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Wednesday, October 17, 2018

All The Times I've Bought Star Wars: Episode IX -- It's New, It's Blu

Many many years ago, I wrote a series of blog entries entitled All The Times I Bought Star Wars.  The title is pretty self-explanatory.  I went through my closet and DVD shelf and chronicled...well, all the times I bought Star Wars.  I ended with the cryptic message that Star Wars would probably be soon released on Blu-Ray, and I could probably write another chapter about buying it on the format.

I’ve got the official Star Wars app on my smartphone, and one feature on it that I enjoy is “On This Day in Star Wars History.”  It showed up in the app not too long ago that we’ve just passed the seventh anniversary of the Star Wars Blu-Ray release.  A few days later, it showed up in my Facebook memories that it was the seventh anniversary of the courier delivering it to me from Amazon.  So with all that popping up in my social media feeds, I figured it was finally time to go back and add that new chapter.  Hell, as we’re currently in the Disney era of Star Wars, I could probably even add a second chapter about buying the new films.  

So let’s get to it, shall we?

Once upon a time, about ten years ago, society was making the transition to high definition video.  You might remember the TV ads, imploring you to go out and buy a new HDTV, because broadcasters would soon switch to sending out a digital signal, and your old analog TVs would no longer be able to receive it.  It was around that same time that the radio station I was working at was switching from AM to FM.  We got some interesting phone calls around that time.  “What, radio is going HD, too?  Where can I get a HD radio?”  But I digress.

To go along with that new hardware, home media formats made the upgrade as well.  DVD was getting a boost to high definition, and we had a good old fashioned format war.  In one corner, HD-DVD.  In the other, Blu-Ray.  My DVD player at the time was starting to show its age, and I was thinking about upgrading, but like a lot of home theatre enthusiasts, I decided to sit back and wait to see which one would win.  It was Blu-Ray, and I went out and bought my first Blu-Ray player in early 2010.

“What’s the big deal with Blu-Ray?” asked a friend of mine.  “It looks about the same as DVD.”  And he’s right.  If you go though any big box retailer, you’ll see that DVDs are still on the shelves and selling well.  To the layperson, DVD is just fine.  Probably one of the smartest decisions they made was to make Blu-Ray players backwards-compatible with DVD, so you wouldn’t have to upgrade all your discs.  But, as I explained to my friend, with Blu-Ray, the disc itself had been completely re-designed to hold more data, allowing for high definition video and lossless audio.  

So, with the great upgrade to HD complete, and a winner in the HD home media format war, the question once again became, “When is George Lucas going to release Star Wars on Blu-Ray?”

Luckily, we didn’t have to wait too long.  We weren’t subjected to all the heel-dragging he had to put up with during DVD.  At the 2010 Star Wars Celebration – that’s the official Star Wars convention that they hold every few years – Lucas himself announced that all six films would be coming to Blu-Ray in 2011, along with a new wealth of unseen bonus materials.  It was soon narrowed down to an official release date of September 16, 2011, and I pre-ordered it on Amazon as soon as you able to in January of 2011.  That still stands as the earliest I’ve ever pre-ordered anything.

September 16 came and went.  I remember seeing Facebook light up.  One friend shared a picture of an empty display rack in Edmonton, with the caption, “Gee, I guess Star Wars is still popular.”  I got a Facebook message from another friend.  His superfan sister was asking which edition she should buy.  I told him to pass along to her that, if she wants all the new bonus features, she had to buy the huge 9-disc set.  The original trilogy and the prequel trilogy were also released in separate, 3-disc sets. 

According to my Facebook memories, I got mine on September 22.  I guess I was feeling kinda cheap and didn’t spring for the same-day shipping.  I was at my desk, doing my thing, when the Puralator guy came bounding through the front door.  “I was listening to the radio on the drive up, so I could tell you weren’t home yet.  I thought I’d deliver it here,” he said, as I signed for my package.  I eagerly tore it open, and there it was.  Star Wars on Blu-Ray.  I ran home that afternoon, tore open the package, and started going through it it.  

Star Wars: The Complete Saga on Blu-Ray

I got the huge, 9-disc set of course.  Discs one thru six are the six films...all re-mastered in HD and with new, 6.1 channel DTS sound mixes.  Each film boasts two running commentaries.  There’s the original running commentary from the previous DVD releases, and new “archival commentaries,” which are commentaries spliced together from interviews that cast and crew over the years.  

And of course, George Lucas couldn’t help but make a few more special edition tweaks for this release.  I know, when I first started this series, I said I wasn’t going to detail the different special edition tweaks in all the releases, but darn it, the Blu-Rays brought about the one special edition change that annoys me the most.  

This is going to sound kind of strange, but the one special edition tweak that annoys me the most is...CGI Yoda in the The Phantom Menace.  

The Phantom Menace on Blu-Ray

When Lucas filmed The Phantom Menace, he felt that computer animation wasn’t quite there yet for a convincing computer animated Yoda.  So, in the original release of The Phantom Menace, Yoda was a puppet once again.  Computer animation was finally Yoda-worthy for Attack of the Clones, so, as was widely reported at the time, when they were making Attack of the Clones, they went back into The Phantom Menace, digitally removed puppet Yoda, and replaced him with CGI Yoda.  

