Regarding STAR WARS on Blu-ray

Yeah, these came out back in September. I figured it was time to reprint what I wrote then for Impact, because that’s how not on top of things I am these days:

“Own Every Moment,” declares the advertising campaign for the new STAR WARS: THE COMPLETE SAGA and individual (Original and Prequel) trilogy Blu-ray releases. Well, every moment except those tinkered with or banished entirely to the darkest, dankest corners of the dungeons under creator George Lucas’s Skywalker Ranch.

Let’s be very clear here: the films have never looked or sounded this good for home video. That being said, many things could have been done better for a more satisfying overall experience. Either way, these releases are from “complete,” with just enough material left off (including the highly coveted original theatrical versions) to make another money-grabbing HD release all but inevitable.

Let’s get the prequels out of the way first.

The video for Episodes II and III looks fantastic; ATTACK OF THE CLONES looks softer and less defined than the stunning digital imagery of REVENGE OF THE SITH, though ATTACK in particular is light years ahead of its murky old DVD counterpart. The colors are much better, too. Both of these were shot digitally, while THE PHANTOM MENACE was shot primarily on film. But instead of allowing Episode I to maintain its original look, Lucasfilm wiped away so much of the film grain that gave the image its detail that faces now look waxy and unnatural. Rather than being able to count every hair in Liam Neeson’s beard, his long mane and facial hair now often look like molded pieces of plastic snapped to his head and face. I understand that Lucas was trying to get the look of Episode I to match the digital sheen of ATTACK and REVENGE, but the grain removal went more than a few midi-chlorians too far.

The most controversial additions and decisions occur in the Original Trilogy, which often looks stunning but deserved better than the half-hearted HD treatment it gets in this set, which uses the same masters made eight years ago for the DVDs. While visionary science fiction contemporaries like ALIEN and BLADE RUNNER both got brand new, carefully restored, state-of-the-art 4K (4096×2160) scans for their Blu-ray releases, these Star Wars masters were only done at 1920×1080, which was adequate eight years ago but no longer acceptable by today’s standards. The color timing was also considerably off, resulting in an image that was often too dark and too blue. Black crush, which describes black levels so dark that fine details are gobbled up, robbed previously visible details from star-fields and Darth Vader’s cape and armor. The icy white planet of Hoth was suddenly very blue, and numerous other shots throughout the trilogy looked less vibrant than on previous home video releases.

And while some selective bits have been newly color-corrected, the operative word is “selective,” resulting in a picture that’s frustratingly inconsistent, sometimes even within the same scenes. (The still images used for chapter selection markers in the menus often look brighter and better than their corresponding scenes in the actual films.)

Lucasfilm held a late-summer press conference last year to show off many of the fixes they’d made for the Blu-rays, touting all the time and effort they’d put into the Blu-rays and boasting about their multiple layers of quality control. But it was all for show. One of the most famous color-timing mistakes from the 2004 DVDs was that Luke’s blue lightsaber on the Millennium Falcon in Episode IV was suddenly green. For the Blu-rays, the saber has been fixed — but in only the one shot Lucasfilm used to show off its “commitment to quality control.” Throughout the rest of that scene, the saber remains a hazy green. Other lightsabers that’d had their hot white cores replaced by bubble-gum colors have been restored, but only in certain shots. Many of these corrections are more gaudy and conspicuous than had they simply been left alone.

Other fixes were made just as haphazardly. When the Wampa swats Luke off his Tauntaun in the early moments of THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, the puppeteer’s arm had always been briefly visible. New digital hair has been added to cover the puppeteer’s arm, but a strange black triangle now appears in the corner of the shot, likely an artifact of the digital means used to “correct” it. The flashing black triangle draws your eye’s attention more than the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it glimpse of the puppeteer’s arm ever did. How was this not noticed? How did something so glaring sneak by?

Ironically, the only shots in the Original Trilogy that look dated are the new digital effects added for the 1997 Special Editions, which always stuck out like sore thumbs while replacing so much of that original craftsmanship and ingenuity. They look more obtrusive than ever before at the higher resolution.

Not surprisingly, Lucas has done even more tinkering for the Blu-rays, adding new elements that are asinine in their inconsistency and awkward in their execution. A new pile of digital rocks now obscures R2-D2 while he’s hiding from Tusken Raiders on Tatooine, but they magically disappear again when he rolls out of his hiding place. In RETURN OF THE JEDI, the door to Jabba the Hutt’s palace when R2 and C-3PO approach has been outrageously magnified in size to the point that it now extends infinitely off the side of the screen, yet interior shots show it to be the same moderate size it’s always been.

