Release Date(s)1977 (March 31, 2020)
Studio(s)Lucasfilm/20th Century Fox (Walt Disney Studios)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: B+
- Audio Grade: A-
- Extras Grade: B
“A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…”
On the remote desert planet of Tatooine, young Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) dreams of adventures in the stars, even as he’s stuck working on his aunt and uncle’s moisture farm. But when a pair of stolen droids arrives on the farm, his life will be changed forever. One of the droids is carrying a plea for help from a faraway princess (Carrie Fisher), a message meant for a local hermit named Ben Kenobi (Alec Guinness). Luke soon learns that Ben—and his own dead father—were once Jedi Knights, guardians of peace and justice in the galaxy. With the Jedi order now extinct, and the Galactic Empire’s sinister forces hunting for the droids, Ben asks for Luke’s help to save the princess and her growing Rebellion against tyranny. But first, they’ll need a fast ship… and the services of its space pirate captain, Han Solo (Harrison Ford).
I was surprised to discover recently that in twenty-two years as the editor of The Digital Bits I’ve never actually written a proper review of Star Wars before. I’m even more surprised to find myself writing about the film forty-three years after it first changed my life. Though common today, the idea of a fantasy-action film as a kind of repeatable rollercoaster experience was virtually unheard of back in 1977. Certainly, the big screen had produced heady sci-fi and serialized swashbuckling. But apart from Steven Spielberg’s Jaws two years earlier, cinemagoers had seen nothing like Star Wars before. When most critics first saw it, they pegged it a juvenile bore. Yet the film electrified audiences, who—in post-Vietnam, recession-era America—craved its sunny escapism. Fascinated by the samurai films of Akira Kurosawa, the westerns of John Ford, and the mythic scholarship of Joseph Campbell, writer/director George Lucas sought to craft a modern mythology, an optimistic tale of good versus evil, complete with spaceships, rayguns, and aliens from a thousand worlds. And to the surprise of almost everyone, he did just that. Star Wars works. Sure, it’s rough around the edges, with a cast that was mostly unknown at the time (apart from Guinness and Hammer Films regular Peter Cushing). Yes, its innovative-but-analog original VFX look clunky by today’s standards. But the film’s relentless pace and striking visuals, combined with John Williams’ thrilling orchestral score, was sheer magic that captivated an entire generation of fans both young and young at heart.
Of course, we now know that this magic was never really finished to Lucas’ satisfaction. The film’s many tweaks, changes, and “improvements” have been well chronicled (including, most recently, here at The Digital Bits), but its restoration, remastering, and preservation history has been more of an enigma. After a good deal of research and digging on the subject, here’s what I’ve learned from those either directly involved in the work or in positions to know (and if there’s any inaccuracies, it’s not for lack of effort).
Star Wars (now known as A New Hope) was shot on 35 mm photochemical film using Arriflex and Panavision cameras with Panavision C-Series anamorphic lenses, while its analog visual effects were produced in VistaVision. It was finished on film as a cut negative at the 2.39:1 aspect ratio, from which a color-timed master interpositive and dupe negatives were created. For the 1997 Special Edition release, the cut negative was scanned in 2K, new digital VFX were produced at sub-2K resolution, and a new film-out master interpositive element was created. This process was repeated in 2003-2004 by Lowry Digital, with a new 10-bit 2K scan done for the DVD release (complete with more digital VFX tweaks and a color grade supervised by Lucas), resulting in the creation of a 2K Digital Intermediate. This source was used again for the 2011 Blu-ray release, though with a bit more Lowry Digital remastering (and still more new digital VFX and color timing tweaks).
As many of you know, around this time there was a plan to bring all of the films to theaters in 3D—a plan that was posponed and eventually scrapped after the The Phantom Menace 3D release, as Lucas was focused on selling the Star Wars franchise to Disney. In the wake of Disney’s purchase in 2012, a decision was made to protect the studio’s investment by creating new 4K Digital Intermediates of the films and to ensure that all of the photochemical and digital assets were properly cataloged and preserved (a process that continued through 2014). For Star Wars, Empire, and Jedi, all of the original camera neg, the VistaVision effects footage, and SE film-outs was scanned in 16-bit 4K by Reliance MediaWorks (formerly Lowry Digital). Lucas once again took the opportunity to tweak the editing, digital VFX, and color timing. In addition to the new 4K DIs, new film-out protection master interpositives were created. New cut negatives were created as well, combining the original camera negative with film-out internegative of the new VFX. (This is why it’s often said that the original theatrical versions technically no longer exist—the OCN has been conformed to the new versions. However, I’ve confirmed with individuals directly responsible that everything—including all theatrical film trims—is well preserved and protected by Disney.) The studio’s new Ultra HD releases (and the recent Disney+ versions) were mastered from these 4K DIs, complete with color grading for high dynamic range (only HDR10 is available on the discs, but Dolby Vision is available on the Digital version).
