Star Wars Tag

The Films That Made “Star Wars,” Pt. 3

The Films That Made Star Wars, Pt. 3

633 Squadron

If you wanted to, you could spend years watching the westerns and samurai flicks that in one way or another influenced Star Wars, but there is another essential element of this pop-culture collage we can’t overlook. Namely: World War II movies.

 

In editing the film’s final space battle, Lucas famously cut together footage from old war pictures to inspire the special effects team at Industrial Light & Magic, specifically to give them the sense of pacing and movement he was looking for in the dogfights. He would also go on to splice these scenes into the working print of Star Wars to serve as animatics and editing placeholders. If you’d like to see some of the films he used, I would recommend The Dam Busters (which was a huge inspiration for the trench-run attack on the Death Star), as well as The Bridges at Toko-Ri and 633 Squadron.

 

These can be a bit tough to find in good quality, but The Bridges at Toko-Ri is available on Kaleidescape (in standard-definition only, sadly) and you can find 633 Squadron for rent on Amazon. The Dam Busters has been released on Blu-ray in Europe, but I’m not aware of any HD release available to American viewers.

For a fun look at the parallels, check out this YouTube video mashup of the imagery from 633 Squadron combined with the soundtrack of Star Wars (and ignore the unnecessary potshots at The Dam Busters—it’s still a relevant influence).

 

Needless to say, if you want to fully understand the roots of Star Wars, you 

also need to consider the influence of classic science-fiction on the film. Again, Star Wars is most decidedly not sci-fi, but it certainly looks like it in places.

 

To see where Lucas got the inspiration to attempt space battles the likes of which no one had ever seen onscreen before, look to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kubrick practically redefined what was possible with the special effects in this film, and Lucas would go on to borrow many of the technicians who made that possible.

 

Stuart Freeborn, who created the apes at the beginning of 2001, would go on to create Chewbacca, as well as many of the creatures found in the Mos Eisley cantina (as well as Yoda in the next film). Lucas attempted to hire 2001‘s effects supervisor 

Douglas Trumbull but Trumbull turned him down, likely due to his commitment to work on Alejandro Jodorowsky’s adaptation of Dune

 

If you want to experience 2001 in its best form, I cannot recommend the Kaleidescape 4K/HDR release highly enough. The film is also available on most digital retailers in 4K, but the highly detailed cinematography really deserves the pixel-perfect transfer available on Kaleidescape.

 

Speaking of Dune, we can’t overlook the influence that sci-fi epic had on Star Wars. The similarities are, at times, striking. Desert planet? Check. Fascist galactic emperor? Check. Youthful chosen one with magical abilities? Check. Hell, Star Wars even calls its elicit substances “spice” as a homage to Dune. Of course, it bears repeating, Star Wars is not science fiction, and it could not be narratively or thematically more different from Dune. But Lucas certainly stole elements from the original novel where he saw fit. And there’s also reason to suspect that he was, in some ways, influenced by the mid-’70s film adaptation of Dune that never got made.

 

Check out the excellent 2013 documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune for more details on this, but the short story is that Jodorowsky created a massive illustrated bible and script for his adaptation that was shopped around to every major studio in Hollywood in an attempt to secure the last $5 million needed to flesh out his budget. He failed in that respect, and the film never got made, but you can see 

elements of his storyboards and designs in everything from Alien to Prometheus to Mike Hodges’ 1980 Flash Gordon film to, yes, even Star Wars.

 

Whatever you do, though, please avoid at all costs David Lynch’s 1984 adaptation of Dune (which, by the way, he directed after turning down the chance to helm Return of the Jedi). It remains to be seen how successful Denis Villeneuve’s new adaptation will be, but for now, the only good Dune movie is the one about why a good Dune movie was never made. 

Jodorowsky’s Dune is available on Kaleidescape, as well as most other digital movie retailers.

 

Two last influences you can’t overlook if you want to understand Star Wars (more from a storytelling than cinematic point of view) are the works of Joseph Campbell and J.R.R. Tolkien.

 

The Lord of the Rings was 

not, of course, adapted to film until well after Star Wars was made, but the book certainly had a powerful influence on young George Lucas, which you can see in the numerous parallels between them. Consider, for example, the similarities between the overall narrative arc of Fellowship of the Ring and A New Hope: Young lad raised by a relative (second cousin once removed in one work, uncle in the other) befriends a mysterious wizard and goes on a quest to defeat evil. You can also see direct correlations between specific scenes, such as the sacrifice of Gandalf/Obi-wan so the young lad and his party can escape. And if you want to extend this to the entire trilogy, there are even more similarities. Compare, for example, the death of Anakin Skywalker in Return of the Jedi to the death of Théoden in Return of the King.

