NOTE: The top screenshots are from the 'special edition' on disc one and the screenshots on the bottom are from the 'theatrical cut' on disc two. They might not match up perfectly but they serve the purpose of showing the difference in quality between the two discs contained in this set.
In 1977 George Lucas had the novel idea of basically setting the old serials/adventure stories that kids enjoyed years before and placing one in outer space. The film that came out of this idea was, as we all know, Star Wars and with it, George Lucas made history. Ever since then Star Wars has been less of a blockbuster film than a part of the world's pop culture psyche. Everyone in the modern world knows what Star Wars is – they can't help it. It's everywhere around us, from movies to video games to comic books to toys to clothes to any kind of spin-off or merchandising tie in you can imagine. There are fan conventions, online communities, costume contest and even plenty of Star Wars tattoos around – people take the film and it's sequels/prequels very seriously and it stands as the most successful science fiction film franchise of all time, bar none.
So why then, since making history in 1977, has George Lucas been constantly re-writing it? Well, in his defense, these are his films and so he is free to do what he wants with them. That being said, the fans are what made the series the success that it is and what the fans wanted was not the versions of the movies that Lucas has altered to suit his current vision but the theatrical cuts that we all fell in love with in the first place. When the original trilogy was released as a deluxe boxed set two years ago, Lucas said that the 'special editions' (referring to the altered versions of the three original films in the series) were all that we'd ever see again. Fans bought it regardless, Lucas made a bunch of money off of it, and now – surprise surprise – he's given us the option of re-buying the 'special edition' films as single releases (two discs each) to get the original theatrical versions that he should have released in the first place.
Why the change of heart? Only he knows for sure. Granted, no one is forcing us to buy these but the fact that since the advent of DVD technology there have been countless bootlegs of the original theatrical versions making the rounds (some sourced from the laserdiscs, others from VHS tapes) what probably happened is that Lucas decided to make some of that money back for himself with the least amount of effort possible. IF this were being done 'for the fans' then the issues with the audio and video quality on the theatrical cuts (see below) wouldn't be issues at all. If Lucas cared about those who have made him a wealth and powerful figure in Hollywood he'd have done the set right the first time and not pulled a fast one on the Star Wars faithful by dumping out rather unimpressive versions of the theatrical cuts he had previously said we'd never see again. Don't be fooled – this is not a favor to those who have helped Star Wars become the phenomena that it is, this is a cash grab. Lucas wants your money and he knows that a lot of you will give it to him.
With that said, Star Wars is a great film. Not a masterpiece in the same way that something like Citizen Kane is or The Godfather is but for pure, unadulterated action/sci-fi entertainment the first film to debut in the franchise holds up really well almost thirty years since it was born. Luke might be a little too corn-poke for his on good in some scenes and some of Leia's dialogue is a little tough to swallow but there's no denying the sheer coolness of Han Solo and Chewbacca and Darth Vader is still one of the greatest cinematic bad guys of all time. Peter Cushing and Alec Guiness bring a whole lot of class and charm to the film and their experience and professionalism gives Grand Moff Tarkin and Obi-Wan Kenobi some genuinely impressive screen presence while Anthony Daniels and Kenny Baker do a fine job of providing the comic relief in the form of C-3P0 and R2-D2 respectively – the Abbott and Costello or Laurel and Hardy of outer space. When the Death Star blows up that first planet it's still shocking even if we know it's all going to work out in the end and the cantina scene that takes place on Tattooine is still fantastic with more alien creatures in it than you can shake a stick at. We can still snicker when Obi-Wan tells the Stormtroopers that 'these are not the droids you're looking for' and we can still get a little misty eyed when Darth Vader strikes him down.
The action and adventure is still rich and exciting, the heroes are still likeable and the villains are still sinister. The outer space battles and chase scenes remain exciting and the film is one of those rare movies that is literally fun for the whole family – you can watch it with your kids and your grandparents in the same room and it's almost a sure thing that everyone will get a kick out of it. One of the most beloved space epics of all time and a cultural behemoth was born with this film, it's difficult not to love it particularly if you grew up on the material as so many of us did.
The crass exploitation of the film movie and its fans does not take too much away from the enjoyment that Star Wars still offers those who love a good adventure story. It might hurt to see a part of your childhood that you do sincerely love used in commercials and merchandising tie-in's at fast food restaurants or reissued in various home video formats over again but when the opening scrawl tells us about that 'It is a period of civil war' the nostalgia and fun do come rushing back, particularly when Han shoots first.
The question lies not in whether or not you should fork out the cash for the original theatrical cut of Star Wars, but when you should. Having already lied about making these films available one has to wonder if next year, just in time for the thirtieth anniversary of the film, if we won't see a proper release. Though there's been no official announcement Lucas' track record indicates that at some point there will be yet another release, possibly a boxed set of all six films with the theatrical cuts of the original trilogy included – who knows. This release, along with the releases of The Empire Strikes Back and Return Of The Jedi are supposedly going to be available for a limited time only – if you don't get them know you run the risk of not owning the original cuts on DVD (or having to make do with the bootleg releases which isn't ideal at all). On the other hand, if you buy them, you run the risk of having to (or at least wanting to) upgrade down the road if and when proper releases emerge. With that in mind, what is the consumer to do? It's a fairly underhanded marketing strategy designed to milk Star Wars fandom for all its worth and obviously it all comes down to personal choice and how bad you want the original cut of the film. You've also got to take into account the technical specifications of the presentation, and with that in mind…
NOTE: For the record, the 'star ratings' to the right of this review reflect the second disc which contains the original theatrical cut of Star Wars, the reasoning behind this being that the inclusion of this version is really the only reason anyone is interested in it in the first place, which is why that version of the movie is not being included in the Extras section of this review.