Why does this bother me so?  Well, I see what George Lucas was getting at.  The computer animation used to create Yoda is just slightly more advanced than the rest of the computer animation in the film, and it really makes Yoda stand out in a bad way.  The best example is at the end of the film, when Yoda is conferring with Obi-Wan, and allows Obi-Wan to take on Anakin as his apprentice.  We see Yoda walking in a wide shot with 1999 CGI, and then we smash-cut to a close up of Yoda in 2002 CGI.  It is so jarring. 

Anyway.  Whiney fanboy rant over.

The First Bonus Features Disc

The much-coveted new bonus features are on discs seven thru nine of the box set.  Disc seven is the prequel archive...everything you ever wanted to know about making the prequels, but were afraid to ask.  Behind-the-scenes clips, interviews, concept art, deleted scenes, everything you could ever ask for.  Disc eight is the original trilogy archive.  Same thing, but with the original trilogy.  This is actually where one of my favourite bonus features resides.  It’s buried so deep in a menu, it’s almost an Easter egg.  

You go to the Empire Strikes Back section, you go to the galleries for Boba Fett and his creation, and you’ll find something called “First Look.”  Select that, and you’ll be treated to the “first look” the world got at Boba Fett...the animated short film from the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special that is Boba Fett’s first appearance.  It still stands as the only kind of official home media release that anything from The Star Wars Holiday Special has gotten...and the only part of the Star Wars Holiday Special that people say was any good.  

Disc nine contains all the documentaries on the making of the films...some old, some new.  For the old, you get the original “Making Of” TV specials for Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi that ran on TV in the early 1980s.  Oh, the one for Return of the Jedi was nostalgic goodness.  I remember rushing home from Cub Scouts when I was a kid to watch it on TV.

You also get Anatomy of a Dewback, which was one of the first production diaries released online for a film.  This special was originally released on the official Star Wars website back in 1997 and detailed making the new effects for the Special Editions...specifically, the computer animated dewback that the stormtroopers ride.  It’s nice to see the Special Editions still acknowledged as the “Special Editions” before George Lucas got all, “Screw you, they’re the only editions!”  

I was mildly disappointed that we never got the original “making of” TV special for Episode I called From Star Wars to Star Wars: The History of ILM.  It’s probably the last time a Star Wars film got an official “making of” TV special.  Oh, well.

There were also three brand new documentaries produced.  The first one was called Star Warriors, which is all about the 501st Legion.  The 501st Legion is the Star Wars fan club and service club that’s dedicated to making authentic, movie-accurate reproductions of Stormtrooper armour.  The main plotline in this one is when George Lucas was the grand marshal of the Tournament of Roses parade in the late-2000s.  He reached out to the 501st Legion to form an honour guard of 500 or so Stormtroopers to march alongside him in the parade.  So we follow several 501st Legion members as they prepare for the parade.  

Next up is The Tech of Star Wars, which was originally produced as a TV special for the National Geographic Channel.  This one focuses on the technology in Star Wars and how realistic it is.  The final one is probably the cream of the crop.  ESB at 30: A Look Back.  Since we were just coming off the 30th anniversary of The Empire Strikes Back, this a round-table discussion between Lucas, Empire Strikes Back director Irvin Kirshner, Empire Strikes Back co-writer Lawrence Kasdan, and Star Wars composer John Williams as they reflect on making what many consider to be the greatest Star Wars film.  Lots of great info and insights.

A New Hope on Blu-Ray

The final feature on disc nine is the collection of Star Wars Spoofs.  The late-2000s saw a boom in Star Wars comedy, which no doubt peaked when we got Blue Harvest – the Family Guy episode that spoofed A New Hope – and The Robot Chicken Star Wars Special.  So, The Star Wars Spoofs is 90 minutes worth of clips from sitcoms and movies that spoof Star Wars.  Pretty much every time someone cracked a joke about Star Wars on your favourite sitcom...well, there’s a good chance it’s in there.  The first time I watched it I thought, “Wow, the Special Editions sure were good to Mark Hamill,” as a large portion of it is Mark Hamill making cameos on late-90s sitcoms.  

In my opinion, this is probably the laziest of the bonus features.  It would have been nice if they, say, got a well-known comedian to host the feature and set up the clips and give them some context.  But no, it’s just random clip after random clip.  But hey, at least they open with Weird Al’s music video for The Saga Begins. 

The Back Cover of the Blu-Ray Package

As I browse through the home media sections of various stores, I see we’re in the middle of another great upgrade.  4K Ultra HD, which boast picture of four times the resolution of HD.  No doubt, sometime down the road, the first six Star Wars films will get a re-release on 4K Ultra.  But you know what?  I think the Blu-Rays just might be the final time I buy the first six Star Wars films on home media.  The picture and sound quality are so good.  It’s been seven years, and I’m still not finished going through all the bonus features.  I think, when it comes to first six Star Wars films...I’m content.

Unless, of course, Disney wants to give us the original theatrical cuts....

Next Chapter: The Disney Era

Many years ago, I wrote a series of blog entries called All The Times I’ve Bought Star Wars, of which this is a continuation.  The previous chapters:

Episode I: The Saga Begins – Why I’m writing this

Episode III: Greedo Shoots First – Special Editions on VHS

Episode V:  Cutting Edge in 1993 – The Original Theatrical Editions on DVD

Episode VI: Episode I Twice – Buying the prequels

Episode VII: Expanded Universe – Various Star Wars-related titles I’d accumulated

Episode VIII: Train Him I Cannot.  He Is Too Old – Anticipating buying it again in the future

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