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In 1975 when Twentieth Century Fox Executive Alan Ladd green lit Lucas’ Star Wars with a budget of roughly twelve million dollars, the only extra incentive that was given to make up for his low pay check was that Lucas would retain all merchandising rights to the movie and the rights to any future sequels (hell, it was a confusing sci-fi script that made no sense, why would there be any sequels?). After a troublesome production and an even worse post production, Star Wars was released on May 25th 1977 with low expectations from all. An almost 800 million dollar world wide box office gross and seven Academy Awards later, Star Wars sparked the most successful film franchise in the history of cinema.

But why was Star Wars so successful in that summer of 1977? Why has it been a timeless piece of beloved entertainment for the past twenty seven years? What separates Star Wars from other science fiction, fantasy, and adventure films? One sure bet is that the answer can be found a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away...

Star Wars: Episode IV- A New Hope
Film
For those unfamiliar with the series, Star Wars opens with a sprawling prelude text set over a sea of stars. In Episode IV- A New Hope (in its initial release there was no episode number or sub-title, just Star Wars) there is a civil war going on between a Rebel Alliance and the Empire. As Rebel Alliance member Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) is trying to get blueprints of the Empire’s Death Star (a space station with the ability to destroy a planet) to her cohorts, her ship is being chased by an Imperial ship with the ominous Darth Vader (played by David Prowse, voiced by James Earl Jones) on board. Just as the Empire is boarding the Rebel ship, and on the verge of being captured, the princess manages to sneak the Death Star Plans into on of the droids on board, R2-D2 (Kenny Baker). Along with his golden friend, protocol droid C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), R2 manages to escape the clutches of Darth Vader to the desert planet Tatooine, which lingers below the two ships. Vader, characterised by his haunting mechanical breathing, sends Stormtroopers to the planet to find the droids, and takes Leia to the Death Star to be interrogated.

On the desert planet Tatooine the droids end up on a moisture farm owned my Owen and Beru Lars, and their nephew Luke Skywalker (played by Mark Hamill). Luke, a teenager like Leia, clearly yearns to leave the farm life and join the Rebel Alliance but is forbidden to do so by his uncle. R2 manages to escape the farm in search of the person Leia was trying to reach before being captured. As Luke and 3PO catch up with him they encounter the person R2 is searching for, Ben Obi-Wan Kenobi (played by Sir Alec Guinness, who received an Oscar nomination for his performance in the role). He educates Luke about his father’s past as a Jedi Knight, about the Force (the source of a Jedi’s power), and that it was his pupil Darth Vader who murdered Luke’s father. After hearing the message in which Leia requests Obi-Wan to deliver the droids to her planet Alderaan, Obi-Wan invites Luke to join on the adventure; after returning home to see his aunt and uncle were murdered by Stormtroopers in search of the droids, Luke agrees and also has aspirations to learn to become a Jedi like his father.

In order to get to Alderaan the four characters make their way to a Cantina Bar to find a ship that can provide their travel. This is one of the more memorable scenes in Star Wars, and it as it includes aliens of all kinds in a smug looking bar. Obi-Wan hires space pirate Han Solo (played by Harrison Ford) and his Wookie co-pilot Chewie (Peter Mayhew) to take them to Alderaan on their ship, the Millennium Falcon. The job could not come at a better time for Han, who owes a large amount of money to a local alien gangster named Jabba the Hutt. Right before the Falcon arrives on Alderaan, Vader and Imperial Governor Tarkin (Peter Cushing) have the planet destroyed to intimidate the Princess. The Falcon arrives to see a destroyed planet, and is captured by the Death Star. Upon learning the Princess is on board, our heroes part ways to rescue her, and plan an escape from the space station. Along the way Obi-Wan is confronted by his old student Darth Vader, and they engage in an dramatic lightsaber duel. Kenobi allows himself to be killed by Vader to distract him from his friends escaping with the Princess. After reaching her base, with the Death Star following, the Rebels launch an epic assault on the space station using the blueprints to expose it’s weakness, with their small X-Wing fighters in hopes of destroying the station. This leads to one of the most memorable moments in movie history, when the spirit of Obi-Wan Kenobi, heard over a melody of John Williams’ Force Theme, insists that Luke uses the Force in the emotional climax of the film.

Star Wars: Episode IV- A New Hope
Even though Sir Alec Guinness clearly turns in the best performance of the movie as Obi-Wan Kenobi, giving the character class and stature, it is the result of the entire cast performing well together that makes these characters so loveable. Hamill plays Luke as a whiney teenager with remarkable heroic qualities that make him easy to relate to for the audience. To act almost as his opposite, Harrison Ford is the pirate with a heart of gold who you don’t really know whether or not to trust him at first, but is the character that audience members want to be the most. Carrie Fisher is feisty as Princess Leia, and is able to steal scenes amongst the likes of Harrison Ford and Darth Vader with her crisp line delivery. Even though Anthony Daniels is shielded by his suit, he matches the expression on 3PO’s face by keeping his intonation rather flat and emotionless. His banter with R2-D2, despite the fact that R2 only beeps, is among the highlights of comic relief in Star Wars. Finally, James Earl Jones voice acting of Darth Vader creates an antagonist that is feared from the first word that is spoken by him. He gives life and power to a character that would have otherwise been a bad guy in a black suit.

