Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope (UK - BD)
Chris checks out the first instalment of the original Star Wars trilogy on Blu-ray
In the first instalment of the original 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 dissatisfied, 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.
Fast-forward seven years to the Blu-ray Disc release and it probably won't come as much of a surprise to anyone to learn that Lucas has been tinkering yet again. Along with the 2004 alterations a bunch of new 'fixes' have been applied; everything from the addition of CGI rocks to R2-D2's hiding place, to the removal of garbage mattes and the correction of a number of technical issues introduced with the DVDs. On the whole these new changes aren't anywhere near as drastic as those from 1997 or 2004. In fact some of them are actually pretty neat, as a couple of long-standing effects issues have finally been fixed. However, not everything is rosy in the Star Wars garden. With this release Lucasfilm had the opportunity to correct the mistakes of 2004, but contrary to pre-release rumours they have only done half of the job. Issues such as Luke's incorrectly coloured lightsaber have only been partially addressed, resulting in a situation where the young Jedi-in-training's weapon is now three different colours in one scene.
While the above is one of the more obvious issues it's not an isolated incident. Apart from feeling wholly unnecessary the latest additions to the film have been inserted in what is best described as an amateurish fashion. The aforementioned rocks that R2 hides behind are a particularly curious change, not just because they would appear to prevent the little droid from entering his hiding spot in the first place, but also because they are nowhere to be seen in the next shot. Similarly, the escape pod's blue lid has been changed to a dark grey in the opening scenes, but shortly after it features prominently with its original bright blue colouring. It's as if no one was paying any attention to continuity for this release and it smacks of laziness. There are also further changes to Obi-Wan's krayt dragon call, which is now so far removed from the original effect as to be unrecognisable.
What's worse many of the effects shots that really did need some work have remained untouched. The Han Solo meets Jabba the Hutt scene is still present in its 2004 incarnation and it looks just as bad as ever. In fact, it looks worse in high-definition because CGI Jabba looks like he was rendered at a lower resolution. Similarly, much of the CGI added for Mos Eisley is really beginning to show its age. Elsewhere laser bolts that were ruined by the 2004 transfer issues have not been rotoscoped to restore them to their former glory and audio elements are still missing from the soundtrack (more on this below). I have a slew of similar complaints about the releases inconsistencies, but I don't want to be writing this review for the next week. I'll just say that given the amount of coverage devoted to the restoration of this film on the official Star Wars website prior to its release, it's very disappointing that some of the basics haven't been done right after all of these years.
Now I'm aware that all of this sounds very negative, but my love of Star Wars is well known to regular visitors of this site and I don't think a gushing fanboy review will do anyone any good. Let's just take it as read that I'm still a massive fan of the original trilogy, I'm just pointing out these issues so that people can make an informed purchase. Sure this is the flawed 2004 version of the movie with even more 'enhancements', but at its core it's still the same film that I marvelled at as a small child. These characters have been a part for my life ever since I can remember and I still have a lot of affection for them. I just wish I could say the same about the constant revisionism.
Prior to the Blu-ray release we were promised the very best picture and sound quality by none other than George Lucas himself. If you cast your mind back to the 2004 DVDs you may remember that A New Hope came in for quite a lot of criticism, what with its over-saturated palette, contrast issues, and technical errors with certain visual elements. You can imagine my surprise, then, when I first learned that the eight year old masters created for the DVD were going to be used as a staring point for the Blu-rays. It seemed disingenuous to claim that such an old and obviously flawed HD master represented the very best of anything, but I was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.
