Saturday, September 17, 2011

"Star Wars" on Blu-Ray: First Impressions – Is the Force strong with this set?

It’s finally here!  As explained in this post, the month of September is officially Star Wars Month on the Monthly Ten Podcast and JonathanLack.Com, all in honor of one of the most anticipated home video releases of all time – the Star Wars saga on Blu-Ray Disc!  The 9-disc set arrived yesterday, and I’m devoting eleven days to reviewing the entire box set in depth.  Today, I’ll be giving you my first impressions of the set, and laying the groundwork for the rest of this massive review.  For the next nine days, I’ll be going through disc-by-disc to report on the films, video and audio quality, extras, and more.  On the last day, I’ll give you my final, closing remarks on the set. 

First impressions after the jump, along with pictures of the packaging and discs! 

Let’s begin with the different versions of the set available, because you can find the content of the discs in three separate arrangements.  The main edition – the 9-disc Complete Saga box-set – contains all six films along with three discs of bonus features, and is the subject of this review.  You can also buy the Prequel Trilogy on its own – discs 1 through 3 of this set – or the Original Trilogy – discs 4 through 6.  These editions aren’t nearly as “fancy,” packaged in standard Blu-Ray jewel cases without any of the bonus features (apart from the audio commentaries).  They are nice, cheaper alternatives for people who only enjoy certain films and don’t care about extras, but do want to see the new HD transfers.  For many Star Wars fans, however, I suspect the extras are a major draw, and even if you aren’t interested in, say, the Prequel films, you will have to buy the Complete Saga set to get all the Deleted Scenes and Documentaries. 

And from what I’ve seen so far, any Star Wars fan will definitely want to own the Complete Saga box set.  At the time of this writing, I’ve only spent a few hours playing with the discs, spot-checking certain scenes and sampling bonus features, but so far, it looks like this is the best presentation the Star Wars films have ever received on home video, and that’s cause for a good ol’ fashioned Ewok celebration.  Yub Nub!

First off, I absolutely love the packaging.  For a six-film, nine-disc box set, it’s very economically packaged; the box is only slightly taller than your average Blu-Ray case (and still shorter than a DVD box) and a tad over an inch wide.  The outer box houses a cardboard “book” containing all the discs.  The artwork for the outer and inner boxes is identical, and I’m surprised at how much I like it.  In theory, a picture of Jake Lloyd’s Anakin on the cover of a Star Wars set is pretty much the biggest middle finger George could give the fans, with the possible exception of putting Jar-Jar Binks front and center, but the artwork – which appears to be hand-painted – is so gorgeously illustrated that it’s hardly a cause for concern.  The back of the box, with another image of Tatooine, is even more breathtaking.  The use of colors to illustrate a Tatooine ‘binary’ sunset is simply brilliant.  All in all, it’s a very handsome box, and that’s not even the best part.
As for the inner ‘book’ package, each disc gets it own thick cardboard ‘page’ (the disc sits in a slit, similar to the Alien Blu-Ray box-set or Avatar collector’s edition from last year), and each is illustrated with more art in the same style as the outer box.  It all looks spectacular; for the films, each illustration depicts a scene or location from the movie (my favorite is a picture of Yoda for Episode V), and the bonus discs get bits of random, but equally inspired art (disc 7’s picture of Boba Fett riding a giant beast is a shout out to the infamous Holiday Special).  The final ‘page’ is a nice collage of characters from throughout the series (prequel characters are given a bit too much prominence for my liking, but it’s still very nice), and this is where you’ll find the “Guide to the Galaxy,” a small informational booklet outlining all the bonus features.  The discs themselves don’t have any art – just the film’s name and number on a silver background.  A tad disappointing, but the artwork covering the rest of the set certainly makes up for this deficiency.

All in all, this may be my favorite Star Wars packaging ever, and that’s saying a lot, because damn do I love my Theatrical Trilogy Tin, a Best-Buy Exclusive I picked up in 2006.  The Blu-Ray packaging manages to look gorgeous while also providing easy, instant access to all the discs.  That’s a balancing act I rarely see achieved, and provides evidence that Lucasfilm did not half-ass this release, even before you actually pop in the discs.

And when you do pop in the discs?  Ho.  Lee.  Cow.  I started with the original movie, “Episode IV – A New Hope;” I only intended to spot-check one or two scenes, but I ended up glued to the screen for the first ten minutes, unable to tear my eyes away or lift my jaw off the floor.  Unless you were alive 1977, you’ve never seen Star Wars look this good (and thanks to certain special edition enhancements, much of the film probably looks better than it did even in theatres).  In particular, I was blown away by the amount of detail you can see on R2-D2 and C-3PO; those are some very dirty robots.  I spot-checked other scenes from throughout the original trilogy, and they all looked equally fantastic.  I’ll go much more in-depth on the picture quality over the next few days, but for now, at least, it looks like Lucasfilm has delivered some outstanding HD transfers without betraying the original grain structure of the negatives, and though special edition changes remain, color timing has been restored to that of the original theatrical editions.  In other words, R2-D2 is dark blue again, lightsaber cores are hot white, etc.  It all looks right, and I was overjoyed to see this.

