Wednesday, September 21, 2011

"Star Wars" on Blu-Ray: Disc #4 - "A New Hope" – The Droids you’re looking for in HD!

You know the drill – we’re going disc-by-disc through the Star Wars Blu-Ray set, and we may have reached the best part: the original trilogy in HD!!!!!!  Today, we’re analyzing the contents of Disc #4, which contains Episode IV: A New Hope (and by far the easiest, most obvious headline in this entire eleven-part opus).  I’ll review the film itself, discuss the video and audio quality, extras, and more, a trend which will continue throughout the week as we continue through each disc in the set. 

Review of Disc #4 – A New Hope, coming up after the jump…  

 The Film: The Force is strong with this one…

In the history of cinema, there are only a few films we may call “perfect,” and the original “Star Wars” is one of them.  It succeeds spectacularly by every standard with which we judge movies critically, and back in 1977, it created a few more standards all future sci-fi, adventure, and blockbuster films would be beholden to.  From the moment we enter this galaxy far, far away, it feels like a wholly realized, three-dimension creation, a world far different from are own yet no less palpable.  Within this world, George Lucas tells a story as old as time – a boy leaving home to embark on his journey to manhood – with such energy and flawless execution that the basic hero’s journey is made new again.  Each member of the vast cast of characters is just as interesting and endearing as the next, and they all play an essential part in the ongoing conflict.  Not a single element is out of line – there are no extraneous scenes, no unnecessary characters or subplots, no poor directorial choices, no misplaced musical cues, etc. etc.  This is a wonderful story told to perfection, and it holds up just as well today as it did thirty-four years ago.

That last bit is one of the most amazing things about the film; the story it tells really is just the basic hero’s journey, and after the film broke all box office records in 1977, the formula was popularized and repeated hundreds of times.  Yet few, if any films tell that story better than “Star Wars,” and even fewer movies boast such a fascinating, engaging setting.  That’s why “Star Wars” stands the test of time, and that’s why it remains entertaining no matter how many times it is revisited.

As indicated by the phrase “Episode IV,” George Lucas opens the film by dropping viewers in the middle of a longstanding conflict, and he never once pauses for formal exposition, except perhaps when Ben Kenobi tells Luke about the Jedi Order.  The audience is expected to learn the intricacies of this universe through immersion, and that’s what makes things so exciting right off the bat.  We want to discover why Princess Leia is so desperate to hide stolen plans inside this strange little droid; we’re desperate to learn about this mysterious empire Darth Vader represents and the opposing rebellion; as soon as Obi-Wan utters the word “Jedi,” we crave more information, and when we see glimpses of new locations throughout the universe, from the Mos Eisley Cantina to the Rebel base on the moon of Yavin, we want to spend more time exploring this fantastic universe. 

Could there possibly be a better set of characters to take us on this journey?  We can all relate to Luke Skywalker, frustrated teenage farm boy desiring more out of his life; we’d all like the sort of father/mentor figure he finds in old Ben Kenobi, and who doesn’t want a loyal best friend like Chewbacca?  There’s Han Solo, the dashing, rebellious rogue who doesn’t care about anything but money, but clearly has a heart of gold, and Princess Leia, a strong-willed and determined young woman who blasts away every archetype about the ‘damsel-in-distress’ role in these sorts of stories.  Darth Vader is probably the greatest screen villain of all-time, and whose heart isn’t warmed by the antics of R2-D2 and C-3PO?  All the performances are fantastic though none may be quite so memorable as Alec Guinness, who probably does more than any other actor to give this story a sense of weight, mysticism, and significance.

Every character has an arc, and each arc is fulfilled in a spectacularly satisfying way.  I’ve seen “Star Wars” dozens of times, and I still can’t decide which moment is more fulfilling: Luke putting away his targeting computer to take control of the force and his destiny, or Han coming back to save him at the last minute.  There is perhaps no greater indicator of how well Lucas develops these characters than the moment when R2-D2 returns from battle broken and charred, and like C-3PO, we find ourselves hoping against hope that our little robot buddy will be alright.