 

While Lucas only had the original book as inspiration, we of course have Peter Jackson’s epic cinematic trilogy to enjoy (which, coincidentally, was itself inspired in parts by Star Wars). You can read more about that adaptation here.

 

Lastly, you can largely thank Joseph Campbell for Lucas’ ability to look at all of these disparate works of inspiration and pull from them exactly the right elements he needed to craft something that felt new and fresh, while also being evocative. Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth is a fantastic PBS series from 1998 that explores the author’s work on mythology, namely the common elements of all myths and how they serve as metaphors for the human experience. You can purchase all six episodes of this incredible interview series on Amazon, but if you’re itching for some deeper reading, I also recommend Campbell’s seminal work The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Without this book, there would be no Star Wars as we know it today. And if you need proof of that, just check out J. W. Rinzler’s comic book series The Star Wars, an adaptation of one of the last drafts of the original film before Lucas discovered Campbell’s work and transformed his own story to fit the template of the monomyth. It was between this draft and the final script that Star Wars would transform from light science-fiction into epic fantasy, and the differences—narratively, symbolically, and thematically—couldn’t be starker.

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of 
Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound 
American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

The Films That Made “Star Wars,” Pt. 2

The Films That Made Star Wars, Pt. 2

Ask me to sum up the appeal of Star Wars as succinctly as possible, and I would have to describe it as the cinematic child of Akira Kurosawa and Sergio Leone dressed in Flash Gordon Underoos. As I mentioned in the Pt. 1 of this series, what would eventually become Star Wars originally began as George Lucas’s attempt to make a modern Flash Gordon film. And indeed, the serial adaptations of the 1930s and ’40s strongly influenced the structure and some of the aesthetic trappings of the film Lucas eventually made.

 

But dig beneath the surface, and the movie we ended up with shares almost no meaningful DNA with those adventurous sci-fi serials. If you really want to understand what makes Star Wars tick, you have to ignore the ray-guns and robots and starships—or at least look past them. And when you do, what you’re left with is mostly the samurai and the cowboy. 

 

AKIRA KUROSAWA

Kurosawa’s influence on Lucas has been so thoroughly discussed and dissected by this point that I have little to add. But if, for whatever reason you’ve never explored the connection for yourself, you’re in for a treat. Start with 1958’s The Hidden

Fortress (aka Kakushi toride no san akunin or The Three Villains of the Hidden Fortress).

 

You’ll notice some superficial similarities here, especially Kurosawa’s heavy use of wipe transitions, which Lucas employed liberally in Star Wars. But after just a few minutes’ worth of viewing, you should start seeing deeper parallels. There’s the fact that the peasants Tahei and Matashichi map nearly perfectly to Artoo and Threepio, in terms of personality as well as their relationship to the other characters and their roles as catalysts on the plot. Kurosawa’s film also features a battle-weary general who becomes wrapped up in a rebellion led by a princess. Even the overall story beats for both films follow a very similar structure. When you get right down to it, Star Wars is effectively a remake of The Hidden Fortress, something Lucas himself has admitted to on several occasions.

 

But Kurosawa’s influence can’t be limited to one film. You should also check out 1961’s Yojimbo, which provides definitive proof that Lucas was directly inspired by

Kurosawa, and not merely Kurosawa by way of Leone. If you don’t understand the distinction, it helps to know that Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars was such a blatant ripoff of Yojimbo that Kurosawa sued.

 

But there’s one distinctive element of Yojimbo that Leone didn’t pilfer, but which made its way into Lucas’s film. Check out the first fight in the film. Imagine Toshirô Mifune wearing Jedi garb instead of samurai robes, and holding a lightsaber instead of a katana. (That shouldn’t be too difficult, since Lucas actually wrote the role of Obi-wan Kenobi for Mifune, and only asked Alec Guinness to play the part after Mifune turned him down.) Now imagine the scene as a gloomy cantina instead of a dusty

street. What you’ll notice is that the fight plays out strikingly similarly to the cantina brawl in Star Wars, complete with the severed-limb gag that would appear in practically all of Lucas’s Star Wars films.

