Love him or loathe him, George Lucas in his various capacities as writer, producer, director, and cinematic entrepreneur has helped to change the face of American moviemaking and American movie going. The six movies branded with the Star Wars mantel contained in the recently released Star Wars: The Complete Saga box set represent the legendary filmmaker’s massive strengths and undoubted weaknesses as the creator and supreme guru of one of the most popular film franchises ever produced. That the movies are wildly erratic in quality seems to matter little to hoards of fans who literally can’t get enough of this intergalactic world, and the nine disc set as released on Blu-ray offers the viewer the best-ever representations of the films despite wildly debated changes to them since they were originally released. This review will only deal with what is here in the films and the supplements and leave arguments about the intrinsic wisdom or foolishness of tampering with the original creations for another time and place.
Star Wars: The Complete Saga (Blu-ray)
Directed by George Lucas, Irvin Kershner, Richard Marquand
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 1080p AVC codec
Running Time: 805 minutes
Rating: PG/PG-13 (Episode III)
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 6.1 English; Dolby Digital 5.1 Spanish, French, Portuguese
Subtitles: SDH, Spanish, French, Portuguese, others
Region: no designation
MSRP: $ 139.99
Release Date: September 16, 2011
Review Date: September 17, 2011
Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace – 3/5
Jedi knights Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and his trainee Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) are dispatched to Naboo to broker peace between the planet’s Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) and the Trade Federation. The Federation, however, is actually massing for an assault on the planet, and their phantom leader gives instructions to begin the attack forcing the Jedi and Amidala and her entourage to flee to the planet of Tatooine to regroup. While there, Jinn meets young slave Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd) who exudes such unmistakable manifestations of the Force within him that Jinn is eager to train him in the Jedi arts. First, however, they must get off the planet and to do that, Anakin must win a pod race which will earn him his freedom and score parts for the Jedi’s spaceship damaged in the federation’s attack. If he’s successful, they must round up their troops and go back to defend Naboo from the evil Federation who has a secret fighting weapon, the evil Sith lord Darth Maul (Ray Park, voice of Peter Serafinowicz).
No movie in history could have lived up to the tremendous anticipation and expectations of this 1999 continuation of the original Star Wars trilogy, but The Phantom Menace doesn’t even come close. There’s a genuine lack of interesting new personalities introduced here who just don’t engage one’s rooting interest as the characters in the original trilogy did (casting is off with the young Jake Lloyd nondescript as Anakin and Natalie Portman rather brittle as Amidala). George Lucas’ direction doesn’t trust his audience’s attention span at all breaking up sequences into tiny scene bites which frustrate a viewer trying to develop a genuine interaction with these new characters. Poop and fart jokes aren’t worthy of the franchise, and even the good will generated by seeing C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) as well as Yoda (Frank Oz) and Ewan McGregor’s early incarnation of fan favorite Obi-Wan Kenobi can only go so far. With his sincere authority and engaging professionalism, Liam Neeson is head and shoulders above everyone else in the film making even the kid’s theatrics and cartoonish action sequences worthy of scrutiny. The nine-minute pod race sequence isn’t a patch on the exciting jet cycle chases in Episode VI, and the almost twenty-minute climactic battles in space and on land get chopped up into irritating snippets that jerk the viewer back and forth and dissipate tension with each transition. (The Jedi-Darth Maul fight alone should have had its own solo spotlight to better maintain suspense and audience involvement.) The special effects are front and center and give the movie the sense of awe that it’s seeking, but the human element gets short shrift here.
Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones – 3.5/5
With many planets leaving the Republic and joining a rapidly escalating army of forces setting out to abolish it, Jedi warriors around the galaxy are outmanned. In order to seek answers about this upcoming mutiny, Jedi master Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) leaves new Senator Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman) under guard by his apprentice Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen). In the ten years since they last saw each other, Anakin has grown more and more in love with Padme, a love that is strictly forbidden by Jedi regulations. Meanwhile, Obi-Wan learns of a clone army ten years in the making and that turncoat to the Dark Side former Jedi Count Dooku (Christopher Lee) is doing everything he can to round up his forces and begin the war.
