Star Wars Trilogy DVD

Star Wars TrilogyI’ve had a little time to recover from the emotional upheaval brought on by my little revisionist fiction rant last week. I’ve also had time to watch the entire original Star Wars trilogy in the manner dictated by its creator.

First, the good. Everything looks brilliant. The entire trilogy looks as though it could have been released in theaters yesterday. There is nary a speck or scratch to be seen. The folks over at LucasFilm did a fantastic job of restoring the films. Every image is crisp and clear, and some of the less-than-pristine effects have been cleaned up quite a bit. In Return of the Jedi Luke Skywalker’s battle with the rancor looks much less blue-screen-y than it did in previous releases. Also in Jedi, the evil black floating blob on the left (screen right) side of the Emperor’s face that was present in some scenes has been completely eliminated. Viva la technology!

The sound is equally impressive. Yes, there are a couple of oddities in A New Hope, but it’s far from disastrous. The revamped THX sequence that plays before each of the three films was mighty mighty on my surround sound system, and almost everything that followed was aurally satisfying.

And guess what? The magic isn’t gone. A New Hope still has the same effect on me that it did when I first saw it so many yesterdays ago. Yeah, Greedo shoots first. In the DVD version, it’s pretty much simultaneous. I can live with it, really. It doesn’t make Han any less bad ass. Also, the DVD version of Jabba the Hutt is far superior to that seen in the Special Edition. It’s still not quite there, but it’s a huge improvement. All in all, the first of the trilogy suffers least from Lucas’ most recent meddling tweaking. I watched it on the 21st and was fully prepared to watch it again on the 22nd, when Miscellaneous G™ came over to watch The Empire Strikes Back.

Ah, Empire. Of the three original films, it has always been my favorite, for several reasons. First, Vader was at his nastiest. Second, it introduced Yoda (who seems far more alive as a puppet than as a computer-generated image) and Boba Fett. Throw in AT-ATs, snowspeeders, Cloud City, Lobot (hell yeah!) and a cliffhanger ending, and you’ve got the best of the best.

Alas, it is my beloved Empire that suffers most in the DVD release. The changes Lucas introduced with the Special Edition were largely benign: an expanded Wampa ice creature scene (good), an extended Cloud City landing for the Millennium Falcon (bad; the computer-generated Falcon looks far too flat), a more open, airy Cloud City (good), Luke’s scream as he falls (bad, bad, bad; this greatly diminishes Luke’s bravery in choosing death over the Dark Side) and an extra line from Vader (bad; clearly not James Earl Jones). Lucas actually removed the aforementioned Special Edition scream, for which I applaud him. Unfortunately, he also completely emasculated Boba Fett.

Boba Fett has a mere three lines in The Empire Strikes Back. The first is on board an Imperial Star Destroyer. Darth Vader instructs a group of bounty hunters that they may use any methods necessary to apprehend Solo and his companions, but the fugitives are to be delivered alive. Addressing Boba Fett, he says, “No disintegrations.” Fett responds, “As you wish.” Three little words, and the manner in which they were delivered in pre-DVD releases was an acquiescence, but not a submission. To maintain continuity, Lucas opted to dub over Fett’s original voice. What we now hear is Temuera Morrison, the actor who portrays Jango Fett in the prequels. Morrison’s delivery of the line is entirely devoid of menace. No longer is there a sense that Fett is dangerous, formidable and respected. Instead, he is obedient and submissive. In Vader’s presence he has no spine whatsoever.

That’s a lot to read into three little words, isn’t it? It’s an entirely subjective debate, of course. To me, Fett is transformed from mysterious, edgy bounty hunter into just another of Vader’s whipping boys. His second line doesn’t really improve the situation. “What about Solo?” he asks on learning that Han is to be frozen in carbonite. “He’s worth a lot to me.” Maybe it’s the accent. Maybe it’s that the emphasis has moved from “lot” to “me.” Whatever the case, it simply grates on me. Whether or not I’m able to grow accustomed to this change after further viewings is unknown.

Thankfully, Fett’s final utterance is Morrison’s best attempt at capturing the bounty hunter’s previously menacing, gravelly voice. “Put Captain Solo in the cargo hold,” he says, as he stands guard outside Slave I, ensuring that no one will snatch his long-sought prize at the last minute.

Boba Fett comes out of this new Empire with some of what made him cool chipped away by Lucas’ revisionist hand. While it could be argued that Fett’s dying (or not) scream in Return of the Jedi certainly didn’t help his badass image, that is an entirely different film. Within the confines of The Empire Strikes Back, Boba Fett’s badassedness was matched only by Darth Vader’s; but that was a long time ago, before the technology was available to tell the story right.

Still, not all of the changes in Empire are bad. I was quite pleased (despite my initial trepidation) with Ian McDiarmid’s recreation of the Emperor. The dialogue was changed a bit, but not enough to incite outrage, and the overall effect was quite good. Here, at least, I can appreciate the new continuity.