 

It wasn’t merely Kurosawa’s samurai epics that inspired Lucas, though. You should also check out 1975’s Dersu Uzala, a Soviet/Japanese 

collaboration about a Nanai trapper and hunter by the same name. Noteworthy for being Kurosawa’s only 70mm film, it came out not long before Lucas began filming what would come to be known as A New Hope, and you can see visual influences throughout.

 

Perhaps the most striking involves a scene in which the two main characters look out over a horizon that includes both the setting sun and the rising moon. You can catch a glimpse of the scene about a minute into the film’s trailer, although the visuals here don’t do it justice. Unfortunately, the only way I know of watching Dersu Uzala is on The Criterion Channel, but since that streaming service is also home to many of Kurosawa’s classic films, it may be worth signing up for a 14-day trial if you don’t want to purchase them on Blu-ray.

 

SERGIO LEONE

When I said Lucas was influenced directly by Kurosawa and not merely Kurosawa by way of Leone, I didn’t mean to imply that Sergio himself didn’t also have some measurable impact on Lucas’s style. The look of Tatooine, the desert planet on which Luke Skywalker grew up, certainly owes a lot to the aesthetics of A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, not only in its landscape but also in its architecture. 

 

But a much bigger influence on the overall visual style of Star Wars comes from 1969’s Once Upon a Time in the West. And it’s not so much the scenery that rings familiar here; it’s more the movement of the camera, as well as the characters. Watch the scene in which Frank, the villain played by Henry Fonda, strides his way into the film, flanked by his flunkies, silently strutting and letting his boots and cloak do all the talking.

 

Compare this to Darth Vader’s first appearance onscreen, and you can see that while Lucas wasn’t necessarily quoting Leone here, he was definitely paraphrasing him. The instant you see Frank and Vader, you know they’re the baddies of the picture. You know they’re evil to the core without a hint of mustache-twirling or monologuing.

Once Upon a Time in the West is a film that’s high on my list of cinema classics in dire need of a new 4K/HDR restoration, but until that day comes, the best way to view the film is via Kaleidescape. You can also buy or rent it via most major digital movie retailers, and it’s currently streaming for free on HBO Max. Just know that HD streaming isn’t always up to the task of delivering the film’s wonderfully grainy cinematography and rich color palette. 

 

JOHN FORD

While you’re in a western mood, I would also recommend checking out The Searchers. The films of John Ford certainly had an influence on Lucas’s cinematic sensibilities, but none influenced Star Wars quite so much as this one. As with Leone’s 

westerns, the desert landscapes here can be seen echoing all throughout the Jundland Wastes in A New Hope, but there’s one unforgettable scene that Lucas would pretty much lift straight out of Ford’s film and paste into his own. It’s the one in which John Wayne comes home to find his brother’s ranch in flames and his relatives slaughtered.

DAVID LEAN

Tired of westerns but still itching to dig into Lucas’s desert inspiration for Star Wars? Look no farther than David Lean’s epic Lawrence of Arabia. So much of this film’s style can be seen reflected in the work of Star Wars cinematographer Gil Taylor, but as the official Star Wars website points out, there were also a number of scenes in Lawrence that were practically traced in Star Wars:

 

Many moves from David Lean’s epic were cribbed for sequences on Tatooine. The shot of Mos Eisley from the distance as Luke and Obi-Wan look from on high reminds one instantly of shots looking down at Damascus. Shots of Tusken snipers looking down at speeders moving below echo the same sorts of shots in Lawrence of Arabia.

 

Unfortunately, the best way to view Lawrence of Arabia is still on disc, as part of the Columbia Classics 4K Ultra HD Collection, which also includes Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Dr. Strangelove, Gandhi, A League of Their Own, and Jerry Maguire. Lean’s classic has not been released on UHD Blu-ray on its own, and the digital releases of the film all lack the Dolby Vision HDR version featured in this collection. If, for whatever reason, you’re not interested in HDR, your next-best bet is Kaleidescape’s UHD release of the film.

 

In Pt. 3, I’ll wrap things up by taking a look at the influence World War II movies, 2001Dune, and classic myth had on forming the Star Wars universe.

