Star Wars fans (including my own bad self) have been clamoring for the release of the ORIGINAL Star Wars on DVD. I had no idea how literally Uncle George would take this request. Way back in 1977, a young couple named Joe and Marigrace brought their three-year old son to see a new movie that people seemed to be talking a lot about. That poor kid was never the same again. A lifetime of movie passion started that day. What a movie it was. It was called Star Wars... and that's it. At the time, it wasn't known as "Episode IV"... at the time, it wasn't even known as "A New Hope". At the time, there were no new computer graphics, inserted characters or additional animated slapstick. At the time, Greedo didn't shoot first.
When the announcement was made that "The Original Trilogy" would, at last, be released on DVD, I expected that this meant the "NON-Special Edition" was coming out. Nope. In the case of the original Star Wars, we quite literally get THE ORIGINAL Star Wars! It's not digitally re-mastered. It's digitally rendered (this IS a DVD) and has been cleaned up. Rarely is there visible dust on the print. This isn't digitally embellished. This isn't re-colored. We still see the blur of the Vaseline used to make the Landspeeder look like it's really floating. This doesn't even say "Episode IV" or "A New Hope" yet.
Just to be clear... I LOVE the Special Editions. The more Star Wars I get, the better. But this is it. This is the original, this is the one I fell in love with. These are the Star Wars!
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away... two battered and bickering droids are faced with the fact that the war has finally caught up with them. Their ship is on a mission to deliver the stolen plans to the all powerful Imperial Space Station (known as the "DEATH STAR") to the band of rebels who are resisting the grip of the evil Galactic Empire. Unfortunately, the Empire has caught up with them, and a ruthless army of "Imperial Stormtroopers" have boarded their tiny ship, led by the frightening black knight called Darth Vader (David Prowse, with the voice of James Earl Jones) Our heroine, Princess Leia Organa of Alderaan (Carrie Fisher), realizes that her only hope is to hide the Death Star Plans in the care of the gallant droid R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) and his friend (and erstwhile rival) C-3PO (Anthony Daniels).
Taking a page from Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress, "R2" and "3PO", as they're called, are the minor characters through whose eyes we see almost the entire movie. After their escape to the desert planet of Tatooine, the robots are captured by scavengers and sold to the family of an idealistic young dreamer named Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). Luke yearns to embark on his own, far away from his Uncle's Farm. However, the needs of Uncle Owen (Phil Brown) and Aunt Beru (Shelagh Fraser) keep him firmly planted and frustrated in his hole (literally).
Things are about to get a whole lot more exciting for our young farm boy.
Soon, Luke finds that these new droids are nothing but trouble, especially that R2! Searching for R2, Luke comes across the Old Wizard named Ben Kenobi (the great Alec Guinness), a gun fighting pirate with a price on his head named Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and his seven foot loyal dog-like sidekick Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew)!
A few sword clashes, gunfights and car chases later Luke, Ben, Han and Chewie are hurling across the Galaxy at light speed in Han's own Pirate Space Ship, the Millennium Falcon! Their adventures lead them to cross paths with the Princess herself as they storm the castle of the Death Star, battle the evil knights of the Empire, face off with a Dragon in the Dungeon, sword fight with the frightening Darth Vader and face incalculable odds as they dogfight in outer space.
Can the rebels survive against this galaxy-spanning empire, especially when they pilot a Space Station that can literally destroy entire planets? You'll have to see it to believe it!
Writer/ Director George Lucas (THX-1138) keeps things fast paced and exciting. Never does he slow down the plot to over explain anything (it keeps getting faster and more intense), but somehow it all makes sense. Sort of like coming in to a subtitled Samurai film. You might not know all of the mythology and customs, but the human themes are universal! Star Wars combines so very many divergent elements that it's striking how well these things work together. There are western elements, Camelot references, Sword and Sorcery, Samurai, Saturday Morning Matinee, Pirate themes, comic book violence and Flash Gordon/ Buck Rogers style adventure.
What's more, this film out-Sci-Fis the most Sci-Fi stories out there. There are Aliens everywhere, directly clashing with the ubiquitous robots. Many scenes are subtitled in English to translate the unearthly languages these various creatures speak. Pushing things a half-step further, there are some characters who not only don't speak English, but aren't subtitled either. Luckily, there are other characters who understand them, so context plays a huge part.
