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The Spin Sheet

DVD reviews by Bill Hunt, editor of The Digital Bits

In recent weeks, there have been a series of new DVD "reissues" of some of our favorite films on DVD. Most of these new discs could be considered gratuitous, but we think it's worth taking a closer look at a couple of them, to see which are REALLY worth your hard-earned money and which are better left on store shelves...


The Star Wars Trilogy
Limited Editions - 1977-1983 (2006) - Lucasfilm (20th Century Fox)

Film Ratings (IV/V/VI): A/A+/C+
Disc Two Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras - all three): C-/C+/D


[Editor's Note: See our previous review of these films on DVD for our thoughts on the films and Disc One of this set, which was included in the previous box set release.]

Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope (Limited Edition)Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back (Limited Edition)Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi (Limited Edition)

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Well... they're here. The original theatrical versions of the classic Star Wars films have FINALLY arrived on DVD... and yes, the quality is a lot less that we could have hoped. I'll give you the details in a second, but first, if you want to read my thoughts on the films themselves, be sure to check out my review of the previous DVD box set release. In that review, I also cover Disc One of THESE 2-disc set releases, which is the exact same disc that was included in the previous box set. The text that follows will concern itself exclusively with Disc Two of these new sets, which contains the classic theatrical versions of the films.

As expected, the films on Disc Two of these sets are presented in non-anamorphic (letterboxed) widescreen in the original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The DVDs were mastered from the same 1993, standard-definition film transfer as the Definitive Edition laserdisc box set. I will say that these DVDs DO look better than the laserdiscs. The folks at THX have obviously gone to some trouble to make the 15-year-old transfers look as good as they possibly can by 2006 standards, and hats off to them for the effort. But the reality is, most of the improvement in this presentation over the previous laserdisc releases can be attributed to the simple differences you'd expect from a digital presentation (read: DVD) versus an analog presentation (laserdisc). The quality here is nowhere near the league of the gorgeous anamorphic-enhanced video of the special edition versions of these films on DVD (as presented on Disc One of these sets). But compared to the laserdiscs, the colors here are more vibrant and accurate, contrast has been enhanced (so the blacks aren't as gray and the brightest picture areas aren't as blown out), and detail is somewhat improved. Given the lesser resolution presented here, however, there are banding issues and all of the picture flaws you'd expect - particularly noticeable if you have an anamorphic widescreen display, and choose to magnify the non-anamorphic image to fill your screen better. The transfer isn't as horrible as I feared it would be, but it's nowhere near good by today's standards. The fact that the 1977 Japanese rip-off of Star Wars, War in Space, was recently released on DVD with a gorgeous new anamorphic widescreen transfer makes these non-anamorphic DVDs seem all the more lackluster by comparison. And yes... a few of the bootleg DVD versions I've seen hold up fairly well next to this.

The audio is presented in the same Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround mix that was announced (and we believe that it's the same mix that was offered on the laserdiscs, perhaps with some digital tweaking/sweetening). It's of decent quality - plenty good enough and it serves the films well. Hey... most of us heard these films in Mono (or, best case, stereo) the first time around in theaters, so 2.0 Surround here is fine by me. I've never had a beef with the audio on these new DVDs.

The only extra included on these discs is an Xbox playable demo of the new Lego Star Wars II: The Original Trilogy video game, along with a promotional trailer for the game. I might actually have to break down and pick up the game myself one of these days. Everyone keeps telling me how fun and original it is, so you know...

The bottom line is this: If you have the previous DVD release, you already own 50% of what you get on these new Limited Editions. And if you already own the original laserdisc releases, you're going to have to think long and hard about dropping $60 for slightly better copies of the original films on DVD. This release is definitely more for the die-hard super collectors who just absolutely have to have every single version. If you plan to watch them on nothing better than a standard 4x3 TV set, then you're going to be plenty okay with the picture quality. As for you serious cinephiles, DVD fans and home theater folks, who really care about A/V quality and worship your anamorphic displays... this DVD release can ONLY be seen as a major disappointment.

The simple fact is, one of two things is possible here. Either Lucasfilm already plans to release the classic versions of these films in better quality at a later date (perhaps in next year's ultimate Star Wars Saga box set to commemorate the original film's 30th anniversary)... or this is the ONLY time the original versions will be available on DVD (and they're going to "disappear forever"... AGAIN). If the former is the case, then this feels an awful lot like a blatant effort to milk a little more money out of an already financially well-tapped fan base. If, on the other hand, we'll never see these films on disc looking better than this... then what a shame. If this IS it, isn't that all the more reason for Lucasfilm to have gotten it right THIS time? Ah well.

I really, really wish I could recommend these discs to all of you. If Lucasfilm had JUST done new anamorphic transfers of the original films, that alone would have made these DVDs an absolute must-have. As they are, your mileage will vary substantially. If you're one of the few people on the planet who doesn't already own these films on DVD... or you just don't care that much about the higher quality a new transfer would have given you (or that you're getting milked again for films you've probably already purchased any number of times)... then go ahead, buy these DVDs with our blessing and enjoy. For EVERYONE else, however, $60 is just WAY too much for the value you're NOT getting here. We'd advise you to save your money for something better... like next year's yet-to-be-announced, ultimate box set release. 'Cause you know damn well that it's coming, and you know damn well that it ain't gonna be cheap.


Blade Runner: The Director's Cut (Remastered)

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Blade Runner: The Director's Cut
Remastered Edition - 1982 (2006) - Blade Runner Partnership/Ladd Company (Warner Bros.)

