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Well... Here We Go Again:
Star Wars on DVD


Okay... as I said yesterday, a lot of you have been e-mailing asking me to comment on the recent announcement of the Star Wars films coming to DVD later this year. Given our long history of following this topic here at The Bits, and my often vocal stance about these films eventually coming to DVD, I suppose it's only natural that a lot of you have come to expect us to take a sort of lead in the collective online angst over this thing. Knowing the announcement was coming well in advance, having inside information on the plans and now having taken a day or two to collect my thoughts, here's what I think.

First, I can't deny that as a Star Wars fan, a part of me is excited that these films are finally headed to our favorite format. The inner child in me, who will always be 10 years old and sitting in the Oak Park Theater in Minot, North Dakota seeing the original Star Wars for the first time, will always have a knee-jerk reaction to news like this. No matter how tough I've talked about this subject in the past, that kid will always work to undermine my arguments to some degree. So am I happy that the Star Wars films, in any form, are finally coming to DVD? Yeah, I suppose I am. A little.

But there's also no denying that the excitement is tempered by the knowledge that what's coming to DVD is not what I remember. The original Star Wars films electrified a generation of young movie goers, and fundamentally changed the way motion pictures were made and promoted. The original Star Wars was nominated for ten Oscars including Best Picture, and walked away with six of them. Empire and Jedi were together nominated for seven more. Each film in the original trilogy was also given a Special Achievement Award by the Academy - that's how revolutionary they were at the time. Despite all that, in a bit of creative revisionism, creator George Lucas now wants you to believe those films no longer exist. They're just gone. They never represented his true vision, and were not the films he wanted them to be at the time of their release, so he wants to make them go away for good.

Instead, we have new Special Edition versions with enhanced special effects and new scenes. Okay... personally, I don't have a problem with the Special Edition versions. They're not the films I know and love, and they're not the films that won all those awards and changed filmmaking as we know it, but hey... I went and saw them in 1997 and I mostly enjoyed the new material (with one or two obvious exceptions). I recognize that it's Lucas' right as the creator of these films to update them and "finish" them with modern special effects technology. I understand that he wants to make them "fit" better with his new prequels. None of that, however, will change the fact that I'll always prefer the originals. I know many, many of you feel the same way.

As most of you know by now, I'm personally of the opinion that denying that the original theatrical versions exist is just foolish. I know there are some who disagree, but I do believe that Lucas has a responsibility to all of the artisans and craftsmen who worked on the films, to the fans and to film history, to preserve the originals alongside the Special Editions. Certainly, Steven Spielberg knows the importance of this, which is why his recent E.T. DVD included both his kinder, gentler, revised version of the film (the one nobody went to see in theaters, it's worth noting) along with the original. There's certainly no technical reason at all why Lucas couldn't do the same with the Star Wars films on DVD.

Got DVD? Will that ever happen? I don't know. Personally, I doubt it, but still, you just never know. Lucas has certainly changed his mind about things in the past. If the financial engine that Star Wars has become starts to run out of gas, releasing the original versions "one more last time" would certainly get it going again in a hurry. I have, however, come to believe that no amount of protesting, boycotting and petitioning by the fans will make that happen. The fans will never, ever change his mind. It has to be his own decision on his own time. The sense I get is that he's just tired of the fans, and frankly tired of the whole Star Wars phenomenon. He got pretty well walloped critically by the fans over Episode I, which was no doubt disheartening in some respect, and Episode II fared only a little better. So now he just wants to finish Episode III, complete the Saga such that he's satisfied with it, and move on with his life.

So what does all that mean for the September DVD release? Well... I have very reliable information that Lucas and his creative team didn't stop tweaking these films in 1997, after the new versions first appeared in theaters. I'm not going to say how I know, except that our information comes from within the industry, and not from online fan-boy sources or speculation. You can chose to believe it or not, but we've learned that many more tweaks and changes are planned for these films before it's all over. We've got a pretty good idea of what some of these changes might be, and certainly there will be lots of little color timing tweaks and digital "cleaning" done to the films as well. Suffice it to say that the versions of these films that will be released on DVD later this year will not be exactly the same as what we saw in theaters in 1997. Lucasfilm has a history of including little surprises in their films on DVDs - new moments, extended scenes, subtle and not so subtle changes. It happened with both Episode I and Episode II (new and extended scenes), the Indiana Jones Trilogy (digital alterations to remove reflections and production equipment) and even American Graffiti (a digitally-enhanced sunset). I'm quite confident that, at the press event for the DVD release later this year, we'll ask what changes have been made and we'll hear the usual line: "You'll just have to take the DVDs home, watch them and see for yourself..."

