Anyone who is desperately craving copies of all of the Star Wars movies on DVD should look over the options available and think about what they want, because at this point there are good commercial copies of all six movies readily available. The discs that we have finally received from Fox prove that LucasFilm does at least provide high quality audio and video as well as some good extras, when they finally get around to releasing a title on DVD. The original trilogy's 2004 DVD release, reviewed below, makes any SE bootleg irrelevent, just as the Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith discs did in 2001, 2002, and 2005. I've retained reviews of the Phantom Menace and SE trilogy bootlegs just for the sake of amusement at this point, even though I don't recommend wasting your time on any prequel or Special Edition bootlegs. Bootleg activity continued beyond 2004, however, solely because of the changes made by Lucas to the original trilogy for the 1997 Special Edition re-release and the subsequent changes for the 2004 DVD's. Fans' desire to have a digital archive of the original theatrical versions of the trilogy led to a strong interest in bootlegs based on the 1993 or 1995 LaserDisc releases. By the time the Limited Edition discs arrived, those bootlegs had gotten surprisingly sophisticated, so I've left my reviews of those discs in place along with the reviews of the official releases. Links to each page are available below and are reproduced at the top of each review.
It has been years since the last notable disc release for Star Wars. The last review that I wrote here was for the Limited Edition Trilogy discs - the original theatrical cuts of the trilogy - roughly five years ago. In the intervening years, we've seen a high definition disc format war start and end. At this point, Blu-ray has been alone in the marketplace as the sole high definition video disc format for over three and a half years. After several years of rumors, we now have a new Star Wars disc release to talk about: all six movies on Blu-ray. The movies are available in three packages. First is a three-disc set of the prequel trilogy, with bonus features on the discs limited to commentary tracks. Second is a three-disc set of the original trilogy, also with bonus features limited to commentaries. Third is a nine-disc set that contains all six movie discs along with three extra Blu-ray Discs of bonus material. I am going to look at that nine-disc set.
Any Star Wars disc release is going to include its share of controversy. Quality of video transfers, quality of video encoding, quality of audio, and scope of bonus features are all going to be discussed in great detail, but even moreso are the now-inevitable revisions to the movies themselves. This case is no exception. Yoda in The Phantom Menace is now a digital character instead of a puppet, which matches better with the digital animation of Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith and resolves complaints about the quality of the puppet compared to the original Yoda. Other changes appear throughout the original trilogy, as well, which is where much of the debate has focused. I've kept an eye out for those, but I've focused as much or more on the overall presentation of the movies as a whole. I'm going to start out by going through each movie individually. While I sampled bits of each prequel movie the day I received the set, I watched the original trilogy before watching the prequels in their entirety. I'm going to cover the discs that same way in this review, with the original trilogy followed by the prequels and the bonus discs left for last.
Episode IV: A New Hope
After flipping through the prequel discs briefly, I checked out A New Hope briefly as well before settling in to watch it all the way through. Initially I thought that the menu load time might be a little slower with this disc than with other movie discs in the set, but it seems to vary a bit and subsequent tries didn't seem as slow. Overall the menu load time on my BDP-95 wasn't exceptionally slow or fast. Load time on the BDP-80 was a little slower, but still nothing that bothered me. And unlike many of my daughter's discs, these load directly to the top menu, with no pesky ads to sit through or skip over. This is thankfully true of all nine discs. The movie discs also include a resume function.
The level of detail present is better than I've ever seen from this movie. As I watched, I kept taking note of a number of specific examples. Skin texture on faces and hands, details on Vader's helmet, bulkheads on Tantive IV, and a lot of other pieces look really, really great. There was more detail than I remember on the rocks during Obi-Wan's first appearance (chasing off the sandpeople). Many of the CGI additions that first appeared in 1997 look more out of place than ever due to the increased detail in original film elements and the old mid-1990's CGI tech that created the additions. The CGI work in Mos Eisley in particular looks sort of plastic and artificial alongside the rougher-edged and worn set pieces around them. The new CGI fighters at Yavin IV work out better in this regard, thankfully. There was also an odd shaking along Ben's saber in the cantina. The 3D game that Chewie and Artoo play on the Falcon looks good, but Luke's saber looks a bit odd during the practice scene a moment later - the color didn't seem blue enough. I know they've tried to fix the old saber effects, and don't know if what I'm seeing is a return to the desired look or an error from their effort to get there, but it was the only time that didn't appear to be fully fixed. Tarkin's hand during the discussion of Ben and subsequent report of Leia's escape is lit from below in a way that I never noticed so clearly before. There was also nice detail present in the awards ceremony at the end, including fabric detail on the straps of the medals that I don't remember seeing.
