Star Wars At Home

Today the Star Wars saga comes to digital video in iTunes and other digital platforms. Yep, Star Wars is being released, again, only this time there is no indication that the films have been altered in any way. So who’s buying them? 

Not me, and here’s why…

I love Star Wars. Which is to say I love Star Wars and Empire. I like Jedi, you know, I care about Jedi, I want the best for it, but I don’t love it. The prequels are like an abrasive relative for me, I tolerate them because, you know they’re part of the deal, but I wouldn’t willingly volunteer to spend any real time with them. I am a completist though which presents a bit of an issue for me which we will come back to later. For now, lets look back…

a long time ago…

I’m old enough to have seen Star Wars in the cinema when it was still Star Wars, no number, no subheading. Just Star Wars. Admittedly I would have been maybe five, probably six by the time the first movie hit the UK. Any memory I have of that screening is likely just a memory of a memory at this point, stories recounted by my parents as I fan-boyed all over the galaxy far, far away.

I was in love with those movies. I picked up as many of the toys as possible to maintain my link the fictional universe that I loved so much. My friends and I would recreate the film, create sequels of our own and rewrite the original in a way that would have turned Lucas’ beard white. All with those little plastic toys. The radio drama played a huge part is sustaining my fandom, along with books and comics. So it should come as no surprise that my dedication eventually lead me to a life of crime. In the account that follows I have changed the names to protect the culpable:

“I gave my friend (lets call him Nicholas!) my ten pound note. He slid me the two video cassette tapes. They were unmarked to conceal their contents. His father (lets call him Dave) had put Star Wars and the first half of Empire on tape one. Tape two played host to the second part of Empire and Return of the Jedi. I tucked the tapes up inside my jumper and pulled my fedora down over my eyes to disguise my criminal intent (that last part didn’t happen but it sounds way cool!). I took my bounty home. I now owned Star Wars. I was complete. I was also a pirate, like Han Solo. So cool.”  – Journal Of The Whills (AKA My Stupid Memeories)

So my first copies of the Star Wars movies were pirated versions and they were terrible copies. Like watching the films “through a strong cup of tea" terrible. I also had a copy taped "off the telly” that had all the adverts in too. It turns out by wife’s brother also had the “taped off the telly” version. Anytime we watch Star Wars now she will say “thats where the ads went!” when Threepio tells Luke “Oh he excels at that sir” in response to Luke’s concerns that Artoo is going to get him into trouble. I wish I could special edition that little anecdote out of existence. Anyway those tapes had to keep me going until the real thing got released. That wasn’t too far away…

My first job was a bus ride away from home. I worked in a frozen food store filling the freezers with peas and french fries. The only bonus was when I left each night I could go into a store called WH Smiths to look at the music section. They had huge racks filled to the brim with vinyl, and shelves packed with cassette tapes. Next to the counter was a relatively modest shelf with a few video tapes on. 

I guess it as early days for home video so things were rather pricey. There was only a small selection, but Star Wars was in there. It was part of the All Time Greats collection from CBS Fox. I can only remember one other film from the range an that was the Sound Of Music. The films were all in white plastic boxes with a silver cover. See the image above. No Empire or Jedi, but it was a start. I got that tape for christmas that year from my grandparents. they said “You do realise its on TV over Christmas right? You could just tape it.” Bless them, they didn’t understand fandom. 

It would be a little while before the sequels would be released. Empire and Jedi came out on VHS with the original Star Wars, in a new collection. They were still pan and scan versions of the movies, the widescreen presentations were a few years away yet, but I did have to make a difficult choice: Do I buy the first movie again? I was a young man of limited means, should I drop serious money on the movie I already owned? I decided against it and just bought Empire and Jedi. That was the last time I made a sensible decision regarding these films by the way. I still have these tapes, and yes it still bothers me that the covers do not match. 

Technology, like the tide, waits for no man (or boy apparently) and I soon found out my copies of Star Wars were “so last year” as we leaped forward into a world of magical excess. Widescreen had arrived and suddenly we all felt like crap watching our stupid pan and scan copies. If you are part of the 1% of people on the planet who doesn’t know the difference between pan and scan and widescreen then go here for some info. I had to buy the new versions of the movies, the advert on TV was telling me that if I didn’t buy them I wouldn’t amount to anything, or something like that. Look don’t take my word for it, watch the trailer below and tell me it doesn’t make you hate yourself.

So, I was soon resenting my pan and scan video tapes for making a fool of me, and off I went to the shops with my grubby notes in hand to buy the new versions. One at a time! Yep, it took an insufferably long time to buy all three films, but my goodness it was worth it. I was seeing things onscreen I had never seen before, and I don’t mean wonky versions of Jabba The Hutt in docking bay 94, or cartoon Jawas dangling of dinosaurs. I mean actual legitimate content that had been kept from me by years of stupid pan and scan tapes. Those sorts of revelations are too infrequent these days, reserved for the DVD extra. Anyway, lets jump ahead…

There were a few more purchases. Another version of the films because they were THX remastered. Another round of self loathing due to my stupidity! How could I have been stupid enough not to have the THX versions, even if they weren’t available to me. I knew it must’ve been my fault! Then I bought another set that had an interview with George Lucas, conducted by Leonard Maltin. I didn’t know who Leonard Maltin was but I had to have it. Leonard Maltin struck me as a bit of a tool, but  these interviews did have the first mention of something George was working on at the time. The prequels! Here are the interviews. 