I could go on and on for many pages discussing the ways in which “Star Wars” succeeds, and I’d hardly know where to begin.  There are the groundbreaking special effects that still hold up to this day, the innovative and engaging editing style, Lucas’ spot-on direction – especially impressive when one learns about the turmoil of getting “Star Wars” made – the breathtaking production design, etc.  I want to give special attention to John Williams, because at least 50% of what makes “Star Wars” work is the score; in my opinion, it is the best single film score in the history of a cinema, a bold work of art that stands on its own as a powerful symphony.  Williams’ mastery and deployment of themes and motifs is at its absolute height here, and the in-between moments, the less iconic bits of score, are just as beautiful and thrilling.  Through his music, Williams completes the story of the movie, making many of the emotions and culminating moments possible.  And this was all before he ever came up with the Imperial March.

In “Part 1” of this extensive Blu-Ray set review, I noted that I wouldn’t be talking too much about the “Special Edition” versions of the trilogy, but as long as we’re discussing the perfection of the original “Star Wars,” I feel the alterations are an essential part of the subject.  Not the basic aesthetic changes – the removal of matte lines and the extension of certain environments is usually welcome – but the two additional scenes added into the movie: Han Solo talking to Jabba the Hutt, and Luke meeting Biggs at the rebel base.  Neither scene is particularly important to the narrative – in the case of Jabba’s scene, it’s a close repeat of Han’s preceding conversation with Greedo, right down to an identical exchange of lines – and that throws off the perfection of the film.  Not hugely, mind you – everything that makes the film great is still there and nothing has been removed – but adding unnecessary scenes into a flawlessly paced movie throws things off in these two moments, and for me, that’s what places the “Special Edition” one tiny notch below the original version.  In theatres, “Star Wars” was 100% perfect; on video, it’s only 99% there.  A minute difference, but one worth noting.

No matter how one experiences it, though, “Star Wars” in undoubtedly one of the seminal masterpieces of cinema, a flawless work of art that has stood the test of time and will continue to do so for as long as people watch movies. 

Film Rating: A+

Sizing up the Blu-Ray

Video Quality:

I’m not sure how best to describe the overwhelming feeling of joy I had watch “Episode IV” on Blu-Ray.  The image isn’t entirely perfect, but it’s damn close, and more importantly, the transfer and remastering is respectful of the film’s age, composition, and source material.  Unlike the prequels, “A New Hope” was not shot digitally, and apart from some Special Edition tune-ups, it had no digital tinkering – this was 1977, after all, and instead of looking like a crystal-clear bit of digital photography like “Revenge of the Sith,” “Star Wars” should have the appearance of good ol’ fashioned film. The 1080p Blu-Ray transfer achieves just that, keeping the film’s original grain structure in tact; Lucas and company did not apply heavy DNR as they did on “The Phantom Menace,” but instead left an appropriate amount of grain in the image, just enough to give it a warm, film-like image.  The result is so accurate to the source material that, if projected on a theatre screen, the transfer could probably be mistaken for 35mm film, and that is absolutely something worth celebrating. 

And that’s not even the most impressive part – colors are strong and life-like, skin tones accurate and realistic, and the contrast is exquisite, full of deep, hearty blacks that keep the darker scenes looking good.  Most impressive is the level of detail now visible in the image.  The opening scene is a great example; the matte painting of the big, red planet and its little blue moon has never looked so gorgeous, and you can see every minute detail in the model work.  Not only do these models hold up under high-definition scrutiny, but they look better than ever before; the Death Star trench run is another highlight, as HD uncovers layers of artistry we’ve never had the chance to see before now.  This is the biggest difference between practical effects and modern CGI: under higher resolutions, computer effects can falter, but something realistic and palpable, like ILM’s brilliant model and miniature work, will last forever. 