Disney’s 4K disc presentation obviously includes all the latest tweaks and changes seen in the Disney+ version, but the image quality is superior in every respect. (Note that the 20th Century Fox logo remains intact.) The average datarate is in the 60-70 Mbps range (vs 15-25 Mbps via streaming) and that extra bandwidth makes a huge difference. Detail is clean, apart from the occasional optical softness, with mostly well refined fine detail and texturing. Photochemical grain is extremely light, suggesting a bit of DNR applied. This is also a very restrained high dynamic range grade, which might surprise some people, but it means that the film’s original theatrical appearance is well maintained. Peak brightness is 1000 nits with a deep floor (per the disc’s metadata), so the shadows are inky-black while retaining nice detail. The 10-bit color adds genuinely impressive but subtle nuances to the film’s palette. Skin tones are natural, C-3PO’s gold plating has a rich luster, the sands of the Tatooine desert exhibit a greater variation that you’ll have appreciated before. It appears that some extra “film-look” processing has been done to the 1997 and 2004 Special Edition footage, so that while it’s still obviously of lesser resolution than the live action footage (with more DNR and some edge enhancement baked in), the differences are a bit less glaring than they were on the previous Blu-ray release. This image isn’t perfect, but it’s quite simply the best this film has ever looked in the home.
Primary audio on the 4K disc is available in English Dolby Atmos. Additional options include English 2.0 Descriptive Audio, French and Japanese 7.1 Dolby Digital Plus, and Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital, with subtitles available in English for the Hearing Impaired, French, Spanish, and Japanese. Right from the opening trumpet fanfare you’ll appreciate the fidelity and robust low-end of the Atmos mix. As the Tantive IV soars overhead and Darth Vader’s Star Destroyer pursues it, the rumble of engines and blaster canon fire floods in from the surrounds and rear channels, up into the overheads, and out across the front of the soundstage. That stage is medium wide, with light but surprisingly effective atmospherics. The height channels engage a bit more actively in set pieces, for example when the Falcon blasts out of Mos Eisley, during the escape from the Death Star, and of course the trench runs in the final battle. Dialogue is clean, sound effects mixing and movement are natural, and Williams’ score has a very pleasing tonal quality. What I like most about this Atmos mix is that it too is restrained; it offers all of the precision and subtleties of Atmos without making this film sound like a modern Marvel epic. The overall vintage sonic experience of this film is well preserved (the few recent sound effects tweaks aside). Note that the included movie Blu-ray offers 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, English 2.0 Descriptive Audio, and French and Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital, with optional subtitles in English for the Hearing Impaired, French, and Spanish.
Disney’s Ultra HD package is a 3-disc set that includes the film in both 4K on UHD and 1080p HD on Blu-ray (note that the latter is definitely mastered from the new 4K source, “Maclunky!” and all). The package also includes a separate Blu-ray Disc of bonus material, but there’s nothing new here—all of it is curated from previously-available content. (Both Blu-rays are coded for Regions A, B & C.) Here’s a breakdown of what’s included:
DISC ONE – 4K MOVIE
There are no extras on the 4K disc.
