Updated today after watching the Disc 1...
Disc 1 - Episode IV: A New Hope
It's A New Hope. Sitting and watching the movie from start to finish without interuption was a real treat and something I haven't done in a long time. If you're a purist, you'll still hate the SE changes. This is still the Special Edition, with further changes, all which have been discussed to death. Jabba has been updated, Han and Greedo now shoot kind-sorta simultaneously, the CG 3P0 model has been update on the Mos Eisley approach, the Vader and Ben duel has new lightsaber effects, and the Dianoga now has eyelids. Sure, it's not frame for frame what we all saw in theaters 25 years ago, but I have to just say, after watching this version, and remembering how much I like the STORY and the CHARACTERS, this is still the same story, the same characters. This movie is still great. So let it go.
Video - 5/5
Seeing and dreading the many changes that have leaked across the web I had a very negative outlook on how this movie was going to perform. There's been issues with saber color, new CG changes, and the like.† The good news is this disc looks so good, so much better than it has ever been presented, that those issues fall aside. Quickly.
It's obvious from the moment you see the interior corridors of the Tantive. The walls are vibrantly white. The Fleet Troopers have natural skin tones. You notice definition in the walls, actors skin, buttons on the walls; everywhere there is detail. And nowhere is the ever print damage, dirt, or speckles. It is like watching a new movie. The previous SE laserdisc realease, and the OT laserdisc release before it do not even compare. You'll be shocked by a sense of accuracy in color and detail. It's a revelation. You now see texture in Obi-Wan's brown cloak and you clearly see that his inner robe is tattered, smudged, and worn. R2's dome doesn't just look metallic, but the blue patches on it are clearly blue, and there are scratch marks and wear visible on his dome. You can see creases in Carrie Fisher's hand as she interacts with R2. There are rarely, if ever, hints of MPEG-2 artifacting, even in the early Tatooine desert scenes with moving sand.
The new restoration has brought out flaws that were previously masked, most noticable the first shot of Luke's lightsaber aboard the Falcon. It appears obviously green. In subsequent shots, it returns to a washed-out aqua color. While the Vader and Ben duel has newly redone saber effects that work perfectly, the earlier shots now look more dated and actually even broken by the process that has otherwise made enourmous improvements to the picture quality.
Audio - 4/5
Again, a major suprise. The audio has been remixed in Dolby Digital 5.1 EX. This is not a direct port of the 5.1 mixed used for the theatrical SE release or the subsequent laserdisc AC3 track. This is a newly created mix built from the ground up using the original sfx stems, voice tracks, and multichannel music masters. Considering the wreck that has been made of the PT audio (heavy on sound fx, and William's score pushed to the back) this new track's creation was cause for major concern. However, it's turned out brilliantly.
William's score soars with as much power as ever before, but this time with an increased clarity and subtle nuances allowed for by both the remix and the increased data rate of the Dolby track, which is at 448kbs. I heard new fidelity in the performance that isn't even clearly defined in the SE soundtrack releases from 1997.
Dialog no longer sounds "tinny" on the new mix. To those familiar with the soundtrack of ANH compared with ESB and Jedi, the dialog was mixed excessively bandwidth-compressed, which limited low and high range frequencies in the dialog tracks to account for limited performance of theater speaker systems of the time. This was most noticable in Vader's voiceover, which often had a shrill sound to it and lacked the resonance of James Earl Jones' booming voice that becomes to powerful in the later movies. The great news is that dialog is now clear and robust for all the actors' lines, although you do hear varying degrees of quality and inconsistency, but overall it's a major improvement. Vader, most importantly, sounds competitive with the later recordings for ESB and Jedi. I'm thrilled with the improvement.
The sound effects are remixed as well, and there is a minor, but noticable improvement in directionality across the front soundstage, and solid and unobtrusive use of surrounds. What is important to note with this new mix, especially in comparison with the SE 5.1 track, is that it has been freed of many of the gimmicks that were added in 1997. The LFE channel has been freed up of the rediculous overuse and emphasis and instead is used sparingly and appropriatly. The rear channels and ambiance without distracting from the events on-screen, which wasn't the case before. Again, a wonderful surpise.
