суббота, 29 марта 2008 г.

The Films & Changes

"A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away..."

It's very strange to finally be writing a review of these films on DVD. I don't think a single day has gone by in the eight years we've been running The Digital Bits that we weren't asked: "When is Star Wars coming out on DVD?" We've struggled to answer that question as best we could of course, constantly checking with both 20th Century Fox and Lucasfilm. We've repeatedly tried to convince George Lucas himself to release these films on DVD, eventually succeeding in getting at least the prequel films on disc (after a LONG campaign with other websites in which we jointly collected over 30,000 signatures and took out a full page ad in Daily Variety). But as to the ultimate question of when Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi would be released on our favorite format, Lucasfilm's answer was always "eventually". Well... eventually has finally arrived, hard though it is to believe.

The Star Wars Trilogy arrives on DVD in the form of a new 4-disc box set, containing not only the much-loved movies, but also a separate disc of all-new bonus material. So let's take a closer look, shall we? We'll start with the films themselves.

As most of you know, Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope tells the story of Luke Skywalker, a young farmboy living on a backwater planet with dreams escaping his humdrum plight for a life of heroism in outer space. It seems that the galaxy is embroiled in a massive civil war between the evil Galactic Empire and the freedom-loving Rebel Alliance. Luke longs to fight for what he believes in, but the conflict is raging a long way from his far-flung world... at least until a pair of bumbling droids suddenly arrives on his uncle's farm. Luke discovers that the droids are carrying a secret message from a Rebel princess, intended for a wizened Jedi Knight named Obi-Wan Kenobi, who happens to live nearby. The droids are also carrying the stolen plans for the Empire's ultimate weapon, the Death Star, a massive space station with enough firepower to destroy an entire planet. Unless these plans can be safely delivered to the Rebel forces, their struggle for freedom and justice will be crushed once and for all. So with the help of Kenobi and a wise-cracking pirate named Han Solo, Luke suddenly finds himself whisked away into deep space on the adventure of his life, pursued all the while by the Empire's most sinister agent of evil... Darth Vader.

It's really unnecessary to say much more about this film, as you're all no doubt intimately familiar with it by now. Released as a lark in 1977 by 20th Century Fox, George Lucas' original Star Wars became a hugely successful blockbuster almost overnight and it quickly changed the landscape of Hollywood filmmaking, not only reviving a long-lost cinematic genre but also pioneering the field of movie visual effects. The film had an incalculable impact on my then ten-year-old life, opening my eyes to the possibilities of the film medium and firing my imagination like nothing before it. I'm certain that, like me, most of you have a very special place for the film in your hearts. But Star Wars today is somewhat different than you might remember it from 1977... or even the 1997 special edition re-release.

As you may have heard, a number of new digital changes have been made to the Star Wars films for this DVD release. As with the 1997 special edition, A New Hope has received the majority of the attention. Many shots have been altered in very subtle ways, which only the most zealous fans will notice. There are, however, a number of more major changes. In A New Hope, these include a revised opening shot as Luke's landspeeder enters Mos Eisley Spaceport (the speeder model is more detailed and moves more naturally), an improved version of the Han/Greedo fight (Greedo still shoots first, but only just - the blasts are much closer together and Han's movement is smoother), a new CG model of Jabba the Hutt (it's a revised version of the Episode I model of the character and is much improved) and re-rotoscoped lightsaber blades throughout the film (blade color is more pronounced and the animation is more like the prequel films). Personally, I quite like most of these changes. The Han/Greedo fight is still less than perfect, but it does look more natural. Han's head doesn't jerk like it did before - instead his whole upper body shifts over slightly. And the blaster shots are VERY close together now, so the encounter is not as implausible as it was in 1997. I still wish George would just let Han shoot first as he did originally in 1977, but I can at least stomach watching this scene now.

There is, however, one change I can't stomach, and it has to do with the music. During the first part of the Death Star battle at the end of the film, John Williams' score has been reduced in prominence in the sound mix. This is particularly obvious right as the X-Wings make their dive down to the surface to begin the attack - the familiar "Force Theme" trumpet fanfare is now almost inaudible. Lucasfilm says this was a deliberate creative decision and I absolutely hate it. Ah well... seems like there's always something to dislike when George tinkers with these films.

[Editor's Note: Click here to see screen shots of most of the major changes George Lucas has made to the Star Wars Trilogy for the 2004 DVD release.]

Three years after the release of the original film, Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back continued the epic adventure. After successfully destroying the Death Star, Luke and his Rebel friends have been pursued across the galaxy by Darth Vader and the Empire's mighty space fleet. While hiding out in a new secret base on the frozen planet of Hoth, the Rebels are discovered by Vader. After a massive snow battle, our heroes barely escape with their lives and are scattered across space. Luke finds his way to the jungle planet Dagobah, where he begins training to become a Jedi Knight. Meanwhile, Han and the princess find refuge on the planet Bespin, unaware that they've been followed by Vader's forces. Soon, Luke must abandon his training to come to his friends' rescue, ultimately risking his fate in a reckless confrontation with Vader himself.