So I was seduced by an “extra feature” on a set of videos that I already owned, but they had stuck a little label on it offering a feature I had never seen before so I threw down some hard earned cash for it. I should have just waited twenty years and watched them on youtube.

These videos tapes were also tagged as being the last time this version of the movies would ever be available. What the hell did that mean? Surely Lucasfilm and 20th Century Fox wouldn’t shelve such a lucrative series of films would they? Especially if what George was saying is true; that he is working on more stories set in the same universe! The answer to that would come in the form of the Special Editions.

Laser Disc

In the days before DVDs there was a technology called laser discs. These were huge silver platters with a film in two parts, one on each side. I never got around to buying a laser disc player. There was a time when I was looking at my first DVD player that I almost bought a combination laser disc DVD player. If I had known at the time time that I could have gotten the Star Wars movies on the format I probably would have dropped the extra coin for the combination player. This is the player I was considering at the time. Its funny, I’m a tech head now. I work in the industry, with 4K digital content, there isn’t much that happens that I don’t get to hear about, but back in the day, this stuff slipped past me.

Im seriously considering finding a cheap player and picking up some laser discs. Lets see how long that takes to become an obsession! If you want to know a little more about the technology then head over here and consider this, Laser Disc is one of the last places you can go for the original versions of the Star Wars movies!

Ok, so the Special Editions came out, and for a minute they were great because of the novelty of the added content, the altered view of something we were so familiar with. Take a longer look though and they do not treat the original movies with respect. The alterations leap out at you like a fart in a car.

There are people out there who will say, “Its George’s vision, if he wants to make these changes then its up to him.” I think thats kind of bullshit. At some point ownership of these films transferred from Lucas to the public, and this, I know is a contentious point. The original movies became a part of Hollywood’s legacy and they should be both available and preserved. I would have no issue with Lucasfilm releasing a version of the movies as the George Lucas Edition, his preferred cut, but to take the films I grew up with away, forever, is bullshit. Sure I still have my VHS versions, but finding a VHS player is like looking for hens teeth in rocking horse poop. I have the DVD “special feature” versions (which I’ll cover in a second) but they do not look good.

Now there is a side conversation to this issue, about what we can expect from a film like Star Wars, acknowledging the changes to the films that were made as early as the first anniversary release, and being careful what we ask for. Sure I don’t want what we got in year one. I have those on wonky DVDs and I have ripped them for iTunes (legal back ups!) What I want is a lovingly restored edit close to the first Episode IV A New Hope edit. No CGI creatures or added ships, not even the good ship additions like the Falcon leaving Tatooine. I’d like the sound tidied up for 5.1 or 7.1 as long as I’m asking, and how about a nice 8K wet gate scan to archive this version and let me have it on BluRay or some sort of 4K stream like Netflix. Now thats a special edition. A film restored for future generations. That I would buy.

Shortly after the Special Edition theatrical run we got the inevitable VHS collection, all in THX widescreen which prevented double and triple dipping I guess, be grateful for that. I bought it in a boxed set, but I ended up buying another release a few years later ahead of the Episode II theatrical release because it had some extra footage on the set, footage from the set of Episode II. This made it an absolute must buy. Here is the video:

That tweet above is what I received the morning the iTunes release of Star Wars was announced. My good friend, fellow Movie Geek and co-host of the Movie Geeks Film Cast, Andy sent it to me because he is always ahead of the game. Now flash back a number of years, before twitter, and I received a similar message from Andy. It was a test message saying Star Wars is finally coming to DVD! The DVDs were the Special Edition versions and that's fine. I’ve glossed over the prequel releases, I only got the first one on VHS, and soon after the DVDs started coming, but it was the original trilogy that we all wanted. Here was the message I had been waiting for, followed by this trailer:

Suddenly we had the movies, remixed in 5.1EX surround sound with four hours of special features. Surely this is it right? The final time I would ever have to buy the original trilogy. There is no way this could get any better right? Right? 

Nope. It got better.

The last time I would purchase these films on DVD would be the limited edition with the uncut versions, the pre-special edition versions of the original trilogy loaded on as special features. They were apparently the Laser Disc version ported over. They are not good quality, but they will do. Thanks to Uncle George’s insistence that his word is law, I can’t watch the version of the films I want to see unless they are crusty DVD versions. They do not look good on the big screen. The other issue is that some of the changes he made are justified when you view these discs. The wonky cardboard cut outs front and centre in the medal ceremony at the end of A New Hope are shockingly obvious on these versions. That would need to be addressed. This would be my dream job by the way. Working on a restoration of the ultimate edit of Star Wars. Just saying. 

