheers. You just couldn't help but root for the dork from Tatooine.

Who hasn't pined for a Luke Skywalker-style call to destiny? Who hasn't wanted to feel alive like that?

These days, of course, it's tougher to write about the mythic underpinnings of Star Wars, that Lord of the Rings for the shag-carpet set. For one thing, all that Joseph Campbell hero's-journey/mythological-archetype claptrap has already been packaged and shoved down your craw by Lucasfilm's marketing department. (Now available at a Barnes & Noble near you: Star Wars: The Magic of Myth [hardcover] and Star Wars: The Power of Myth [softcover].) Then of course there's the Joseph Campbell/Bill Moyers "Power of Myth" book/miniseries combo, which Lucas crashes like a drunken frat boy. Try to imagine Richard Donner publishing a book titled The Themes and Archetypes I Was Exploring in 'Superman,' and you're beginning to grasp the absurd arrogance at play.) And of course, in the wake of The Phantom Menace and roughly half to two-thirds of Attack of the Clones, some of us are more than a little chagrined by our boxed-up collections of Star Wars games, books, action-figure playsets, comics, soundtrack albums, die-cast replica spaceships, and blinking LED gewgaws.

But still. Strip away the merchandising bureaucracy, and you can still manage to remember why you fell in love. From 1977-83, we were treated to two-and-a-half genius-level entertainments — with freakishly tuned-in Jungian underpinnings so resonant they overcame the sister-kissing and midgets in bear suits. Despite some Extra Pluperfect Super Special Edition geek-polarizing alterations — which I'll get into below — the brand-new release of the original Star Wars trilogy on DVD is a pretty damned nice-looking reminder of why we all became fans in the first place.

I'll spare you extensive reviews of the films themselves; they're so woven into the cultural fabric at this point that it would be like grading the Gettysburg Address. (Scroll down a bit for a detailed discussion of the extras, sound, Easter eggs, and all that rot.) Suffice it to say, the plot structure in Star Wars: A New Hope is actually pretty goofy — the hero, for one thing, doesn't show up for something like a half-hour — but Lucas' genius is that he creates a perfect narrative snowball. The film gathers characters like lint — two fugitive robots run into a dead-end farmboy and are found by an aging general who leads them to a mercenary who takes them to a princess who gets them sucked into an entire resistance movement. And the stakes escalate relentlessly: Luke sets out one morning to find a runaway robot; seemingly by day's end, he's blowing up a space station that destroys entire planets.

And people who dismiss George Lucas as a "corporate weasel" out for their hard-earned action-figure dollars would do well to remember that, in 1980, he gambled heavily by personally financing a little film called The Empire Strikes Back — a movie that mercilessly screwed with beloved characters, staged its biggest battle in its first 40 minutes, thoroughly routed its heroes, threw in a dangerous plot twist, and had an unhappy, unresolved ending. Oh, and he let Irvin Kershner direct it — you know, the film-school teacher and proven auteur behind The Return of a Man Called Horse?

It isn't Citizen Kane or anything, but ESB was indeed an aggressive, foolhardy move on Lucas' part — a gamble that gave him creative and financial control of the Star Wars universe and made him, for better or worse, one of the 20th century's most influential filmmakers. (And paved the way for Ewoks and Jar-Jar. But still.) As I get older, the other Star Wars movies — even A New Hope, particularly in the wake of Episode I — just seem sillier and sillier; I can more clearly see the directorial flaws, the plot holes, the third-act toy-mongering. But Empire is pure music. Buoyed by John Williams' sinister, romantic score, the movie itself ebbs and flows like a symphony. (I ask you: Has any film composer ever trafficked in glorious bombast better than "Johnny" Williams did between 1975 and '83? ESB is my favorite film score, period, by an order of magnitude.) Unlike the later SW films, which more or less marinate in noise, Empire embraces the quiet moments before the storm: A soldier stands above a trench scanning a snowy plain before a brutal ground war; Princess Leia sits in a cockpit pondering a love affair before her ship is attacked by space bats; Luke silently stalks a catwalk before Darth Vader, exploding out of nowhere, chops off his hand and blows his mind.