[This is just my own personal preference, but if Lucas would just let Han shoot first again, fix that awful Jabba CGI, and put glowing blades on the sabers in the Ben/Vader duel, I'm fine with everything else in the SEs. I don't know specifically that any of that is actually going to happen, but I'm hopeful.]

I think these discs will be markedly better than the Indiana Jones DVDs in terms of both technical quality and content. Not that those discs were bad by any measure (except maybe in the extras department), but this is Lucas' baby, and you can bet that every effort that can be made to make them look and sound as good as possible will be made. We'll get audio commentary, we'll get a two-hour documentary and probably more. Van Ling's doing the menus again, so they'll kick ass. Also, as I said a minute ago, I think there will be a few surprises.

So why release them now? Simple... to give fans, and the franchise, a much-needed shot in the arm prior to the theatrical release of Episode III next May. Plus, by finally releasing them on DVD... Lucas can, well, say he's released them on DVD. It gets the fan-boys (some of them anyway) off his back a little. Episode III will then come out on DVD at the end of next year, and fans can - at long last - have their own little marathons of all six films. The whole Saga will be done. Except that it won't.

Remember how I said a moment ago that Lucas and his creative team didn't stop tweaking these films in 1997? Well, they haven't stopped tweaking these films. And they aren't going to stop for a few years yet. They'll continue go grow, change and evolve. You can believe this or not, but Lucas and his team are indeed, even now, planning ultimate, Archive Editions of all six Star Wars films for release in the future. I know this from conversations with many different people in positions to know within the industry, on many different occasions.

Consider that Lucas has said several times in the past that the ultimate versions of these films will eventually be released in high-definition format. Consider that May of 2007 will mark the 30th Anniversary of the original film's theatrical release. Consider that both Blu-ray Disc and HD-DVD are targeted for launch in by late 2005 or early 2006, and one of them will eventually replace existing DVD.

If you think Lucasfilm and Twentieth Century Fox are going to want to pass up a chance to re-sell you these films for their 30th Anniversary, very likely in high-definition, well... I want to know what kind of drugs you're taking. Those next-generation optical discs are going to have an awful lot of room to fill. Might Lucas decide to include the original theatrical versions of these films on that multi-disc set, alongside his ultimate versions, just for sh_ts and giggles? Who knows.

What I can tell you for certain, is that the versions of these films you're getting on DVD in September are NOT the final versions. They're just one more step on a longer road. This is not the last time they'll be out on disc, and a better release is already in the cards. So buy them, don't buy them... it's ultimately not going to matter. Do what you feel you must.

In the meantime, if you need a fix of the original films, they're still out there on VHS and Laserdisc... and even DVD too. Bootleg DVD, of course, but they're out there. A few years ago, we counted no less than eleven different bootleg versions of these films and many more have appeared online and at conventions since then. It might surprise you to know (it certainly surprised me), that while most of the bootlegs are crap, a select few of them feature the original versions of these films in true anamorphic widescreen video, mastered from previous Laserdisc releases in surprisingly good quality. We don't condone bootlegs here at The Bits, but there's no denying that when there's demand to have a film on DVD in the marketplace, and it isn't being met by the studios, someone is going to find a way to meet it with bootlegs and make a nice buck doing so. The simple fact remains, in the absence of legitimate releases, a LOT of people are buying bootleg copies of the original Star Wars films on DVD. You know... it's not like Lucas really has grounds to complain about it. After all, those original films no longer exist, right?

That, of course, is a topic for another day and another column, when I can muster more energy for it. In any case, it's gonna be a long seven months until September... and I say that with as much trepidation as enthusiasm.

You know, it's funny. I feel as if I'm talking about films that are being re-released on DVD for the fifth time rather than the first. Guess that's what seven plus years of waiting... for THIS... will do to a fan.

Go figure.

Bill Hunt
billhunt@thedigitalbits.com
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