суббота, 29 марта 2008 г.

Second part of review

The most important part of any DVD presentation is the video and audio quality of the film itself. So how do the Star Wars Trilogy DVDs stack up in this regard?

Simply put, the Star Wars films have never (and I mean EVER) looked this good before. The films presented on these discs absolutely sparkle, in all their anamorphic widescreen glory. The folks at THX and Lowry Digital worked for months to create new high-definition digital masters of these films, transferred directly from the original negatives. Once the films were transferred, painstaking efforts were made to clean the digital masters of dust, dirt, scratches and excessive grain. To give you an idea of just how much work was involved, more than 100 bits of debris were digitally removed from EACH FRAME - ultimately entailing the removal of over 10 million such blemishes in all over the three films combined. As a result, you will not find a single speck ANYWHERE on any of these films. The snow-white slopes of Hoth and the sand-baked dunes of Tatooine have never looked so pure.

Because the transfers were done from the original negatives, you're going to see detail in these films that you've never seen before. You'll notice this right from the opening shot of A New Hope, when the Star Destroyer chases its quarry over the surface of Tatooine. Just look at the subtle swirl of cloud patterns on the planet below - astonishing. Best of all, not a lick of added edge enhancement was required to bring out this detail. What else is good? The color palette here is more lush and accurate than ever before. You're going to be blown away by everything from subtle flesh tones to the vibrant gold plating on C-3PO's chest to the bright orange flightsuits of the Rebel pilots. Contrast is also spectacular, with deep detailed blacks and clear, accurate whites. All three films in this set are just going to absolutely blow you away, and the bigger your screen the better it gets. The Star Wars Trilogy on DVD is the best excuse you're ever going to have to go out and buy yourself a good anamorphic widescreen display. Until true high-definition arrives, it just doesn't get better than this.

On the audio side, all three films have been fully re-mixed in true Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround EX. The dynamic range in these mixes is impressive - everything from the softest passages of John Williams' signature score to the most explosive moments of action will full your home theater space with natural, immersive sound. The mixes are packed with atmospheric fill, active panning and surround play. The matrix-ed EX center back channel is nicely active - you'll definitely be glad you have an extra speaker back there. Dialogue is almost always clear, with the exception of a few lines of dialogue in A New Hope (listen to Tarkin's line: "You would prefer another target, a military target? Then name the system." The tonal quality changes during the line and it's distracting). We suspect this is the result of the deterioration of the original sound elements and was unavoidable. In the mixes for all three films, the LFE will really give your subwoofer a workout. The new 5.1 EX mixes are a generally appropriate match to the near perfect image quality. To be fair, the problem with the Tarkin dialogue, along with the aforementioned deliberate change in the prominence of the music during the Death Star battle, have caused us to lower our audio grade slightly for A New Hope alone. In any case, we suspect that the overall sonic experience of these films on DVD will floor you.

As with the previous DVDs for The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, each movie disc features three different menu sets themed to the various planets visited in the film. These appear at random when you boot up the disc (although there are codes you can use to see specific sets - see the Easter egg guide on the previous page).

In terms of extras, each movie disc also features a full length audio commentary track with members of the cast and crew. For all three films, George Lucas provides his thoughts on the overall themes and concepts, as well as interesting anecdotes on the characters and production. Actress Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia) chimes in as well with her thoughts and shares some particularly funny behind-the-scenes stories about working on the films. Sound designer Ben Burtt discusses his audio work and the creation of various sounds for each character, vehicle, prop and environment. And Dennis Muren addresses the elaborate special effects work. For the Empire commentary, director Irvin Kershner joins this group to provide his insights on the making of the film. As with the The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones commentaries, the name of the person talking will occasionally appear at the top of the screen to help you identify them. I don't want to spoil anything here - you've all been waiting so long for these DVDs that it's just better for you to experience it all yourself. Just know that the commentaries are fascinating and absolutely worth listening to.

The majority of the extras in this set are contained on its fourth disc, appropriately titled Bonus Material. This opens with an animated menu that depicts the Falcon flying through the asteroid field in Empire (you eventually end up in the Falcon's cockpit to make your selections). I should also note here that nearly every item on this disc is presented in anamorphic widescreen video - a very nice touch.

Arguably the most important bonus feature on the disc is Kevin Burns' 151-minute Empire of Dreams: The Story of the Star Wars Trilogy documentary. Burns was given full access to the expansive Lucasfilm Archives and was able to uncover hours of behind-the-scenes footage from the making of these films that you've definitely never seen before. The documentary begins with Lucas' original idea for the films, then covers the development, pre-production, filming and post-production of the original Star Wars in tremendous depth. Burns' idea was to take you back to 1977, to relive not only the struggle that was the making of the original film but also the film-going climate into which it was ultimately released. You are there are at the Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, waiting in line to see the film for the first time. You actually get to see the original version of the opening crawl, sans the Episode IV - A New Hope tag (and it will give you chills to see, believe me). You get to hear from absolutely everyone involved in the making of these films. Over 40 new, in-depth and original interviews were conducted with all the major cast members, the production staffers, etc. They're all here to give you their thoughts on the films.

The first hour of Empire of Dreams is devoted exclusively to A New Hope, and then the remaining time is split between the making of Empire and Jedi. As I said, you're going to see things you never knew existed - footage of the cast clowning around on the set, a couple alternate versions of scenes from the films, plenty of production artwork and still photos - you name it. Irvin Kershner tells a great story about how the secret of Luke's parentage was kept hidden from the cast, crew and fans. It's pretty amazing stuff. The documentary does drag a little bit once you get past the first hour, but you'll still enjoy every minute of it and you'll probably watch it more than once if you're a fan.