Episode II at least brings back the spirit of comic book fun and adventure in a string of excitingly staged and awesomely designed battle sequences that make this a much more engaging film than Episode I. A couple of nifty chase sequences (one inside a city’s airways, another even more breathless one through an asteroid field), a fight for life on an assembly line, and the climactic arena execution that evolves into a fight to the death (culminating in Obi-Wan, Anakin, and eventually Yoda (Frank Oz) squaring off against the marvelous Christopher Lee as Dooku) ratchets up the suspense amid the astounding special effects that leave all of the action sequences in Episode I in the dust. Ewan McGregor has certainly grown into his part as a now master Jedi, and Natalie Portman has lessened in stiffness and blank stares this time out. The film is burdened, however, with the inept performance of Hayden Christensen whose character, despite ten years of Jedi training, emerges as a petulant, obstinate brat and one who demonstrates none of the charisma which one would expect for a part so vital to the film (and the next one) working as his hero-gone-bad story races toward its resolution. His line readings throughout are flat and amateurish, and all of the scenes of intimacy between Anakin and Padme are borderline embarrassing. He is the weakest link in this film and the next in terms of everything firing on all cylinders.
Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith – 3.5/5
As the galactic war continues, the Jedi seem to be making real strides toward getting the rebellion under control once Lord Sidious’ henchman Count Dooku (Christopher Lee) is dispatched. But the Jedi Council is disturbed by the growing power of Supreme Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) and realize something must be done about his increasing ambitions for dominion over all. Having married at the end of the previous film, Anakin (Hayden Christensen) and Padme (Natalie Portman) are now expecting a child, and since Palpatine knows Anakin’s secret, he uses a subtle form of blackmail and his Sith powers of persuasion to turn Anakin’s fear of losing his wife into the means of turning him to the Dark Side. As Palpatine reveals his true colors as Lord Sidious, Anakin swears allegiance to him, convinced the Jedi have betrayed their code and are no longer loyal to the Republic. Sidious now commands his efforts and deems him Darth Vader.
The third film in the prequel trilogy had the unenviable task of bringing the story full circle so that the original Star Wars’ legacy characters and situations would mesh with what had come before. There is a certain thrill to seeing various events transpire to come in line with what we already knew to be true: the birth of twins Luke and Leia and their separation, the identity of Darth Vader and the explanations of his origin, the eventual fates of Yoda and Obi-Wan, and introductions of other soon-to-be beloved characters like Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), and these events are handled with a satisfying sense of completeness and inevitability. Sadly, the war scenario, despite mind-boggling special effects which trump anything seen in the first two prequels, grows rather tedious devolving sometimes into nothing more than a video game esthetic, and those light saber duels get monotonous after a time even when key characters are participating. The dramatic scenes between the characters are rather surface and full of clichés, too, though both Natalie Portman and Hayden Christensen have grown as actors (though he’s still far from the charismatic apprentice one might have hoped for) and come off far better here than in the earlier films. Ewan McGregor gives his best performance of the three prequels, but Ian McDiarmid gets awfully hammy once he lets his guard down and reveals his true colors (and with the actor’s singular looks, was anyone surprised at his identity revelation here? It’s been obvious from the first film he was playing for both sides even if one had never seen Episodes IV and V).
Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope – 4.5/5
After decades of domination, the Empire begins to feel the first strong wave of discontent when rebel forces led by Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) steal the plans for the Empire’s mighty Death Star and begin to make preparations for its destruction. The Empire’s Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing) assigns his henchman Darth Vader (David Prowse, voice of James Earl Jones) to prevent the rebels from succeeding. Meanwhile, the plans have been entrusted to a droid R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) who must find Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) now living on Tatooine. Both R2 and his companion C-3PO are sold to Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and his Uncle Owen (Phil Brown), but when Luke finally makes contact with Kenobi and they see what the message from Princess Leia is concerning, they must make plans to rescue her and join the fight to overthrow the Empire.
