Thursday, October 06, 2011

Taking the First Steps Into a High Definition World

September tends to be a big, busy month for the Jozic household, primarily because we have three kids starting school around that time every year, and also because it is the birth month for myself and my wife. This works out nicely for me, too, because I can usually count on something cool to be released - be it a book, CD, film, or some other pop culture-related event - that coincides with one, or both, of our birthdays. Last year, for example, we went to see Resident Evil: Afterlife, the year before that was the release of Whiteout (where I discovered I'm one of probably 10 people who doesn't hate that movie).

This year has proven to be particularly interesting, in that regard, for two reasons: September 9th (my actual birthdate) marked the release of Contagion which was directed by one of my favourite directors, Steven Soderbergh, and is the closest I think I'll ever get to seeing an adaptation of Richard Preston's The Hot Zone, so that was kinda cool; the other reason, Star Wars.

I know it's not cool to like the Star Wars movies anymore but I just can't help it. Even with the changes, the prequels, and all the controversy over the years, I still love these things in all their flawed glory. So, when I heard earlier this year that September would also mark the release of the complete saga on Blu-ray, I knew right then and there that the set would be mine. I told my wife not to sweat over birthday presents or anything like that because it was already settled.

Things got even better when I read the announcement that on the same day the Blu-rays were coming out, September 16th, we would also see the long-awaited premiere of the fourth season of Clone Wars, a show avidly followed by myself and my three kids.

In the days leading up to the release, I have to admit that the level of anticipation was high. We all kind of got into the mood to watch some of the movies but a moratorium was called on watching anything before the HD versions arrived. The cease-and-desist, however, only applied to the films themselves which left all the other licensed material and Clone Wars series up for grabs. A couple of weeks or so before the 16th I decided to dabble.

I recently came into possession of a Kobo eReader and had a copy of the Darth Maul short story, Saboteur, on it. Written by James Luceno, it revolved around industrial espionage and Maul's role in facilitating it. It was a surprisingly well-crafted little story and that inspired me to check out a number of Star Wars short stories available at the online store that were free to download. The Lost Tribe of the Sith is not normally the kind of thing that would interest me in expanded universe material but I found the first part of John Jackson Miller's tale pretty engaging and the rest is history.

It's been about a month, now, on a steady diet of Star Wars. I've been reading books, listening to soundtracks, podcasts, watching documentaries, and poring over the Blu-rays and their 40 hours of bonus features.

Now, if you've stuck with me this far, on to the subject of the Blu-rays.

I've read a lot of different reviews with a lot of differing opinions on the changes, the features, and everything else under the binary suns. The one thing they all agree on, however, is that the transfers are impeccable, the audio is stellar, and as HD presentations go, these discs are definitely demo material. You want to sell someone a BD player and a hi-fi stereo system to hear it on, one of these babies will probably do most of the work for you. The films look great.

I don't want to turn this into a defense of George Lucas so I'll skip any commentary on the changes for political reasons. Yes there are changes, no, they're not all bad ones.

As far as packaging and features go, I think they could have done a little better with the art direction considering some of their past efforts, but the book-like cover (similar to the one Fox used for the ALIEN ANTHOLOGY) displays nicely, is relatively durable, and holds all 9 discs without any issues. Each 'page' holds one disc and features episode specific artwork by Cliff Cramp. When not in use, it sits in a slipcase mirroring the artwork on the books cover.

Feature-wise, the ads all say "own every moment" and that's an out-and-out lie. From the get-go Lucasfim said they would not be including features from previous DVD releases, so how they came up with that tagline is a mystery to me. What is on the three bonus discs is pretty cool, though, don't get me wrong. Deleted and extended scenes, a collection of interviews with cast and crew, interactive archival material, the list goes on. The ninth disc includes all the classic making of documentaries (they even restored the voice-over by William Conrad, which is cool) and an hour-and-a-half of Star Wars spoofs culled from television shows and movies over the last 10 or 20 years. Probably the least of the features unless you don't have access to YouTube.

For all the griping online about this release, my opinion is that the good far outweighs the bad here. Having the previous releases, I'm not missing out on any bonus features. The only thing I think would have made for an exceptional collection would be if they included a solid transfer of the OT, as people remember it (circa 1984ish?), available to the public. I swear to God, most of the naysayers would probably shut up and it wouldn't matter how many changes GL made after that. I do have the OT on DVD (even if they are Laserdisc ports) so I'm not sweating it too much, but it would have been a nice surprise.

Oh, and speaking of surprises, one really cool feature is the full-length animated short that accompanied the Holiday Special broadcast featuring the first appearance of Boba Fett. The animation was done by a very young Nelvana and its inclusion here on the set is a rare treat, indeed.

So, that's the Blu-rays, from a certain point of view. No regrets here and I plan to revisit these movies again many times after this. If any of you naysayers happen to have friends who have the set (and considering it's the biggest selling BD catalogue title, it's highly likely you do) I would recommend sitting down with them sometime and giving the discs a once over. It's worth checking out.

As for the other side of my Star Wars mania, it's lessened, somewhat, but still going pretty strong. Among other things, I'm currently in the middle of re-reading Heir to the Empire (20th anniversary edition with annotations), I have the Dark Horse Empire run on hold at the library, Clone Wars is still running every week with new episodes, I'm tackling the Jedi Apprentice series to get some early Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan action, and am grabbing issues of Jedi: The Dark Side and Dark Times, two of the best Star Wars comics on the racks. I also recently wrapped The Force Unleashed and am thinking of revisiting the Tartakovsky Clone Wars DVDs.


And with that, take care and may the force be with you!


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