Was that a wise decision? Well at first glance the film's 2.35:1 widescreen (1080/24p AVC) transfer actually looks pretty terrific, more so it would seem if you aren't particularly demanding when it comes to your high-definition presentations (as a lot of people aren't judging by some of the professional reviews I've read). However, closer inspection reveals that most of the problems that plagued the DVD version of the film affect this release to one extent or another. Let's start with the colours, which have been altered and over-saturated to the point where they bare little to no resemblance to the original look of the picture. That in itself wouldn't been too bad - director's revise the look of their pictures all the time, just look at Aliens - but it's the consistency that's the real problem here. The early scenes on Tatooine appear to be an ever-shifting sea of colour, with hues that fluctuate wildly before your very eyes. As we move through the film the palette does stabilise, but saturation changes from scene to scene (and indeed within scenes). Another major issue is black crush. While not as bad as the 2004 DVDs thanks to some gamma tweaking, a lot of detail is still lost to the darker areas of the screen. Conversely a couple of scenes have issues with blooming, whereby detail is obscured by overblown whites. At other times contrast is very flat, resulting in a drab image (explosions in particular are adversely affected by this).
While detail is generally fairly good there are a few scenes where the quality takes an obvious nosedive. These tend to be scenes with heavy CGI utilisation, which got me to wondering whether the CGI elements were rendered with enough detail to stand up to scrutiny in HD. Jabba the Hutt looks particularly bad, for example. Another phenomenon carried over from the DVD release is that of frozen grain. This isn't the same as DNR - although I can't rule out its presence - but rather an artefact whereby the film's grain is static. It's there, it just doesn't move. It's a very odd effect that's more noticeable on Tatooine than anywhere else, particularly in the sky and on the sand. I also spotted a couple of instances where characters were surrounded by strange outlines (but not edge enhancement), which I think can again be attributed to the grain issues. Now I'm sure there will be those among you who think I'm being too picky, but this is Star Wars. It's one of biggest releases in the history of the format and we were promised great things. The final product is not great, merely average to good. Had this arrived in 2007 during the early days of the format's life-cycle I'm sure I would have been over the moon, but this is 2011 and after seeing the care and attention that has gone into restoring older films with less cultural significance I can't help but feel a little bit disappointed. To be honest I found this a tricky one to score. On one hand it has problems, but on the other it's still a reasonably clean, attractive image and a lot of the issues are down to the source not the transfer. In any case it's a significant step up from the DVD and my disappointment stems largely from my desire for a reference quality presentation.
If A New Hope's video suffered in 2004 it was nothing compared to the audio problems. Among the complaints were indistinct dialogue with fluctuating levels, missing sound effects and music cues, and a stereo reversal of the surround channels. All of these issues were denied by Lucasfilm at the time. They even went as far as to release a statement confirming that the changes were an intentional creative decision.
Well here we are seven years later and the Blu-ray makes a mockery of that statement. While not perfect, or indeed as good as the prequel trilogy's audio, this is the best A New Hope has sounded on a home format for quite some time. That's not to say it doesn't have its issues though. For one thing fidelity is noticeably inferior to the other five films, which is immediately apparent from the music that accompanies the opening title sequence. It's not terrible, but it's definitely not as crisp as the other movies. Dialogue is similarly affected, with many obvious fluctuations in both the quality and level of the spoken word. For the majority of the film most of the speech sounds like it belongs in a seventies movie, lacking the clarity of a modern feature, but every now and then certain lines will sound like they've been pulled from an entirely different film. Having said that, some effort has definitely been made to address specific instances where dialogue was badly degraded. The infamous conversation between Tarkin and Leia on the Death Star has been largely normalised, removing the jarring variance in quality and volume. I just wish this issue could have been addressed universally.
Elsewhere there is much to enjoy about this new 6.1 mix. Ambient effects are very impressive, particularly early on as the wind whistles across Tatooine's Dune Sea. C-3PO's trek through the desert is accompanied by the sound of his hydraulics and R2's bleeps and whistles echo through the jagged canyons. There are numerous little touches like this throughout the film and they set the mood nicely. There's also a decent amount of discrete channel action, not just across the frontal array but also from front to rear. The training remote moves convincingly around the Falcon, while the ship itself sounds fantastic as it zooms overhead while in pursuit of a TIE Fighter en route to the Death Star. You'll also hear blaster bolts zip around the detention area and trash compactor, not to mention the roar of X-Wings as they travel through the soundstage during the Battle of Yavin. On the negative side some effects are still buried too deep in the mix, rendering them all but inaudible. The most obvious of these is the sound of Darth Vader's frantic breathing as his TIE Fighter spins uncontrollably through space. In the original mix this was very clear, but it was hardly audible on the 2004 DVD release and it's no better on the Blu-ray.
