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Star Wars Trilogy DVD box set
4 of 5 stars (Overall)

Star Wars
5 of 5 stars
Directed by George Lucas.
Starring Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Peter Cushing and Alec Guinness.

The Empire Strikes Back
5 of 5 stars
Directed by Irvin Kershner.
Starring Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams and Anthony Daniels.

Return of the Jedi
4 of 5 stars
Directed by Richard Marquand.
Starring Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams and Anthony Daniels.

Empire of Dreams: The Story of the Star Wars Trilogy
4 of 5 stars
Directed by Edith Becker and Ken Burns.

If you haven't already seen the Star Wars films, you probably won't like them -- especially if you're not a kid. With the ungodly hype surrounding these films, there's really no way they can live up to expectations. Since the first film's initial release in 1977, its uniqueness has also been greatly diminished by weak knockoffs like Independence Day or The Last Starfighter and the lackluster prequels. On top of that, the first film is really not as good as a lot of people remember, at least not standing on its own. While the original Star Wars is an amazingly innovative piece of filmmaking from a technical standpoint; its story is very nearly as cartoonish and silly as Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers. While the elements of mythology that Lucas worked into it add some resonance to the cardboard cut-out characters, there is little depth to its paint-by-numbers plot.

The first film still holds up as an immensely enjoyable children's movie, of course, but it is only with the brilliant, downbeat, character-driven second installment, The Empire Strikes Back, that the first retroactively becomes a great film on a somewhat more adult level. In Empire of Dreams, the two-and-a-half hour documentary that is the centerpiece of the box set's bonus disc, Empire Strikes Back director Irvin Kershner explains, "I thought of the film as the second movement of a symphony. That's why I wanted some of the things slower, and it ends in a way that you can't wait to see -- to hear -- the vivace, the next movement, the allegretto. I didn't have a climax at the end; I had an emotional climax." In exactly the opposite way, the wretched Matrix sequels turned a terrific first chapter into nothing more than a visually stunning waste of time and money. I'm living in denial about the ramifications that this hypothesis has on the original Star Wars trilogy in light of the prequels.

While Return of the Jedi wraps up all the loose ends effectively enough, it does so with the least visual flair of any of the three chapters and so proves to be somewhat of a disappointment. Additionally, the recycled "we gotta blow up the Death Star" plot and the less-than-otherworldly setting of the forests of northern California lend a slightly earthbound feel to what should have been the most exciting, if not the deepest, of the three films.

George Lucas, sound designer Ben Burtt, visual effects coordinator Dennis Muren and Carrie Fisher handle the commentary tracks for the first and last films, with Kershner joining them for his installment. Throughout the trilogy, Lucas mostly comments on the mythology of the stories and the original version of the larger story that he wrote before filming the first chapter. Burtt chimes in with fascinating stories about where many of the instantly recognizable Star Wars sounds came from, and Dennis Muren pitches in an anecdote or two about the creature and spaceship effects. On Empire, Kershner eats up much of the film's running time by repeatedly pointing out the numerous amusing, but old-as-sin running gags and over-explaining such less-than-state-of-the-art special effects as rocking the camera back and forth and telling the actors to pretend the Millennium Falcon is shaking. For her part, Carrie Fisher seems to have little to say, but she adds a story about her own experience as part of the cast now and then. Though Harrison Ford's vocal ambivalence towards Star Wars makes his participation in a commentary track unlikely to happen, one bizarre omission is Mark Hamill, considering his passion for the original Star Wars films, to say nothing of the science fiction genre.

For what was probably the most anticipated DVD release since the popularization of the format, the Star Wars set contains a disappointing number of special features. Aside from the commentaries, all of the extras are contained on the bonus disc that includes Empire of Dreams as well as a few shorter featurettes (The Birth of the Lightsaber, The Force is With Them: The Legacy of Star Wars and The Characters of Star Wars), which provide terrific insight into the making of the films, their historical context and their influence on an entire generation of filmmakers. Additional features revolving around the upcoming Revenge of the Sith (a.k.a. Episode III) and the video game based on it are going to be dated by next summer. It's interesting to see the posters, trailers and TV spots for the initial release and the re-releases, as well as a large number of production photos, but there are no deleted scenes anywhere, which is a shame. Widely known but little-seen scenes involving Luke, Biggs and other friends of his on Tattooine in the first Star Wars and an entire subplot involving Wampas attacking the Rebel base on Hoth were understandably excised for pacing and tonal concerns, but such scenes should have been no-brainers to include on the DVD release. A hidden blooper reel from all three films, intercut with the DVD credits, can be found by hitting "11" "3" "8" in the "Video Games and Still Galleries" section, as well.

