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Now I’ve written more than my fair share of Star Wars related content for this website, including reviews of George Lucas’ prequels, but I’ve never reviewed the original movies; the ones that started it all. This is largely due to my disappointment with the hastily released 2004 boxed set, which was fraught with audio-visual inconsistencies and idiosyncrasies. I’m also something of an original trilogy purist, in that I prefer the films without the sanitisation and incongruous musical numbers loaded with the CGI slapstick. After so many years in the wilderness I’d lost all hope of a release for the original versions of my favourite trilogy, whether on DVD or the next-generation formats. However, I’d forgotten to take one thing into consideration: the Lucasfilm marketing-machine.

Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope
1977


Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope
2004


Feature


In the first instalment of the Star Wars trilogy the galaxy is caught in the iron grip of the evil Empire, which rules through fear and oppression. A young farm boy, Luke Skywalker, is catapulted into a world of excitement and adventure by a desperate plea for help from the beautiful princess Leia. As a member of the Rebel Alliance, Leia has discovered a weakness in the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the Death Star; one that must be exploited if peace and justice are to be restored to the galaxy. Luke seeks out and joins forces with an old Jedi Knight, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and together with a cocky smuggler named Han Solo (and his Wookie co-pilot Chewbacca) they embark on a perilous quest to rescue the princess from the clutches of the Empire’s sinister emissary, Darth Vader.

The 2004 DVD release of the ‘original’ Star Wars trilogy left many unsatisfied, be it with the poor quality control, or the alterations to the films themselves. Although no official mention was made prior to the release, Internet rumours surfaced claiming that further alterations had been made to the trilogy over and above those made for the 1997 Special Editions (most of which proved to be true when the street date finally rolled by). There was an outcry from the vocal minority, who demanded the original versions of their favourite films on DVD. Lucasfilm—and for that matter George Lucas—remained unimpressed, with Lucas himself going on record to state that the original versions were ‘dead’ to him, and that the 2004 DVD Special Editions represented his vision of the Star Wars trilogy.

Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope
1977


Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope
2004


Fast forward a couple of years to a time when a new range of Star Wars toys are on the horizon, coupled with the release of the sequel to the extremely popular Lego Star Wars video game, entitled Lego Star Wars II: The Original Trilogy. Now call me cynical, but I wasn’t terribly surprised when the announcement came that Lucasfilm had decided to celebrate these events by ‘giving something back’ to the fans: the DVD releases of the unaltered versions of the Star Wars trilogy, packaged as part of a two-disc set with the 2004 Special Editions and available for a limited time only. Although initially suspicious of the reasons behind the spectacular u-turn, I actually became quite excited at the prospect of owning legitimate, quality versions of the original films on DVD; so much so that I was almost able to look past the slightly suspect marketing strategy.

However, as word of the release started to spread, things took a turn for the worse. Firstly, we were informed that the original versions of the films would actually be included as bonus material, and relegated to the second disc in the set. We were then told that the films were to be state-of-the-art… circa 1993. By this time the alarm bells should have been ringing, but people remained cautiously optimistic. After all, fans wanted to see the films the way they were originally presented, which meant ‘creaky’ old effects and Stereo (or even Mono) soundtracks, so we didn’t complain too much about the lack of glorious new 5.1 remixes. However, the final straw came when it was revealed that the transfers were to be sourced from the THX-approved Laserdisc masters, and given non-anamorphic transfers to DVD.

Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope
1977


Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope
2004


Cue more uproar from the vocal minority, this time with the support of incredulous editors of many a DVD website. How could Lucasfilm, a company that supposedly prides itself on quality, be releasing such a sub-standard product in the year 2006? The Lucasfilm spin-doctors went into overdrive, first telling us that the original negatives and prints were no longer available, and that we were lucky to be getting the films at all. When this didn’t wash, we were told that the release was only for the casual Star Wars fan that had yet to buy either boxed set, and not intended for the die-hards who had campaigned for so long to get the movies released in their unaltered forms. We were even told, by the brass-balled Steve Sansweet, that ‘the transfers from the bonus discs are absolutely incredible, because these are pristine master tapes, and I have never seen—despite what you may have heard on Internet rumours—a better transfer of a movie.’