While the original films seem to have a consistent look, the prequels are more of a mixed bag, which is surprising, considering how much newer they are.  Episode I looks much softer than it should – we’ll discuss that in-depth tomorrow – and CGI creatures like Jar-Jar look like half-finished animatics, a byproduct of upgrading outdated computer effects to 1080p HD, where we can spot all flaws in the work.  Episode II looks a lot better, but Episode III is where the prequels – and the set, to be honest – shine brightest.  I wound up watching far more clips from “Revenge of the Sith” than I intended, as it’s one of the very best Blu-Ray transfers I’ve ever seen.  The film was shot, edited, and transferred digitally, without a trace of film, so there’s nothing to hold the image back.  It’s perfect, and you can get lost in the startling amounts of depth present in the image.

The sound, however, is even more impressive than the picture.  Each film features a wide, immersive soundscape, striking a perfect balance between dialogue and the rich array of crisp, realistic sound effects.  Most importantly, John Williams’ music has never sounded this good, and it’s all balanced to perfection so that no one element gets lost in the mix.  As with the video, I’ll go into more depth on the presentation over the next several days.  I’ll be going disc-by-disc through the set; each review will contain a general overview of the disc, a review of the movie, and discussion of the A/V quality and extras.  Once we get past the movies, we’ll only be talking about extras, because the Complete Saga set contains three Blu-Ray discs chock-full of exciting, never-before-seen Bonus Material, including Deleted Scenes, Interviews, Documentaries, etc.  I haven’t watched much of this yet, but I’m very excited to jump in. 

One thing I should note about the extras for anybody planning on purchasing the set this weekend is that NONE of the video-based bonus features from previous DVD editions carry over here.  The films all contain their original audio commentaries (along with a new commentary comprised of archival interviews and sound bites that are well worth your time), but other than that, there are no holdovers from the DVDs.  The set lacks the fantastic, feature-length “Empire of Dreams” documentary from the 2004 trilogy set, the documentaries from the 2-Disc prequel DVDs like “The Beginning” or “Within a Minute,” or even the Deleted Scenes found on the original Prequel releases.  That’s a disappointment, as it means this set doesn’t truly replace your original DVDs; it merely augments them, and I wish Lucasfilm had simply added an extra disc for all this content (one Blu-Ray could easily fit all of that archival standard-def material).  But that isn’t the case, so don’t ditch your original DVDs; they are full of great features you won’t want to lose.

I suppose I should also address the main controversy of this set as well: by now, you’ve probably heard about all the new changes George Lucas has made for the Blu-Ray release.  That’s right – we’re officially on the fourth distinct edition of the original trilogy.  There’s the original, unaltered theatrical editions, the 1997 Special Editions, the 2004 DVD Special Editions, and now, the 2011 Blu-Ray Special Editions.  As usual, many of the changes are merely minor cosmetic improvements to the original special effects, but there are also some more intrusive changes, such as Darth Vader screaming “NOOO!!!” as he throws the Emperor to his death in Episode VI. 

These changes are sure to upset many fans, and I’ll admit, I don’t like these alterations.  I’ve always considered Darth Vader’s silent sacrifice to be one of the most powerful moments in the trilogy, and the new version is just laughably bad.  Add that to the pile of awful changes including Greedo shoots first, Hayden Christensen replacing Sebastian Shaw in “Return of the Jedi,” the terrible, CGI-driven rock number in Jabba’s palace, etc. etc.  On the other hand, there are some genuine improvements here.  I’ve always enjoyed some of the cosmetic changes, like the removal of garbage mattes, the additional scenery in Cloud City, etc.  Not only do these changes add scope to the universe, but they also make the films more fit for high-definition (while some of the obtrusive CGI bits, like Jabba in Episode IV, look terrible now that the resolution is so much higher).  I even enjoy some of the more substantive changes, like the alternate ending to “Return of the Jedi” where instead of the Ewok song, we get a beautiful John Williams composition. 

At the end of the day, I probably prefer the original theatrical editions, but they aren’t on this set, and I don’t think we’ll see them presented in decent quality during Lucas’ lifetime.  And I’ve finally come to grips with that.  As much as I would love to see Han shoot first in HD, as much as the theatrical editions deserve a spot on this set, I know that just isn’t happening.  Han hasn’t shot first in fourteen years, ever since 1997, and while I wouldn’t begrudge a single Star Wars fan for skipping this set due to the changes, I’m at a point where I just don’t care anymore.  Star Wars is Star Wars, no matter which version one is watching.  On balance, each movie in the trilogy is still recognizably the movie we know and love, and though there are irksome moments, they total to a very minor fraction of the running time, and even then, there are plenty of improvements to balance those out.  I’d much rather give in, suffer through brief moments of annoyance, and enjoy the films in pristine high-definition than be forced to watch my non-anamorphic, laserdisc-quality theatrical transfers for years to come.

So I’m not going to spend much of these disc-by-disc reviews focusing on the alterations; I’ll certainly note any new, major changes that I spot, and I invite readers to discuss these in the comments, but I’m not going to give “A New Hope” a lower letter grade because Greedo still shoots first, nor will I let the changes impact my overall impression of the set.  These are the versions we’re getting, whether we like it or not, and since we’re all fully aware of that, there’s no reason to keep complaining while reviewing the discs.

I’m very excited to embark on this adventure.  I’ve never watched the entire ‘saga’ in George’s preferred running order – I through VI – and that will be another interesting aspect to touch upon in addition to discussing the A/V quality, extras, commentaries, etc.  It’s an exciting time to be a Star Wars fan, and I can’t wait to get started reviewing these discs in greater depth.  Come back tomorrow for my review of Disc 1 – “The Phantom Menace” – and check out this week’s Monthly Ten Podcast for more Star Wars mania with myself and Sean Chapman.  

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