In short, this is not the archival edition of the Star Wars Trilogy for your DVD library -- that edition still does not exist. And given that Lucas is such a technophile, undoubtedly there will be another edition in HD-DVD, or BluRay or whichever format eventually becomes the next standard, perhaps for the 30th anniversary in 2007. All but the most die-hard fans should wait until then.

The Star Wars Trilogy DVD box set lists for $70 but seems to be available everywhere in the galaxy for roughly $45 -- Amazon sells it for $42. Greedo still shoots first. Cry about it.

THX 1138: The George Lucas Director's Cut
5 of 5 stars
Directed by George Lucas.
Starring Robert Duvall, Donald Pleasance, Don Pedro Colley, Maggie McOmie and Ian Wolfe.

Here are just a few of the innumerable instances that have slyly referred to this film: "THX 138" was the license plate of Harrison Ford's car in American Graffiti, Han bluffs that Chewbacca is being transferred from cell block 1138 in Star Wars, "THX = 1138" was the answer to the equation Brain was writing on the chalkboard in the opening for Lucas' pal Steven Spielberg's "Animaniacs" cartoon series, and Dr. Jennings' office was number 1138 in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. When I first saw THX 1138 on video several years ago, I didn't particularly care for it, but I felt that I at least got the joke, and that was worth something -- sort of like when I sat through Midnight Cowboy, with the sole reward of getting the joke behind Rizzo the Rat from the Muppets TV shows and films. But when I recently sat down to watch THX 1138: The George Lucas Director's Cut, which was released earlier this month on DVD (coinciding with a brief theatrical run), I absolutely loved it and now regret having missed seeing it on the big screen.

What changed between then and now?

Well, when I sat down to look at the VHS version a friend had given me recently, my VCR ate it and then died, so I don't really know. But judging from images in the original release's trailers and the vintage Bald: The Making of THX 1138 -- which are included in the DVD set's bonus disc, and which are the only place on the DVD to see anything of the film's original incarnation -- the pan-and-scan images of the original version I'd seen on video were restored to their full 1.85:1 aspect ratio on the DVD. With the young George Lucas's beautiful, inventive shot framing cropped down "to fit your screen," the film simply looked awful. Any movie, no matter how beautifully shot, will look like crap if you block off a third of the screen.

For another thing, I was young and dumb. I expected to be spoon-fed some kind of story about how the society shown in THX 1138 came to be that way, or what the outside world was like, and I was annoyed that I got nothing of the sort. Basically, I stupidly expected something a little closer to the science fiction we see in Star Wars or even Planet of the Apes than what THX 1138 is: a highly experimental, bleak, metaphorical satire of modern life that is even more relevant now than when it was made. Based loosely on one of his student films, Electronic Labyrinth THX 1138 4EB, which is also included on the bonus disc, the film is set in a dystopian future in which the population lives underground and is drugged into sexless complacency.

THX 1138 (Robert Duvall) is a factory worker whose assigned roommate LUH 3417 (Maggie McOmie) has gone off her meds and fallen in love with him, leading her to replace THX's pills. Snapped out of his drug-induced state, he falls in love with LUH and they soon have sex, which, along with drug evasion, is a crime. SEN 5241 (Donald Pleasance), a thoroughly creepy and vaguely homosexual fellow drone, has observed the changes in THX. Hoping to replace LUH as his roommate for reasons we are never explicitly let in on, he illegally reassigns her, prompting THX to report him. This ends up getting them all arrested for their various crimes. LUH is sent elsewhere because she is pregnant while, after a period of reconditioning, THX ends up with SEN and a group of other criminals in jail, which is a seemingly endless white expanse.