There have been many hypotheses put forward to explain George Lucas’ change of heart in allowing unaltered versions of the movies to be released, especially after so publicly stating that they no longer represented his vision. Did things really start as yet another attempt to release the 2004 Special Editions, only for some clever marketing executive to point out that not even Star Wars fans are gullible enough to buy the same thing three times in two years? This certainly seems to be the most popular theory, but I guess we’ll never know the real reasons. However, now that the disc is finally here it’s time to cut through the marketing crap and Internet speculation to deliver a verdict on the film that defined an era and inspired a generation: the original, unaltered version of Star Wars. Will it pass the ‘fan test’, or should a certain Mr. Sansweet be looking to book an appointment at Specsavers?

Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope
1977


Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope
2004


Video


As most people’s interest in this title is sure to lie with the original theatrical version of the film, this is the area I’m going to concentrate on. Firstly, I need to mention that my DVD player will only output component video in 16:9, which presented a problem when viewing this non-anamorphic, Laserdisc-sourced presentation. I had to resort to using my TV’s ‘cinema’ mode to view the film in the correct 2.35:1 aspect ratio, which introduced its own set of problems. Firstly, zooming the image makes the flaws more apparent, and secondly, a portion of the subtitles displayed during the ‘Greedo’ scenes were cut off. While this didn’t prove too bothersome for me (I know the dialogue off by heart), it could annoy those not as well-versed in Huttese.

I’m extremely thankful that this release retains its original Scope ratio of 2.35:1 (let’s face it, we could have ended up with pan and scan), and while there’s no getting away from the fact that resolution is severely lacking, the transfer is actually better than I could have hoped for. Although there has been no official statement, it would seem logical that at least one of the reasons for this release was to curb the trade in bootleg editions of the original Star Wars. I’ve seen my fair share of those, and I’ll say now that the transfer on this disc is better than most, but not all of the bootlegs out there. Colour rendition is noticeably superior to any version I’ve personally owned, although things still look a little washed out at times and there are stability issues in a number of scenes. However, even a washed out transfer featuring the original colour palette is preferable to some of the garish hues found in the 2004 Special Edition, the opening scenes of which are terribly oversaturated (so much so that Princess Leia looks like she applied her make-up with a spray gun).

Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope
1977


Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope
2004


The image is also sharper than any previous release I’ve owned, although the flipside of this is that it is extremely grainy. This is particularly noticeable during the scenes on Tatooine (see the screen cap), and remains a constant presence throughout, but there are some who would argue that this lends a more ‘film like’ quality to the transfer. However, when combined with the numerous film artefacts (dirt, scratches, and the odd vertical or horizontal line) that litter the print, it can become quite distracting. If this is anything to go by, it’s easy to see why Lowry Digital had such a hard time cleaning the film up for the Special Edition. I also noticed more than a little telecine wobble, which was particularly apparent during the opening crawl and end titles. Again, whether you notice and are bothered by this is largely down to how closely you study the picture. As a reviewer I’m looking for these things, so it’s possible that the ‘average’ viewer won’t find it quite so obvious.

I was pleasantly surprised by the contrast, which also appeared to be superior to the Special Edition release. Whites are actually white, as opposed to the greyish colour seen in the 2004 release. While not perfect, black levels are also surprisingly consistent, although I did spot the odd impurity during portions of the battle of Yavin. Although progressively encoded, another phenomenon that reared its ugly head was that of aliasing, which was particularly apparent on the grill of Luke’s landspeeder. After checking the 2004 edition for signs of the same artefact and finding nothing, I was concerned that the transfer had been taken from an interlaced source. However, after running the scene through DVD2AVI, that doesn’t appear to be the case (although I’ll be the first to admit I don’t know everything about the intricacies of authoring DVD video).

Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope
1977


Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope
2004


All-in-all this release presents me with a number of problems when awarding points for video quality. While vastly inferior to the overwhelming majority of titles in my collection, there is a certain charm to the rough-around-the-edges transfer. I actually prefer the overall look to that of the heavily-processed Special Edition, but it is impossible to overlook the lack of anamorphic enhancement. For me, that’s what’s so heart-breaking about this release—had it been given just a little bit of love and attention it could easily have been a very nice looking presentation. As it stands it’s acceptable, but only if you have the equipment to do it justice. I briefly viewed a section of the film without the benefit of progressive scan, and let’s just say it wasn’t a pretty sight…

I guess I should probably say a little something about the 2004 Special Edition included as part of this set. As with the previous release, this reissue of the 2004 edition of A New Hope is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio and is anamorphically enhanced. On the whole the image is very impressive for a movie fast approaching its thirtieth anniversary, with virtually no film artefacts and remarkable levels of detail. To the casual observer this transfer might even be labelled reference quality, but if you look beneath the glossy veneer you’ll start to notice that things aren’t quite as good as they could be.

Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope
1977


Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope
2004


Although colour rendition appears to be very good for the most part, there are a number of scenes where the stability falters. This is most apparent during the opening scenes aboard the Tantive IV, where the colour of the Rebel soldiers’ uniforms changes from shot to shot, and everything is terribly oversaturated. The stability issues continue through to the desert scenes on Tatooine, and although this phenomenon affected the original version of the movie it is far more obvious on the Special Edition. I had hoped that these little problems would have been fixed as part of the restoration. There are also problems created by the restoration itself, such as incorrectly coloured lightsabers and contrast issues. The image is just too dark. I don’t want to ramble on about the Special Edition for too long as that’s not the point of this review, but one can’t help but wonder what might have been if Lowry Digital had been afforded the time required to complete a thorough restoration.

Audio


The original version of Star Wars carries a Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround soundtrack. It’s interesting to note that there have been a number of different mixes over the years—be it Mono, Stereo or six channel Dolby—each with their own idiosyncrasies, raging from different sound effects, to dialogue, and even voice actors. The mix that is included here omits several lines of dialogue found in later incarnations of the film, as well as including a few different sound effects and lines of dialogue delivered by different actors. Disparities such as these raise some interesting questions, such as just who is the ‘real’ Aunt Beru? The woman who voiced her in the Stereo mix, or the Mono mix?

Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope
1977


Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope
2004


These questions aside, the track itself is actually pretty good. Dialogue is clear for the most part, although there are one or two lines that are noticeably inferior to the rest. This is most likely the difference between dialogue recorded on the set and ADR recorded at a later date, but I never really found it that distracting. There is also a strong presence from the frontal array throughout the film, and although it lacks the fidelity of a modern soundtrack, the various futuristic sound effects all come through loud and clear. Of course the track lacks the discrete surround of the Special Edition, but the Mono surround channel does a pretty good job of immersing the viewer in the action all the same. Although primarily utilised to emphasise John Williams’ Oscar-winning score, you’ll often hear spaceships flying overhead, blaster bolts whistling by, or some other little effect that adds to the atmosphere. For example, during the Battle of Yavin the surround channel is used to effectively transport the viewer inside the pilots’ cockpits. Bass is perhaps a little lacking when compared to the sort of modern mixes we’re all used to, but that’s not really a ‘fault’ per se. When it comes to the audio elements of this release Lucasfilm have pretty much hit the nail on the head. We asked for the original mix, and this is what we got (or as near to it as is realistically possible).
 
As for the 2004 Special Edition, oh where to begin… This version features a Dolby Digital 5.1 EX soundtrack that has been the subject of much Internet discussion, although the mainstream press seems to have overlooked any apparent flaws in the presentation. Well we’re not a mainstream publication, and you can rest assured that I have not been bribed with trips to the Ranch or anything else that might compromise my integrity. With that in mind, let me just say this: there are serious issues with the Dolby Digital 5.1 track found on this disc.

Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope
1977


Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope
2004


Firstly, there are innumerable scenes where the quality and consistency of the dialogue varies from moment to moment. Characters can be having perfectly audible conversations, only for the next line out of their mouths to sound like they are speaking through a towel while gargling with razor blades. Ok, so perhaps that’s a little bit of an exaggeration, but the inconsistent quality and levels of the dialogue are terribly distracting. One extremely obvious instance occurs when Tarkin says to Leia ‘You would prefer another target? A military target?’ in a crystal clear voice, only for his next line of ‘Then name the system’ to sound like it was recorded on a bargain-basement Dictaphone. Of course this is a problem that also affected the original release, but it is far more noticeable in the Special Edition. One would think that—with all the technology at their disposal—Lucasfilm could have done something to address the issue for their ‘bells ‘n’ whistles’ edition .

Furthermore, there is at least one instance when the Academy Award-winning score is completely drowned out by the effects. Unfortunately this occurs during the climactic battle of Yavin, as the Rebel X-Wing fighters dive towards the Death Star. This was originally underscored by a triumphant rendition of John Williams’ Force theme, but now you almost have to press your ear against the speaker to hear it. Worse still is the reversal of the score in the rear surrounds. What this means is that instruments—such as brass—that play in the front right hand speaker, play in the rear left, and so on. This just doesn’t sound ‘right’, and makes the score difficult to localise—you could achieve the same effect by wiring your speakers up incorrectly.

Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope
1977


Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope
2004


Lucasfilm were quick to issue a statement dismissing these problems as ‘creative decisions’, but the very fact that the French Dolby Surround track carries the Force theme in all its glory makes a mockery of that statement. I’ve no doubt that these ‘creative decisions’ will be quietly fixed for a future release, but until then we’re stuck with a half-arsed attempt. It’s very disappointing.

Extras


Before I examine the bonus material, I’d just like to take the time to comment on the menus. As some of you will know, Van Ling is the man responsible for the overall look of the 2004 Special Edition DVDs, as well as the three prequels. He has created a unified look, with each disc presenting a choice of three distinct menu themes built around a different location from the Star Wars universe. For the 2004 edition of A New Hope viewers are presented with gorgeous animated menus that feature footage from Tatooine, the Death Star and Yavin IV. Each of the sub-menus expands upon the theme of the main menu, creating a truly immersive experience. The menus for the bonus disc are extremely primitive by comparison, although there is a brief animation when the disc first loads. A group of hand-drawn X-Wing fighters fly into view before a static shot of the one-sheet ‘B’ poster artwork appears. There is no other animation, but each menu screen is accompanied by music from the film. Although not as impressive as the Special Edition menus, it was more than I expected. Ironically, the menus for both versions are anamorphic…

Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope
1977


Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope
2004


Of course the main reason to buy this set is disc two itself, as this is where you’ll find the unaltered theatrical release of Star Wars (sadly reduced to nothing more than ‘bonus material’). The disc also includes a demo for the Xbox version of Lego Star Wars II: The Original Trilogy, which is a fun little game that significantly expands upon its predecessor. It’s worth noting that, yet again, Lucasfilm has included an Xbox dashboard update on the DVD. This was also present on the bonus disc for the 2004 Special Editions, and caused outrage among Xbox users who claimed that it was ‘malware’. I can’t personally confirm or deny any of this, but I thought it was worth mentioning all the same. A trailer for the game is also included, just to further whet your appetite.