Widely considered to be the best of the Star Wars series, The Empire Strikes Back tells a much darker and more personal story than the original film, despite the inclusion of several dramatic action sequences. In a risky move, this unconventional sequel sees the good guys basically getting their asses kicked from the start of the film until the very end. It's not a happy or upbeat adventure by any means, and it ends with a stunning and unforeseen twist that left theater audiences hanging on the edge of their seats for more than three years after its original release in 1980. Despite the cliff-hanger ending (or perhaps because of it) Empire ranks easily among the best film sequels of all time. It holds up well to this day.

The digital changes to Empire for this DVD release are fewer than they are in A New Hope. In fact, there are only three major changes. These include the use of Temuera Morrison as the voice of Boba Fett (which I suppose makes sense given that Boba is a clone of Jango from Episode II), the elimination of Luke's scream when he jumps to escape Vader on Cloud City (which had been a source of much debate among fans - why would he scream if he were jumping willingly?), and the use of actor Ian McDiarmid as the Emperor (replacing the old woman and voice actor Clive Revill who played the character originally). I should note that the Emperor alteration also involves a change in the scene's dialogue - one that is at first confusing. The Emperor now tells Vader that he has no doubt "the young rebel who destroyed the Death Star" is the offspring of Anakin Skywalker, to which Vader replies "How is that possible?" That doesn't seem to make sense, because we know that Vader is aware of who Luke is from dialogue earlier in the film ("That's it. The Rebels are there. And I'm sure Skywalker is with them."). I suspect, however, that we'll find out in Episode III that Anakin DOES learn of Luke's existence as an infant, and he hides this knowledge from the Emperor. What that would mean is that Vader's been waiting all these years to find Luke as an adult and turn him to the Dark Side so that they can overthrow the Emperor together - a plot Vader ultimately confesses to Luke at the end of Empire. We'll have to wait for Episode III to see how this new bit of dialogue fits in.

Concluding the original trilogy in 1983, Episode VI - Return of the Jedi opens as Luke, now a fully trained Jedi Knight, returns with his friends to his home planet to rescue Han Solo from the vile crime lord Jabba the Hutt. Luke then revisits Dagobah and learns that he must ultimately confront Darth Vader if the galaxy is to have any hope of peace. Luke also learns a surprising secret before rejoining the Rebels as they prepare for the final, decisive battle in the conflict between Rebellion and Empire - an all-out assault on the Emperor's second and even more powerful Death Star.

As the final chapter of the Star Wars saga, Return of the Jedi fails to be either as fresh as the original film or as surprising as Empire. Too much is predictable here (such as the appearance of a second Death Star) and too many compromises were made for the younger audience members (the very presence of the Ewoks, for example) which is especially noticeable after the more adult themes of the previous installment. That said, Jedi does manage to adequately complete the story arc of the original trilogy. There's nice symmetry with the way the character storylines are wrapped up, and there's enough action to keep the film interesting. I'll be curious to see how well this conclusion works in the context of the overall 6-film saga once Episode III arrives in theaters in May, 2005.

As with Empire, are three major digital changes to Jedi, all of which appear at the end of the film. When Luke removes Vader's mask to reveal his father's face, the eyebrows of actor Sebastian Shaw have been erased (presumably because Anakin's face will be badly burned in Episode III). Then, after the second Death Star is destroyed, when the film cuts to the various celebrations around the galaxy, Naboo is now included among the planets we see. Finally (and this is a big one), when the Force ghosts of Ben, Yoda and Anakin appear to Luke at the very end of the film, actor Sebastian Shaw has been replaced with Hayden Christensen (as he'll appear in Episode III). That's going to piss off a lot of fans, but it makes sense. Lucas' rational (as he actually explains briefly in the audio commentary - a rare instance where he comments on a change) is that when Vader joins the Force, he's able to retain his original identity as he was when he died as Anakin Skywalker (in Episode III). Since Yoda and Ben retained their good identities until they were old, that's how their Force ghosts appear. Yeah, maybe it's a stretch... but within the logic of the universe, it does make sense. Like it or not. There are also a couple minor changes - the shot of Coruscant now includes the Galactic Senate and Jedi Temple on the horizon (as seen in Episodes I & II). And for some reason, Luke and Darth's lightsaber blades now appear a little dimmer in a select few shots during their fight (particularly at the very beginning). Don't ask me why.

Ultimately, I've accepted that Lucas is entitled to change these films until he's happy with them. The fact is, he's been changing them since 1977 (for example, right after the first film was released and became a hit, Lucas quickly went back in and added the Episode IV - A New Hope tag). These new CG alterations are simply the logical continuation of his desire to overcome the technical challenges he faced when he originally made the films. I have to tell you, I'm as surprised as anyone to find myself actually appreciating most of these changes. With the sole exception of the Han/Greedo scene (which still bothers me, although less now than as it was in 1997), I think all of the changes are either genuine improvements or simply make sense given the ties to the prequel films. I still think Lucas has a responsibility to save the original versions of these films out of respect for the fans who have supported them all these years, the artists who creatively invested themselves in the original work, and as a way to remind us all just how far the films have come since they were first released. And I still have hope that we'll see those original versions released on disc... eventually... in a more elaborate box set of the entire saga. But more on that later.

So that's the films as you'll find them on these new DVDs. Now let's talk about the DVDs themselves. Click to the next page of the review and I'll tell you all about it.

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