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of 
Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound 
American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

The Films That Made “Star Wars,” Pt. 1

It’s sometimes easy to forget that before it became a nine-film saga supported by three standalone films, two made-for-TV movies, three excellent TV series, a few terrible TV series, and a holiday special that is best forgotten, Star Wars was just a movie. An incredible movie, mind you. One that sparked the dreams of uncountable future filmmakers and other creative types. One that practically created the concept of the modern blockbuster and changed the cinema industry forever (for better and for worse).

 

It’s just as easy to forget that as unique as 1977’s Star Wars seemed at the time of its release—especially to my five-year-old eyes—there was barely anything original about it. Sure, the way it was put together was fresh. Mind-blowingly so. But dig

down to the nuts-and-bolts level, and it’s clear that this Galaxy Far, Far Away didn’t spring to George Lucas’s mind fully formed. The film was, in many ways, a reaction to the grim and gritty films that dominated cinemas in the early 1970s. But first and foremost, it was a homage to the serials and adventure movies that Lucas enjoyed seeing on the big screen in his youth.

 

And I’m sure you’ve heard that before. But have you ever actually seen the direct correlations? If not, you should spend some time with the Flash Gordon serials of 1936, ’38, and ’40. This is no great surprise, given that Lucas originally intended to develop a Flash Gordon film in the early ’70s, and only set about creating his own universe because he couldn’t secure the rights to Alex Raymond’s legendary comic-strip character.

 

Despite the fact that Star Wars ended up being way more fantasy than sci-fi, a lot of the retro-high-tech set dressing of Flash Gordon remains, but that’s not all. The 1940 Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe in particular loaned a number of story elements to the first Star Wars and its two sequels, including character archetypes and relationships, and even settings. But the biggest thing Flash Gordon gave to Star Wars was, of course, that iconic opening crawl.

 

Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe is available in its entirety on YouTube, as are the 1936 original and the 1938 sequel, Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars. They aren’t exactly high cinema or anything, but if you’re interested in understanding the genealogy of Star Wars, this is where you want to start.

 

Other serials worth a look (and also available on YouTube) include 1939’s Buck Rogers (another fantastic opening crawl!) and a delicious little oddity known as The Fighting Devil Dogs (1938). The latter in particular is famous for being one of the cheapest serials ever made (and it shows), but also for including the first costumed super-villain, The Lightning, whose garb almost certainly inspired the look of Darth Vader and the bounty hunter Boba Fett, as well.

 

Other classics of the era that seem to have had an influence on Lucas in his youth (although he likely saw them in early TV broadcasts rather than at cinemas) include The Wizard of Oz, from which Star Wars borrows much of its group dynamic, fairy-tale nature, and monomythic structure; the works of Laurel & Hardy, which certainly had some influence on the relationship between Artoo-Detoo and See-Threepio; and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, whose art-deco Maschinenmensch (Robot), despite being feminine, undoubtedly influenced the look of Threepio. Hell, you could even argue that Lucas drew some inspiration from the 1935 Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will—not its ideology, but rather the scale and grandiosity of its imagery, especially in the triumphant Royal Award Ceremony after the Battle of Yavin, in which Luke and Han are celebrated as heroes of the Rebellion.

 

Of course, you could just as easily argue that all of the above (save perhaps Flash Gordon) represent superficial influences, at best. But to deny the importance of these

elements would be to deny that Star Wars is, at least in part, a pop-culture collage, a pastiche of cool design elements that make it feel both fresh and timeless.

 

In Part 2, though, we’ll dig into some of the more substantial cinematic gold Lucas mined in creating the first Star Wars film, as well as the first two sequels.

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of 
Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound 
American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

Star Wars: A New Hope

Star Wars: A New Hope

As I mentioned in my review of The Empire Strikes Back, this year’s May the Fourth celebration (or Revenge of the Fifth, should you prefer the Dark Side) will be particularly festive, thanks to the recent release of the entire Star Wars franchise in 4K HDR with Dolby Atmos soundtracks. Along with the impressive “The Skywalker Saga” box set ($250), which includes all nine films across 27 discs along with hours of bonus materials, the films are also available for sale individually from digital retailers. Even better, internet services are currently discounting the titles, with each movie available for download on Kaleidescape for $13.99.

Along with Empire, Cineluxe has featured reviews of the two latest films in the Star Wars canon, The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker. But we thought it would be worth taking a look at the film that started it all: Star Wars. Or, as it is known now, New Hope.