While George Lucas is heavily criticised today by some for his direction of the new Star Wars instalments, his work from A New Hope cannot be belittled by any stretch of the imagination. He cast his characters as an ensemble, knowing that they’d have to have charisma as a team to make the characters work. To differentiate his fantasy film from other science fiction films, he employed a technique referred to as the used future; the sets and props all looked used, and not brand new like most other science fiction movies. The droids are constantly dirty, there’s noticeable wear and tear on the sets, and the ships look like they’ve been through battles and across space. Lucas in his screenplay also omits the majority of ‘hows’ to the universe he created. Essentially, he spends time telling the story instead of explaining how space travel works. Of course, his use of special effects is what kept audiences coming back for more and more at the theatre. Using custom made motion control cameras and detailed models, the newly founded Industrial Light and Magic special effects team created dazzling special effects that had never before been achieved on film. Lucas was truly revolutionising cinema during this process.

Musical composer John Williams (five-time Oscar winner with forty two nominations) gives Star Wars it’s identity from the opening crawl all the way to the credits with his majestic, classical score. Using the Peter and the Wolf technique (giving specific characters musical themes associated with them) he also gave identities to the characters of the picture. The main title sequence has a shared theme with Luke Skywalker, or the hero’s theme; it is catchy, energetic, and gives the audience reinforcement to cheer for the character. Ben Kenobi’s theme is also shared as the Force theme. It generally gives elegance and a sense of nostalgia when used on screen, a direct reflection of Kenobi, the Force, and the Jedi. John Williams also has a couple memorable jazz pieces for the Cantina Scenes, which gives the environment its real-life atmosphere, and not just a gathering of science fiction creatures. Lucas opted for classical music during a period of disco, and it paid off tremendously. I’ve always said that I a sign of a great movie is when you leave the theatre whistling music from it, and John Williams achieves just that. He is as responsible for the identity of Star Wars (and arguably it's success) as anyone.

Star Wars: Episode IV- A New Hope
To the dismay of some die-hard Star Wars fans, the only version released in this set is the 1997 Special Edition. However, this really can’t even be considered the version released in 1997, as there are even more changes that I will briefly mention here, because an article here at DVDAnswers.com will be premiering soon fully detailing all changes made to the Star Wars Trilogy. There is a new model for the CG Jabba the Hutt, more textured than the last. Greedo still shoots first at Han, but now it’s almost like the shoot at the same time with Han dodging the shot a bit more fluidly. The lightsaber effects in the Death Star scenes have been vastly improved, and the creature in the garbage pit has been enhanced as well. There are others, but I suggest you look for Chris’ article when it hits to get a more clear representation of what’s changed in these movies over the past twenty seven years.

Video
The negatives from the 1997 Special Edition of Star Wars were handed over to Lowry Digital for restoration, and were given a strict limit of thirty days to complete the arduous task of making this masterpiece look like a viable piece of entertainment that would hold up today. For the overwhelming majority of the picture, they exceeded expectations. Star Wars looks as though it were filmed very recently, instead of in the 70s. Lowry literally removed over a million pieces of dirt, smudges, and scratches from these negatives. The colours are extremely dynamic; the blues (particularly on R2-D2) and greens almost jump off the screen at you. Sets and environments feel much more alive, and textured. Even colours that are generally dull, like your browns and earth tones, are vibrant in this transfer. Thankfully, no edge enhancement is present from where I sit either. Much praise and thanks must be delivered to those responsible at Lowry for their accomplishment on Star Wars: Episode IV- A New Hope.

Of course as it is with many releases, with the good comes the not so good. It appears as though Lowry’s restoration may be responsible for some inconsistencies in the colour of lightsabers in these films (either that or the brightness and contrast of the transfer are off). For example, when Luke is training on the Millennium Falcon, his saber goes from green to white as the shots are cut. This is something that should have been caught at quality control stages of the production and prevented, but was clearly overlooked. Also early scenes in the desert, like when 3P0 and R2 first arrive, still have some colour stability issues. It’s still a light-year ahead of what it was, but does not match up well with the quality of the rest of the movie. The transfer of the film does have a darker look to it, which sometimes hampers the quality of certain scenes.

Audio
Unfortunately, there are major audio issues with A New Hope. One major issue is the lowering of John Williams’ Academy Award winning score in several portions of the film. To be honest, I really don’t notice it much with the exception of one segment: when the X-Wings descend to the surface of the Death Star, the once bold statement of the Force Theme is drastically lowered, and gradually gets louder as the scene progresses. Now, Lucasfilm has responded to complaints of this particular change and stated that it was a creative decision. If that were the case then fine, I can see how the lowering of the music can act as a crescendo of music that gets louder as the X-Wings get closer to the surface of the Death Star. However, in the French Audio track (as one of my colleagues here at the site pointed out so intelligently) the statement of music in question is the same as it always was in previous editions, with the volume of the score consistent. Clearly there is a mistake in one of these tracks, and we probably won’t know officially which the correct one is until the set is released again sometime in the future.

