REVIEW: The truth about “Star Wars: Unaltered”

Star Wars IV: A New Hope—Limited Edition
Disc 2: Original theatrical (1977) version of Star Wars


If you’re a Star Wars fanatic, like I am, you’ve heard about the controversy around the Star Wars: Unaltered DVD release for months. In fact, the controversy pretty much started the day the release was announced and grew from there.

Now, the DVDs are finally available and we can all judge for ourselves.

Long-winded background on what to expect from this review

Since this is the first time I’ve reviewed a DVD on the site (rather than simply a movie in general), I should give you a bit of background so that you will know how compatible my opinions might be with yours.

I love movies, all kinds really, with a particular affection for the ones I’ve centered this site around. However, I am not a “Home Theater Enthusiast.” That’s not to say I don’t appreciate home theater, I just don’t consider myself a Home Theater Enthusiast.

A Home Theater Enthusiast has trouble watching a movie without counting up occurrences of dust spots, scratches, artifacts, contrast problems, shadow detail issues, color saturation problems, defects, grain, bleeding issues, and dot crawl.

If you’re someone like that, then this review (and, quite honestly, this DVD) isn’t for you. I’m not saying you have to stop reading here, but you’d probably be happier to move along to some other section of the site. Yeah, I know, might be nice if I actually finished the Star Wars section and added it someday. Until then, you’ll have to settle for Star Trek.

Though I love movie soundtracks, particularly the Star Wars soundtracks, I am also not an “Audiophile.” Again, I definitely appreciate a great audio mix when watching a movie, but I just don’t put myself into the Audiophile category.

Similar in some respects to the Home Theater Enthusiast, the Audiophile has trouble enjoying a movie without being distracted by making notes of things like processed sounds, matrixed sounds, and frequency response.

If you fit this category, then this review may not be for you. You’ll have to make your own determination about the sound quality on this one, or read someone else’s review.

Okay, now that I’ve gotten rid of 50% of the people who were going to read this review, I’ll continue for the two of you still remaining.

When I review a DVD, my main consideration is entertainment value. Was it worth 2+ hours of my life? And, in this case, was it worth the four month wait? While I’ll certainly touch on video and sound quality, just remember that I don’t let cataloging audio and video oddities take away from my overall experience.

Oh, and another thing, I don’t rate menus. Menus are just what you have to get past to watch the movie. So the only time I’ll generally mention a menu will be if it is extremely annoying for some reason. The Disc 2 menu was fine.

With that long intro out of the way, on with the review of Star Wars: Unaltered.

Video Quality

Let’s just get the big question out of the way first. The thing everyone is wondering about. How does this release look?

In the first three minutes alone, I was able to count 547 scratches, 322 separate instances of dust spots, and an unbelievable amount of dot crawl.

Hey, come back. I’m just kidding.

How does Star Wars: Unaltered really look?

As good as it needs to.

Left unzoomed, the standard 4×3 letterbox image results in a smaller picture bordered on all sides: top, bottom, left, and right. Don’t let those borders fool you, though. You’re still seeing all of the picture. It’s just smaller.

In this most basic of modes, the picture quality is actually surprisingly crisp. But don’t go in expecting it to look like the fully restored and anamorphic 2004 version. There is a noticeable and expected quality difference.

However, in some respects, the 1977 version actually looks better than the 2004 version. A lot of the colors changed in the 2004 version, and it is interesting to note how much better the 1977 colors look.

There are some issues, though, the most noticeable being the occasional bout of small, white specks on the screen. Such issues are usually short. And I did not count them, nor did they ruin the viewing experience.

So, no, it’s not a perfect picture. But it looks a heck of a lot better than I hoped it would, and tons better than some people would have you believe. 90% of the time, I did not notice image problems.

I also used my DVD player’s zoom function to see how the image would look brought in just enough to remove the left and right borders. It, of course, becomes a bit distorted. From a normal, comfortable viewing distance, though, watching the non-anamorphic 1977 version in zoom mode was perfectly acceptable.

Some people around the Web have mentioned alien subtitles (Greedo) being cut off when zooming in for a widescreen TV. When zoomed in, I was still able to fully see the two line subtitles. Oddly, the subtitles started between the movie image and the black bars. Perfectly readable. Since they are apparently player-generated, this will vary by player.

Do I wish they could have somehow made this an anamorphic release? I won’t lie to you, of course I do.

Do I wish they could have somehow properly cleaned up the image for this release? Yes, but only with the caveat that the original color be preserved.

For I would rather watch this 1993 image quality of the theatrical version than watch a version whose image had been “cleaned” to resemble the generally darker colors of the 2004 version.

Also, leave those “garbage mattes” in. I don’t mind them being cleaned up for the George Lucas signature edition or whatever, but leave them alone for the theatrical version. They were there in 1977, so that’s good enough for me. Nice to see them back for this edition.

Incidentally, the 2004 version that is on this set is identical to the one first released in . . . 2004. So, in case either of you are fan enough to wonder: no, the lightsaber glitches in the 2004 version have not been fixed. Luke’s lightsaber is still briefly green aboard the Falcon in the 2004 version.

Now that the big issue of picture quality is out of the way, I want to move on to something more important, and that is, the movie itself.

The Movie

This is Star Wars the way I remember it! This release proves that the 1977 version of the movie is much better paced than the 2004 version. Though nice eye candy for those of us in the fanatic set, the Mos Eisley fly-through, Jabba, and Biggs scenes really serve to slow the 2004 version down.

None of that here. The movie runs at a much tighter and exciting pace. Enough of a difference, in fact, that I would actually rate this version of the movie slightly higher than the 2004 version.