 

While the modern usage of “blockbuster” started in 1975 with Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, A New Hope took that to the next level in 1977. In our modern era where movies are in and out of the theater in a little over a month, A New Hope enjoyed a theatrical run that lasted over a year, including one theater in Beaverton, Oregon that ran it for 76 weeks! Images of lines wrapping around the block waiting to get a seat were commonplace.

 

I was seven when the film came out, and I can clearly recall seeing A New Hope for the first time. My family was visiting Carmel, California, and my parents dropped me and my 

NEW HOPE AT A GLANCE

The 4K HDR/Dolby Atmos treatment benefits A New Hope as much as it did The Empire Strikes Back, making the 43-year-old initial entry in the Star Wars saga feel surprisingly contemporary.

 

PICTURE     

HDR is used judiciously, but adds plenty of pop to lightsabers, laser blasts, engine thrusters, and the Star Destroyer’s cannons.

 

SOUND

Atmos really opens up the Oscar-winning soundtrack, making Tatooine, the Cantina, the Death Star, and even the garbage compactor feel more convincing.

cousin off at the theater while they went shopping. I can’t recall having any anticipation about seeing the movie, or even hearing anything about it prior to walking into the theater, but my world changed when the lights dropped and that opening fanfare blared from the speakers. When that Star Destroyer flew overhead for the first time, I remember thinking this was like nothing I’d ever seen before, and how was this even possible?!?

 

For two hours, my cousin and I sat engrossed, taking it all in. When it ended, we ran out to the lobby, told my parents that we had just seen the most incredibly movie of all time! and then turned around and went back inside to watch it again! We then spent the rest of the vacation lightsaber fighting each other with anything we could grab that could be imagined into a sword.

 

I was also fortunate enough to see A New Hope at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood—which also showed the film for a staggering 57 weeks!—where my biggest memories are of the giant auditoriums and eating an entire box of Red Vines that

I also used as straws to drink a large Coke.

 

Today, there are basically three different generations of Star Wars fans: Those who grew up with the original trilogy, those raised on the prequel trilogies, and those who have come in recently with the sequel trilogies. And, with no disrespect to these “newer” fans, it is difficult to fully appreciate just how important Star Wars is to someone who didn’t grow up with it. From 1977 to 1983, it played a massive role in our lives. It was what we played, what we talked about, what we imagined, what we dreamed.

 

With Star Wars, George Lucas created a universe so real and so unlike anything that had come before that it transcended just being a movie. And to have this come about at an age when you were old enough to understand just how special and different it was, and then grow up with it over the next six years . . . well, it’s not an exaggeration to say it shaped many people’s lives.

 

If you grew up during that time, you fantasized about making that trench run in your X-wing and using the Force to fire those proton torpedoes; or waving your hand and changing someone’s mind; or snapping open your lightsaber and standing down Vader; or playing space chess (technically “Dejarik”) with Chewie aboard the Falcon; or having a Princess place a medal around your neck while the galaxy cheers.

 

And, to think, it was nearly not to be.

 

Multiple studios passed on the film early on, and the first

edits were said to be nearly unwatchable. The film was basically “saved” in post production as the incredible models and special effects came together (it won an Oscar for Best Editing), and it was finally bolstered by one of the greatest soundtracks ever thanks to John Williams. (If you haven’t watched the fascinating and fantastic two-and-a-half-hour documentary Empire of Dreams—The Story of the Star Wars Trilogy, I assure you it is worth the price of a month’s subscription to Disney+ for that alone!)

 

Taken from a new 4K scan, this transfer is sourced from a true 4K digital intermediate, and images throughout are incredibly clean and detailed, with little film grain, but also little damaging effects or softening from heavy-handed use of DNR (digital noise reduction). It is difficult to believe you are watching a film that is 43 years old, especially when you get to the finale, which has visual effects that still impress. (Granted they’ve been digitally helped over the years, but still . . .)

 

Closeups reveal incredible detail, such as the scratches and textures in the metal of R2-D2’s dome, or the streaks of white paint on his body. You can see the fray in Obi-Wan’s (Sir Alec Guinness) robe along with every line in his face, and practically feel the velvet texture of Vader’s cape. In one scene on the Death Star, I was able to clearly read the text “THX-1138” on one of the monitor screens in the background, a homage to Lucas’ first film. You could also see that the masks of the Stormtroopers influenced by Obi-Wan were a bit sloppily finished, with paint that isn’t perfect.

