By Eric Campos
Man, it was rough getting out of bed early this morning, but it was curiosity that got my a*s in gear. You see, Santa Claus has come to town early this year and I was eager to run downstairs to see if my stocking was chock full of joy, or just jammed full of Bantha poop like I probably deserve anyway. This running downstairs entailed heading into Hollywood over to the Silent Movie Theater for a special presentation of The Star Wars Trilogy DVDs coming out September 21. Over the past year there’s been plenty of speculation and boo-hooing over just what will be contained within this 4-disc set and what shape the films will be in. Word had it that Lucas and crew hadn’t stopped tinkering with the films past their Special Edition theatrical releases in ’97. Due to the advent of High Def, these films were said to be prepped for their absolute best presentation ever. But there’s also been talk about further changes made to the films, such as the ones added to the Special Edition versions. We’ve seen the pictures floating around the Internet and we’ve heard the rumors, now it was my chance, along with fifty some other journalists, to discover the truth – be it for better or for worse.
Our early morning started out with a few different groups of people being led to the upstairs level of the Silent Movie Theater, into a room that was made to look like an old ‘70s bachelor pad, complete with Donnie and Marie records, funky “Three’s Company” furniture and Farrah Fawcett poster. The only thing standing out from the motif was the gigantic High Def television screen and the 5.1 THX Surround Ex sound system. The point of these gatherings was to show us a select scene from each of the newly mastered films the way they’re ideally meant to be experienced. Many of us have pretty kick a*s home theater set ups, but this was totally pro. So we watched the opening scene from “Star Wars”, the battle on Ice Planet Hoth from “Empire” and the Sarlac Pit scene from “Jedi” and I gotta say, the films look and sound great. Definitely the best home video versions of these films I’ve ever seen or heard. The audio, to me, is what stands out the most. The mix on these discs are in true 5.1 Surround Ex, not the phony 5.1 they kinda fudged together for the Special Edition seven years ago. Now they had the technology to make these films truly crank.
After we all took our turns in the living room, Jim Ward – Vice President of Marketing & Distribution of Lucasfilm took us through the DVD navigation for these new discs in the main theater. The fully live action, immersive menus are, from what I understand, similar to those of the menus found on the “Phantom Menace” and “Attack of the Clones” DVDs. I wouldn’t know this because I don’t own those discs, this is just what I hear. The discs for Episode IV – VI, each randomly pick one of three planet themes for the menu navigation. The themes depend on which disc you’re watching. For example, for the “Empire Strikes Back” disc, you’ll either get a Planet Hoth, Dagobah or Bespin theme when your machine boots up the disc. It’s randomly different every time you boot up. Get tired of the flicks, play around with the menus. Fun!
We were then shown several clips from the fourth bonus disc in the set, featuring documentaries – “The Birth of the Lightsaber”, “The Characters of Star Wars” and “The Force is With Them”, a doc featuring a string of genre filmmakers flapping their traps about how Star Wars influenced them. And then there’s the centerpiece of the disc – “Empire of Dreams: The Story of the Star Wars Trilogy” – a two-and-a-half-hour documentary featuring brand new interviews from everyone involved with the original trilogy, as well as an abundance of archival footage that I don’t think many of us, if any of us at all, have seen before. Documentary filmmaker Kevin Burns commented that this is a warts and all look at the films. He added that one of those warts, “The Star Wars Holiday Special”, almost made its way into the doc, but was pulled as it didn’t seem to fit into the telling of the Star Wars Trilogy story. Oh well. Maybe next time.
So this 4-disc set is definitely jammed packed with more goodies than the Adventures of Indiana Jones DVD set that came out late last year. It looks like they took the 4-disc “Lord of the Rings” DVD sets as a challenge and struck out to do their best to match the wealth of in-depth information found in those discs. They get close and the effort is definitely given an A. Also, unlike the Indiana Jones DVDs, each of the films here get running commentaries with George Lucas and Carrie Fisher appearing on each.
Then began the Q&As, moderated by Jim Ward. First up were John Lowry (film restoration), Rick Dean (technical director, THX) and Van Ling (DVD producer). And right out of the gate began the questions about whether Lucas would be releasing the movies in their original form or not. Jim Ward, there to make sure things stayed under control and nobody said anything they shouldn’t, must’ve expected this and he didn’t look pleased. His answers remained sharp throughout this line of questioning. Someone asked about Lucas’ responsibility to preserve film history and the answer was that was probably a personal question for George himself. Someone else asked about the possibility of an image of Ewen McGregor replacing the ghost image of Alec Guinness at the end of “Jedi” in a later Super Duper Edition of the Trilogy. Jim had had enough and insisted that we check out these new, cleaned up versions of the films for ourselves and then make whatever judgment we like. Geez, it was just a question.
Speaking of a newer Special Edition version of the films sometime down the road, someone from the crowd asked our panelists about the possibility of this and they certainly didn’t shoot down the idea. As technology advances, they admitted it’s not totally unlikely that another cleaned up version of the Trilogy may materialize somewhere down the road. This is can be for better and for worse, I’m sure we all agree.
“Empire of Dreams” documentary filmmaker Kevin Burns, Irvin Kershner and Mark Hamill each had their own Q&As. Cute stories about the good old days were told, but nothing really revealing was said. I have a feeling, however, that the “Empire of Dreams” doc will give us some good dirt to talk about at our next Star Wars clubhouse meeting. And once again, Jim Ward got a little huffy when someone asked about the original forms of the movies. That Someone asked Irvin Kershner about how he felt about the changes being made to these films. Not able to hear the questions as they were being asked, Jim Ward needed to repeat them – this particular question he repeated with a bit of annoyance. He repeated to Irvin that we all had the IDEA that there have been changes made to these films. Irvin responded by saying that he knew that they added the Wampa scene in his “Empire” as well as a couple of other little tweaks, but nothing else that he really knew about.
Well, good thing there was a copy of the new 4-disc set in my goodie bag. Lemme pop that sucker in and see just what kinda IDEAS we got going on here. And first up, yep, that sure is Hayden Christensen replacing the ghost image of Sebastian Shaw at the end of “Jedi”. That’s a pretty big goddamn change. Second, yes, that’s Naboo featured in the celebration scene at the end of “Jedi.” Also of note are the missing eyebrows from Anakin’s face when his helmet is removed from at the end of “Jedi”, the replacement of that old crummy Emperor in “Empire” with Ian McDiarmid and the replacement of that crummy new CG Jabba in “New Hope” with a better, still crummy CG Jabba. There are plenty of other minor tweaks here and there that I will discover when I go through these discs more thoroughly in the next couple of days.
But basically, everything you heard that has been changed is true. For the most part, they actually work for me and I have no problem with Lucas tooling with his creations. But during the entire four hours I was at the Silent Movie Theater, I heard a lot about how these discs will please the fans – the fans this – the fans that. Yeah, they’re right, the fans are gonna dig what they’ve done here, but if they really give a s**t about the fans, they’d release the original versions of these films as well. So telling me all about the fans means nothing, because they’re pissed as hell right now, and making like there haven’t been any changes made to these films is wrong. The changes are there and I’m here to tell you that they’re not as bad as you think. Yeah, having Hayden appear at the end of “Jedi” is lame, but what are you gonna do? In the end, these are still amazing films and now they look and sound better than ever, despite the arguable altered scenes, like ‘em or hate ‘em…haven’t found anybody yet that loves ‘em…besides Lucas of course. So drop the fanboy stance and pick ‘em up when they come out, you know you want to. Besides, those original versions will come out on DVD sooner or later – just you wait. Until then, you have your VHS and laserdisc versions as do I. But these DVDs are a must.