And I always forget Mark Hamill is talking to a puppet. Always.

Return of the Jedi is a far more complicated viewing experience. The movie's problems are legion; frankly, I could never sum up the ambivalence of watching it better than Film Threat did almost half a decade ago, with "50 Reasons Why Return of the Jedi Sucks" and its crucial mitigating piece, "10 Reasons Why Return of the Jedi Doesn't Completely Suck". I will say that having six films' and several decades' worth of galactic conflict resolved by jokey little blank-faced gits in yak-fur costumes is more than a bit of a letdown. But the things that do work in Jedi work spectacularly well — the epic space battle (to this day, the best ever committed to film); the practical effects; that tracking shot, over the vocal chorus, of Luke laying the pimp-smack on Dad; Ian McDiarmid's nasty cackle. Combined with that special forgiveness that only nostalgia can afford, I simply can't dismiss the film outright — despite "Special Edition" changes that turned the Sarlaac Pit into the Little Shop of Horrors and the Max Rebo Band into the Post-Rehab Clapton Blues Explosion. Thematically, it's apt.

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Thanks for sharing, slattern. Now dish on the DVD set already!

All right, all right! Whaddya wanna know?

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What about those Extra Pluperfect Super Special Edition changes made just for this DVD?

Well, most of that stuff has already been obsessively detailed online for a few weeks now — you can see breakdowns of the changes (with illustrations) here. Or here. Or here. Or peppered throughout this CHUD message-board thread. Or, best of all, here. Anyway. Here's a by-no-means-definitive list of the tweaks (and non-tweaks) that personally walloped me over the nog:

As you may have gathered by now, the Extra Pluperfect Super Special Edition tweaks are extra-maddening because some but not all of those tweaks are welcome. If I may take a mildly contrarian stance: I'm firmly in the camp that begs Lucas to release "Archival Edition" DVDs (or SE-DVDs, or holograms projected on our retinas, or whatever) of the original cuts for posterity — even though bootleg DVDs of the THX-remastered 1995 Laserdiscs can be had with only a little ingenuity. But I've never been a unilateral foe of the Special Editions. It's more complicated than that.

For starters, if you really want to get literal about it, Lucas' alterations began the very first time the film was remixed beyond six-track Dolby stereo. Ultimately, for me, anything that makes the Star Wars experience more seamless is welcome — and thus discreet edits to the climactic New Hope dogfight and the erasure of Rancor Pit matte lines and the elimination of that drag-queen Emperor from Empire, frankly, work for me. And seven years (seven years!) after the first Special Edition tweaks, I'm annoyed but no longer outraged by Lucas' ongoing war on posterity. Some of this may be due to my horrible guilty love of eye candy; some of this may be due to the prequels dampening my overall love of Star Wars; and some of this may be due to my realizing that we're ultimately talking about maybe 10 minutes of noticeable changes in a 388-minute story.

Putting it another way: Does replacing the Max Rebo Band with a yowling, moist-mouthed CGI Yuzzum honk me off? Absolutely. But do Gungans and Hayden Christensen ultimately unman a final celebration scene that was already only one or two degrees less lame than Princess Leia's "Life Day" song during "The Star Wars Holiday Special"? Eh. I'm just too numb to care. You probably aren't. Discuss.

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Hm. So how's the new picture and sound mix?

Good Lord, the picture is just unimpeachably great. I could cite any number of moments during my viewing of the ESB platter on a friend's flat-screen HDTV with six-channel sound where I nearly turned inside-out with pleasure. The final third of Empire — already a pinnacle of design, effects, and cinematography — looks richer than I could have ever possibly hoped. It's worth buying this set just for the last 40 minutes of Empire. Really.