 

Colors look terrific and natural throughout, with laser blasts and lightsabers appropriately bright, as well as the bright blue of the Falcon’s engine, the red of the X-wings’ thrusters, and the bright green of the Star Destroyer’s cannons. (I’m also happy they fixed the saber “fizzle” during Obi-Wan and Darth’s battle.) You can see the crags, cracks, and textures in the rocks near Obi-Wan’s cave, and all of the fine little details put into the interior of the Falcon to make it look like a ship that has logged a lot of miles, errr, parsecs, traveling the galaxy.

 

Black levels are deep, and space looks appropriately inky, but not at the expense of crushing shadow detail. This really gives nice pop to all of the spaceships, as they stand out in stark contrast to the blackness of space around them. Notice the early scenes aboard the Tantive IV as Leia and the droids move around darkened corridors and passageways, or the prisoner detention bay on the Death Star with its deep-black walls, but you can still make out detail in the guards’ black uniforms.

 

HDR brightness is used sparingly—the Falcon’s glowing engines, big explosions—however, the overall depth of contrast added by the extra dynamic range provides enhanced images throughout, adding depth and dimension.

Sonically, A New Hope was game-changing when it came out, winning an Academy Award for Best Sound and a Special Achievement Award for Ben Burtt’s sound effects. And they have definitely done an admirable job of amping up the sound mix for the 21st century while retaining the classic elements that made it so memorable. From the opening, the Star Destroyer flies overhead, an iconic moment now expanded with overhead explosions as it bombards Leia’s ship. And when the tractor beam grabs it, you hear and feel the ship being pulled overhead. When the Falcon escapes the Death Star, TIE fighters fly over and around in pursuit, but the biggest sonic moment is held for the end, during the attack on the Death Star, with trench guns blasting all around, TIE’s screaming past and roaring overhead.

 

Every scene is brought to life with its own sonic space. You get the winds blowing overhead in the Tatooine desert, the background hum of life and little mechanical noises aboard the Death Star, the sounds rattling around in the Cantina, the appliance sounds in Owen and Beru’s kitchen, or the squeaks and groans of metal twisting and crushing in the garbage compactor.

 

Blaster fire is nice and dynamic, and bass is deep and engaging when called on, 

Star Wars: A New Hope

such as the deep thrum of the Falcon’s sub-light engines, the Death Star priming its main weapon, or the buzz of lightsabers. Deeper bass comes from the Falcon jumping to hyperspace and the massive explosion of Alderaan, with the Death Star’s spectacular destruction sounding particularly good, featuring a concussive bass wave that ripples and travels back through the left side of the room.

 

Yes, you can bemoan that this isn’t the original theatrical cut we grew up with. And that Lucas has tinkered yet again with the (now) infamous “who shot first?” Cantina scene. (Just Google “Maclunkey,” if you aren’t aware.) Or that the CGI creatures outside Mos Eisley that were added for the 1997 Special Edition bring nothing to the film—and now look even more jarringly out of place given the quality and look of the rest of the film. And that the added Jabba scene just steals the greatness of his reveal later in Return of the Jedi. I’ll grant you all of that. But to that, I’m still going all-in with this: This 4K HDR version of A New Hope is hands-down the definitive, best the movie has ever looked and sounded, and if you don’t watch it, you are punishing only yourself.

John Sciacca

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as
 Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

The Empire Strikes Back

The Empire Strikes Back

Disney and Lucasfilm gave Star Wars fans a real gift this year, making all nine of the franchise films (plus offshoots Rogue One and Solo) available for the first time in 4K HDR transfers with Dolby Atmos immersive audio soundtracks. And, as an even more special May the Fourth present, the films are also all currently marked down at sale prices through digital retailers, with each movie available for download at Kaleidescape for $13.99 (opposed to the usual $33.99). A bargain in any galaxy
. . . no matter how far, far away!

While I’ve reviewed the two latest films in the Star Wars canon—The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalkerwe thought it would be interesting to take a look further back in the franchise and view one of the installments widely considered to be the best of the bunch: The Empire Strikes Back.

 

I was seven when Star Wars—now known as A New Hope—was released in 1977, and I can’t remember being as excited about seeing a sequel as when Empire came out in 1980. (In retrospect, it’s clear Empire only set me up for a lifetime of disappointment, expecting that all sequels would be fantastic and surpass the originals.) I clearly remember begging my dad to take me on opening night, and then breaking down and sobbing when he said he wouldn’t—a devastating blow to 10-year-old me having to wait even one extra day! (For the record, I have seen every Star Wars film since—including the Special Edition re-releases—on opening day.)