Then there are the interiors, such as the white hallways in Princess Leia’s starship or the gritty corridors on the Millennium Falcon.  These too look better than ever in HD, and I was struck by how filthy some of these sets are, especially the Falcon; there’s dirt, scratches, and dents covering the walls and ceilings, and it all makes these sets look lived-in, as though Lucas was allowed to shoot on real spaceships in a galaxy far, far away.  The only notable exteriors in the film are on Tatooine – all shot in Tunisia – and while some of these shots appear soft, most are breathtaking, especially in the canyons Luke travels to while searching for R2-D2. 

On a purely objective, technical level, this transfer isn’t quite as strong as “Revenge of the Sith.”  How could it be?  Yet to my eye, as someone who adores the warm, deep look of 35mm film, I was far more pleased and amazed watching “A New Hope.”  It’s one thing to transfer a six-year old digital file to disc; it’s another matter entirely to make a thirty-four year old film look this good without betraying the integrity of the image.  This is the true accomplishment of the disc, and in my book, “A New Hope” alone justifies the Blu-Ray set’s eighty-dollar price tag. 

Video Quality: 4.5 out of 5

Audio Quality

I’ve been waxing poetic about the audio on these discs for the past three days, and everything I’ve written about so far applies here: like the prequels, “Episode IV” features a wide, immersive soundscape and pitch-perfect balancing.  Surprisingly, though, “A New Hope” sounds even better than the newer movies, and by a wide margin, too.  Unlike the other films, Sound Editor Matthew Wood and his team had to rebuild the mix for the film from the ground-up, taking the film’s original two-channel mix and rearranging it into the DTS-HD 6.1 mix presented on the Blu-Ray.  Wood went all the way back to the original sources, and worked closely alongside Lucas and original sound designer Ben Burtt to ensure maximum accuracy.  As hinted above, the results are flabbergasting. 

The audio here is crystal clear, with no single element sounding like it has aged even a day.  But it’s how masterfully Wood has remixed the audio that really blew me away, spreading the audio throughout all six channels in a way that really drives the aural experience home.  As much as I enjoyed hearing the opening title music on the prequel discs, for instance, I was far more impressed hearing the original recording mixed with such clarity and immersion.  You can more or less pick out every instrument in the orchestra if you listen closely.  All of the iconic sound effects sound just as crisp as the day they were recorded; in particular, the movement of the Millennium Falcon as it zooms its way through space will blow you back through your seat with tremendous force. 

I think it’s safe to say “Star Wars” has never sounded this good.  I’d go a step further – I’d say this is the single best audio mix I’ve ever heard on home video.

Audio Quality: 6 out of 5

Extras and Presentation

All the discs in the set feature identical menus and presentation – the only differences are the choice of clips and music played (and I appreciate that the original movie is the only one that gets the iconic opening crawl music on the menu).  As previously explained, the menus are unexciting but very efficient.

As for the commentaries, “A New Hope” is where things really start getting good.  The commentaries on the prequels were no slouch, but they are far less interesting films for discussion, quite frankly, and don’t have the same historical impact. 

“A New Hope” features the same commentary choices as the other films in the set – the first commentary is culled from the 2004 DVD release, and features George Lucas, Ben Burtt, Dennis Murren, and Carrie Fisher discussing the film.  This track is quite good, and very informative, but it’s a bit slow, features too many gaps, and not to sound harsh, but Lucas is not the most engaging speaker on the planet.

The archival commentary, culled from vintage interviews and soundbites, then, is the way to go.  This gives us a greater variety of speakers, and due to the wealth of material, there are few, if any, slow moments during the commentary.  This track is fascinating, a treasure trove of film history straight from the mouths of those who created it.  For instance, Mark Hamill tells us some great stories about Alec Guinness, and then Guinness himself chimes in from the great beyond with anecdotes of his own!  The track is very well assembled and edited, and if you have the time, it’s well worth a listen.

Next Time:

If “A New Hope” looked and sounded this good, I can’t wait to watch and review “The Empire Strikes Back” for tomorrow. 

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