The special effects used to tell this story are incredible (especially by 1977 standards). The award-winning "Photographic Effects" by John Dykstra and his crew are breathtaking to see. The sweeping scope of Lucas' vision is well complimented by the impossible tracking shots and explosions that Dykstra created using actual models. Of course, the use of Ray Guns, with the colored bolts of light and the amazing blaster sounds keep the whole theme going, but the greatest addition to the Sci-Fi mythos can be found in two incredible ideas. The first: Light Sabers, retractable laser swords of various cool colors used as the Excalibur of the Jedi Knights (like Ben, and Luke's long deceased father). The second: The Force, a mystical magic that can only be used by a select few. Ben can use it, and Luke is learning, under the apprenticeship of Ben Kenobi. Unfortunately, there is also a Dark Side to the Force, as shown by the horrible black arts of Darth Vader. The various special effects make both of these great ideas feel real, in spite of their far-away nature.
Another of the great special effects here are found in the creature make-up and effects. Of course, it's no surprise that Stuart Freeborn's makeup crew includes Rick Baker (King Kong). You've just got to see these creatures to believe them. When that's not enough, we've got Elephants dressed as Aliens, real robots standing in for giant lizards and even a fair amount of Stop Motion Animation (by Jon Berg).
The acting here is intentionally fun, evoking the Saturday Matinees that helped to inspire it. However, there are also some incredibly good performances here. Guinness is amazing as always and reminds us of his venerable desert lord from Lawrence of Arabia. He was rewarded with a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award nomination! Another wonderful great is one Peter Cushing, who brings us the menacing role of Governor Tarkin. A special mention should be given to the amazing voice of James Earl Jones, who both demonizes and humanizes the dark lord Vader. However, this is a fun movie, and Ford shows some great comedic moments, especially when paired with Fisher, Hamill and Mayhew. And then, there's always those Freindly Fueding Robots.
It's almost impossible to talk about Star Wars without mentioning the rousing score by John Williams. The main theme alone is now one of the most easily recognizable pieces of music known in popular culture. In addition to this, the score to Star Wars is one of the best examples of music matching mood in every case. Williams' amazing and diverse score is a character all its own. Without it this would have been a very different experience. Best of all, Williams compliments the action, adding enchanting orchestral accompaniment, never attempting to overtake the story itself. There are no orchestra hits or goofy tones to remind you when to be scared or when to laugh. Lucas and Williams have created a symbiotic work that respects as well as entertains its audience. Good work, gentlemen!
As you can see, Star Wars still stands up beautifully, even... well, especially, today. This is truly a review 29 years in the writing. I only wish I could see it for the first time all over again. Of course, that's pretty well impossible. Star Wars changed Hollywood, and changed the way movies are made. Many would say, not for the better. But still, even those who haven't seen Star Wars are affected by it.
As for the September 12, 2006 DVD release, it's great! Great because we have this wonderful film as it originally was shown (if not how it was originally "intended"). However, it should be noted that Uncle George's focus is still on the Special Editions. The "Original theatrical (1977) version of Star Wars" is actually a DVD extra on yet another release of the Special Edition. There is no commentary, there is no extra trailer (unless you count the playable demo and preview of the X-Box Game "Lego Star Wars II"). Disc One contains the full Special Edition with commentary, but even it feels relatively "Bare Bones". Then again, bare bones or not, we finally have the movie we want. I have the DVDs from last year, and they include plenty of extras. In addition to that, I have the Special Edition on VHS. In addition to that, the aforementioned Marigrace (above) bought me the original trilogy in the VHS Commemorative Boxed Set about a decade or so ago, and that set is packed with Extras. Yeah, I've got Star Wars! And I still sprung for the commemorative Tin Case of the full trilogy this time! Hey, I'm George Lucas' dream... a sci-fi completist consumer with money. Huzzah!
In short, Star Wars is a wonderful film (by any name, by any number) and is fully worth Five Stars out of Five! Lucas fought for the inclusion of the words "Episode IV" and "A New Hope" in the opening crawl (if not the actual title) to (his words) explain why so much of the film wasn't explained. He lost that fight, but after the film became a MONSTER HIT, he threw it right back in, on what could be considered the first step toward the Special Editions (still, it's the only one of the six films that can stand on its own). Back then we didn't have VHS or DVD, we didn't have the Internet, we couldn't verify and cross reference plot points and character nuances out the wazoo... we had the movie itself, and if we were lucky, we got a good re-release some time in a few years. Yeah, bets took half-a-decade to win for movie freaks like us. Is it better this way? Maybe not, maybe I'm a slave to a corporate Empire, suckling me at its digital disc producing teat. Well, if you'll excuse me, I'm still hungry... I've got another two original flicks to watch. Anybody else want a pound of flesh?