Just forget the words and sing along

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

All the Times I've Bought Star Wars: Episode IV -- New Formats, New Frontiers

For those just joining us, welcome back to All the Times I've Bought Star Wars, my epic series of blog entries chronicling all the times I've bought Star Wars.  Along the way, I try to figure out exactly why I've bought it so many times.  We continue with Episode IV: New Formats, New Frontiers

Quick history lesson, kiddos.  The year was Y2K.  This DVD thing was starting to catch on, and most entertainment websites started running watch lists.  These lists consisted of great, classic films that were NOT yet available on DVD.  And always, always, always, at the top of the list, was the Star Wars trilogy.  

The people would ask George Lucas, “Why George?  Why are you not releasing this on DVD?”  And ol’ Mr. Lucas, he gave us an answer.  He told us that he was hard at work on the prequels, and he was not going to release Star Wars on DVD until he was done making the prequels.  That way, he could just focus on the DVDs, create one super-ultimate-mega-special edition, and never have to re-release it again and again when new advancements came along.  Besides, by the time Episode III came out, he figured that DVD technology would finally have reached its pinnacle, and he could take full advantage of all the bells and whistles of the format.  It seemed fair enough.  And the geeks were happy...for a while.

But then, something weird happened...something unexpected.  DVD became the fastest growing home video format in the history of ever.  It wasn’t  just replacing Laserdisc, like the media analysts had predicted, but it was now beginning to replace VHS as well.  As more and more homes began buying DVD players, and more and more people began asking for Star Wars on DVD.  Lucas...stuck to his guns.  He kept reiterating that he would not release it on DVD until he was done making the prequels.  George Lucas, who always championed the newest and latest filmmaking technology, was now being branded a dinosaur for his staunch refusal to embrace DVD.  

Which was far from the case.  When DVD was first out of the gate in 1997, Lucas was on the scene, and put together a really sweet 2-disc special edition of his classic film American Graffiti.  But because his #1 franchise wasn’t on DVD yet, he was being raked across the coals.  The home theatre enthusiast forums really went on a rampage in the holiday season of 2001, when he re-released the Special Editions on VHS to promote the forthcoming release of Episode II, but not on DVD.  The champion of new technology was now starting to look like a  hypocritical douchebag.  

Fast forward three years to the fall of 2004.  The hype machine was gearing up for Episode III, and the original trilogy was doubtlessly going to be re-released again.  But by now, the roars had become deafening.  George Lucas could no longer say, “Not until the prequels are done!”  And at this point, the people weren’t even satisfied to wait one more year.  VHS had officially been branded obsolete technology by the press, and it was finally time for Lucas to man up and meet the demands of the people.  The final straw came when Lucas’s own people pointed out that he was starting to lose money because people were buying the trilogy on bootleg DVDs.  And on September 21, 2004, Star Wars would finally be out on DVD.  

As I finished telling this tale, young Matt looked back at me with a somewhat bewildered look...shocked that he had seen so deep into my obsession.  In the fall of 2004, I was attending NAIT to get my diploma in broadcasting.  I had been geeking out about this DVD release to my classmates for weeks.  Even the mainstream media picked up the tale.  Young Matt, one of my classmates, hadn’t yet written a news story for news class that week, and decided to do his own variation on the “Star Wars comes to DVD” tale.  He interviewed me for it.  I’m sure he regretted it.  As I recall, he didn’t get a good grade on that news story.  I wonder if it had anything to do with the soundbyte I gave him:  “Star Wars on DVD is the best thing ever!  This must be what sex is like!”  

As I’m sure you can tell, I was most definitely going to be buying it on DVD.  I loved my VHS tapes, but I had moved on to DVD way back in 2001.  After all those years of watching DVDs, I had really noticed the improvements in picture and sound quality on DVD.  And, unlike VHS, DVDs don’t wear out.  This most definitely met my criteria for succumbing to the double dip:  it was a movie I really, really liked, and the new bonus materials demanded it. 

As with the Special Edition VHS release back in 1997, it was made fully available in widescreen and fullscreen editions.  And, just like 1997, the widescreen was in a silver box, and the fullscreen in a gold box.  Getting into some of the technical details, the sound was remixed into 5.1 channel surround sound.  These were also some of the first DVDs released in a 4k digital restoration.  That means the picture on the DVD is the same resolution as your average movie screen.  That’s right, they look as good on the DVDs as they do in the theatres. 

For bonus features, each individual film has a running commentary from George Lucas, Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia), and various members of the film crew.  For Empire Strikes Back, they’re even joined by Empire’s director Irvin Kirshner.  Fun trivia fact:  as payment for participating in these running commentaries, Fisher asked Lucas for a copy of the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special.  She holds parties to show it to her friends.

But the gem in this boxed set is disc #4, which contains all the bonus materials.  You get all the trailers for the Star Wars trilogy, the requisite featurette on Episode III, featurettes on how Star Wars impacted filmmaking, the creation of the lightsaber, and the development of the characters in the trilogy.  And, the crown jewel on this disc is the feature-length documentary on the making of the original trilogy, Empire of Dreams: The Story of the Star Wars Trilogy.  It was a really good documentary, featuring all new interviews with all of the stars of the trilogy.  Haven’t sat down to watch it in a while, but then, when the DVDs came out, A&E was showing it ad nauseum for a while, so I think I got my fill.  

Quite frankly, with the advancements in home theatre technology, there was no way I was NOT going to buy it on DVD.  I don’t know if or when they’re even planning another theatrical re-release for the films, but until they do, I’m sitting here, satisfied that I can watch Star Wars in the best picture and sound quality that I can.

But see, we geeks, we’re a fickle lot.  Even though we finally had the Star Wars trilogy on DVD, it wasn’t the Star Wars that we wanted.  As nice as the Special Editions were – made even MORE special by some additional tweaks for the DVD – we still wanted the Star Wars trilogy on DVD.  The ORIGINAL trilogy...the original theatrical versions that we all grew up with.  The people would ask, “Why George?  Why have you not released this on DVD?”  And ol’ Mr. Lucas gave us answer.  He said, “If you want them, I released them on VHS.  Back in 1995.  Do you not remember that all the commercials said ‘One Last Time...’?”  And once again, the geeks roared.  And the cycle began anew.  

Next issue:  Be Careful What You Wish For

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