Friday, September 23, 2011

"Star Wars" on Blu-Ray: Disc #6 - "Return of the Jedi" – Witness the full glory of Salacious Crumb in High-Definition!

As explained in this post, I’m reviewing the Star Wars Blu-Ray set disc-by-disc, and today, we finish off the film portion of the review with Disc #6, which contains Episode VI: Return of the Jedi.  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 #6 – Return of the Jedi, coming up after the jump…  

 The Film: Yub Nub!

I’ve never understood the disappointment apparent in many peoples’ reactions to “Return of the Jedi.”  I’ll be the first to admit it’s not as good as the original “Star Wars” or “The Empire Strikes Back,” but that doesn’t make it a bad movie, nor a weak conclusion.  On the contrary, I’ve always felt “Jedi” is a rather splendid send-off to the trilogy, facing the multiple cliffhangers from “Empire” head-on, especially where the revelation of Luke’s parentage is concerned.

Luke’s story is by far the most compelling part of the film, and one of the best elements of the entire Star Wars saga.  In this final chapter, Luke must take the last steps necessary to become a true Jedi Master, confronting Vader, the Emperor, and his own weaknesses in the process.

The opening act at Jabba’s Palace serves an important dual function.  On the surface, it resolves the immediate cliffhanger from “Empire” – rescuing Han from the clutches of Jabba the Hut.  On a more significant level, however, the sequence displays how much Luke has changed since we last saw him.  His defeat at the hands of Darth Vader has clearly humbled him, and he has therefore embraced all of Yoda’s teachings, taking on a calmer, more reflective demeanor.  Throughout the battle with Jabba, we see that not only have Luke’s physical powers greatly increased, but he’s also become a master strategist, only getting the upper hand on Jabba because of a meticulously designed and well-executed plan. 

Yet despite his victory on Tatooine, Luke hasn’t yet become the great Jedi he’s destined to be, and he’s humble enough to know that.  So he visits Yoda (in a scene even more technically impressive than the Yoda portions of “Empire Strikes Back” – look at the little guy crawl into bed!) one more time, where it is confirmed that Vader is his father.  Yoda also tells Luke that to become a Jedi, he must confront and defeat Darth Vader; Luke isn’t convinced that violence will solve the problem, however, and this puts all the pieces in place for the fantastic final act.

The true genius of “Jedi” lies in the nuance, which is to say that instead of capping this massive galactic conflict with a fierce lightsaber duel, Luke is instead pitted in a war of words and philosophy with the Emperor and Darth Vader.  Luke is convinced he can redeem his father, and the Emperor is convinced he can turn Luke to the Dark Side.  What makes this scenario so satisfying is the execution.  Luke isn’t presented as the pure messiah in this scenario – he really is tempted by the Emperor’s insistence to give into anger, especially once the Emperor begins his assault on the rebellion.  Luke goes so far as to duel Darth Vader, and it’s only when he’s cut off his father’s hand that he comes to his senses, realizing that if he goes any further, the Emperor wins. 

Thus, Luke throws away his lightsaber, and in that moment fulfills his destiny and becomes a Jedi.  Not just any Jedi, but the greatest of Jedi, for he accomplishes something the warriors of old could never dream of; his display of peace and submission warms Darth Vader’s icy mechanical heart, leading Vader to redeem himself by destroying the Emperor once and for all.  Not even Yoda predicted a scenario where Luke could win by pulling Vader back from the dark side, but this is what Luke achieves.  This is far from the most bombastic or action packed of possible endings for the series, but it’s easily the most satisfying scenario, because Luke’s triumph works on more than just a visceral level.  It’s a thoughtful conclusion that sums up everything Star Wars is about.

Special praise must go to the four performers who bring the sequence to life so wonderfully.  Mark Hamill is at his best here, illustrating Luke’s determination, doubt, and ultimate resolve with enough humanity to ground the conflict in reality.  David Prowse, the man inside the Darth Vader suit, does his finest work in the series during Vader’s final moments, making expert use of body language to express Vader’s internal debate (though this is somewhat ruined on the Blu-Ray release; more on that in a little bit).  As for the voice of Vader, James Earl Jones gets to go out in a blaze of glory, delivering some of his all-time most menacing lines before revealing the character’s warmer, softer side.  And then there’s Ian McDiarmid, never more frightening than he is here.  It was no easy task to create a villain who would plausibly be in control of Darth Vader, but McDiarmid does it spectacularly.

I’ve primarily focused on Luke’s journey so far, but that doesn’t mean I dislike the rest of the film.  When people complain about “Return of the Jedi,” they usually discuss the 2nd Death Star or the Ewoks.  Neither of these elements really bothers me.  Yes, Lucas could have come up with a more original threat than rehashing the peril of the first film, and yes, the Ewoks are decidedly less adult-oriented than Luke’s conflict.  But at the end of the day, both the Death Star II and the Ewoks function just fine.  The Death Star is an effective plot device that rallies the rebels together for one last fight with the Empire, and it serves as the basis for the trap the Emperor springs to turn Luke to the dark side.  As for the Ewoks, I’ve always liked how the Emperor’s plan is foiled because he failed to take our furry little friends, such seemingly insignificant creatures, into account.  It exposes the Emperor’s arrogance while making a heartwarming statement about the power of purity in the face of evil.  Some people find the Ewoks obnoxious, of course, but I’ve always found them rather endearing.  The only part where they get on my nerves is the sequence wherein they mistake C-3PO for a God, which feels less of a piece with this film and more like something out of a Star Wars cartoon.