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

Film Rating: A+
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A-/B/--


You know... I have to tell you, I was surprised to realize that we've never reviewed Blade Runner on DVD here at The Bits. This film is one of my all time favorites, and that sentiment is shared by the majority of our staffers here. On the other hand, Warner's original DVD release was pretty awful. It was one of the studio's very first DVD releases way back in March of 1997, so you know... the technology has evolved quite a bit since then. Anyway, I'm pleased to correct our oversight now.

It's easy to understate the effect that Ridley Scott's Blade Runner has had on the films that followed it, particularly in the realm of science fiction. Based on an eclectic and complex novel by Philip K. Dick (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?), Blade Runner is as much a hard-boiled film noir as it is a sci-fi film. And yet on that score, the film's high-concept premise ranks it easily alongside such landmarks of the cinematic sci-fi genre as Stanley Kubrick's 2001. All you need to do is watch almost ANY of the classic works of Japanese anime (Akira, Ghost in the Shell, Patlabor) and you'll see THIS film's influence in almost every frame.

Set in a dirty, run-down Los Angeles of the (then) near future, Blade Runner follows the efforts of a somewhat reluctant police detective named Deckard (played by a young Harrison Ford, who was just coming into his own as an actor, fresh off the experience of making The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark). Deckard's job is to "retire" (read: kill) rogue, human-like androids called Replicants. These Replicants are made to do Humanity's dirty work, acting as soldiers, laborers and sex servants, and they're given human-like emotions and memories to make them seem more realistic. But those emotions eventually become troublesome as, over time, the Replicants begin to build real consciousness and identities of their own. For this reason, they're given limited, four-year life spans before they automatically deactivate. But when they become aware of their own "mortality," some Replicants become desperate, choosing to run and hide in the shadows of regular human society, in the vain hope of saving themselves... or at least understanding the meaning of their brief existence. When they do, it's Deckard's job to find and destroy them before they can (potentially) take out their anger on the humans around them.

In addition to Ford's steady on-screen presence, Blade Runner features great, seminal performances by the likes of Rutger Hauer, Edward James Olmos, Sean Young and Daryl Hannah, not to mention a host of fantastic character actors. The film's production design was overseen by legendary futurist Syd Mead, giving it a highly unique visual style never-before-seen on the big screen. The film also includes a sparse but evocative score by composer Vangelis (who would later become more commercially known for his work on Chariots of Fire). But it's the efforts of director Ridley Scott for which this film is perhaps best known.

If The Duelists was the film that first garnered Ridley Scott critical notice, and it was Alien that brought him to the attention of a much wider audience... Blade Runner is the film that solidified his acclaim among hard-core cinephiles and earned him a loyal legion of fans. Ridley's near manic attention to detail and his use of rich, stylish and atmospheric staging and camera setups were on full, unrestrained display here - a fact that caused him significant problems with his producers and the studio at the time. Surprisingly, when the film was released into theaters, it was a critical and commercial bomb - many people just didn't know what to make of it. Over the years, however, critical opinion has shifted drastically. Blade Runner is, today, considered one of the best films (if not THE best) in Scott's decidedly impressive body of work. It showcases Ridley at his most... well, Ridley. Even upon its original theatrical release, Blade Runner quickly and definitively set its director apart from other filmmakers as a singular, visionary talent.

I've very pleased to tell you that Warner's "limited" DVD release is like a tall glass of water after a long hike through the desert. The video quality on this newly remastered edition (which actually says DIGITALLY REMASTERED on the back of the packaging) is leaps and bounds better than their original DVD (which was, not surprisingly, the very first title I EVER purchased on this format). The original disc was riddled with compression artifacting. The overall image was softer, despite the use of obvious edge enhancement and other filters applied to help the look of the presentation. The colors were more muted, detail was lacking, contrast was wanting with blacks that looked gray and muddy. Despite an anamorphic widescreen transfer, the image was slightly (well... maybe not so slightly) window-boxed as well. Thankfully, the moment you begin playing this NEW release, you'll notice the difference in quality. The lettering for the opening titles is solid and crisp without appearing edgy. Gone are the registration problems that resulted in a slight side-to-side shifting in the original DVD image (noticeable during said credits). The color saturation is much improved, as is overall clarity and image detail. The picture is smoother, richer and more dimensional looking now, and it's much cleaner as well. The contrast improvement makes a big difference here too, with deep, true blacks and whites that aren't overblown. You'll still see light to moderate film grain and the occasional print artifact, but this presentation is way better than the original DVD release. They're not even close.

The audio has also been somewhat improved. Like this new release, the original DVD offered a Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround mix, but that's where the similarity ends. The original mix has a harsh, even sharp-sounding quality about it. The new 2.0 Surround track is much smoother and more natural, creating a more enveloping soundfield. There's greater LFE support as well, which enhances the audio experience significantly. A full 5.1 track this certainly isn't, but like the picture, the audio experience has definitely improved with this new release.

There are no extras on this disc whatsoever, but the menus have at least been upgraded slightly - they're static and film-themed now, rather than just the simple, generic interface that Warner's original DVD release offered.

Admittedly, this new DVD could be seen as something of a double-dip, given that Warner is currently planning to release a MUCH more elaborate, multi-disc version of Blade Runner on DVD in 2007. But you've at least got to give the studio credit for letting you know that in advance. Given how long fans like myself have waited for this film to look better on disc, the fact that Warner actually DID a new transfer to make it look better, and the fact that it's only going to set you back $20 ($15 or less on sale at many retailers), this remastered DVD is hard to beat. FYI, Warner has revealed that they're going to release this film on the new high-definition HD-DVD and Blu-ray Disc formats next year too... so you'll just have to pardon me while I wipe the drool off my chin in anticipation. In the meantime, this DVD is recommended for fans of the film.

Bill Hunt
billhunt@thedigitalbits.com
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