The 'special edition' of Star Wars contained in this two-disc set utilizes what is essentially the same transfer that was included in the boxed set release from two years ago, which is fine as it looks great. We already know that it's a fantastic transfer and that some would even go so far as to call it reference quality. It's been painstakingly cleaned up, it's got a lot of really nice fine detail in both the foreground and the background of the image and the color reproduction is gorgeous. Going into any more detail would be redundant – the tinkered with version of the movie looks great.
So what about the theatrical version? In a nutshell, it's not bad for what it is, but unfortunately what it is happens to basically be the laserdisc slapped onto DVD. The image is presented in its original widescreen aspect ratio of 2.35.1 but no one has seen fit to give it anamorphic enhancement, which, to a lot of us, is a very big deal. Let the record show that the movie is perfectly watchable here but the differences between the loving restoration afforded the 'special edition' version compared to the theatrical cut is definitely very, very noticeable.
Going into a bit more detail, the first thing that you're likely to notice is the grain. While it's all but been completely removed on disc one, on disc two it is very noticeable. Some scenes suffer from this more than others do, but one need only to look at the scene where the Millennium Falcon takes off from Tattooine to see it in all its glory. The colors are also fairly uneven. Some scenes are pretty bright, others look flat and almost dead in spots.
The amount of grain coupled with the lower resolution stemming from the non-anamorphic transfer directly results in a significantly less detailed picture. Depending on how large your set up is, results are obviously going to vary a fair bit. For comparisons sake, the disc was sampled on a 20" set, a 32" flat screen tube set and a 78" screen by way of a projector and – though this should go without saying – the flaws were definitely more noticeable on the larger sets than the smaller ones, particularly the print damage and the over saturated reds in a few scenes. It's never overpowering and the movie is watchable even on a larger display but the fact of the matter is that this version of this movie deserved better than this. The video quality is okay, when really it should have been as good if not better than the 'special edition' version. These transfers were fine in the laserdisc days, but those are long gone and by today's standards they are just not up to where they should be.
The 'special edition' of Star Wars on disc one has a fantastic Dolby Digital 5.1 EX Surround Sound mix in English and Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround mixes in English, French and Spanish with optional subtitles available in English. The 5.1 mix is very active and makes excellent use of all channels. The subwoofer gets some serious action during the combat and space battle scenes although there are a few spots where the dialogue fluctuates a little bit. Even with that said, this is still a nice mix, even if it isn't quite perfect.
One disc two, the theatrical version of Star Wars contains Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround mixes in English, French and Spanish with optional English subtitles. The same fluctuations in the dialogue that are on the first disc are here as well though they don't seem to be as pronounced. There's some nice channel separation contained throughout and even with the ups and downs of the dialogue there aren't any problems understanding what anyone says at any given time. A true surround sound mix would have been nice to see here, but again, this is basically the laserdisc on DVD and in defense of Fox/Lucas, it's close to the original mix that played in theaters decades ago - so flaws or not, that's a good thing.
The first disc, which represents the 'special edition' of Star Wars contains only the audio commentary that was provided on the last DVD release that came out via the boxed set release in September of 2004. The participants on the track include George Lucas, Ben Burtt, Dennis Muren, and Carrie Fisher and if you haven't heard it, it's a pretty decent discussion even if you can tell that they weren't all sitting in a room together and were likely recorded completely separately from one another. Regardless, their collective comments have been edited together quite nicely and we do get a well-rounded talk about the history of the film, what it was like on set, where some of the location shooting was done and how some of the effects were pulled off. Lucas has a bit more to say than anyone else, which makes sense as this really was his baby from the start (whether we like it or not!) and what you get out of this track will directly relate to your tolerance for the man. There isn't a whole lot of enthusiasm to be found in his comments, and that can be a bit off putting. One can't help but be left thinking that the commentary could have been stronger than it is, but on the flip side, it could have been a lot worse. There's also a web-link included here for those who care to put the disc into their DVD-Rom and be whisked away to the official Star Wars website.
The only extra feature included on the second disc which houses the theatrical cut of the film is a playable demo and a trailer for Lego Star Wars II game, which admittedly looks very cool but is nothing more than an advertisement. Aside from that we get chapter stops and a menu screen. It might irritate some to learn that the menus for the theatrical version don't match those designed for the special editions and the three prequels and oddly enough, though the feature isn't anamorphic the menus are. Figure that one out, kids.
Inside the packaging is an insert that contains chapter stops for both discs and some nice artwork from the movie in addition to an advertisement for other Star Wars DVDs.
It's hard to recommend a release like this when it seems like such an obvious cash grab. Granted, by non-anamorphic standards the unaltered Star Wars doesn't look bad here but there's no excuse for the lack of enhancement on such a popular and important film and the fact that fans are pretty much being forced to re-buy the 'special edition' version of the film in order to get the theatrical cut is, quite frankly, lame. Unless you're a completist, rent it.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.