Star Wars appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Alterations like extra scenes and new effects weren’t the only changes made for the new edition of Star Wars, as Lucas et al. tampered with many visual and auditory elements of the movie. These made the film a different experience than the one originally presented in 1977, but whether or not that harm that experience will remain up to the individual.
For the most part, my comments on picture and audio will concentrate on my reactions to what I saw and heard, not on my reactions to what went missing or what was altered. A few notable exceptions will arise, particularly in the auditory section, but the folks behind these DVDs never claimed they would accurately represent the original presentation of the movie. On the contrary, they’ve gone out of their way to let us know not to anticipate the same Star Wars seen 27 years ago.
Because of that, it seems pointless to criticize the quality of the product because it’s different. Do I dislike a lot of the changes and wish we could get the original flick? Definitely, but it’s my role to evaluate the current DVD as objectively as possible. In that realm, criticizing it for changes becomes pointless. I’ll leave my editorial comments about the alterations to the body of the review and only remark on what I interpret as mistakes here, though even that area turns controversial; Lucasfilm has already pooh-poohed what I and other fans discern as errors to be “choices” on their part. I get the feeling that the DVDs could have accidentally come with no audio whatsoever and Lucas would claim that this represents his original vision and was a “choice” for this release.
In any case, matters never seemed remotely that grim, particularly in regard to the absolutely splendid picture quality on display for Star Wars. Whatever one thinks of the alterations, the extremely attractive visuals came as a revelation. From start to finish, sharpness remained rock solid. Not a smidgen of softness crept up during the movie. Instead, it always looked wonderfully concise and well-defined. I noticed no jagged edges or shimmering, and edge enhancement failed to cause any distractions. Even though one might expect source flaws from a 27-year-old movie, this one lacked them, as it consistently came without specks, spots or other defects.
Colors fared marvelously well. This was one visual area that represented the most obvious non-effects-related changes from the original movie. The DVD depicted a notably altered color scheme at times. At least one of these elements had to be a mistake; our first look at Luke’s lightsaber in the training sequence on the Falcon showed it to be green, but it quickly reverted to its normal white. Others came as clear alterations, such as the look of the sunset when a solo R2 wandered through the jawas’ barren domain.
Whether altered or original, the hues came across as terrific. They always presented lively and vivid tones and never depicted a hint of problems. Even the red lighting in the trash compactor appeared clear and tight. Blacks also looked terrifically deep and firm, while low-light shots brought us smooth and neatly delineated images. I liked this transfer so much that I almost gave it an “A+”. It just slightly fell short of that level as it easily earned an “A”.
More substantial concerns affected the Dolby Digital EX 5.1 soundtrack of Star Wars, though it remained very good for a movie from 1977. Actually, one can quibble with my decision to grade it compared to other flicks from its era, since it received a substantial overhaul for modern editions of the film. Nonetheless, more than enough of the original audio remained for me to look at it in the context of the Seventies.
A lot of the soundtrack presented erratic audio. Speech exemplified these traits. Most of the dialogue resembled the kind of elements expected from a 1977 recording. These pieces were more than intelligible but usually a little flat, and occasional examples of edginess manifested themselves.
However, some of the lines came across as so distinctive that they appeared unnatural. These parts contrasted noticeably with other bits to make the former sound very odd and canned. Examine the scene between Han and Leia after they’ve escaped from the Death Star. Some of her lines sounded substantially livelier than the others and his, which left the clean pieces as the distracting ones.
Another instance has received a lot of attention on other Internet sources. When Tarkin pressured Leia for the location of the Rebel base, many fans have noted that parts of his dialogue suffered a dramatic drop in quality. I re-examined this spot three times and I didn’t discern any radical change. Based on what I’d read, I expected it to sound garbled, but the element in question was consistent with much of the rest of the movie’s speech. Why fans picked out this particular line was a mystery to me, as so much of the dialogue manifested obvious highs and lows.
This may seem like an odd sentiment, but I honestly think they should have gone with the apparently lower quality dialogue for the entire movie. Even at its worst, the lines were always fine for their age, and they never demonstrated significant problems. The inconsistency caused distractions that seemed unnecessary.
John Williams’ score has also received a lot of attention from fans, but I better understand their concerns in that realm. The score demonstrated good stereo imaging across the forward spectrum, but the problem came from the use of the surrounds. For the music, the rear speakers reverse the channels. In other words, if brass emanated from the front right speaker, it should have come from the rear right channel but instead poured out of the rear left.
Lucas may call this issue a “choice” and not a defect, but that’s a lot of hooey. This clearly was an unintentional mistake, as there’s absolutely no sane reason to do it on purpose. The question becomes how much this will affect the individual viewer. I’ll admit that I would never have noticed the switch if I’d not read about it in advance, and even then, I was hard-pressed to discern the problem from my normal listening position. When I focused more on the surrounds, I could hear it, but as I watched the movie, I didn’t notice the flip-flopping at all. The front speakers did the heavy lifting in regard to the score, so the rear channels really didn’t feature the music terribly prominently. At least as I have my speakers balanced, I didn’t encounter any distractions due to the channel-swapping, but clearly other listeners felt differently.
