Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope on DVD

03 Nov 2006

The history of the various revisions of these essays on Star Wars is quite messy. I re-worked portions of this blog post into a longer post dated November 7th, called “Restoration versus Cartoonization.” I then included a version of that post, with further revisions, in my essay collection The Films that Formed Me Collection 1, available on my web site here. That’s the version I recommend, unless for some reason you want to read the earlier drafts.

So, we watched the original 1977 Star Wars on DVD. This edition was not called “Episode IV.” I’m sorry to report that the digital transfer, from the videodisc master, is only adequate. Many fans are griping that it is 4:3 instead of anamorphic 19:9. This means it isn’t full-width on a widescreen TV. That doesn’t particularly bother me, but I’m viewing it on an old TV, not a widescreen TV.

Some of the Amazon reviewers make it sound like the transfer is horrible. It isn’t. It looks like a very good analog videotape, but we’ve recently — and rather abruptly, in terms of years — gotten used to DVDs of films that were transferred to the digital realm and mastered there. It’s actually taken from the master for the analog videodisc.

The audio is good, but again we now tend to compare it to all-digital productions. Negative comments on Amazon about the black level are on the mark; some of the space scenes make black outer space look brown, or gray. This is particularly evident when we see Vader’s helmet in his tie fighter; his helmet is blacker than the black background of space. But that is true in the original film; it was noticeable in the theater on opening day. A number of the desert scenes have poor contrast and faded color; some of this is film deterioration, and some is because the contrast and color in some of the outdoor Tatooine scenes were never that good to begin with. There are noticeable scratches. The color is shaky in some scenes, particularly outdoor scenes, and flickers a bit. It looks like a film that is considerably older than it is. I’ve seen restored films from considerably earlier that look a lot better than this one does.

Here’s the thing: it didn’t have to be this way. We would have considered it to be a fairly good video rendering at one point in time. But our expectations have been raised considerably — in fact, largely by Lucas himself. The 2004 DVD release has all those black level problems fixed. There aren’t any visible scratches. The contrast is excellent. The colors are vivid. The missing dialog is restored. And here’s the thing: I’d be shocked if Lucas didn’t have every scene, unaltered, from the first film in beautifully restored digital form; after all, wouldn’t a restored original film have been the starting point for this whole process of remastering that led to the 1997 and 2004 versions?

So, I’m not actually advocating that we give up the advances in restoration that are evident in the 2004 release. The restoration work is great. But why can’t we buy a restored version without any of the “artistic” changes? No new matte paintings, no new animated creatures carrying stormtroopers, no altered creatures in the cantina in Mos Eisley. No cartoonish sound effects from episode 1 need to be added. We just want a beautifully restored version of the original film, with the best soundtrack possible, with cheesy aliens here and there intact, and the occasional poorly rendered special effect. We could debate just what constitutes restoration: leftover black bars in a matte should probably go, but in the scene where a rebel scout is tracking the Millenium Falcon as it approaches the rebel base, but no ship is visible should the ship be added? For the restored original, the “Nostalgia Edition,” I think the answer should be “no.” We don’t need green flashes when the red and blue lightsabers collide. We don’t need pink explosions or strange rings added in the explosions, which Lucas inexplicably decided look more realistic. Keep the original death star cell block footage. Sure, the tunnel behind the actors is obviously a matte painting, and the perspective is off kilter when the camera angle changes. But you know what? I saw Star Wars at least ten times in the theater and I never noticed the problem — because it isn’t a “problem,” it’s an artifact of the budget and technology that existed in 1977. It might be an irritant to Lucas, but it is the effect we grew up with. For the “Nostalgia Edition,” let Star Wars be Star Wars.

Then Lucas can go on with his director’s cuts, turning Star Wars into a 3-D cartoon until the sun explodes, for all I care. Just don’t make me watch Greedo shoot first!

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