Soon, SEN and THX decide to escape -- or rather, THX decides to escape and SEN follows him like a love-struck puppy. Wandering aimlessly through the white expanse, THX and SEN happen upon SRT (Don Pedro Colley), who claims to be a hologram. I'm more inclined to think SRT is simply insane like many of the other prisoners, because he eats some food that SEN has with him, but that is purely conjectural. Or, perhaps SRT simply means that he was an actor for the kind of hologram shows that THX is shown watching earlier in the film, but it doesn't really matter either way. SRT shows them the way out and, after getting separated from SEN in the rush of a crowd, he and THX steal a pair of cars and attempt to escape to the outside. SRT crashes his car immediately, though, after having some difficulty figuring out how to work the thing, leaving THX on his own with two chrome robot cops in hot pursuit. How THX gets away from them is one of the more brilliant satirical touches in the film, so I'd hate to spoil it. But it's not a surprise that he does eventually escape in the end -- if he didn't the story would have no point at all. Even in Terry Gilliam's Brazil, another bleak metaphor of modern life disguised as science fiction, the hero manages an escape... sort of.

Some fans of the original have cried "Greedo" about the changes to the film, which I can respect to some extent. But they are conveniently ignoring the fact that when Warner Bros. first saw the film, they forced Lucas to shorten the film by five minutes and imposed a number of editorial changes on the it. Meaning the "original" version wasn't really the original version, after all. While it's impossible to say what's different without having seen George Lucas' original, unreleased cut, some of the changes between the theatrical version and the new "George Lucas Director's Cut" are listed with before and after images at THX-1138.org. DavisDVD.com also plans to provide exhaustive list of the changes here, but only the first nine minutes have been covered so far. Presumably, most of the changes to the new edition are editorial, and would be somewhat close to Lucas' original cut, though obviously the CGI-enhanced footage and the recently filmed live-action footage (mostly of crowds and that sort of thing) is another matter.

For the most part, these changes are rather seamless and well-integrated, though some of the more major changes, like those made to the Star Wars films, often look too crisp and plastic to mesh well with the real-life footage. In most cases, though, they effectively convey a larger scope for the story that was only implied before by the film's miniscule budget. Yet one glaring change in the film, however, isn't listed at either page I mentioned: the digital replacement of some of the "shell dwellers" that attack THX during his escape with CGI monkey-like creature things that supposedly live with the shell dwellers. In both the original and the altered form, the attack is out of nowhere and serves no clear function in the story save to slow THX down briefly while running from the robot cops, so I don't mind the alteration. I choose to interpret the creatures and the shell dwellers as a hint of what the outside world has in store for THX as well as an implied explanation for why their society is living underground in the first place -- an interpretation that makes his escape a rather bleak affair, indeed.

THX 1138 is not a plot-driven movie and shouldn't be approached as one. It's also not character-driven or dialogue-driven -- it is chiefly a spectacle of sight and sound, which, for me, can be enough to make a film enjoyable. Though much more substantial in terms of story, character and dialogue, a recent example of a film that succeeds on this level is Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation. Using San Francisco's then-unfinished Bay Area Rapid Transit stations and tunnels as a stand-in for the 21st century in the same way that Jean-Luc Godard used bits of Paris in Alphaville, Lucas managed to pull off the futuristic look on a shoestring budget. But the combination of Lalo Schifrin's score, co-screenwriter Walter Murch's ambient noise and sound effects and the almost musical babble of the occasionally incomprehensible (and occasionally barely audible) dialogue is often more entrancing than Lucas's inspired visuals, occasionally reminding me of René Laloux's 1973 animated masterpiece, Fantastic Planet. One of the disc's special features isolates Schifrin and Murch's contributions, which makes for an even more hypnotic experience and calls to attention how important an element sound is to not only this film but film in general, as well as how underutilized it so often is.

There are two documentaries included on a bonus disc: the hour long A Legacy of Filmmakers: The Early Years of American Zoetrope and the half-hour Artifact from the Future: The Making of THX 1138. The latter documentary is mildly annoying in spots because it uses the CGI-enhanced footage rather than the original, unaltered footage from 1971. But they both provide remarkable insight into the historical context of the film and the early career of George Lucas, making the two-disc edition of THX 1138 a terrific companion to the Star Wars Trilogy DVD box set for adult fans of the Star Wars films.

THX 1138: The George Lucas Director's Cut is available on DVD with or without the bonus disc. The original version is still available on VHS through Amazon.

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About the Author(s)

Gordon McAlpin writes his movie reviews with a red light-up Spy Kids pen, which he thinks is the coolest thing ever, even though he didn't like the movie that much.

If you feel the need to get in touch with him directly, do so at .

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