I thought I had spotted some judder during the Star Destroyer fly-by just before we see Artoo and Threepio leaving their escape pod, but it turned out I was wrong. I ran all three studio-released discs of A New Hope (2004 anamorphic Special Edition, the 2006 letterboxed re-issue of the 1993 LaserDisc transfer, and the 2011 Blu-ray) through the BDP-80 to compare the scene at 8:49. The slight stuttering in movement by the Star Destroyer was present to the same degree in all three. In the process, I noticed a subtle fix in the following scene: the shadow cast by the escape pod was an odd dark blue on the DVD, but is a natural black on the Blu-ray.
Get used to reading this: the new audio track is excellent. I feel like I ought to provide a lengthy list of examples, but it really is an all-around reference DTS-HD Master Audio 6.1 track from start to finish. The sound of the gaffi stick on stone when the sandperson attacks Luke is sharper than before, but it is appropriate to action and is likely a positive side-effect of the lossless audio we have now. Ben's new roar is a bit odd, which was probably the closest thing to a disappointment I had. It isn't bad, and might even be a more reasonable noise for a person to produce, but the old roar is familiar. Some dialog still sounds a little tinny, mainly when they are talking in Ben's home, but it sounds clear and as good as is probably possible to be. I suspect the problem there is the original tapes themselves. There are also instances where they have restored minor bits of dialog or sound effects to an audible level, including a line on the Death Star when Han and Chewie are running from stormtroopers and one orders that the blast doors be closed. I grew up only hearing the follow-up line, "Open the blast doors!" that resulted from Han and Chewie making it through before the door finished closing.
All in all, I was very pleased with this disc. The 1997 CGI additions in Mos Eisley feel more glaring than before, but the rest of the movie holds up very well and the audio is excellent throughout.
Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
The disc load time with this disc seemed perfectly reasonable; I had no sense of slowness like I did the first time I loaded A New Hope. I watched this one in two stages. First, I watched about 90 minutes of it with my six-year-old daughter before she got a little nervous about it - she already knew that Luke was going to get his hand chopped off, and she wasn't really eager to see that part. I finished the rest of it later on my own. My notes on Empire are not as lengthy as for A New Hope, but they are very consistent: this is a great disc.
Sound and picture are both very solid. The soundtrack continues to be impressive, with changes limited to beneficial tweaks to levels of dialog or sound effects. It sounds and feels like a powerful modern sound design, which for a 31-year-old movie is particularly impressive. The change in Boba's voice (found in the previous Special Edition DVD as well) still sounds a little strange, especially if you had forgotten that they'd re-recorded that dialog for the 2004 DVD release. Some of the old visual effects are clearly dated (walkers, snow speeders), but they are still very effective as well as fun to see in HD. The AT-AT walkers, for instance, more in a way that makes it clear they are stop-motion animated models, but the detail and the craftsmanship involved still works. The cumbersome movement actually lends them a sense of weight that makes them more intimidating than the squatter walkers seen in the prequels. It's part of what makes them work. Empire Strikes Back also venefits from having far less "plastic" late 90's CGI. There are some shots, like a couple with the Millennium Falcon flying into Bespin, but they are less jarring than the Mos Eisley scenes in A New Hope. The puppet Yoda is visibly a puppet, but still a strong presence on screen. Yoda still takes over many of his scenes here, and I doubt replacing him with a CGI figure (no matter how good they got with CGI Yoda in the prequels) would be able to retain that. This one was least disturbed by Special Edition edits, and that may be one reason it is so good on Blu-ray.