DISC TWO – BLU-RAY MOVIE
- Audio Commentary (with George Lucas, Carrie Fisher, Ben Burtt, and Dennis Muren) – from the 2004 DVD
- Audio Commentary from Archival Interviews with the Cast and Crew (including Kenny Baker, Ben Burtt, Richard Chew, Anthony Daniels, Peter Diamond, John Dykstra, Richard Edlund, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, Stuart Freeborn, Alec Guinness, Mark Hamill, Paul Hirsch, Gary Kurtz, George Lucas, Peter Mayhew, Ralph McQuarrie, Dennis Muren, Normal Reynolds, Phil Tippett, and Robert Watts) – from the 2011 Blu-ray
DISC THREE – BLU-RAY EXTRAS
- Conversations: Creating a Universe (HD – 8:25)
- Discoveries from Inside: Weapons & the First Lightsaber (HD – 3:14)
- Anatomy of a Dewback (SD – 26:16)
- Star Wars Launch Trailer (HD – 1:09)
- Archive Fly-Through (HD – 3:42)
- Tatooine Overview (HD – 3:49)
- Mark Hamill Interview (HD – 2:15)
- Anthony Daniels Interview (HD – 1:21)
- Aboard the Death Star Overview (HD – 5:47)
- Carrie Fisher Interview (HD – 1:45)
- The Battle of Yavin Overview (HD – 4:22)
- Deleted Scene: Tosche Station (HD – 5:13)
- Deleted Scene: Old Woman on Tatooine (HD – :16)
- Deleted Scene: Aunt Beru’s Blue Milk (HD – :23)
- Deleted Scene: The Search for R2-D2 (HD – :34)
- Deleted Scene: Cantina Rough Cut (HD – 7:09)
- Deleted Scene: Stormtrooper Search (HD – :46)
- Deleted Scene: Darth Vader Widens the Search (HD – :26)
- Deleted Scene: Alternate Biggs and Luke Reunion (HD – :27)
- The Collection: Landspeeder Prototype Model (360° Turnaround – HD – 1:59)
- The Collection: Millennium Falcon Prototype Model (360° Turnaround – HD – 3:16)
- The Collection: R2-D2 (360° Turnaround – HD – 3:53)
- The Collection: Tatooine from Orbit Matte Painting (HD – :48)
- The Collection: Jawa Costume (360° Turnaround – HD – :55)
- The Collection: Tusken Raider Mask (360° Turnaround – HD – :36)
- The Collection: Ketwol Mask (360° Turnaround – HD – 2:51)
- The Collection: Death Star Prototype Model (360° Turnaround – HD – 2:12)
- The Collection: Holo-Chess Set (360° Turnaround – HD – 3:01)
- The Collection: Bridge Power Trench Matte Painting (HD – :34)
- The Collection: Luke’s Stormtrooper Torso (360° Turnaround – HD – :36)
- The Collection: X-Wing Fighter Model Prototype (360° Turnaround – HD – 3:15)
- The Collection: X-Wing Fighter Model Final (360° Turnaround – HD – 2:57)
- The Collection: Y-Wing Fighter Model Prototype (360° Turnaround – HD – 3:13)
- The Collection: Y-Wing Fighter Model Final (360° Turnaround – HD – 3:00)
- The Collection: TIE Fighter Model Prototype (360° Turnaround – HD – 2:09)
- The Collection: TIE Fighter Model Final (360° Turnaround – HD – 2:09)
- The Collection: Darth Vader’s TIE Fighter Model (360° Turnaround – HD – 1:50)
- The Collection: X-Wing Pilot Costume with Helmet (360° Turnaround – HD – 1:01)
- The Collection: Death Star Laser Tower Model (360° Turnaround – HD – 2:24)
- The Collection: Yavin 4 Matte Painting (HD – :41)
Conversations: Creating a Universe, Discoveries from Inside: Weapons & the First Lightsaber, and the Star Wars Launch Trailer are all from the 2015 Digital Collection. Everything else comes from the 2011 Blu-ray release. The deleted scenes are missing the brief text introductions, but that’s all. The Interviews, Overviews, and Collection 360° Turnarounds all still have that stylized windowbox framing. The Turnarounds also include some of the enhanced video material (comments and interview clips). It’s worth noting that the Bonus Disc has optional subtitles available in English for the Hearing Impaired, French, Castilian Spanish, Spanish, German, Italian, Dutch, and Japanese. As you would expect, there is also a code for a Movies Anywhere Digital copy on a paper insert.
On the whole, it’s a nice collection of bonus content that represents everything from the 2015 Digital Collection and nearly everything from 2011 Original Trilogy Blu-ray Bonus Disc. So… what’s missing? Well, none of the Concept Art Galleries from the 2011 Blu-ray release are here (except for a look at a few of the matte paintings). Apart from the audio commentaries, virtually everything from the 2004 and 2006 DVD releases is missing (including sadly the Empire of Dreams documentary, all of the featurettes, the TV spots, the trailers, etc). The Making of Star Wars (1977) documentary isn’t here. There’s also nothing here from any of the Laserdisc releases. And of course, the original theatrical version of the film is not included. It’s therefore important to keep your previous disc editions if you want to retain all of the available bonus content.
Though it’s not the pure 1977 experience, there can be no doubt that you’ve never seen Star Wars—pardon me, A New Hope—looking and sounding better than it does here in 4K UHD. And for those of you who pine for that theatrical experience, the enterprising fans behind the cherished 4K77 will almost certainly use this disc’s improved image to create the ultimate version of it for you. In the meantime, this is likely the last time Star Wars will appear on physical media. So what are you waiting for? You’ll laugh, you’ll cry—kiss a final $30 goodbye! Recommended.
- Bill Hunt