One other commonly-offered complaint did become obvious to me. As the Rebels swooped down on the Death Star, Williams’ fanfare subsided to almost nothing. During this moment of excitement and anticipation, the music should have bolstered the sequence. Instead, it vanished for a few moments and played no role in the proceedings. The score kicked back in reasonably quickly, but for a few moments, its absence distracted me.
Some may chalk up this problem as one that will go noticed only by fans with intimate knowledge of the soundtrack. I disagree. The music dropped off so quickly and radically that it seemed likely to distract most listeners. It wasn’t a subtle change, though it didn’t last for too long.
Despite the various issues connected to the score’s use in the soundfield, the music consistently sounded quite good. Quality varied somewhat, mostly due to the prominence of the score in the movie. When it got placed in the forefront, it seemed bold and dynamic, while sections with lowered volume levels lacked the same punch. Nonetheless, I didn’t encounter any notable problems connected to the quality of the music.
For the effects, the situation reversed itself. The movie used these in a vivid way through its soundfield. While one shouldn’t expect the effects to zoom and dazzle as they would from a modern movie, the soundscape definitely utilized them much more interactively than usual for a film from the Seventies. Since most flicks from that era remained monaural, this wasn’t much of a challenge, but the soundfield still managed to create a distinctive environment.
Not surprisingly, scenes with vehicles fared the best, as ships flew convincingly around the room. General atmospheric elements also helped turn the setting into a vibrant and involving place. At times the bits appeared a little “speaker specific”, but they mostly blended together nicely and got us into the action. The surrounds supported the elements well and added a lot of verve to the proceedings, with occasional stereo imaging in the rears to add some punch.
The effects lost some points for audio quality, however. I felt too much distortion crept into the action, as more than a few bits displayed mildly harsh and rough tones. General clarity was quite good, however. Sometimes the elements came across as mildly flat and thin, but the effects mainly were well-defined. Bass response tried to overcompensate, as low-end tended to be somewhat too loud and boomy. Many scenes packed a nice bass punch, but some rattled my subwoofer to an exaggerated degree, such as when the jawas shot R2 and he fell; his collapse didn’t seem substantial enough to warrant such a massive eruption of the LFE.
Ultimately, despite the mix of flaws, I liked the audio of Star Wars. Could it sound better than it did? Yeah, I thought so, but not due to the state of the original elements. Some of my complaints connected to “improvements” wrought for the new edition of the film, as I doubt the original presented such overemphasized bass. In any case, the soundtrack worked well for the most part and merited a “B+”.
One final auditory footnote: when fans discuss what’s “correct” and not for Star Wars, one must remember that even during its initial release, it boasted a few different sound mixes. Ben Burtt discusses this in the DVD’s commentary, but the fact remains that there never was one “true” soundtrack to Star Wars, and matters didn’t get any less complicated with all the touch-ups applied over the years. Again, I thought some of this DVD’s “choices” were mistakes, but it wasn’t as simple an area as the alterations made to the image, which can more easily be compared to the original product from 1977.
As with the Godfather and Indiana Jones packages, I declined to give an individual supplements grade to any of the three flicks in the Star Wars trilogy. As with the Godfather flicks, some extras pop up on the movie discs, but the vast majority reside on a fourth DVD. Because of this, it doesn’t seem fair to provide a grade for the bonus features on the individual discs; the mark for the final disc will sum up the set as a whole.
When we look at the extras that do reside on the Star Wars DVD, we find an audio commentary with writer/director George Lucas, sound designer Ben Burtt, visual effects supervisor Dennis Muren, and actor Carrie Fisher. All four were taped separately for this edited track.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Lucas dominates the discussion, as he provides a great deal of information about the Star Wars universe and this film in particular. He gets into the roots of the project, its growth and influences, the mythology, and many elements connected to its specific creation. As always, one must take his comments on the subject with a grain of salt; he’s changed his story about Star Wars so many times that I don’t think he even knows the truth about some of its issues. Nonetheless, I think he mostly gets to the heart of things and gives us a nice look at the movie.
The other three help flesh out the piece well. As one might expect, Burtt and Muren focus almost exclusively on sound design and special effects, respectively. They prove to offer useful insight into their work as they relate various facets of what they did for the movie. We hear too little of the always entertaining Fisher. She lets us know a little about her casting and initial interest in the movie as well as her approach to the role and the general mood on the set. Fisher adds some intriguing notes and I hope she chimes in more frequently for the two subsequent commentaries. In any case, this one remains nicely informative and enjoyable; even though I already knew a lot about Star Wars, I learned a fair amount here.
Star Wars also features the THX Optimizer. Also found on many other DVDs, this purports to help you set up your system for the best reproduction of both picture and sound, ala stand-alone programs such as Video Essentials.
Lastly, the disc touts a DVD-ROM weblink. This promises “exclusive Star Wars content”. Unfortunately, this disc acted funky in my drive and I couldn’t access it. Hope you have better luck!
I adored Star Wars as a kid and I’ve yet to find any reason to change that opinion. This version presents more than a few alterations to the original movie, but it still provides the same excitement and freshness that made it a winner 27 years ago. The DVD offers excellent visuals with erratic but mostly positive audio. We also get a very entertaining and informative audio commentary. I love Star Wars and give it a strong recommendation.