10.05.2004

New Trilogy Review

The Digital Bits has a pretty good review of the new trilogy, including a good summary of the changes Lucas has made for the DVD editions.

New Trilogy

Maybe I've explained my attachment to "Return of the Jedi" - pre-tampering, it's my second-favorite of the five films - but in any case, I saw the post-tampering version for the very first time last night. When Lucas re-released them in the theaters way back when, I only went to see "The Empire Strikes Back".

"Return of the Jedi" was the first Star Wars movie I saw. It wasn't my first exposure to the franchise - I'd seen the toys and knew who all the characters were - but it was the first time I'd seen one of the movies. I wasn't fortunate enough to see it in the theater, instead we were in Hallock, MN, at my great-grandmother's funeral.

Hallock is the second-to-the-last town in Minnesota before either Canada or North Dakota - it's way up in the corner of the state. The funeral was in Kennedy, the absolute last town before either ND or Canada, but Kennedy didn't have any motels, just the church and a restaurant. So we had to stay in Hallock, which was still small enough that the funeral brought enough people to town to put a squeeze on the available motel rooms. My mom and my sisters and I stayed in two rooms at a place that seemed like a glorified version of someone's home, just a little strip motel on the side of the highway.

One night, my mom had to go to a adult-type thing that she well knew would be boring and intolerable to her three young kids, so she let us stay back in the motel and got us a pay-per-view movie: Return of the Jedi. Finally, I was going to see what all the fuss was about. I was going to learn for myself how evil Darth Vader was, and how good Luke Skywalker was. I would get to see Jabba the Hutt for real, yo!

Anyway, the three of us huddled together on a creaky twin bed and stared up at the small black-and-white television on the cheap, olive-green dresser at the foot of the bed. In all my life, I can't think of more than a handful of times I've been more deeply affected by a movie. These were probably the worst conditions for viewing a movie, but to me - I'd seen the toys and the promotional posters and photos, so I knew what it was supposed to look like - it was better than VistaVision.

Anyway, my thoughts on the new, new version: the only thing that's very clearly terrible is the little song and dance number that he inserted, and it isn't even that long - maybe a minute at most.

But one of the things that struck me as I watched was the art of illusion they used to make those movies - they used real things to build them. Real sets, real props, real costumes, real puppets, etc. That is the key difference between the towering achievement of the first three movies and the bland, unremarkable filmmaking of the new trilogy. "Return of the Jedi" was the first Star Wars movie I ever saw, and part of the reason it resonates so strongly is that when the emperor arrives at the Death Star, those are real people in the stormtrooper costumes. On Tatooine, that's a real desert they're shooting on. When C3PO and R2D2 go into the basement of Jabba's palace to receive their job instructions, that's a real set, a real puppet giving them instructions, and real puppets being tortured and destroyed (and doing the destroying). The Rancor is a real model moving, made large by a trick of perspective.

Now I didn't watch the whole thing - I shut it off just before Luke and Vader start fighting, during the Ewok battle and the great space battle (which will blow your mind, it looks so good). So I still haven't heard the new end song, nor seen Hayden Christensen inserted in place of Sebastian Shaw, etc. But seeing it in widescreen has convinced me of the quality of this film. If "A New Hope" is Star Wars as filmmaking on a shoestring, and "The Empire Strikes Back" is Star Wars as auteur filmmaking, "Return of the Jedi" is good old-fashioned Hollywood-pulls-out-all-the-stops blockbuster filmmaking.

In short, it hasn't looked so good since it was in black-and-white on a ten-inch television in the middle of nowhere.