By Brian Rentschler
The short version: There aren't a ton of extras here, and purists will be annoyed by George Lucas' changes, but picture and audio is excellent and you'll finally have these on DVD.
Well, after all my bellyaching about how Lucas went and ruined a good thing by fixing what wasn't broke, I decided to make the plunge and buy the Star Wars Trilogy DVD set. Overall, I am very happy with the movies (hey, it's Star Wars after all!), but I have quite a few "nitpicky" things I want to point out here. This review is not so much of the movies themselves, since the movies have been reviewed to death elsewhere. This is more of a commentary on what's there and what's not there. Since I never saw the "Special Editions" of the movies that were released in 1997, I may be giving commentary on content that has existed for years without realizing it, so bear with me.
The first thing that surprised me about this DVD set was the lack of extras. Compare this to the collector's edition DVD's of Pulp Fiction or Jackie Brown, or the Extreme DVD version of Terminator 2, and you'll see what I mean. There is commentary on each movie disc, but that's it. There is a fourth "extras" DVD that has a fairly lengthy behind-the-scenes documentary and some old trailers, but nearly everything else appears to be a plug for an upcoming movie or video game. Nearly every featurette on the "extras" DVD shows either a bunch of losers dressed up as Star Wars characters or a bunch of directors talking about how George Lucas is bigger than God. Ultimately, the extras were a bit of a letdown.
Now for the movies themselves...
Episode IV: A New Hope
The one that started it all... to me, this one has the greatest sense of adventure. Lucas originally said he meant for this one to play like a western, and in many ways, it does. (Like most westerns, it also lacks depth of character development, but that's another discussion.) There were a few enhancements, such as short added scenes of creatures fighting and the like. Overall, they neither helped nor hurt the movie. However, two scenes are worth noting. The first is the scene between Greedo and Han Solo. Everybody says Greedo shoots first, but what I saw was both shooting at roughly the same time. What struck me about the scene was that Greedo appears to miss Han Solo by a good two feet. I hate to say this, but if you're a bounty hunter and you shoot at a dude and miss by two feet from across a narrow table, you deserve to become a crispy critter. I liked the original scene better -- Han Solo was smart enough to shoot first. Why mess with that, Lucas? It didn't make sense to me. The second scene that I found noteworthy was the added scene between Han Solo and Jabba. Originally, we never saw Jabba until Return of the Jedi, and in that movie, he's a ruthless slug (or whatever he is) that you don't want to mess with. In Episode IV, he's a sweetie-pie, for lack of a better term. He talks a little rough, sure, but he lets Han Solo walk away without getting a dime from him. And this is after he has put a price on his head! Did I miss something there? The rest of the movie is relatively untouched, except for a few CGI spruce-ups of explosions. I had no issue with those; I must admit they looked a little weak in the originals, especially the explosion of Alderaan. Overall, the DVD video quality is excellent, and so is the sound, considering it's a digital mastering of a 27-year-old movie that was made on a tight budget.
Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
By far, this is the best of the trilogy. It has the best storyline, the best character development, you name it. I thought director Irvin Kershner did an excellent job, but his career doesn't seem to have reflected it. Aside from a few TV directing gigs, he directed the abysmal Robocop 2. What struck me about this movie was that it seems to be relatively untouched. There were only two things that stood out to me. The first was the redubbing of Boba Fett's voice. The original had a deep, confident American voice, while the redub has a higher, insecure-sounding British voice. This was done to make Jango Fett (from the newer trilogy) and Boba Fett (from the older trilogy) sound the same, since they're clones. There's nothing wrong with a British accent, but I liked the original voice better. Does Lucas really expect us to believe it was that difficult to replicate the voice of the original Boba Fett? Sorry, but I'm not convinced. The second noteworthy scene was the one where Darth Vader is speaking to a holographic image of the emperor. Clive Revill has been edited out and replaced with Ian McDiarmid, who played the role in Return of the Jedi. That made sense to me, and I thought it was very well done. I remember watching the originals back in the day, wondering why they had used obviously different actors for the emperor in each of those movies. I can't fault Lucas for making that change. Picture and sound quality are excellent on this DVD.
Episode VI: Return of the Jedi
Oh boy, where do I begin? This poor movie never stood a chance. Lucas always had some 'splaining to do because of Han Solo inexplicably becoming a whipped puppy dog and because of the infernal Ewoks, but then he went and carved this bad boy up like a Thanksgiving turkey. Some scenes are nearly unrecognizable in comparison to the scenes from the originals. There are two scenes in particular that deserve mention. The first is the one in Jabba's palace where things have settled down a bit, and the band is playing a musical number just before Jabba decides to throw one of the dancers to the Rancor. Originally, it was a lively jam session that didn't feel overblown. In this one, it becomes a Muppet showtune that seems to feel more at home in Vegas than Jabba's palace. It felt completely out of place to me, and it would have made more sense to leave the original scene intact. The second scene that deserves mention is towards the end of the movie, when the Ewoks are celebrating with everybody. The first problem I had with that scene was the song they were playing. In the originals, the song was lively and upbeat, appropriate for celebrating. In this one, the music is more down-tempo and subdued. Watching people dance and celebrate to a slow-moving piece like that is just weird; it doesn't feel right. The second problem I had with that scene was when the "ghostly" Anakin was portrayed by Hayden Christensen instead of Sebastian Shaw. (Shaw still portrays Anakin in the scene on the Death Star, though.) The visual effect wasn't as cheesy as I thought it might be, but still, I didn't know whether to laugh or fall out of my chair. What was the point of portraying Anakin as young? Obi-Wan and Yoda were both very old when they died; why not replace Obi-Wan with Ewan McGregor and Yoda with a younger-looking Muppet? That made no sense to me; I preferred the original scene with Sebastian Shaw. (I was surprised to read that Sebastian Shaw was born in 1905, which means he turned 78 shortly after this movie was first released in 1983.) Picture and sound quality are excellent. I especially liked the look and sound of the first scene in this movie, when Vader's shuttle arrives on the Death Star.
Overall, despite Lucas's "slice-and-dice" predilection, I found the trilogy very enjoyable. This DVD set is well worth owning, as long as you're not expecting a huge variety of "extras" with the movies. The widescreen version is in a silver box, and the fullscreen version is in a gold box. You must choose wisely... oh wait, wrong trilogy.
I remember seeing an interview with Lucas quite a few years ago where he was talking about how it's the story that matters most, not the special effects. He went on to say that special effects are not a story unto themselves, and that they should only be shown as long as necessary to help tell the story, even if it's only a few seconds. I totally agreed with that philosophy, and I still do. If only Lucas had heeded his own advice while making Episodes I through III...