Finally, we move to The Return of the Jedi. Long recognized as the weakest of the original trilogy, even at its worst Jedi doesn’t approach the levels of decrepitude achieved by The Phantom Menace and its even feebler successor, Attack of the Clones. With the Special Edition, it came pretty darn close, though.

Of the original trilogy, Jedi got the most Special Edition attention. Unfortunately, that attention was realized in the form of a musical number in Jabba’s palace that was, in simplest terms, awful. To paraphrase Obi-Wan Kenobi, it was more cartoon than CG, wretched and horrifying. The original song, Lapti Nek wasn’t exactly a high point in the Star Wars saga, but it was at least passable.

Still, that’s Special Edition. That’s old news. It isn’t until the very end that the far-reaching hand of Lucas twists Jedi, replacing the ghostly image of Sebastian Shaw with that of Hayden Christensen, who looks as though he’s trying out for the Jack Nicholson role in a remake of The Shining. Seriously, there’s nothing in his gaze that says, “I’m at peace now, thank you, son. Thank you for freeing me from the grip of the Emperor and redeeming me.” No, it’s more along the lines of, “As soon as you look away, I’m going to kill and eat the little green fellow and the old man. Now go, my son, leave me.” I suppose it could have been worse. It could have been Hayden’s scarred head Luke revealed when he removed Vader’s mask.

In the end, this is Star Wars. None of the changes Lucas made – whether they be Special Edition or new to the DVD – can truly negate the fact that this trilogy has finally made it to DVD. Yes, it would have been nice to see the original versions. No, I don’t think Lucas is going to reconsider. So I’ll take what I can get, and I will enjoy it. The magic, as I said, is still there, even if the magician seems quite mad at times.

He hurts me so bad, yet I keep coming back for more…

George Lucas
George Lucas, Inveterate Tinkerer

Despite the fact that George Lucas has repeatedly beaten my inner fanboy like piñata at a birthday party, I still take my place in line every time he releases something new. I did it for The Phantom Menace, I did it again for Attack of the Clones, and today I’ve forked over still more of my money for the DVD release of the “original” Star Wars trilogy.

It all started with Greedo. The slimy Rodian has always been a troublemaker, but the extent of his ability to vex wasn’t evident until the Special Edition in 1997. Suddenly, his trigger finger was slightly more itchy, and it was this that began (though we didn’t yet realize it) Lucas’ descent into madness. Not content to take this plunge alone, the man opted to drag my beloved trilogy along with him.

Perhaps we should have seen it even earlier. Perhaps even in 1983, when we first witnessed this exchange on Endor’s forest moon:

LEIA: Luke, don’t talk that way! You have a power I … I don’t understand… and could never have.

LUKE: You’re wrong, Leia. You have that power, too. In time you’ll learn to use it as I have. The Force is strong in my family. My father has it. I have it, and … my sister has it… Yes. It’s you, Leia.

LEIA: I know. Somehow … I’ve always known.

If that wasn’t warning enough, the following scene with Leia and Han should have driven it home. But I was ten, then. It wasn’t until later that I recognized just how bad the acting in those two scenes was, and I wrote it off as a fluke.

Then came The Phantom Menace. I had convinced myself in the year leading up to its release that cute little Jake Lloyd could act. I had assured myself that the prequel would manage to capture the magic of the originals … magic that I still see when I watch them today. I did such a good job that I talked myself into a year of denial after Episode I was released. I saw it in the theater three times, not recognizing that each consecutive viewing chipped away at the fine, delicate and oh-so-fragile construct of faith I’d created. Then, I bought the DVD and it all crumbled, the shards of my deception repeatedly lacerating my psyche like a shower of razor blades.

Still, I saw Attack of the Clones on opening day. By now, though, the veil had been lifted. I watched in horror as Lucas’ pawns played out his demented game. Anakin and Amidala were like zombies, loving one another not because of any magnetism or attraction, but because their wicked houngan master commanded them to. When the characters opened their mouths, it was as though they spoke the words of a crazed abductor, pasting words and letters cut from a newspaper onto the script. Special effects were at one turn impressive and another dismal. Each passing moment saw Lucas grind his bootheel viciously into the small of my inner fanboy’s back. My disillusionment was complete, utter, and irreversible. Or so I thought.

In days gone by, I shook my fist with impotent ire when Mr. Lucas declared that the original trilogy would not be made available on DVD until after the prequels were complete. Then my heart was lit with a piercing ray of hope when he announced that the trilogy would, in fact, be available much sooner. I longed to see each frame of The Three rendered in flawless, digital brilliance. The promise of this buoyed my faith once more, faith I had thought crushed and broken, lying in ruins beneath a sea of injustice and callous disregard.

I remain forever weak and easily manipulated. George rings the bell of promise and my mouth is filled to overflowing with the saliva of blind, eager hope. I kneel before him in humble supplication to his will, and once more taste the bitter steel toe of his boot as he delivers yet another punishing blow. Rumors trickle in, whispers of changes beyond those made in the Special Edition. Greedo will forever shoot first. The ghostly visage of Sebastian Shaw’s Anakin Skywalker will be replaced with that of Hayden Christensen. Boba Fett’s voice has been redubbed by Temuera Morrison. In the name of continuity, of course.