I did notice that some explosions had been color-enhanced to the point that they actually looked a little too orange — a bit more fake than before — but that may just have been the calibration of the TV set.

Now. The sound. As I was writing this, I got an unsolicited e-mail from John Takis — a film-score nut who specializes in lengthy online dissertations on John Williams. Allow me to throw his take on the sound mix into this review like a grenade:

"A good friend of mine has brought to my attention the fact that John Williams' awe-inspiring Star Wars score has been severely mishandled on the new DVD.

"The score has been flipped in the rear-channels. Not the sound-effects, which are properly placed. Just the score. Not in the front channels. Just the rear channels.

"This is not a minor or superficial detail. Readers will recall that the entire PURPOSE of stereo and surround-sound in music is so that the various instruments are correctly positioned. Violins on the left, cellos on the right. Percussion on the left, low brass on the right. And so on. Instrument direction matters in music, especially orchestral music … if it didn't, there would be no reason to consider stereo or 5.1 recordings superior to mono.

"Just go to chapter 49 on the new "Star Wars" DVD — the "Throne Room" scene. Violins come from the hard-right on the surrounds, cellos hard-left, while the front-channel mix is correct. Many people will not be sensitive enough to notice this flaw. That doesn't erase the flaw, or make it less significant. It is essentially a 124-minute audio glitch. And it's not simply a case of crossed speaker-wires ... as I said, the sound-effects are correctly positioned in the surround channels. It's just the music that's backwards.

"And this is just one flaw in a highly questionable sound-mix. We also have missing sound-effects (it's possible they were left off intentionally in some cases), dialogue-quality that varies widely over the course of a single line ("You would prefer another target, a military target?" — crystal clear; "Then name the system!" — old and cruddy, with no attempt to balance or smooth the transition), and — perhaps most annoyingly — dialed-out music. Remember the awesome fanfare-version of the Force theme that kicks off the Death Star battle? Good luck hearing it this time around — it's virtually inaudible.

"Aren't these supposed to be the DVDs of the century — as close to perfect as DVDs can get? OK, I understand … lots of people are going to be so happy to have these films on DVD in any shape or form, or are insensitive enough, that they won't care about these mistakes. Good for them. Nonetheless, seeing as everyone under the sun is raving about how absolutely top-notch incredible the audio on the new DVDs is, it would be nice to have some balance. They ain't perfect, people! Far from it! A little more sophistication and attention to detail would have gone a long way. Mistakes were made, and the professionals in charge shouldn't get a "pass" just because it's Star Wars."

You can also read a marvelously obsessive listing of these apparent aural outrages right here. While I'm guessing Joe and Jane Sixpack could give a shite about any of this, the above link may be required reading for audio nuts — and may very well represent a whole new front in the war of words about the merits of this DVD set.

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So, uh, how about those extras?

As with last year's Indiana Jones DVD box, I fear that many geeks will fixate on what's not to be found here — deleted scenes, a Ralph McQuarrie production-art gallery, the Boba Fett cartoon from the "Star Wars Holiday Special," an isolated score track. Certainly, the fact that you can watch artificially scratchy footage of Luke and Biggs on 1997's Behind the Magic CD-ROM and not here is, frankly, kind of stupid. I direct obsessives to T'Bone's online compilation of Star Wars cut scenes for an exhaustive list of what might (and probably should) have been. I'd imagine that a certain breed of fan — the sort who won't rest until every last doodle, alternate take, and photo from the Star Wars Chronicles is readily available — will find plenty to grouse about.

But again, as with the Special Edition tweaks, Lucasfilm hands us a double-edged sword. Because what is here is vastly superior to the Indy DVD extras — from much-improved publicity and behind-the-scenes galleries to commentary tracks to a documentary that is (for its first half, at least) among the best "making-of" docs I've ever seen.

All that said, there's some unfortunate news about those commentary tracks: Maybe I was just weary after a few days of parsing extras, but I found these yack-tracks really, really boring — in precisely the same way the prequel commentary tracks are boring.