Bass is very powerful, perhaps too powerful at times. Although events like the destruction of Alderaan and the Death Star are accompanied by suitably ferocious rumbles from the LFE, there's a little too much weight afforded to minor events. For example, when the Jawas shoot R2 in the canyon the bass response isn't far short of an exploding planet! Still, it lends satisfying weight to everything from the Star Destroyer flyby at the beginning of the film to Jabba's voice, blaster bolts, Force chokes, and even the trash compactor. As previously mentioned the music lacks the fidelity of some of the later instalments, but John Williams' score still sounds magnificent. I've said it before, but I honestly think Lucas owes a lot of his success to Williams' music. From the Main Title to the Throne Room/End Credits each and every piece of music is wonderful. You'll also be happy to hear that the signature Force Theme used during the Battle of Yavin as the X-Wings dive towards the Death Star's surface has been restored to its rightful place in the mix. If I had to make one criticism it would be that the score often overpowers other elements of the mix, but when it's this good you can forgive it. I still feel it necessary to mark this track down for some of the more avoidable issues (buried effects, inconsistent mixing), but it is still a very good effort and hey, it's Star Wars.
First up we have the original commentary track from the 2004 DVD release. Participants include George Lucas, Ben Burtt, Denis Muren and Carrie Fisher. Lucas dispassionately drones on about this and that, most of which seems to be unrelated to what’s occurring on screen, and there’s very little insight into the creative process. I still have my suspicions that the track was completed before many of the 2004 ‘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 he dosn't add much here and 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.
As with the prequel trilogy the second track is stitched together from various interviews with cast and crew, and like the prequel commentaries it's actually very interesting because of the wide variety of participants. These include Kenny Baker, Ben Burtt, Richard Chew, Anthony Daniels, Peter Dymond, John Dykstra, Richard Edlund, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, Stuart Freeborn, Alec Guinness, Mark Hamill, Paul Hirsch, Gary Kurtz, George Lucas, Peter Mayhew, Ralph McQuarrie, Dennis Muren, Norman Reynolds, Phil Tippet and Robert Watts. It was great to hear from some of the old hands who worked on the original films, but who weren't involved with the prequels.
I'm sure there will be a few raised eyebrows from Star Wars fans when they see my score for the feature. In my defence I'm trying to score these films objectively rather than through rose-tinted glasses composed of nostalgia. If this were the original, untainted version of the film it might just have scored higher, but sadly the bloated incarnation that Lucas favours today just isn't as good as the film I grew up with. The new computerised effects and 'gags' in Mos Eisley are totally incongruous with the rest of the film and only serve to distance me from the action, and even putting aside the terrible CGI the utterly redundant Jabba the Hutt scene kills the pacing at a time when the plot should be racing ahead. Having watched the original fairly recently (courtesy of the 2004 bonus disc) I find the revised version all the more irritating. As for the Blu-ray presentation, well that's a mixed bag. Some faults have been addressed, others are unresolved, and new ones have been introduced. The fact that some things have been corrected serves as tacit admission that there were problems with the DVD release. Where's my refund? All (half) joking aside, the way I see it is that this is the best looking version of the film that we're likely to see until Lucas makes the decision to return to the original elements, scan them at a minimum of 4K and perform a proper restoration. While he's at it he can remove that bloody Jabba the Hutt scene...
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Chris Gould
Suitable for all
Release Date: 12th September 2011
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 6.1 English, Dolby Digital 5.1 French, Dolby Digital 5.1 Portuguese, Dolby Digital 5.1 Spanish, Audio Description Dolby Digital 5.1 English
Subtitles: Danish, Dutch, English, Finnish, French, Norwegian, Portuguese, Spanish, Swedish
Extras: Audio Commentaries
Easter Egg: No
Director: George Lucas
Cast: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Sir Alec Guinness, Peter Cushing, David Prowse, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, Peter Mayhew
Genre: Action, Adventure, Fantasy and Sci-Fi
Length: 125 minutes
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