The Power of the (Unaltered) Force

It’s been a long summer. Lucasfilm’s May announcement that the unaltered versions of the original Star Wars trilogy will be released September 12 on DVD slowed time down to a crawl.

During the making of the originals, George Lucas was quoted as saying that he planned at least three trilogies in the Star Wars saga. In more recent years, he’s stepped away from that comment.

To borrow a line from Obi Wan, it turns out that what Lucas told us back then “was true, from a certain point-of-view.”

For there really are three Star Wars trilogies now: the nostalgic originals, the 2004 special editions, and the prequels.

When news of the unaltered release of the originals broke, I could not quite believe it.

Sure, I always knew this would eventually happen. I just didn’t expect it to be this year and in the exact way I hoped it would be: the true, original, theatrical releases.

Lucas has made it clear that he considers the upgraded editions of the movies (currently from 2004) to be the “official” versions from his perspective as an artist. The fact that he is allowing the unaltered versions to be released at all is an apparent attempt to make peace with a very vocal group of fans who have persistently requested them on DVD for years.

Lucasfilm’s announcement indeed brought a brief, but very real, peace to the Star Wars fandom.

But, soon enough, the complaints began.

The audience is listening

First, there were complaints about the sound. The unaltered versions feature a Dolby 2.0 soundtrack, rather than the more modern Dolby 5.1 Surround that the 2004 editions sport.

While some audiophiles may find this unacceptable, I’ll take the 2.0 sound – it fits with the nostalgia. And that’s what this release is all about.

How much does it cost if it’s free?

Then there were complaints that the unaltered versions are actually packaged as bonus features to re-releases of the 2004 editions of each movie, available for the first time as stand-alone movies rather than as a set.

I knew when I bought the 2004 versions that I would buy them again in their original forms as soon as they became available. And, when I buy these versions (with “free” backup copies of the 2004 editions), I’ll know that I’ll probably buy them five or six more times in my lifetime as the movies and formats evolve.

People are getting two full-length movies for the price of one if they shop wisely. I can only imagine what would have happened if they released these as single disc DVDs containing only the pre-1997 version of each movie (and they would have been about the same price point).

Some would likely complain that since they avoided the 2004 set for not including the pre-1997 versions, they were now being “forced” to go back and buy the boycotted set as a separate purchase. At least with these double-DVD sets, while they are being made to buy the 2004 versions–it’s essentially at no extra cost.

Anamorphic whining

As complaints about the sound and packaging began to cool off, the big story hit.

Due the unavailability of the original movie negatives or acceptable prints of the first versions, the theatrical versions for the DVDs are taken from 1993 Laserdisc masters. Consequently, they are in a non-anamorphic format.

For those who watch the DVDs on widescreen TVs, this means they will either have to watch the unaltered movies with bars surrounding the entire image on all four sides, or zoom the picture in to remove the bars on the left and right at the expense of image quality.

Most modern DVDs, including the 2004 editions of the Star Wars trilogy, are presented in anamorphic widescreen–a higher quality process that utilizes more screen resolution for the actual movie picture.

For the record, I think these DVD versions will be better than the Laserdiscs. For one thing, they were sourced directly from the Laserdisc masters.

This is not the same thing as someone going out and buying the Laserdisc set and then making their own DVDs out of them. This is going to be higher quality than those sort of bootlegs, I have no doubt of that.

And yes, non-anamorphic is rather disappointing but certainly not a deal-breaker, at least not for me. This is still an upgrade from the existing VHS and Laserdisc versions. Is it the ultimate upgrade? No, but still an upgrade.

A question of motive

While I think early attempts to have Lucasfilm reconsider its stance that they would not restore the films in order to produce anamorphic versions were legitimate efforts, it soon turned into counter-productive whining.

Lucasfilm has been very upfront about it and given their reasoning directly to concerned fans. People can buy the DVDs, or not buy them.

Disappointed “fans” soon began filling Amazon and similar sites with negative reviews of the new DVDs, sight unseen. I’m sorry, that’s just wrong.