By this point in time I know I’m not done spending on Star Wars. Whilst all his “original trilogy buying” is going on I’m also purchasing the prequels, on both VHS and DVD. The DVDs for the prequels were great. Great transfers, great special features and awesome sound. Its a shame its wasted on those films. We all know whats coming next right..?

Blu Ray had taken over the living room thanks largely to the appeal of the Playstation 3. So many of the classics started making their way to the format. Restorations were not unusual, the large storage capacity of the format made it easy to build larger files and load them with little compression meaning the films looked simply amazing. Star Wars was among the last of the classics to make their debut on the format. And it looked great. Here is the trailer for the release:

At least this is the complete set! All the films were presented in this edition with plenty of special features, they even managed not to double dip on the special features meaning you at least got something new for your money. Oh, and remember that trailer above, we will be talking about that in a minute. The most noticeable omission on this set, and something I had certainly been getting used to on other releases, was the inclusion of any digital copies. 

So look, here’s the thing. I like quality presentations. When this set was released I was lucky enough to have a digital projector installed in our basement. *That is the secret origin of the Movie Geeks by the way, we will tell that story one day. I was able to watch all of these films through on the large HD digital screen before we moved on and I left that install behind. So I was, and I remain a digital cinema fan, I love glorious HD images that withstand the enlargement to the giant canvas, but I also like the convenience of a portable copy of the movie I love. I travel a fair amount so getting a copy of the movies on my iPad or iPhone would be nice for the plane. This option was sadly absent from the “complete set” and I guess we now know why.

Digital Versions Coming To iTunes

So here we are, another platform, another release of the films I love so much, even the abrasive relatives that are the prequels, are here. The thing is they are not in a handy boxed set or collected bundle, they are individual. They are also priced pretty high at £13.99 each. Again they are being marketed, in part by the inclusion of extra features that we haven’t seen before. Check out the playlist below from the official Star Wars YouTube channel for some details, there are some interesting things in there. 

It saddens me to say I’m not going to buy these films at this point in time. Call me cynical but this is cash grab. There is no way you can justify such high pricing for these films on a platform that doesn’t include any physical item that needs to be produced, shipped and stored. These films could comfortably sit next to Indiana Jones and Back To The Future, The Batman movies or Harry Potter, in a bundle at about £30 and sell like hot cakes. Thats a fair price. That’s offering something to the fans, something we should have had included in our “complete Blu Ray set” anyway. Asking another £83.94 for the six Star wars movies is just not on. Releasing these so close to Star Wars Celebration, to the reveal of the poster for Star Wars The Force Awakens and the debut of the new trailer, is a calculated move in my opinion. They are putting a new product out there just as they are getting our juices flowing with the new footage and announcements. Its like selling cookies to a bunch of stoners. 

Having said that I do need to replace my A New Hope blu ray because it has playback issues, but as I mentioned at the top of this post: I’m a completist so buying one of these films is going to be an issue for me. Especially when that one film I need could cost me roughly half what the entire set is sure to go for in the not too distant future! So I have to wait. Again.

My advice to anyone considering these movies on a digital service like iTunes is: wait. iTunes is a great service, I use it almost exclusively for movies now. On Apple TV the movies look amazing. Plus you’ll get the portability of iPad or iPhone when you travel, take the movie to a friend's and airplay to their Apple TV, its about as versatile a platform as you can get. Don’t lose sleep over compression and all that technical stuff, few people would be able to tell the difference between a digital stream from iTunes and a BluRay anyway, that argument is for videophiles, not normal people like you and me. I’m certain if you hold fire for a few months the movie will drop in price and in line with those collections I mentioned early. Then everyone who drops over £80 now is going to be pretty pissed.  If you wait there will surely be a bundle released on iTunes, and even if that comes with a reduced selection of special features, well, what have we learned here? Those features will be available on YouTube at some point. Don’t sweat it. Wait.

Still,if you are planning to buy the movies then here are the links to the iTunes store.  Star Wars A New Hope The Empire Strikes Back Return Of The Jedi The Phantom Menace Attack Of The Clones and Revenge Of The Sith

Now I’d like to float a little theory for you. Remember that trailer for the digital version release? Lets take a look at that for a second. Ostensibly its not that much different from the blu ray version we watched, except they chose to include a line from a particular character. click play below and pay attention at the 35 second mark:

Somebody chose to include Mon Mothma in this trailer, specifically her line about the Bothans. Now this might seem a bit out there but I’m predicting that Felicity Jones will be playing a young Mon Mothma in Rogue One. Maybe Rogue One is the call sign of her ship in that movie and the film will be set between the two trilogies at the start of the rebellion, when she is an ass kicking woman of action. Maybe we will see characters from Star Wars Rebels, maybe not, but I’m pretty sure this is what we can expect, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we get word on that at Star Wars Celebration next week.

Watch this space…