There are some additions that purists will freak out over, however. There have been a few additions to the soundtrack. For example, a quiet, tiny "thunk" can be heard when the Stormtrooper bonks his head on the door to the command center in the Death Star. To those purists, this may be blasphmesy, but in context of the scene, and how subtley it was used, I found it perfectly acceptable.
Supplements - Audio Commentary
The audio commentary for ANH includes George Lucas, Ben Burtt, Dennis Muren, and Carrie Fisher. A majority of the track is Lucas, who spends most of his time discussing the process of developing his characters, the construction and meaning of his themes, and his underlying inspiration for the choices he made. He rarely goes into technical detail on the film or other issues. It's interesting that someone so asscciated with technology and accused as of late of being bereft of storytelling ability and character, speaks so elloquently about the character and story direction of this movie. It's a good listen. Carrie Fisher chimes in rarely, mostly discussing the actor's perspective during the shoot, but is mostly silent. Ben Burtt covers his sound effects development with some minor interest. Muren chimes in occasionally with some FX information that's common knowledge to SW fans. The track is about 90% Lucas, 10% Fisher/Burtt/Muren.
Disc 4 - Bonus Material
The supplemental disc includes several mini-documentaries as well as a 10 minute featurette on Episode 3, which mostly revolves around the creation of the new Vader costume for the movie. While all interesting in their own way, none can compare to the chief feature, which I want to give a description of in detail. I love this documentary!
Empire of Dreams
This new docu is the emphasis of the supplemental disc. Itís out and out the best documentary on Star Wars ever made. Free of ego-messaging compliments and full of honest commentary and recollections on the development, preproduction and release of all three movies (with most emphasis placed on A New Hope) thereís information and footage that even the most studious of Star Wars scholars will find fascinating.
Modern interviews range the entirety of cast, crew, and studio, including Howard Kazanjian, Irvin Kirchner, Alan Ladd, Jr., Ralph McQuarrie, Norman Reynolds, Robert Watts, Peter Diamond, Paul Hirsch, Phil Tippet, John Williams, Gary Kurtz, Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, James Earl Jones, Carrie Fisher, and so on. Thereís so many faces itís impossible to list. Just the fact that people long alienated from the Lucas camp make appearances is a thrill in itself.
They all share their experiences, good or bad, with an honesty and candidness rarely seen and presented for public consumption. Alan Ladd shares his fears of being fired for defending the movie by Fox. Hamill, Ford, and Fisher offer opinions on Lucasís direction to actors. Thereís tales of studio intervention and bad ideas during panic moments. Lucas speaks about his own hypertension diagnosis during post production. Gary Kurtz illustrates his influence in putting concepts like the Force on-screen, even while creating turbulence with the director. Itís all laid out in detail and refreshing frankness.
Best of all, we finally get THE ORIGINAL TITLE CRAWL, minus the ďEpisode IV: A New HopeĒ addition.
The doc starts with George Lucasís history and build up to the eventual start of filming on Star Wars. We get extended glimpses of the original student film THX-1138. A laymanís explanation of Joseph Campbell, and Lucasís ties to his ideas in storytelling are detailed. His friends and teachers at USC speak of his work mentality. The backstory of American Graffiti illustrates how Lucas came together with many of the folks that helped make Star Wars a success, including Gary Kurtz. Along the way, weíre shown some truly rare images - Snapshots of his handwritten ďThe Star WarsĒ May 1973 story treatment. Lucasís sequel rights retention and salary contracts on the film.
Weíre taken through the pitching of the movie to studios and Foxís eventual greenlight. We learn about the creation of ILM, and see photos and home video of their start-up LA offices circa 1975-76. Joe Johnston, Steve Gawly, Lorne Peterson, Dennis Muren, Richard Edlund, John Dykstra, and Ken Ralston all offer on-camera insights.†
The casting of the movie is shown and detailed in much greater depth than even the Behind the Magic CD-ROM did.† Newly released screen tests of Kurt Russell as Han Solo with William Katt (Greatest American Hero) as Luke Skywalker are presented. Terri Nunn, Cindy Williams, and Carrie Fisher test as Leia with Ford.† Previously released screen tests of Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher are also include, in less edited form than the CD-ROM. There are also reflections on the screen tests by the actors. Fisher discusses being requested to attend a fat farm to lose 10 pounds prior to filming. We later get thoughts from the English cast with new Peter Mayhew, Kenny Baker, and Anthony Daniels interviews. Vintage footage of R2 tests with Baker inside is included. Daniels reminisces on how he took the job by seeing a McQ painting. Fantastic stuff.