Lucas argues that the completed saga will be more cohesive with these changes in place. A fair assertion, but would it be so difficult to include the “alternative version” of the original trilogy? These three films, six hours all told, have integrated themselves so thoroughly into my life over the past twenty-seven years that I daresay I’d not be myself were their influence somehow expurgated. This statement is not mere hyperbole, it is reality. It is also an inescapable fact that there are those whose lives have been even more influenced by the phenomenon that is Star Wars than my own. It is at once sad and reassuring to recognize this, for whatever the length and depth of my own fandom, I am comforted to know that I am—at the very least—not as bad as that guy.

In the end, I will always do as I have done today. I curse myself under my breath as I lay my money down and take this latest offering from Lucas and his band of rogues. The attraction of experiencing these three movies in DVD format far outweighs the disappointment I feel in witnessing further changes to what I feel ought not have been so sullied in the first place.

You win, George Lucas. I have taken yet another step on the path to the Dark Side.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004)

Sky Captain and the World of TomorrowSky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004)

Starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law, Angelina Jolie, Michael Gambon, Giovanni Ribisi,  Ling Bai and Sir Laurence Olivier

Directed by Kerry Conran

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is an homage to the sci-fi serials of yesteryear. It is filled with giant robots, ray guns, island fortresses, space ships and just about every other staple of the genre imaginable. What makes Sky Captain unique is the manner in which it is all brought to life.

Apart from the actors, almost nothing in Sky Captain actually exists. If an actor isn’t touching it, chances are it is an entirely digital construct. Every frame of this movie has been altered in some way during post-production, whether it be a simple softening of the focus or the insertion of a wildly stylized set. The end result is a feast for the eyes; so much so that I spent the first ten or fifteen minutes getting used to the visual style.

Thankfully, the story is pretty straightforward. This really is an homage, so there’s not really a whole lot of depth to the plot. The viewer can afford to get lost in the visuals for a while without fear of losing track of the story.

Which is not to say that Sky Captain doesn’t spin an entertaining yarn; it certainly does that. Though it suffers from some less than stellar dialogue, the combination of breathtaking visuals, ripped from a pulp magazine story and all around decent performances by the cast was enough to keep me engaged throughout the entire film.

At this point, there are so many things I liked about Sky Captain that it becomes difficult to sort them out and determine where exactly they should be plugged into the review. First, there are the characters. Gwyneth Paltrow’s Polly Perkins and Jude Law’s Sky Captain (AKA Joe Sullivan) are each a spot-on tip of the hat to the stereotypical nosy reporter and dashing hero that the aforementioned serials helped create. Ditto for Giovanni Ribisi as Dex, the genius mechanic. The only role I haven’t really been able to pin down a stereotype for is Angelina Jolie as Captain Cook, but she wears an eye patch and, well, that’s enough.

Then there is the enigmatic Ling Bai, who portrays the nameless but thoroughly deadly adversary with whom Sky Captain and company must constantly contend. She’s part Darth Maul, part ninja, part Marcel Marceau and all woman. Sort of. She doesn’t utter a single syllable throughout the entire movie, but her presence is guaranteed to make things interesting.

Finally (as far as characters are concerned) we have Sir Laurence Olivier as Dr. Totenkopf, whose diabolical scheme the heroes must thwart. Olivier died in 1989, so his appearance in Sky Captain is certainly noteworthy. Conran tips his creative hat to The Wizard of Oz in bringing Olivier back to the screen.

Next, the style of the film. It may have been enough to borrow story elements and characters from those classic serials, but Kerry Conran went a step further. Every scene, every cut and every fade utilizes some mechanic that hearkens back to 1940. Whether it be a newspaper montage, a radio tower broadcasting concentric circular signals, three hands pointing skyward to herald the arrival of Sky Captain or lines of longitude and latitude superimposed over the Earth to show the journey of a flying airplane, it is all another, superbly executed nod to the black and white adventures that drew people back into the theaters week after week.

There’s very little that I didn’t like about Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. I thought that Michael Gambon, portraying Polly Perkins’ gruff-yet-caring editor, could have used some more screen time. There was also a line (in Tibetan) about Gwyneth Paltrow’s nipples that seemed rather out of place. Finally, there was a horribly disfigured man whose makeup/mask was a little too over the top for my liking. In a movie where nearly everything is over the top, that’s saying a lot. The difference is how well everything else blends in, and how this particular effect did not.

Some will probably say that Sky Captain is an example of using visual effects to compensate for a lackluster story. I don’t think that’s the case at all. While the story certainly isn’t fantastic, it’s definitely passable. The visual effects simply allow Kerry Conran to present the story in a manner the audience has never experienced before. It’s bluescreen film-making done right, and with spectacular results.