Episode VI: Return of the Jedi
This puts us half way through the movies. Once again, the audio was all I could hope for. The new "No!" from Vader when he attacked the emperor wasn't as bad as I'd feared it would be, and I found myself watching Attack of the Clones later and jumping back to it (as I'll mention later). The Emperor's death had a great audio punch to go with it, a very respectable subwoofer rumble. The video was generally good, but not consistently so. There were some dark scenes in Jabba's palace that were a bit muddy, with poor or no detail in shadows. The one that stuck in my head in particular was the corridor leading to the droid workshop, but there were a number of other instances between when the droids entered the palace and the move to the sail barge. Dagobah was also a little dark, more so than I remember from Empire. The degree of the muddiness was not as great as on Tatooine, thankfully. Exterior night scenes on Endor were dark, too, but they seemed less blurry and with more detail present than palace scenes - and they were always dark, anyway. I also thought that Vader's funeral pyre scene was a bit shy of detail. Aside from these issues, the picture quality was very good.
As I watched Return of the Jedi, I found myself thinking about some obvious 3D opportunities for Lucas' planned conversion. The first one I spotted was Jabba's band (the 1997 Special Edition version), but a number of scenes of the rebel fleet and the battle around the Death Star II could fall into the same category. If the 3D conversion is profitable enough to make it, I'm sure these will be notable examples of 3D effects. I don't know that I'll see them, though...
Episode I: The Phantom Menace
The video quality on The Phantom Menace was a little variable. The fine detail in some scenes seemed lacking. For example, when the droid army is marching into the capital of Naboo, the grass looks like a sheet of green fabric, totally featureless. Other times, the clarity and detail you'd expect from HD transfer jump out. Also, the poor lip syncing of the Trade Federation aliens is painfully apparent - even moreso than in the past, I think - and makes it feel like some old kung-fu movie dubbed into English. The goofy "accents" used for them just exascerbates the impression. The Gungan king, Boss Nass, has better lip movement than the Trade Federation leaders, even if he comes across as equally one-dimensional. Video detail level on Tatooine is better and more typical of the series. I had also forgotten how well the engine sound design was done on the pod race. Each of the very different pods has a different sound, and the audio track continues to be done well. They replaced the 1999 puppet Yoda with a CGI Yoda, which works very well. The original puppet was never as good as the puppet from 1980 and 1983, so the CGI character that they refined in Episodes II and III fits in more gracefully. The final saber duel between Obi-Wan and Darth Maul is still a very fun sequence, in some ways one of the better ones in the series. In some ways, it is reminiscent of the duels at the end of Empire and Jedi - faster than them and a first example of Nick Gillard's choreography, but still easy to follow.
Episode II: Attack of the Clones
There was a lot more video detail evident in Attack of the Clones, but it isn't flawless. There was one moment in chapter 20, as Obi-Wan tours the clone facility on Camino, where some video judder appears as the camera pans across the hallway from right to left. It seemed more visible at 1080p/60 output than at 1080p/24, but it was present both ways. Aside from that moment and perhaps a few similar, the picture quality and image detail seemed excellent. The sound design is still great from start to finish. One example that caught my attention was the storm and rain on Camino.