We are taken to the shoot in Tunisia through behind the scenes footage, most of it never released before. Youíll see shots of Stormtroopers, 3P0, and Tuskens partially in costume during rehearsals, the struggle with the desert heat, operation of the droid props, a smiling and cheerful Alec Guinness, shots from Mos Eisely with the original on-set audio (you can hear the truck pulling the landspeeder and the voices of the stormtrooper stuntment). Iím so happy to finally see some meat and potatoes behind the scenes peeks!
Afterward, weíre taken to Elstree Studios in London. Youíll hear Chewbacca speak in English during a scene, saying ďthe old manís mad!Ē Candid discussions of the problems working with British union crews, problems with morale, problems with cameramenís pride, disappointment with the cantina aliens, joking around on set in the Death Star, performing the chasm swing, b-roll of the Ben/Vader duel are all revealed.
Much of all this overwhelming information is presented with clips from the movie often of alternate takes of well known scenes. Leiaís comments on the Imperials after the destruction of Alderaan and Benís comments to Vader before their duel are revealed to have been trimmed from the movie. The docu is so full of information that fun revelations such as these are not even discussed, but simply there for our consumption.†
We follow the filmís development as the crew splits into three units to finish the film on time. They run late and miss their intended Christmas release. Thereís shock of the bad first assembly. Lucas discusses being unhappy with the editor, the re-editing the film himself, and then the hiring new editors while bringing Marsha Lucas. New interviews with Richard Chew, commenting on the task of bringing more excitement to the pace of the movie add insight. Hints of plenty of tricks done in editing, including looping the Tuskenís raging gaffi stick shake, are shown.
We are treated to lots of footage of the FX crew, as the scramble to get their work done, under pressure and scrutiny after half of their FX budget is wasted on unusable footage.
At one point, a side by side comparison of the animatic footage Lucas provided of WW2 dogfights, and how they match up almost shot for shot, reveal how creative a process Lucas and his team pioneered. This is all done without ever proclaiming anything ďpioneeringĒ and you are left to make that call for yourself.†
Sound design with Ben Burtt comes next. Vintage footage of him recording in the field is shown, while he describes sources that make up the composite sound effects. Origins and techniques for doing R2ís effects, which includes electronic synthesizers and human vocal performances are mentioned. Thereís creating Vaderís breathing. Casting James Earl Jones. Amusing David Prowse performances on-set contrasting the voice we know with the voice the actors heard. Discussions of the alternate voice actors who auditioned for 3P0ís aborted voice replacement.
The private screening for Lucasís friends. Steven Spielberg discuss their reactions to the rough, unfinished film.
The John Williams score is documented from his introduction to Lucas through Steven Speilberg. Their working relationship is described in terms of emotional anchoring to the characters. Footage is shown of the LSO recording in 1977.
The marketing of A New Hope is featured. Even the original trailer is brought up. We hear accounts of the comic show connections with sci-fi fans, the development of comics, novels, and merchandising tie-ins. We hear the disappointed of theaterís lack of interest in showing the movie and their guerilla tactics in winning peopleís attention. The cast and crew then recounts their reaction to the finished film and the ensuing popularity, before the doc spins into its account of the sequel developments.
For us, there's a good, yet small section on the figures, with a couple edits of Kenner commercials and discussion on the Early Bird set and licensing the toys in general.
This is the portion of the documentary that is slated to appear on A&E this weekend. Iíll get back with more on the second hour and a quarter of the doc (if this hasnít bored you all to tears) soon.
Add in as much detail on this movie as dedicated to ANH, and interviews with Lawrence Kasdan, Frank Oz, Stuart Freeborn, Billy Dee Williams, and you get an idea how cool this is. There seems to be an abundance of footage of much greater detail than the ANH section. Lots of Yoda shooting, Norway, and Elstree. More unifinished FX shots and extra snippets. Great Dagobah outtakes; for example, Mark Hamill: "Owww! He ******' bit me!"
A blooper reel is hidden on the 4th disc. If you have direct title access with your player, it's title 18.