The first thing one notices watching the original film after having seen the three prequels is how much more mature and assured the storytelling is here. Scenes run reasonable lengths without the irritating cross-cutting that breaks them into unsatisfying scene snippets, and the acting is light years better than in any of the previous films. Even Lucas’ three stars Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, and Harrison Ford (all with previous acting experience but unheralded until this movie) are so engaging with personalities both spunky and assured that one can’t help rooting for them. And with veterans like Peter Cushing and Alec Guinness playing it all seriously but without resorting to camping things up or playing it too broadly, there is a gravitas with them that grounds the film in a more adult mindset rather than the awkward silliness of many scenes in the prequels. For their era, the special effects set the film apart from almost all previous science fiction cinema, and even with Lucas’ additions and alterations to what was shown originally, the film can hold its own with today’s special effects blockbusters. Notable with his light saber duels, dogfights, and shootouts in the original is that they don’t go on past the point of endurance even with these striking special effects he had at hand (except for the ambushes on board the Death Star which do run on a tad long). And humor is a key component to balance the derring-do of the heroes. Han’s sardonic quips and the banter between the droids keep things fun even at the darkest moments.
Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back – 5/5
After rebel forces are finally located on the ice planet Hoth, the Imperial Army attacks them successfully, scattering those who could escape across the galaxy. Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) is drawn by the Force within him to seek Jedi training on the planet Dagobah. There he meets the diminutive Jedi master Yoda (Frank Oz) who recognizes Luke as the potential savior of the Jedi but is worried he may be tempted by Darth Vader (David Prowse, voice of James Earl Jones) to embrace the Dark Side. Vader, meanwhile, hatches a plan to capture Leia (Carrie Fisher), Han (Harrison Ford), and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) and use them as bait to lure Luke into a trap. To do this, he enlists the aid of Han’s old rival Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams). With visions of his friends in trouble, Luke leaves his training unfinished to go rescue his friends.
The best film of the Star Wars franchise, The Empire Strikes Back deepens and enriches all of the personalities of the major characters, features some stunning action sequences with incredible special effects (then and now), and includes a few surprise revelations and plot points for those who might not already know the story ahead of time. Director Irvin Kershner paces the film beautifully, never drawing out the battle sequences or Luke’s training sessions past the point of endurance and keeping things interesting for all of the characters without undue emphasis on any of them. Han and Leia’s aggressive romantic banter and chemistry with one another is worlds advanced from the pathetically stiff romantic scenes in the prequels, and there’s an extra degree of titillation knowing now the real relationship between Luke and Leia which we weren’t privy to when the films were first released. In every way, this is the Star Wars film that fulfills every hope for a sci-fi fanatic: high adventure, old fashioned romance, comic interludes, and heroes who are truly heroic by using their heads and their hearts in both love and war.
Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi – 3.5/5
The Galactic Empire led by the evil Emperor (Ian McDiarmid) is building a new Death Star mightier and more threatening than the original, but the plucky rebel band led by Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), his sister Leia (Carrie Fisher), General Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) must first rescue Han Solo (Harrison Ford) who’s frozen in carbonite and adorning the wall of gangster Jabba the Hutt. Once that’s done, Luke needs to return to Dagobah to complete his Jedi training from Master Yoda (Frank Oz) while the remaining rebels must travel to Endor, home of the Ewoks, to disable the protective shield that’s preventing anyone from getting near the new Death Star.