Disc one features the same supplementary material as was present when it arrived in boxed set form. What this means is a commentary track from Lucas, Ben Burtt, Denis Muren and Carrie Fisher. It’s the same old track, with Lucas dispassionately droning on about this and that, most of which seems to be unrelated to what’s occurring on screen. There’s very little insight into the creative process, and I have a strong suspicion that the track was completed before many of the 2004 Special Edition ‘tweaks’ were implemented, as Lucas often seems to refer to unaltered scenes. Burtt may be a legendary sound designer (his editing skills aren’t quite in the same league), but personally I find the man’s voice annoying. Carrie Fisher’s role seems to be to add some levity to the otherwise stodgy track, a role that she fulfils with mixed results. The only other material on the disc comes in the form of links to both the standard and DVD-specific Star Wars websites. At the time of writing, I couldn’t get dvd.starwars.com to work with any of the nine discs in my collection…

Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope
1977


Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope
2004


Overall


For once, I’m not really sure what to say. On one hand this release isn’t as horrific as I had feared, but neither is it as good as it should be. In fact, one has to wonder exactly who it is aimed at. If we are to believe Lucasfilm, and this set really is for the ‘casual’ Star Wars fan (if such a person exists), the huge emphasis on the unaltered original trilogy aspect doesn’t make much sense. Surely a ‘casual’ fan won’t care if Han shoots first, or if Jabba the Hutt remains on the cutting room floor? However, if this disc was really intended to placate the hoards of rabid geeks that frequent Star Wars message boards claiming that George Lucas raped their childhoods, why do such a half-arsed job? There are better fan-made bootlegs out there, assembled by people who appear to have more admiration and respect for the film than its creator. Personally, I think this disc is intended as nothing more than a way to raise the profile of the original trilogy tie-ins, be they toys or video games, while selling off the surplus stock of discs left over from the ill-fated 2005 re-release.

Technically I guess I should be judging this release on the merits of both versions of the film, 1977 and 2004. However, as Lucasfilm has pushed the ‘original trilogy’ angle to such an extent, I have decided to base my final score solely on the second disc in the set. It is, after all, the only real reason to buy this release over and above one of the earlier boxed sets, especially when you factor the retail prices into the equation. You might think I’m being a little tough on Lucasfilm, but if they want to sell us a product using such a highly focussed marketing campaign then they deserve to be criticised based on the quality of that specific aspect of the product. If you really want to read a detailed review of the 2004 Special Edition, it has been ably covered by my colleague Bryan Rickert.

Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope
1977


Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope
2004


It’s a pity that George Lucas appears hold the original version of the film that made his career in such contempt. Perhaps one day we will see a completely restored and remastered release, in much the same way that other genre classics such as Alien, Back to the Future and Blade Runner have been cleaned up and reissued, but until then people have to make a choice between this official set and one of the many available bootlegs. On balance I would probably have to give this release the nod, primarily because it’s legal and has a slightly better transfer than the majority of the fan-made, Laserdisc-ripped bootlegs (although that’s not particularly high praise). However, when you know that there are versions of this film floating around with commentary tracks, isolated scores, Easter eggs and more, Lucasfilm’s offering doesn’t look quite as attractive. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the coming months witnessed the arrival of bootlegs based on this transfer, but with the supplemental material to back them up…

Whatever the shortcomings of the technical aspects of the release, being able to sit down and view the original version of one of my childhood favourites proved to be an extremely enjoyable experience. It had been a long time since I’d watched one of the original films in its entirety, and I have to say it was all the better for the absence of computer-generated imagery and redundant scenes that served only to slow the pace of the film. I didn’t care that the effects were old and ‘creaky’, or that I could see the matte lines around TIE-Fighters, I was just happy to watch the film I grew up with. When I last watched the Special Edition I felt that it dragged, but the two-hour running time flew by without the unnecessary additions. Should you go out and buy this release if you already own the boxed set? Can you really bring yourself to dig deep into your pockets and hand over your hard-earned to George Lucas one more time? Well, I guess that really depends on just how much you love the original, unaltered version of Star Wars. I’ll just say this: Jabba the Hutt is nowhere to be seen, and Han blows Greedo’s sorry arse away before he even has time to miss at point-blank range…


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