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DVD Review: Star Wars Trilogy

By Glenn Abel

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photo "Always in motion is the future," Yoda says.

Words to live by for George Lucas, lord and master of the "Star Wars" universe. With the hugely anticipated DVD debut of "The Star Wars Trilogy," Lucas unveils version 3.0 of his beloved Luke Skywalker films, already reimagined in 1997 as the hotly debated "Special Editions."

Lucas wields his artist's rights like a lightsaber. All three films are given digital nips and tucks affecting visuals, audio and story line. For purists demanding release of the original theatrical version, there's plenty of provocation; the Internet roils at this very moment with fan commentary, much of it predictably negative.

Let the debates rage. The rest of us will celebrate the return of Skywalker and pals in intriguing reference-quality discs that eclipse all previous video incarnations.

Lucas' changes help bring the films into alignment with their (newer) prequels. They are, for the most part, pleasing and harmless CG upgrades. In a few cases, actors from the current arc are subtly inserted into the older films. Most viewers will enjoy the little surprises planted along the way -- but maybe not the major one at the end of the third film.

The widely discounted DVD boxed set lists for $69.98. It contains "A New Hope" (1977), "The Empire Strikes Back" (1980) and "Return of the Jedi" (1983). The films appear on single discs whose only extras are commentary tracks; a fourth DVD hauls the bonus materials. Packaging is nothing special, borderline skimpy. The movies are letterboxed widescreen (2.35:1), but Fox also is selling full-screen versions.

The first three "Star Wars" films were victims of their popularity, with the original elements taking quite a beating over the years, the restorers report. The job involved cleaning up something like 100 pieces of debris per frame. Amazingly, the wear has vanished. All of it. These look and sound like new films.

Visuals are bright and bold. Contrasts run high -- Darth Vader's helmet is as black as his heart -- and the colors appear oversaturated at times. It's a handsome look with plenty of pop -- but one that takes getting used to. The 1997 laserdiscs look soft, murky and artifact-riddled by comparison.

The Dolby 5.1 EX audio makes consistent use of the rear-center speaker (for a change), but the audio mix just isn't on par with the visuals, especially on "New Hope." The mix is obvious and light on ambient effects. Dialogue can be muffled, and the volume drifts now and then. (No DTS to the rescue.) John Williams fans will suffer a disappointment in the first Death Star battle scene, as his score gets a downgrade in the new mix.

The movie discs rotate three elaborate animated menus that slow access but add class to your navigation chores. An Easter egg unveils a gag reel; think student film.

Kevin Burns' 2 1/2-hour documentary "Empire of Dreams: The Story of the Star Wars Trilogy" anchors the features. The film's sole point of view appears to be the greatness of George Lucas. Burns says he enjoyed editorial freedom, but the docu plays like an endless making-of featurette as it recounts Lucas' struggles and triumphs. ("It's hard to remember a time before 'Star Wars,' the narrator intones at the beginning.) A curious decision to let the film drag on so, given the DVD medium's many interactive possibilities.

Still, "Dreams" has plenty to offer even casual fans. Burns landed interviews with virtually all of the key talent, executives and craftsmen. At every turn, there are rare photos, concept sketches, outtakes or candid clips. (No outtakes are included in the extras, unfortunately; there are more glimpses in the trailers.)

Some of the docu's best material comes as it details Lucas' battles with the studio system. Alan Ladd Jr., who championed the first film as head of production at Fox, is humble and candid as he sorts out the corporate history.

"I just believed in him," Ladd says of the young director with the weird science-fiction project. "He was a genius."

Just after Lucas signed, "American Graffiti" was released and became a sensation. He clearly was in position to get a new deal for directing "The Star Wars." Instead of more money, he wanted the rights to any sequels. (The movie, after all, was only the first act of his script concerning the adventures of "Luke Starkiller.")

"I was working under the assumption that the film would be a disaster and it wouldn't be promoted and it would die a horrible death," Lucas said, playing the usual odds. He also grabbed the merchandising rights, considered insignificant by the studio.

"He was enormously foresighted, and the studio wasn't," recalls former Fox production executive Gareth Wigan. "They didn't know the world was changing. George did ... and he changed it."

Of the entertainment empire Lucas built with the "Star Wars" fortune, the director notes a "certain irony" linked to his Darth Vader character: "I've become the very thing that I was trying to avoid -- which is part of what 'Star Wars' is about."

Lucas finds time to do feature-length commentaries for all three films, a generous move. He's joined by sound designer Ben Burtt and visual effects chief Dennis Muren. Irvin Kurshner pops up on "Empire" to discuss his work as director of the series' best film. The commentators were recorded separately and are helpfully identified by onscreen titles.

Dry and delightful, actress Carrie Fisher works the commentaries and the documentary, adding some zip to the parade of gray beards. She recalls being sent to a fat farm for her role as the princess, then squeezing into a slave girl's outfit to kill the giant blubbery puppet Jabba the Hutt. "That was a giant relief. He was an unpleasant thing." As for "Star Wars" mania: "You're not really famous until you're on a Pez dispenser."

The documentary rolls out terrific black-and-white auditions footage. After seeing clips of Cindy Williams and Terri Nunn render the princess as a space cadet, it's easy to see why Hollywood royalty Fisher got the job. Kurt Russell does a decent Han Solo, but Harrison Ford clearly took command of the role while feeding lines to tryouts.

Three snappy featurettes cover the evolution of the Jedi knights' lightsabers (a huge technical problem early on), development of the "Star Wars" characters (Luke was a little person at one point; a 60-year-old general at another) and the series' legacy (James Cameron, Ridley Scott and Peter Jackson discuss the films' influence on their work, especially the concept of a "used future").

A nine-minute preview of the third prequel features shots of Hayden Christensen donning the Darth Vader helmet -- a sight sure to terrorize the fan boys.

Glenn Abel is Executive Editor, Electronic, at The Hollywood Reporter

Reprinted, with permission, from The Hollywood Reporter

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