Large chunks of the movie are given to its three major set pieces: the rescue of Han (at least thirty-five minutes), the completion of Luke’s training and Yoda’s ultimate fate, and the assault on the Death Star (forty-five minutes). The latter sequence divides neatly into three sections with the adventure on the ground as the rebels gain the trust of the furry Ewoks, Luke and his father Darth Vader (David Prowse in costume, Sebastian Shaw without the helmet, the voice of James Earl Jones) squaring off for a final time as the Emperor attempts to bring Luke to the Dark Side, and the aerial attack led by Lando. Director Richard Marquand (who obviously inspired Lucas to direct in the same way for the prequels) splits this three-pronged finale sequence into a piecemeal display with the various fronts gaining focus for a couple of minutes before being cut away from and on to another front. While it may please the hyperactive adrenaline junkies who want a constant string of action back-to-back, the suspense arcs for the three sections are somewhat compromised by this approach, and none of them benefit from the constant cutting. Suspense is also curtailed due to our over-familiarity with these face-offs. We’ve seen all of this before in previous installments, so here the freshness quotient is sadly lacking. Elsewhere, the film seems more juvenile in its humor and adventure than the other two parts of the original trilogy (almost all of the aliens appear to be men in costumes and rubber masks) though one can’t praise enough the speeder bike sequences on Endor with their amazing, dizzying special effects work. This final film really is Mark Hamill’s movie with all of the important dramatic sequences (his encounters with Yoda, Leia, Vader, and the Emperor) belonging to him, and he offers a strong performance throughout.
Episode I – 4/5
All of the films are presented in their original theatrical aspect ratios of 2.35:1 and are provided with 1080p resolution using the AVC codec. The disconcerting aspect of the picture quality of this film is in the inconsistency in sharpness. Much of the film is sharp and nicely detailed, but there are sequences where sharpness is dulled and detail hampered as a result. Color saturation levels are very good without bleeding, and flesh tones are well delivered. Black levels, however, are never as inky black as one would see in a reference transfer. The film has been divided into 50 chapters. In fact, all of the films consistently have 50 chapters.
Episode II – 4.5/5
Sharpness is slightly enhanced in the second film offering better detail for the most part, and color saturation is really rich and impressive. Flesh tones seem sometimes to have a slightly pink cast to them thus having a weird effect on Samuel L. Jackson’s skin leaving him with a lightly magenta cast to his flesh under certain lights and at certain angles. Black levels are a bit better in the second film as well, but the blackness of space still never quite blends in with the letterbox bars.
Episode III – 4.5/5
Once again, sharpness is generally excellent but not in every scene. Details in faces and clothing are nicely realized, but black levels unfortunately do not reach consistently reference levels of inkiness. Color, however, is exemplary throughout (reds and oranges come through especially well), and flesh tones are more natural than in Episode II.
Episode 4 – 4.5/5
Because the movie was shot on film rather than digitally, this has a different (and for me more satisfying) look. In fact, the added elements which have been digitally put in are often betrayed because they sometimes don’t mix very well with the filmed elements. They look slightly softer and have a different texture and level of detail. Color saturation is very good though there is some banding to be noticed in those bluer than blue skies on occasion. Flesh tones are very appealing in this transfer. Black levels, alas, continue to be variable with some shots containing blacks much darker than others.
Episode V – 4/5
Once again, exceptional sharpness comes and goes from scene to scene and often for no real reason. Detail occasionally suffers as a result, but at its best, detail is incredible which makes it all the more frustrating that it isn’t there all the time. There is banding as in the previous film, too. On the other hand, color values are consistent throughout the film with accurate flesh tones on display. The whites on Hoth are bright but never bloom and spoil the effect of all that snow and ice, and black levels are better if still not quite reaching reference levels.
Episode VI – 5/5
From beginning to end, this is the film that reaches the closest to a true reference quality visual presentation. Sharpness is consistent throughout with incredible amounts of detail, color is lush but never overdone, and the flesh tones are the truest in all the films. Black levels are also the deepest and most impressive allowing shadow detail to qualify as the best of the films in the series.