Accidentally reversed shots of Boba Fett in Jabba’s throne room in RETURN OF THE JEDI still haven’t been correctly swapped, though time and effort (and money) were spent adding new eyes with blinking lids to Episode VI’s Ewoks (and only in some shots to only some Ewoks, creating even more inconsistencies).

But the two most glaring and grumble-inducing alterations involve ill-advised vocalizations. The wild and wonderfully inhuman Krayt Dragon call Obi-Wan used in Episode IV to scare away the Tusken Raiders had already been replaced by the silly sound of a Prequel Trilogy beast for the 2004 DVDs, and now it’s been changed yet again for its worst incarnation yet. Rather than sounding like an unearthly bellow made by a cunning, powerful, elderly British man, this new squeal sounds like the warbling, echoing, auto-tuned yelp of a teen boy who just slammed his fingers in a door. A scene once cool and supernatural now sounds glaringly silly.

Also tragically conspicuous are two additions of Darth Vader declaring “NOOOOOO!” at the climax of JEDI. The original version of this scene is as powerful a silent moment as any character has ever gotten on screen. As the Emperor fries Luke with blasts of Dark Side lightning, Vader looks back and forth between his dying son and his vile master. John Williams’s score and Vader’s posture tell you everything you need to know about his internal conflict and ultimate decision (not to mention the fact that we get the point when Vader picks up the Emperor and chucks him down the reactor shaft). The new exclamations take away the moment’s power and subtlety.

All these gripes aside, the picture quality of the Original Trilogy looks pretty fantastic given that we’re only getting recycles of eight-year-old, barely HD masters. You’ll see colors and details in costumes, sets, and lovingly hand-crafted special effects that you never noticed before, leaving you aching for the original versions all the more.

(And here’s the thing, George. If you added new noises and visuals every year, I’d buy every new version. I would. Just let me give you my cash for the original versions, too, okay?)

Audio on all the films is utterly and thoroughly fantastic, correcting many of the most famous mistakes (such as dialed-back music and swapped rear channels) from the 2004 DVDs.

Though the two trilogies are available separately in movies-only sets, the only way to get the special features is to purchase THE COMPLETE SAGA (which, again, isn’t really complete). Say what you will about Episodes I-III (and what I have to say isn’t always good), but the deleted scenes alone are worth the price of the full set. Much of the material here will blow you away, particularly the stuff from the Original Trilogy. (Be careful not to miss anything! Deleted scenes are arranged by film and by planet rather than having a “play all” option, so it takes some tricky navigating of the menu system to find all the scenes.)

Other extras are as inconsistent as the films’ “fixes.” Several classic documentaries are here, but where are “Empire of Dreams” and “From Star Wars to Jedi” (or, for that matter, “The Beginning” from the Episode I DVD)? A feature on the 501st group of Stormtrooper re-enactors may be exciting for the fans who comprise the 501st, but why drop vital archival material in favor of fan service that caters only to one particular group of fans? Oh, well. I’m willing to forgive a lot thanks to the inclusion of Bill Murray’s hilarious rendition (with his own lyrics) of the Star Wars theme from SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE and clips of Luke, Chewbacca, and the droids on THE MUPPET SHOW. The infamous Christmas Special doesn’t appear, though its Boba Fett cartoon is included in full.

At the end of the day, the films belong to Lucas and are his to alter and adjust as he pleases. All would be forgiven if he’d just release the original theatrical versions not just for the loyal fans who clamor for them but also for the purpose of preserving them forever in high definition. Scan them, drop them on a Blu-ray, and release them. Lucas could then say, “See? Don’t they look and sound terrible?” And we’d say, “Yeah, maybe a little,” as we passed around the popcorn and celebrated those classic versions with smiles and high-fives. There’s money to be made there, which makes such their eventual release more possible and likely than Lucas might currently lead you to believe. (Not to mention the fact that directors like Steven Spielberg and Ridley Scott make all versions of their films available. Do it, George. Do it. Do it. Do it.)

Star Wars is magical. Especially the Original Trilogy, which endures as a masterwork of imagination brimming with philosophy, adventure, and heart. Yes, this set could have been better. But until Lucas gives us the versions we grew up with, complete with the original craftsmanship he’s wiped away with silly digital tinkering, it’ll have to do.