Also on this disc are a set of three production featurettes. The Characters of Star Wars tells of the development of each character within the story and how each major role was cast. This includes some great, never-before-seen video of actors who tried out for the parts but didn't get them. Can you imagine Kurt Russell as Han Solo? Cindy Williams as Leia? William Katt (yeah... The Greatest American Hero) as Luke? It's fun stuff.

The Birth of the Lightsaber addresses how the traditional weapon of the Jedi came to be. We get to see rare video of fight rehearsals and on-set raw footage (without the blades rotoscoped in). Ben Burtt tells you how he came up with the sound, etc. Again, good stuff.

The Force is with Them: The Legacy of Star Wars looks at the influence the Star Wars films have had on Hollywood filmmaking (and filmmakers) as a whole. It features new interviews with the likes of Peter Jackson, Ridley Scott, Steven Spielberg, James Cameron and many others as they each talk about how the success of these films affected their careers and their work.

Fans of Star Wars minutiae will be pleased to learn that a whole gallery of rare theatrical trailers and TV spots for each film has been included on this disc, each in anamorphic widescreen video and presented in quality you've never seen before. There are also galleries of original poster art for the films, as well as a gallery of rare production photos. The production photos are very cool to see, but they're also a little frustrating because they include images from many deleted scenes we've all been waiting to see for years. That's all fine and good... except none of these actual scenes are included on the disc. That's right - you will not get to see Luke and Biggs on Tatooine from A New Hope, the Wampa attack from Empire, or the sandstorm from Jedi. The fact that they're not here is deliberate and tells you something else - they've been held back for inclusion on a more elaborate special edition release of these films in the future (I actually have word from sources that Lucasfilm is already planning the high-definition box set of the whole 6-film saga, possibly for the original film's 30th anniversary in 2007). It shouldn't come as any surprise that more elaborate special editions will eventually be released, but I found the lack of deleted scenes here to be irritating and I think others will as well. It's a major strike against the extras on this set.

There are three other cool extras on this disc you'll want to check out (and others many of you won't give a rip about). The cool stuff includes a long-awaited sneak peek at the forthcoming Episode III. This takes the form of a featurette on the return of Darth Vader. We get to see the production staff building the new Vader costume, actor Hayden Christensen talking about what it's like to don the familiar black helmet, and Christensen and co-star Ewan McGregor practicing the infamous lightsaber duel that will climax the film. I think it will get you sufficiently pumped for the last Star Wars film ever... at least enough to hold you over until November when the teaser trailer for the film will arrive in theaters.

Speaking of trailers, as with the previous Star Wars DVDs, these discs include DVD-ROM weblinks to an exclusive online site where you may get the first look at additional footage from these films, the Episode III trailer, etc.

The other cool extra is a nifty Easter egg hidden in the bonus disc's menus. Like the previous DVDs, "1138" is the code to unlock it. When you do this successfully, you'll be treated to a funny gag reel from the original Star Wars films (see the Easter egg guide on the previous page for instructions on how to access it). I should also note that two of the aforementioned production featurettes on this DVD have funny little moments during the credits that you'll enjoy as well.

What's left on this disc is the not so cool, by which I mean the marketing fluff. This includes a trailer for the Star Wars Battlefront Xbox game and a preview teasing the making of the forthcoming Episode III videogame. I frankly don't care about either, but I suppose some of you out there will. It's also worth noting here that if you put this disc in your Xbox machine, you'll get to play a complete preview level of Star Wars Battlefront. Again, I couldn't give a rip, but I'm sure some of you will appreciate this.

So that's the Star Wars Trilogy on DVD, circa 2004. The films themselves definitely look and sound better than you've ever seen them before, and there are enough little (and not so little) tweaks and changes to each one to either thrill you or make you want to pull your hair out (or both). The extras on this 4-disc set are generally quite good, with the exception of the marketing material and the lack of deleted scenes. None of it is truly great, but it's certainly good and worthy of your time. Going through these extras, you definitely get the sense that what's been included here is just the tip of the iceberg, and that much more elaborate special editions of these films are likely to find their way to disc in the years ahead. Given the long wait to get these films on DVD... well, no DVD release could probably be equal to that level of anticipation. Still, with picture and sound quality like this, it's pretty easy to justify the purchase price for this set. Throw in the documentary and the audio commentaries, and it's really a no-brainer.

After all my bitching and moaning about getting these films on DVD over the years... my occasional tantrums and frequent soap box proclamations... am I finally a happy Star Wars fan? You know, I don't even know what the words "happy Star Wars fan" mean anymore. But am I secretly giddy that I finally have these films on DVD? Yeah, I am. I hate myself a little for it, but such is the curse of Star Wars geeks everywhere. No matter how angry and jaded I get, I still get chills when that logo crashes across my screen and that familiar John Williams fanfare blares over my speakers. Yeah, I got a bit of the goosebumps when, after sitting through a lengthy Lucasfilm dog and pony show at Comic-Con, we finally found out that Episode III was going to be called Revenge of the Sith. And yeah, I'll go to whatever crap movie the Revenge of the Sith teaser trailer is attached to just for a couple minutes of eXtreme geek-out time. Don't even try to pretend that a lot of you don't feel the exact same way. We're a pretty pathetic bunch aren't we?

Anyway, I hope you all enjoy these DVDs. God knows you've waited long enough to get them.

Bill Hunt
billhunt@thedigitalbits.com

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