Episodes 1-3 – 5/5
All of the films have been given a DTS-HD Master Audio 6.1 encode. The prequels were fortunate to be produced during a period when elaborate and hugely enveloping sound design was becoming a primary requirement for any kind of science fiction work. The sound in the prequels delivers massively impressive results in every respect with sophisticated, engrossing channel separations with all of the mammoth amounts of ambient effects necessary for the film’s effectiveness to be maximized. John Williams’ symphonic music gets a world-class orchestral treatment and is greatly impacted by the spread through every available channel throughout the presentation. The seismic blasts in Episode II are particularly impressive in lossless audio. Throughout these three films, the LFE channel gets a rigorous workout sometimes approaching system-threatening levels of bass. Dialogue is always discernible and is anchored to the center channel.
Episode IV – 4/5
Though certainly the sound design is excellent and has been enhanced and refurbished over the years, there are still moments when it’s clear this doesn’t have the sophistication in spread and ambiance that the prequel films enjoy. Volume seems to have been increased somewhat to hide some of the limitations of the original sound elements, and there’s no denying that the LFE channel gets some strong bass signals sent to it. Still, the film can stand with its younger siblings without being able to match them in overall complexity or effectiveness.
Episode V – 4.5/5
The sound mix is a bit more sophisticated this time around (and just as loud as in Episode IV) while still obviously not quite at the reference quality levels of the prequels. Dialogue is nicely rendered, and there’s even some touches of directionalized dialogue in the mix. The score doesn’t have quite the spread as in some of the other films, but this is quibbling. Sound mixers have done a good job covering available channels with a variety of ambient sounds especially when our heroes are in some unusual and sometimes dangerous places.
Episode VI – 5/5
The audio quality, like the video quality, seems much superior to the other films in the original trilogy. The sound design is more elaborate with many more instances of panning effects across and through the soundstage, and all of the many explosions throughout have an impact sometimes missing in the earlier films of the original trilogy. Dialogue is, as always, well recorded and resides in the center channel
The two audio commentaries which are available for each film in the set are each comprised of edited comments from material recorded for their original disc releases and new commentaries stitched together from archival comments made by cast and crew over the years. Because of the large collection of talent who make comments, subtitle identification tags inform the viewer who’s speaking at any given moment. For fans of the films, each commentary is a must listening experience, and since the new commentary tracks weren’t available prior to this release, many fans will likely head here first to see what has been put together.
Discs 7 and 8 in the set contain the bonus features which are organized around locations and themes. Within each location for each of the six films, there are four possible sections of information: (1) interviews, (2) deleted-extended scenes, (3) The Collection (which gathers together models and archetypes), and (4) Concept Art Gallery. An enclosed booklet gives detailed information on the interview and deleted scenes available on each disc. The Collection offers the viewer the possibility of a zoom mode, detail mode, 360 degree turnaround, and video commentary on the object under discussion. The Concept Art Gallery offers dozens of sketches for each of the figures being examined.
The features on discs 7 and 8 are shown in a widescreen window which allows other menu choices to also appear on the screen. All of the video featurettes in these bonuses are presented in 1080p.