Lucas, sound designer Ben Burtt, F/X supervisor Dennis Muren, and Carrie Fisher (joined by Irvin Kershner on the Empire platter) really don't have anything interesting to say about these films. I was kind of quietly aghast. Lucas — still a bit peppy after his passionate work on the THX 1138 DVD yack-track — probably comes off best, keeping the discussion on the ideas and themes he wanted to explore. Bona fide sound-design genius Burtt tells you, in granular detail, how he used bears and camera motors and high-tension wires he found on forest hikes to make the sound effects, but God help me I got sick of his particular brand of nerd brilliance. Muren, constrained by time, offers only the barest explanations of the practical effects. Fisher sounds a bit addled. And I'm mortified to report that Kershner — director of quite possibly my favorite movie ever — spends a huge amount of time just recounting what's happening on screen. Really. It's all very genial and fast-moving, but lacks an essential passion. I found myself dreaming of an alternate-universe yack-track — featuring Hamill, Fisher, and Ford ribbing each other between bouts of Lucas bickering with New Hope/Empire producer Gary Kurtz. That or an isolated score track would have been astounding.

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Sigh. Any provocative remarks from Lucas?

Here's one, uttered during the Return of the Jedi commentary — just after that heavily Special-Editionized song-and-dance number with Jabba's palace band:

"I'm still amused by people who somehow think that when you use cyber-technology or digital technology in movies, suddenly it's 'fake' — but when you look at a scene in here in Jabba's palace, now there's some digital characters in here, but they're no more or less fake than all the other characters in here. I mean, is a digital character more fake than a big fat rubber character? [laughs] I mean, there's nothing real here at all — and it's hard to say that a rubber character has more integrity than a digital character. What I try to do is just make the characters become believable — so that they look realistic enough where you have a suspension of disbelief and accept them as characters rather than tricks, which is what they all are."

Everything else is on a fourth disc — a la last year's Indiana Jones DVD set, only with far greater density and enthusiasm and care and less of the narcolepsy-inducing talking-head blather that marred Laurent Bouzereau's work on the Indy box. (I hate to slag Bouzereau — he has been and will probably once again be a major force in the film-documentary field — but you have to wonder, after his unenthusiastic, ready-for-NPR work on Indy, why his name is nowhere to be found in these Star Wars extras.)

Anyway. The centerpiece of Disc Four can be found under the "Documentary and Featurettes" menu. Edith Becker and Kevin Burns' "Empire of Dreams: The Story of the Star Wars Trilogy" (2:30:38) is, for its first hour and change, about as good a documentary as you could possibly hope to see about the making of Star Wars — a total fan-gasm.

Those cheeky monkeys at Lucasfilm have apparently been sitting on untold poo-piles of making-of footage for years, waiting to release it in a worthy medium. There really is no way to overstate this: Even a hard-core Star Wars geek will find his or her jaw resting lightly on the bean bag as they see behind-the-scenes action from A New Hope; alternate takes; pre-effects footage; audition footage of Kurt Russell and Cindy Williams auditioning for Han and Leia; conceptual drawings; and snippets from deleted scenes scattered willy-nilly throughout the doc. Burns and Co. do a fairly astonishing job of bringing together all the production lore that's floated around in a thousand different formats for years. There's an Ewok puffing a cigar. There's Han Solo smooching a girl in the cantina. For God's sake, the last shot after the doc's end credits is a deleted scene from A New Hope of General Jan Dodonna barking, in a botched line reading, "May the Force go with you!"

The first hour or so is devoted to the production of A New Hope — and it's shockingly blunt in revealing how close the film came to being a galactic train wreck. (There's a surprising amount of footage of Lucas wandering around the set, exhausted, looking like he's about to have a thrombus. He was days away from a total physical collapse due to hypertension, it turns out.) My favorite part is when they're discussing the abandoned, and apparently horrible, first edit of the film — and they actually show some discarded footage of Luke and C-3PO driving the landspeeder in front of a rear-projection screen; it looks as fake as something out of a "Disney Sunday Movie" starring Dean Jones, and you suddenly realize that Lucas barely brought Star Wars in under the limbo bar.