The issue really is about ego, but not necessarily George Lucas’ ego in this case.

It’s the ego of those who want power over that which they did not create. It’s obvious that a lot of the people stirring up the anamorphic controversy and calling for a boycott already own the Laserdiscs.

Here’s something else to think about: the day Lucasfilm made the unaltered DVDs announcement, the value of those Laserdiscs and the associated equipment, which had been quite collectible, plummeted. I imagine the same could be said for DVD bootlegs sourced from those same Laserdiscs.

Could there be some other reason that some people don’t want anyone buying DVD-quality versions of these movies? Could the seemingly altruistic campaign to make people boycott them really have a completely different motive?

Sure, I’m just speculating on why some are doing this. But isn’t that exactly what they are doing on why Lucasfilm is releasing the DVDs in this form?

The future of the past

Taking Lucasfilm at their word, I believe they currently have no plans to restore the nostalgic versions beyond what we’ll get this year. Business is business, though, and plans can change.

On the other hand, it’s not like they’re going to say, “We want you to be aware that we have future plans to restore the earlier versions and release them anamorphically in 2007,” because then almost no one would buy these editions.

Well, yeah, schmucks like me would probably still buy them.

While I doubt we’ll really have fully restored, anamorphic versions of the originals as early as 2007, I hope I’m wrong. I think it’ll be more like 7 to 10 years before the pre-1997 versions re-surface again, though. By then, the 1993 masters will be an even harder sell.

So, while I don’t really believe this will be the last time, I do think it’ll be the last time for awhile.

And, hey, if I’m wrong and a higher quality DVD release of the nostalgic versions comes out next year, you can bet I won’t lead a boycott in order to keep the value of my “inferior” DVDs up. I love these movies too much for that.

Where the fun began

The best thing of all about this new DVD release is that it’ll serve as a reminder of the days when Star Wars was all about having fun.

Ultimately, why do so many people love Star Wars? Why is it so great? Because it’s fun. For me, Star Wars is still about having fun. It’s just harder to get past all the muck to see that sometimes.

The day it stops being fun, the day I find myself in sheer agony because of picture and sound not being 100% perfect or hurling insults at the very people who made this incredible universe (and deserve to profit from it), that’s the day I’ll leave Star Wars behind as a relic of my past.

I hope that day never comes.

Unaltered states

In the grand scheme of things, this is a small change, but one of the things I’m looking forward to most in the unaltered editions is seeing “Star Wars” without 1981’s addition of “Episode IV, A New Hope” to the opening crawl.

As far as I can remember, I’ve never seen it this way in context–only the brief clip shown in Empire of Dreams. That will definitely start the unaltereds off right, giving that 1977 feel when Star Wars was just Star Wars.

Another seemingly small scene that I’ll be happy to see in its original version again is the approach of the Falcon to Yavin IV after Han and Luke have rescued Leia from the Death Star in Star Wars.

The orange planet filling the top half of the screen had a much more dramatic effect than the way it looks now, even though I’m sure the overall shot is technically “better” in the special edition.

I’m also looking forward to seeing the first Death Star battle in its original presentation, without the CGI fighters. Matte lines and all, there’s just something about physical models. And those effects were really one of Star Wars‘ main innovations.

I think people who haven’t seen or don’t remember the original versions will be quite surprised at the tremendous quality that was already there long before the 1997 and 2004 upgrades.

Nostalgic Originals vs. Special Editions

I love all three Star Wars trilogies. As a stand-alone trilogy, I prefer the unaltered originals.

Within the context of the overall six episode saga, though, I prefer the 2004 special editions. When I want updated effects, 5.1 surround sound, and films that flow a bit better with the prequels, I’ll watch the 2004 versions.

When I want pure nostalgia, I’ll go back to the originals.

Continuing the countdown

I’m definitely looking forward to finally watching Star Wars: Unaltered on DVD, and then pulling out the VHS copies one last time to see if it was worth the wait.

Hopefully, this will be the best home version of these movies released to date. I have a feeling it will be.

September 12 can’t get here fast enough. I’m ready for the fun to begin . . . again!