Naboo: interviews (overview and Liam Neeson), 3 deleted scenes, 9 articles in The Collection, 19 art gallery items
Tatooine: interviews (3), 2 deleted scenes, 7 articles in The Collection, 16 art gallery items
Coruscant: 2 interviews (including George Lucas), 1 deleted scene, 4 items in The Collection, 10 art gallery items
Coruscant: interviews (2 including Ewan McGregor), 2 deleted scenes, 4 items in The Collection, 16 art gallery sketches
Naboo: 1 interview, 2 deleted scenes, 5 items in The Collection, 11 art gallery sketches
Tatooine: 1 interview, no deleted scenes, 3 items in The Collection, 10 art gallery items
Geonosis: 2 interviews (including Hayden Christensen), 1 deleted scene, 10 items in The Collection, 30 art gallery items
Coruscant: 2 interviews (including Samuel L. Jackson), 3 deleted scenes, 6 items in The Collection, 24 art gallery items
Utapau: 1 interview, 1 deleted scene, 5 items in The Collection, 19 art gallery sketches
Mustafar: 2 interviews (including Natalie Portman), 2 deleted scenes, 4 items in The Collection, 10 art gallery items
Kashyyyk: 1 interview, 5 deleted scenes, 6 items in The Collection, 22 art gallery items
Tatooine: 3 interviews (including Mark Hamill and Anthony Daniels), 6 deleted scenes, 7 items in The Collection, 30 art gallery items
Death Star: 2 interviews (including Carrie Fisher), 1 deleted scene, 4 items in The Collection, 24 art gallery sketches
Battle of Yavin: 1 interview, 1 deleted scene, 10 items in The Collection, 16 art gallery items
Hoth: 3 interviews (including George Lucas and Irvin Kershner), 5 deleted scenes, 7 items in The Collection, 38 art gallery items
Dagobah: 2 interviews (including George Lucas), 1 deleted scene, 5 items in The Collection, 16 art gallery items
Imperial Fleet: 1 interview, 2 deleted scenes, 9 items in The Collection, 16 art gallery sketches
Cloud City: 1 interview, 2 deleted scenes, 8 items in The Collection, 10 art gallery items
Tatooine: 1 interview, 2 deleted scenes, 10 items in The Collection, 16 art gallery pieces
Endor: 2 interviews (including Harrison Ford), 1 deleted scene, 8 items in The Collection, 37 art gallery items
Death Star II: 1 interview, 2 deleted scenes, 7 items in The Collection, 22 art gallery items.
Disc 9 contains feature length documentaries both vintage and newly produced.
“The Making of Star Wars” is a 480i feature made in 1977 running for 49 minutes detailing the phenomenon that was the original film.
“The Empire Strikes Back: SPFX” is a 1980 documentary hosted by Mark Hamill that focuses on the special effects used in the sequel to the original movie. It’s in 480i and runs 48 ¼ minutes.
“Classic Creatures: Return of the Jedi” is the 1983 documentary hosted by Carrie Fisher and Billy Dee Williams detailing the creatures created for the third feature in the series. It runs 48 ¼ minutes and is in 480i.
“Anatomy of a Dewback” is a 1997 documentary dealing with the digital alterations made to the original film for its 1997 Special Edition release focusing specifically with the dewback creatures and featuring George Lucas and the team who did the digital transformations. It’s in 480i and runs 26 ¼ minutes.
“Star Warriors” is a 2007 documentary showcasing the 501st Legion, a group of film costume aficionados and their volunteer and charity work that honor the original film. It runs 84 minutes in 480i.
“A Conversation with the Masters: The Empire Strikes Back 30 years Later” features George Lucas, director Irvin Kershner, writer Lawrence Kasdan, and composer John Williams discussing their work on the second film in the series. This 1080i featurette runs 25 ¼ minutes.
“Star Wars Tech” explores the vehicles, weapons, and gadgets in the movie and features interviews with scientists who discuss how plausible the science in the film is to real life and the possibilities for future use. This 1080p documentary runs 45 ½ minutes.
“Star Wars Spoofs” collects the best parodies and goofs on the movies that have been featured in television, movies, ads, and commercials over the years since the original release. This new 2011 documentary is presented in 1080i and runs for 91 minutes.
A very handy enclosed bootlet ("Guide to the Galaxy") has been included at the back of the set detailing the contents of the discs for quick reference.
4.5/5 (not an average)
One of cinema’s great and legendary franchises, Star Wars: The Complete Saga as presented in this box set is the six-film collection that creator-producer-director George Lucas wants the public to see. Like the changes or not (and in most cases, I don’t), what’s here looks very good and sounds for the most part great. Bonus features are an excellent mix of previously seen material and new documentaries made especially for this collection. Recommended!