In actuality, my biggest complaints with “Return of the Jedi” come from the handling of Han and Leia.  Han’s character has lost his rogue edge, and while this makes sense considering the humility he learned in “Empire Strikes Back,” the more comedic direction they choose to take the character is clunky; at times, Harrison Ford seems to be at a loss for how to play this gentler version of Han.  I still love having the guy around, but in an attempt to make him funnier, he’s just not as fun as he used to be.  As for Leia, the revelation that she’s Luke’s sister leads absolutely nowhere.  There are hints that because of her parentage, she too is strong in the ways of the force, but there’s no ultimate payoff, and the most interesting thing Carrie Fisher gets to do in the movie is wear the infamous gold bikini.  A disappointing conclusion for a character who was so interesting, and in some ways groundbreaking, back in film 1. 

In the end, these are minor flaws, because when “Return of the Jedi” is good, there’s really nothing else like it in the trilogy.  It’s a fantastic, satisfying conclusion to the story.  I loved it back when I first saw it at the age of six, and if anything, I appreciate it even more now.

One thing that should be noted about the presentation of the film that for the Blu-Ray release, George Lucas has added Vader’s scream of “NOO!!!” from the end of “Revenge of the Sith” to the moment when Vader decides to save Luke and kill the Emperor.  This is, in my opinion, far and away the most egregious change Lucas has ever made to the trilogy.  Not only was the moment already perfect – Vader’s silence in the scene is powerful because he’s so often defined by his voice, but instead acts without words – but it’s an alteration to the climactic scene of not just the film, but the entire trilogy (and six-part saga, if you choose to look at the films that way).  It would be like Peter Jackson adding a Vaudeville musical number to the Mount Doom sequence in Return of the King – it distracts from the emotional content of the resolution.  Most of the special edition changes don’t bother me, and though Vader’s “No” doesn’t ruin the film, it is a big black mark on a classic scene, and the single biggest complaint I would lodge against this otherwise excellent Blu-Ray release.

Film Rating: A–     

Sizing up the Blu-Ray

Video Quality

It’s a good thing “Return of the Jedi” is the last movie, because I’m running out of superlatives to describe these Blu-Ray discs.  “Jedi” has historically been the weakest looking movie in the trilogy; as evidenced by the 2006 DVD release of the unaltered theatrical version, the optical effects were wonkier on this film than its predecessors, resulting in a distracting barrage of matte lines and an inconsistent visual presentation.  Thankfully, the Blu-Ray has solved most of these problems; artists at ILM have taken great care to remove the matte lines and clean up the optical effects without destroying the integrity of the original model work (you can still see glimpses of matte lines here and there, in fact), and in HD, every inch of this film looks better than it has before.  For the first time in my memory, at least, it looks as good or better than the other films in the trilogy.

Much of what I wrote about “New Hope” and “Empire” apply here; the grain structure has been left intact, so the image looks like a good 35mm print, full of warmth and depth.  Colors and contrast are incredibly strong, and skin-tones are so accurate that you can easily tell when a performer is coated in heavy makeup.  As always, detail is the star here; you can see every bit of dirt and grime in Jabba’s filthy palace, all the intricacies of the models and puppets are now visible, and looking at the forests of Endor is like looking out a clean window.  I was especially impressed with the dark, shadowy sequences in Jabba’s palace and aboard the Death Star; the “Empire” presentation suffered a bit during darker scenes, but “Jedi” looks just as good in the dark as it does in the light. 

In the end, I would rank this transfer above “Empire,” but just below “A New Hope.”  Since “Jedi” is the newest of the original films, its most impressive visual moments look better than anything in “A New Hope,” but on balance, “Hope” is more consistently impressive.  In any case, I never dreamed the original trilogy could look this good, and I think it’s safe to say that these Blu-Ray transfers are the definitive home releases of these classic films.

Video Rating: 4.5/5 

Audio Quality

I have very little new to say about the audio at this point; you’ve read my thoughts on the DTS-HD 6.1 tracks for the last five days, and “Return of the Jedi” is just as perfect as any of the other mixes.  It is, in fact, my second-favorite mix in the set, once again behind “A New Hope.”  “Jedi” does, however, have the most impressive-sounding scene in the box: Luke and Leia’s speeder chase on Endor.  This scene boasts incredible atmosphere, but more importantly, the sounds of speeder-bikes racing around my living room were so convincing that I had to look over my shoulder once or twice to make sure I wasn’t being chased by stormtroopers.

Audio Quality: 5/5

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.  As previously explained, the menus are unexciting but very efficient.

The commentaries are good as always, but this is the first time I was a wee bit disappointed by the archival track.  It’s a veritable treasure trove of film history, like the archival tracks from its predecessors, filled with anecdotes from a wide variety of cast and crew; there is, however, one notable omission, and that’s director Richard Marquand.  Because Marquand passed away in 1987, just a few years after completing “Jedi,” he never had the chance to participate in any home video bonus features, such as the 2004 audio commentary also found on this disc.  I was hoping that the archival track would rectify this, that perhaps somehow, somewhere, someone dug up an interview or sound-bite with Marquand, the most mysterious member of the Star Wars family, but alas, such is not the case.  I haven’t yet checked, but perhaps the bonus features on the next few discs contain something from Marquand.  If so, that would be a real treat. 

Nevertheless, this is another very strong pair of commentaries to finish off a string of strong audio-based bonus features.  If this Complete Saga set contained only the movies and commentaries, I’d feel satisfied with my eighty dollar purchase; but there’s a whole lot more to delve into on the next three discs…


Disc #7, with bonus features pertaining to the prequel trilogy!

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