Few, if any, cinematic franchises inspire the intense extremes of love and hate in their fans as those instigated by George Lucas’ Star Wars saga, a series of films so popular and beloved they are now known as much for the conflicts between their maker and his audience as they are for their own intrinsic merits. The first three movies in the trilogy (Star Wars —1977, The Empire Strikes Back — 1980 and Return of the Jedi — 1983) were massively popular space operas more or less wholeheartedly embraced by the fans (older viewers’ complaints about the cuddly Ewoks aside). When Lucas, the director of the first film and writer/executive producer of all three, revisited the trilogy in the 1990s to create “special editions,” he encountered a little resistance from fans who disapproved of new scenes and digital enhancements, but, for the most part, his relationship with the Comic-con crowd remained intact.
Then, in 1999, Lucas released The Phantom Menace, the first in a series of three prequels that would become highly controversial among Star Wars disciples. Though Phantom Menace and its follow-ups, 2002’s Attack of the Clones and 2005’s Revenge of the Sith, were commercially successful, the new age of internet message boards and bloggers led to a torrent of criticism aimed at Lucas, criticism that took an oddly personal tone. New characters such as Jar Jar Binks and an emphasis on adolescent romance as a motivating factor in Darth Vader’s conversion to the dark side led to cries Lucas was tampering with his fans’ childhood memories — never mind that a new generation of children was delighting in the elaborate new adventures facilitated by advances in digital technology and that both the visual style and the themes of the series became richer, deeper and more fully realized.
The controversy, which has already inspired at least one feature-length documentary (The People vs. George Lucas), has now reached a fever pitch with the Blu-ray release of the entire Star Wars series, thanks to Lucas’ continued fiddling with the movies. Unwilling to leave well enough alone, the director has tinkered not only with sound and visual effects (cleaning up some images and completely overhauling others), but also, in one now-famous instance (Darth Vader yelling “no!” during a key moment in Return of the Jedi), altered actual dialogue. To this viewer, some changes, such as replacing the puppet Yoda of The Phantom Menace with the digital version from later films, are improvements, but others are pointless, at best, and irritating, at worst. Lucas should have followed the Francis Coppola model (evident on the superlative Apocalypse Now Blu-ray) of making the original versions available concurrently with the revisions, given the extremely valid point that, as some viewers say, the films no longer belong to Lucas once they are out in the world.
That said, while the merits and flaws of Lucas’s revisions are highly debatable, the opportunity to view beautiful hi-def transfers of all six films in order brings the astonishing strengths of the series into sharp relief. Every one of the movies has aged extremely well, and not just because of the director’s recurring technical upgrades — the sheer excellence of the storytelling on both a visual and literary level is awe-inspiring when watching the movies back to back in a compressed period of time. Minor details in one film pay huge dramatic dividends three or even four films later, and the prequels pull off the unique trick of propelling the story forward and reflecting backward at the same time. The ways in which the final three films (which are the first three stories) seem to exist in two temporal spaces at once is a narrative trick worthy of the best of Jean-Luc Godard, yet Lucas pulls it off in a rousing piece of accessible mass entertainment.
Visually, the series is nothing short of one of the greatest achievements in cinema history. Each of the first three films was photographed by a different cinematographer, and each brought a different sensibility to the story: Gilbert Taylor, BSC, adopted a relatively realistic approach to the first film, an approach reminiscent of that in Lucas’American Graffiti (substituting spaceships for hot rods and the planet Tatooine for Modesto, Calif.); Peter Suchitzky, ASC, BSC, created a sharper, more symmetrically designed world for The Empire Strikes Back; and Alan Hume, BSC, used deep blacks and lush greens to close out the initial trilogy in Return of the Jedi. Suschitzky’s work is perhaps the most expressive as his reliance on diffusion and bounce light gave The Empire Strikes Back a graceful, elegant look that elevates the already Shakespearean sense of heightened drama at the core of the film’s relationships.
The three prequels were all photographed by David Tattersall, BSC, and have a greater consistency of style and tone than the original trilogy. The final two films were among the first major studio releases to be shot in high-definition, and liberated by digital technology in terms of both effects and photography, Tattersall brought the potential of Lucas’ imagination to its full visual fruition. The environments are densely populated with a seemingly infinite array of details; the palette is astonishingly broad and vivid, and the widescreen compositions are precise and beautiful. The Blu-ray transfers are fully worthy of the wide range of colors and tones not only in Tattersall’s work, but also across the series, and the uncompressed 6.1 mixes across the discs are flawless in their clarity, power and separation. Those who are looking for the perfect reference discs to show off surround systems need look no further.
Star Wars fans can justifiably balk at many of Lucas’s changes to the films themselves, but only the most hardened purist will be able to resist the plethora of extra features the Blu-ray box serves up. All six films have two commentary tracks, one carried over from prior DVDs and one new to this edition, and they provide fascinating observations and insights from Lucas, his actors, special-effects technicians and other crew members (though, disappointingly, none from the camera department). Then there are the three bonus discs, which comprise a marvelously thorough Star Wars archive. More than two hours of interviews with principal collaborators on all six films (Some of this material overlaps with the commentary tracks.) are included, as are a little more than an hour and a half of deleted scenes and four-and-a-half hours of “collections” that consist of designs with commentary by their creators. The disc also contains several vintage documentaries: the 49-minute The Making of Star Wars; The Empire Strikes Back: SPFX (48 minutes); Classic Creatures: Return of the Jedi (48 minutes); Anatomy of a Dewback (26 minutes); the feature-length Star Warriors and Star Wars Tech (46 minutes). A brand new 25-minute piece on The Empire Strikes Back contains interviews with Lucas, Irvin Kershner, Lawrence Kasdan and John Williams, and the set finishes off with 97 minutes of hilarious Star Wars spoofs ranging from Saturday Night Live and The Daily Show skits to homemade fan tributes.