I think it was at this point in my viewing that I started thinking as much about the overall story arc as the discs themselves. I found it funny how threepio is always befuddled by Obi-Wan's name - not only does he act that way in A New Hope (courtesy of having his memory erased after Sith), but he does it here as well. Also, Vader's new cry of "No!" in Return of the Jedi makes a little more sense after hearing Anakin's words at his mother's grave and thinking about his experiences. He saw his mother die in his arms in Attack of the Clones and promised her that he would never fail like that again; then he killed his wife after turning to the dark side in hopes of saving her life; then he found himself watching his master try to kill his son. He also saw Windu die the way Luke was about to die, a moment brought about by his own actions. The same anger that killed the tusken raiders in this movie and Padme in the next movie (triggering a much more over-the-top "No!!") and his string of past failures both can be seen to contribute to his new snippet of dialog in Jedi. That justification has been present in the story ever since 1983, even if all of the details of his failures weren't known until the prequels defined them. It was also that same anger that makes the new outburst "in character" for Anakin. And speaking of Anakin, in this movie he is still a child, with both Obi-Wan and Padme having to slap him down at times. (Both scenes that were somewhat clumsily scripted, but we only expect so much from dialog in these movies.) One last observation from watching this movie: you've gotta wonder about people or aliens dumb enough to charge someone with a lightsaber. More than one native of Geonosis died on Anakin's saber prior to his capture because they thought it was a good idea to move closer to the guy with the lightsaber. Darwin awards apparently even existed long ago in a galaxy far, far away.
Episode III: Revenge of the Sith
I switched to Revenge of the Sith during my initial tour through the prequels to see the opening space battle. I noticed some judder at 24p output along the edges of the first republic cruiser to appear over Coruscant, similar to the scene on Camino from Attack of the Clones. After that, there's a ton of fast action in the first half of the space assault. I'd forgotten how hard it is to follow some of the action. Once they focus in just on Anakin and Obi-Wan making the final approach to Dooku's ship, it gets a bit better. I didn't notice any particular problems with video after that point. Audio was, once again, excellent from start to finish. It seems to be the best overall presentation of the prequels. And the Trade Federation aliens' lip sync is less "Kung-Fu" than it was in Phantom Menace, benefit of the shift to CGI for those characters. Obi-Wan and Anakin's duel at the end was an excellent finale to the prequels - over the top in spots, perhaps, but the swordplay itself was really good and the transfer holds up well even with the dark setting. I did find it odd that Obi-Wan was excellent in that duel and his duel on Utapau with General Grievous, but he was knocked out quickly both times he fought Count Dooku.
Because this was the last movie of the series, I thought a lot more about the story itself while viewing it. I wonder if Lucas would have been brave enough to create a character like Anakin (sometimes likeable, often annoying, fundamentally flawed, and serving as both a central hero for around 2.5 movies and a central villian for more than three movies) and a six-movie arc like this if he had to film them in chronological order? This one is very dark, with lots of death for prominent characters and some fairly gruesome dismemberment and burning. If we didn't already have the original trilogy in our collective memories, how big a downer would this be? One of the long-running protagonists in the series to date turns evil, lots of others die (to put it mildly), and most of the handful of survivors are forced to go into hiding. Empire Strikes Back was a dark second act, with Luke hurt, Vader's revelation and Han taken prisoner, but nowhere near as big a defeat as the end of Revenge of the Sith.
I also was reminded yet again about how the order in which you watch the six movies defines the story arc. The way I watched them, it is really two stories. If you watch them in the order that Lucas prefers (Episodes I through VI), it becomes a story arc for one character: Anakin Skywalker. His rise to power occurs in parallel with his Sith master's grand plan for power during the first three movies, and his redemption is carried out by his son over the course of the last three movies. It also raises some curious questions about the prophecy that foretold Anakin's life. His origin story is still a little fuzzy, and aside from the hint that Darth Plagueis could have been responsible for it I still see it as an odd and perhaps even unnecessary story component. He does end up fulfilling the prophecy in a rather roundabout way, which is probably exactly what we should expect from such a prophecy. He does kill the Sith master, and his turn from the dark side removes himself as that master's final apprentice. First, though, he spends a couple decades as a very powerful Sith in his own right, during which time he helps shatter the Jedi Order. Ever since I saw the prequels, I've felt that the prophecy described in them covered more than just the Sith when it talked about balance. The Jedi Council spent almost three movies doing a string of foolish things. They overlooked a Sith Master until it was almost too late, even though from around the middle of Phantom Menace they knew that they needed to be looking for one. (And if Windu had taken Anakin with him near the middle if Sith instead of a group of Jedi that seemed to be mediocre fighters at best, considering the way Palpatine chopped them up, maybe the outcome would have been radically different.) They made no significant effort to figure out how one of their own placed an order for a million-trooper clone army a decade before the war with the Separatists started, even with his suspicious death immediately afterward screaming "foul play." In spite of Obi-Wan's many warnings and a years-long secret marriage to a senator, they all (including Obi-Wan) failed to recognize how close to a fall Anakin was. Anakin's actions clearly showed that he was already broken and largely turned already by the time Palpatine revealed himself. His turn wasn't especially well scripted, but it was certainly well-planned by Palpatine and aided by the actions and inactions of the Jedi Council. The republic and Jedi Council were also broken, though. Effectively, the Jedi Council served in support of Palpatine's empire from the closing act of Attack of the Clones (an event triggered by a vote in the senate that was caused by an easily-manipulated Jar Jar Binks), even if it wasn't formally labeled an empire until several years later. They clearly had developed an institutional blindness that affected even their most powerful leaders. Frankly, without the strong positive image of Jedi created in the original trilogy, they would have come off as cool mystical fools based solely on the prequel trilogy.