By its very nature, Star Wars is the only Star Wars movie that works as a stand-alone film. And without all of that “Episode IV” business at the beginning, this is even more true of the 1977 version. Casual fans can watch Star Wars, skip everything else, and come away with a complete experience. The same cannot be said for any other movie in the saga.

It was exciting to watch this movie again, almost like seeing it for the first time. I did not care for the 1997 special edition version, but I thought the 2004 version was quite an improvement over 1997 and an acceptable alternative since Lucas seemed intent on not releasing the original.

I was wrong, though. The 2004 version, for all its beauty, for all its anamorphic, super crisp picture, and 5.1 surround sound, is still not an acceptable replacement for the 1977 version. For all of its greatness, the 2004 version just can’t take you back to 1977 like this one can.

Again, I have no problem with George Lucas continuing to tinker with these films. They’re his babies, after all. Some people tinker with cars. Lucas tinkers with movies. Nothing wrong with that.

I’m just glad to have both versions. Glad to have the option of which one to watch. Though I doubt he will do it, I think all future releases of these movies should contain both the current “signature edition” and the original theatrical version.

By the way, I also prefer the effects of this movie. They are part of the reason this was such a ground-breaking movie. This film and its two sequels are true testaments to the hard work of everyone at Industrial Light & Magic. Forget digital, this was the real stuff. And it still looks incredible.

Audio Quality

It took me a little while to get used to this Dolby 2.0 Surround mix. At first, I didn’t think I liked it very much. But I cranked it up a bit more. And you know what? It’s actually pretty good.

I also popped in the 2004 version and compared a couple of scenes. While the 2004 version has a fuller sound (and certainly works better for that edition, with one or two questionable mixing mistakes and/or choices), the 1977-era version has what I would call a more authentic sound. It also seems to highlight the incredible John Williams score a bit more. (Incidentally, this is likely a 1993 mix rather than the true 1977 mix, though I am unable to personally confirm that.)

It’s a charming sound mix, that’s all I can really say about it. That and it takes some getting used to, having been exposed to the 2004 version a dozen or so times by now. In general, I actually prefer the 1977-era sound, even though it’s only 2.0.

While I know that Home Theater Enthusiasts will hate the picture quality due to the anamorphic issue, I’m actually not sure what Audiophiles will make of this 2.0 mix. I personally believe it has more positive qualities than negative ones. The fact that it is 2.0 may be the audiophile equivalent of it being non-anamorphic, though. I suppose I’ll find out soon enough as reviews continue to roll in across the Web.

Bonus Features

The 1977 film is the true bonus feature of the set. Sure, it should have been the headliner, but why fret about stupid marketing stuff like that? Not much else in the way of special features on here, though.

There is a preview trailer for LEGO Star Wars II: The Original Trilogy. Though I prefer the more realistic Star Wars video games in the three minutes a year I have time to play, I remember finding the first LEGO Star Wars preview trailer pretty funny. Not funny enough to buy the game, but funny enough to give the trailer creators some credit.

Not so with the sequel’s trailer. Fairly boring stuff. Incidentally, there is also a demo of the game for Xbox. Since I don’t have an Xbox, that’s about all I can tell you about it.

I have to give the game some credit, though, as it is, more than likely, the only reason Star Wars: Unaltered came to be. Star Wars: Unaltered is a marketing tool to sell more copies of LEGO Star Wars II. Yeah, I know it shouldn’t be that way. But just accept it and be glad you can get the movie now.

I will say the concept of LEGO toys for Star Wars is a great idea. I would have loved that as a kid, not to mention these Star Wars Transformers I’ve been seeing around lately, too. But back to the DVD review, which is getting long enough as it is.

Overall Experience/Entertainment Value

All in all, this was a thrilling and surprising experience. This was a movie I figured I’d be pulling out only for nostalgia while normally deferring to the 2004 version.

I believe the opposite will be true. This will be the version of Star Wars I watch most of the time, and I’ll watch the 2004 version whenever I finally get around to doing that six movie saga marathon.

Overall, this was the most fun I’ve had watching a DVD in a long time–especially considering how many times I’ve seen this movie.

Recommendations

If you’re a Star Wars fanatic, then I highly recommend this whether or not you already own the 2004 edition. Yes, it’s that good.

If you’re a casual fan who already owns the 2004 set, then I don’t recommend this release. You will likely not find the differences big enough to warrant rebuying this film. In fact, you would probably wonder why we fanatics make such a big deal about the different versions. But hey, at least this is one fanatic who’s telling it to you straight: Save your money, this release isn’t for you.

If you’re a casual fan that does not yet have the 2004 set, then I’d definitely recommend this release. In fact, in some ways, it is aimed more at you than it is us fanatics. The idea is that you can now buy just the Star Wars title you want, rather than being forced to buy the whole trilogy. In most cases, presumably, an extremely casual fan would just want the original. Go for it. And maybe take a peek at the 1977 version on Disc 2 some day, to see if you can figure out what all of this fuss was about.

I never thought September 12 would get here, and now it is already over. Coming soon over the next several days, though, will be Film Frontier reviews of The Empire Strikes Back: Unaltered and Return of the Jedi: Unaltered. Granted, I probably could have watched both of them in the time it took me to write this review, but such are the sacrifices I’m willing to make for you.

Movie: 10 (out of 10)
Video Quality: 6
Audio Quality: 9
Bonus Features: N/A (this movie was the key bonus feature)
Overall Experience: 9
Recommended: To casual fans who do not already own 2004 edition; to all Star Wars fanatics (except Home Theater Enthusiasts)