Also in the 5.1 mix, there are instances of audio channels being swapped throughout the film, notably in the opening musical fanfare and in an interrogation scene with Princess Leia; again Lucasfilm has passed this off as a creative decision. If this bothers you a lot, stick to the 2.0 Surround option on the disc. This is not to say that the entire audio on the disc is a wash. Ben Burtt re-mixed the sound for this release, which gives environment a more engulfing feel to them now. Some dialogue lines come off crystal clear while others are still distorted, which is likely the difference between an on-set dialogue record and an ADR session. Also, Vader’s voice has become more mechanized to more accurately match the quality of his voice in the next to chapters of the series. John Williams score still comes through loud and clear for the most part (except for the aforementioned issue), and sound effects utilise all channels.

Star Wars: Episode IV- A New Hope
Extras
The extras that I will be referencing will be the aspects of the 4th Bonus Disc from the set which apply to A New Hope, in addition to the audio commentary from the disc. While deleted scenes are notably missing from each one of the films in the set, there is a wealth of extras to accompany the trilogy. The audio commentary on the disc itself has participants George Lucas (writer, director), Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia), Ben Burtt (sound designer), and Dennis Muren (special effects supervisor). I thought the track was very informative in terms of Lucas’ own philosophy to storytelling, but there was little here to be learned that wasn’t covered in the documentary on the 4th disc. Lucas explained that he always wanted the tag Episode IV- A New Hope to be on the opening crawl but Fox thought it would confuse the audience so it was left off until it’s re-release in 1981, after The Empire Strikes Back debuted as Episode V. Ben Burtt did share a very interesting piece of knowledge on the commentary: there were three different sound mixes made for the 1977 release of Star Wars. One was for mono theatres, one was for stereo theatres, and one was a six channel mix. If you saw the movie more than once  in 1977, depending on what theatre you were in, you may have heard a different version of Star Wars. He also made it a point to say that a combination of the three mixes have been used in video releases to give the best overall sound quality to the film. This would account for slightly different lines of dialogue and different sound effects over the course of the various video releases. Also on the disc is a DVD-ROM script to screen comparison is a nice bonus for the Star Wars enthusiasts, and most definitely worth checking out if you are apart of that crowd.

The real meat and berries on the bonus disc is the two and half hour Kevin Burns documentary Empire of Dreams chronicling the making of the saga from it’s first conception, to the production, to it’s completion in Return of the Jedi. Interviews from cast and crew from all three films are present, including interviews with notable journalists and film makers such as Walter Cronkite, Alan Ladd, and Steven Spielberg. The documentary shows early hand written notes for the story from the early 70s, and also early concept art from Ralph McQuarrie. Audition tapes of young actors such as Kurt Russell and Cindy Williams, in addition the actual cast, are shown in describing the pre-production phases of filming the first movie. Seeing this documentary will also help fans of the movie appreciate the hell that George Lucas went through to get Star Wars made, and maybe even understand why he is so adamant at getting his vision right. Fox executives didn’t offer any support, the crew wasn’t cooperating whatsoever, and his special effects unit was spending the majority of his budget with no shots complete to show for it. Lucas was so stressed at one point that he was hospitalised with chest pains and exhaustion. Burns makes the story of making Star Wars a touching and powerful tale that will make for repeated viewing of the documentary.

 It would be easy to really embellish in describing the wealth of footage and information shown in this documentary, but there is literally too much to describe. While the documentary itself is worth the price of the set, the hokey trailers and TV spots are educating to watch. Frankly, the trailers are so cheesy that it’s a wonder the movie even broke even. Short featurettes on the legacy of Star Wars, the origins of its characters, and the birth of the lightsaber essentially echo the sentiments from the full length documentary. I would check out each one though, as they each have at least some information that trivia enthusiasts would like. There will be more to come on the other extras on the set in the forthcoming reviews of the next two chapters.

Star Wars: Episode IV- A New Hope
Overall
Even though this isn’t the version that was released in 1977, and even with some issues on the sound and picture quality of the movie, I cannot stress enough that on the whole Star Wars has never looked this good. When I first played this disc my jaw literally dropped, and I even giggled at times because the picture quality was just that good. Seriously, the film looked like it could have been shot in the past few years. And even if weren’t restored this well, it is still Star Wars. It’s finally on a digital format free from the wear and tear of a VHS tape.

Star Wars is simply innocent fun, conveyed in a way on film that encapsulates even the most passive moviegoer. The loveable characters, comedic moments, fun special effects, and dazzling score make this the one of the iconic pictures of the twentieth century. Star Wars is, for better or worse, the founder of the ‘Can you top this?’ genre of filmmaking. Summer movie seasons have never been the same since it debut, redefining the term ‘blockbuster’. It was a labour of love nurtured by a humble George Lucas, a modern story teller who changed the way movies were made.

Thus concludes the first of a three part review on the Star Wars Trilogy DVD set. My review for The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi will be up shortly, so be sure to look for those.


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