My last thought was fittingly tied to the last scenes of Revenge of the Sith. I remain surprised at the short duration that the Empire survived, especially considering how distant the Old Republic seemed during the original trilogy. The Empire was officially declared around the same time Luke and Leia were born, yet by the time they were just reaching adulthood, the Jedi and Old Republic seemed like ancient history.
Bonus content on the movie discs is limited to a pair of commentary tracks per movie and the ability to add bookmarks in addition to the scene search. In each case, the first commentary track is from previous DVD release. These were pretty good commentaries, with an array of participants in each. The second commentary on each disc is new, and each one is spliced from multiple sources. Some are new interviews, and some are from archival interviews and other resources. Each time a new voice chimes in, their name appears at top of screen. These commentaries are worth a listen. There are some moments of "narration," but also some good insight from a wide range of people, some of whom you would never expect to hear from on a commentary track. By the way, the chapter stops appear to be identical to those used on the previous DVD's - a nice touch for anyone who has been jumping to a specific chapter for home theater demos and wants to use the same scenes with the Blu-rays.
The first bonus disc covers the prequel trilogy. The menu interface is fair, but I don't think I am entirely on board with the separation of content by planets. I'd rather separate it by content type. There is a "Play All" menu that allows you to go through deleted scenes, interviews, or documentaries without drilling down through a particular movie and planet. Unfortunately, that Play All menu offers very rudimentary control: you can watch all the interviews back-to-back, or all of the deleted scenes back-to-back, but you can't navigate to a specific interview or deleted scene without going through the more complex menu hierarchy. Planet menus tend to feel a little sluggish when I went through it. On the Attack of the Clones menu, under Geonosis, there is a deleted scene that was talked about when the DVD was released in 2002: the assault on the droid control room. This sequence is heavy on rough cuts and blue screen footage, with some stock footage added as placeholders. Leaving it out seems like it was a good choice, as it didn't really add anything meaningful to the action. The interviews contain a lot of good information, with a little fluff here and there. I could spend a long time wading through it all. The deleted scenes for each movie were an interesting (if perhaps unintentional) statement about how each prequel was produced. Deleted scenes transition from more traditional (and usually brief) snippets from The Phantom Menace into scenes with more blue screens from Attack of the Clones and CG animatics for Revenge of the Sith. Deleted and extended scenes from Revenge of the Sith (most of which are extended scenes) are almost entirely digital animatics. The voice work in some of them fun - clearly provided by animators or taken from stock clips, including a clone trooper pilot saying, "roger roger" to a Jedi. The original DVD releases of the prequels all contained deleted scenes, but none of those are included here. You'll need to hang on to your old DVD's to see them, which seems a shame. The interviews are framed with static images, which may be done because not all of them were shot in HD, but the frames are not obtrusive. All of the content that I saw on this disc was in HD (1080p/24) and of good quality.