All that said: The minute we get to the far-less-tumultuous production of Return of the Jedi, the documentary sort of runs out of dramatic gas — even though Warwick Davis is remarkably charming and articulate as he talks about playing Wicket at age 11. And the whole enterprise eventually takes on this horrible infomercialish tone toward the end — as it talks about Lucas' technical innovations and ancillary companies like Pixar and defends his "Special Edition" changes ("He would revisit and perfect his galactic saga at last!") — that actually makes it a little cringe-inducing to watch. I'm sorry, but it's just unbearably tedious and maybe even a little pathetic somewhere around the 30th or 40th time the narrator or one of Lucas' friends says one of the following verbatim quotes, which are only a tiny sampling of what you're battered with by the end of this doc:

"While George Lucas has remained true to his own vision, it's audiences everywhere that have reaped the rewards!"

"The themes that George is dealing with are so strong and primordial!"

"One of the things that George Lucas has done in Star Wars is to communicate, in fact, with the younger self that resides somewhere inside even the oldest person!"

"I think our cultural imagination has been transformed by Lucas' films — by taking us back to stories that make us all feel that we share in the heroic journey of the human species on this earth!"

"He really established the independent film market!… He changed storytelling!" (Rather cheekily, Burns shows a clip of the blind Han Solo saying his "delusions of grandeur" line from Jedi after this statement.)

Still: The mind-blowing section devoted to A New Hope makes "Empire of Dreams" a winner — though you do have to wonder if anyone debated the irony of referring to Lucas' dream factory as an "Empire" in the title.

Anyway. There are also three Gary Leva-directed featurettes under the "Documentary and Featurettes" menu:

Under a "Video Games and Still Galleries" menu is where you'll find more shameless self-promotion:

From the main Disc Four menu, click on "Trailers and TV Spots" and you'll find a menu of Vader on the Star Destroyer bridge — with a loop of his theme song playing underneath that inspired my life partner to once again remind me that you can sing "Spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down / The medicine go down / Yes, the medicine go down" over the "Imperial March" melody, which has quite frankly ruined that piece of film music for me. Forever.

Anyway. There are something like 10 theatrical trailers and 11 TV spots here — covering everything from the hilariously embarrassing and overblown 1976 Star Wars teaser — featuring unfinished special effects and temp-track music ("Somewhere in space, this may all be happening right now!... The story of a boy, a girl, and a universe!... It's a big, sprawling space saga of rebellion and romance!.... It's a spectacle light-years ahead of its time!... A billion years in the making! And it's coming to your galaxy this summer!") — to one of the "Special Edition" trailers.

And finally, there's the DVD extra that everyone will watch first — the 9:08 Episode III preview "The Return of Darth Vader". I no longer trust these previews, of course — both Episodes I and II had mouth-watering teasers utilizing every money shot on Dennis Muren's hard drive. But this one, after offering a quick overview of Anakin's descent into evil thus far, ends up juggling the re-creation of the Vader costume with Christensen and Ewan McGregor working their asses off on their final saber duel — and I'll be damned if the thing didn't leave me thinking Revenge of the Sith will contain at least 20 high-caliber lava-surfin' minutes.

The final behind-the-scenes shot gives away rather a lot, actually: We see Vader, just off a Frankenstein birthing slab, turning to face the Emperor. It's as fine a conclusion to this DVD set as you could hope for.

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Any Easter Eggs?

Of course. The Digital Bits does the work for you (and me) here. The 4:44 gag reel, interspersed with DVD credits over the Cantina Band song, is a hoot — even if I never, you know, actually laughed.

That's it. Masticate at will.

Alexandra DuPont

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