The second bonus disc looks at the original trilogy, and as such has some more sought-after treasures. The interface is the same as the first bonus disc, with the same drawbacks. I feel like they've tried a bit too hard to use the "planet location" menu theme that they first established with The Phantom Menace DVD back in 2001. That being said, the A New Hope deleted scenes are going to please a lot of people, as are the deleted scenes from the other two movies. Quality is a bit rough at times, mainly with the A New Hope clips from Tatooine, but the scenes themselves are ones people have wanted to have copies of for a very long time.
The third and final bonus disc is perhaps the strangest. The content is good, including some excellent documentary stuff and well over an hour of spoofs and pop culture references to the trilogy. The ongoing menu design foibles are perhaps most notable here, though. The menus aren't bad, but they aren't particularly inspired, either. The first two bonus discs cling to the planet-themed sorting to a degree that feels forced, and having a few randomly-selected planet theme skins for each movie's separate menu would have made the content more accessible. For this disc, they feel almost lazy. The biggest example is the spoofs. This 75-minute segment contains dozens of clips, ranging from scenes from cartoons like The Simpsons to TV shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer to commercials like the 2011 Super Bowl ad for the Volkswagen Passat, but you have no way to navigate through them. Each spoof has a brief text overlay identifying it, but each chapter in the single long title contains several spoofs and there is no list anywhere of what clips are available. This huge lump of content really deserved some structure. A sub-menu for the spoofs with a "play all" option or a list of items would have been a lot nicer.
For the original trilogy, I think that Empire Strikes Back is probably the best overall disc, with A New Hope coming in second place mostly because of the mid-1990's CGI intruding on some scenes and not merging well with the quality of the HD film transfer. Return of the Jedi could have possibly matched them, but the murkiness of some dark scenes is a strike against it. Audio on all three is excellent. Video ranged from occasionally good to often very good to outright excellent, with Episodes IV and V in particular getting a healthy dose of the latter.
For the prequels, The Phantom Menace seems to be most deserving of a better transfer than it received. I don't know if some of it was a side-effect of early CGI work or just the result of it using the oldest of the six transfers, but it clearly wasn't as strong as the other five movie discs. Attack of the Clones has a few issues in spots, but many sequences that turn out well. Revenge of the Sith may be the strongest overall video presentation of the prequels. The very different production techniques (digital video vs. film, heavy CG effects vs. more "traditional" special effects techniques) and quarter century of gap between Sith and Empire makes it hard to directly compare the two movies and pick an overall winner, especially since the two both look so good.
The lossless audio tracks may be the greatest gem in the entire box set, for both the original trilogy and the prequels. At one point, I switched between two different Blu-ray players with the same disc (A New Hope). One was my BDP-80 (a very good little player), connected via HDMI to a Marantz AV7005 surround processor and benefitting from the AV7005's Audyssey MultEQ XT room correction. The other was my BDP-95 (a no-holds-barred reference-quality player), connected via HDMI for video and multichannel analog for audio to the same AV7005. The BDP-95's analog section is a work of art, if I may indulge in some hyperbole, and the quality of the audio track on the A New Hope BD really allowed the player to shine. One of the reasons that Lucasfilm established THX in the 1980's was to insure that their movies were shown as they intended, with some particular emphasis on sound quality. These discs therefore need to bring top-notch sound to our homes, and they deliver just that. The team behind these tracks did an excellent job.
The package overall continues to strike me as generally good, but sometimes curious. The packaging works well and is conveniently compact on the shelf. The movies themselves are all provided with excellent, very well-cared-for audio mixes, but video issues exist in spots that I would have hoped to avoid seeing in such a flagship release. The disc menus are consistent across all nine discs and certainly not bad, but also not particularly inspired either. And while there is a healthy dose of cool bonus content, there are a few obvious gaps (such as the deleted scenes seen previously on DVD but omitted from this package) and the presentation of the content is sporadic. Some is good, but some is odd (like the planet-themed content grouping) or lazy (like the hour and 15 minutes of spoofs all lumped into a single long title with nothing but a caption to identify each spoof). I'm glad to have the movies on Blu-ray and generally pleased with the discs themselves, but I do feel like they could have been better in spots.