EMPIRE AT A GLANCE

Even if you already have Empire in every previous format, you’ll want to add this 4K HDR/Dolby Atmos transfer to your collection. Both picture and sound are reference-quality.

 

PICTURE     

Space has never looked blacker, the pinpricks of starlight have never looked brighter, and you can see every wispy strand of hair on Puppet-Yoda’s head.

 

SOUND

The Atmos mix is not only dynamic—with resonant AT-AT foot stomps and lots of impressive flyovers—but detailed, revealing all the activity in the Hoth rebel base as the blizzard rages outside.

As impressive as the first film was, Empire ratcheted everything up several notches: Exciting new locations—Hoth, Dagobah, Bespin; new weapons—snow speeders and AT-AT walkers; Jedi training, and a far more impressive lightsaber battle between Vader and Luke (Mark Hamill); new characters—scoundrel/frenemy Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), the Emperor (Ian MacDiarmid), a character so powerful even Vader kneels before him, and a new Jedi Master, Yoda! Plus, a huge—you actually want to hear an audience let out an audible gasp!?revelation from Vader, along with the introduction of everyone’s favorite bounty hunter, Boba Fett.

With all that going on, it’s no wonder this movie is both the best reviewed—Rotten Tomatoes critics’ score of 94—and most fan-loved—audience score of 97—of the nine-film series, along with being my personal favorite. And, let me assure you, it not only holds up after 40 years, but, oh my DAMN! does this film look and sound absolutely amazing! Fully restored and taken from a new 4K digital intermediate, Empire is clean, detailed, sharp, and visually stunning, and never looked as good as we have it now.

 

As stunning as the audio and video transfer is, nearly as impressive to me was not only how well the film holds up after all this time, but just how impressive the visual effects still are. Sure, you can tell that the Tauntauns and AT-ATs are stop-motion miniatures, and some of the matte paintings can’t compete with modern CGI, but overall, the film still absolutely delivers. (Leia calling Han “laser brain” and Luke oddly scratching Chewie under the neck still remain cringeworthy.)

 

George Lucas famously broke away from the Hollywood machine after the first film, deciding to take full control of his story and opting to finance Empire entirely on his own (a story documented in the fascinating two-and-a-half-hour Empire of Dreams—The Story of the Star Wars Trilogy, available for streaming on Disney+). Doing this not only made him fabulously wealthy, it made him realize he would be too busy to take on the directing chores, instead asking a former film professor, Irvin Kershner, to take over at the helm. Besides managing finances, Lucas also looked over the special effects of his other budding enterprise, Industrial Light and Magic, and remained involved as executive 

producer, writer, and editor, something you get an interesting glimpse into via one of the included special-feature docs “George Lucas on Editing The Empire Strikes Back.” 

 

Literally from the film’s opening seconds, you will notice the improvement in picture quality. The starfield is black and crisp, with hundreds of bright pinpoints of starlight (were there always that many stars?), and the opening text scrawl is a glorious vibrant yellow that leaps off the screen.

 

All of the space shots are wonderfully deep and black, with bright star points and little lights illuminating the various ships, along with a variety of colored engine plumes. These shots now have far more contrast, and the Imperial Star Destroyers look gorgeous. Featuring a beautiful shining-white leading edge, they’re illuminated by hundreds of lights, making them appear more ominous and alive and massive, and allowing you to appreciate all the detail.

The Empire Strikes Back

Edges are just razor-sharp and clean throughout, with closeup detail so good that you see every line and pore in the actors’ faces. Leia (Carrie Fisher) looks incredibly fresh-faced and young and beautiful. You also notice that the shoulder restraints of the snow-speeder pilots appear to be just bubble wrap. These tight shots reveal individual strands of Chewbacca’s fur, along with each single wispy piece of hair on Yoda’s head, face, and fingers, and each wrinkle and expression. Puppet-Yoda is more alive and real than ever, and you can really appreciate the master work done here by Frank Oz.

 

There were a lot of practical sets and props used during production, and the image quality really lets you appreciate the detail and care that went into them. The detail and texture along the Falcon is amazing, and you can see all of the little nicks and scratches and wear on the various pilots’ uniforms and helmets. The details of Han Solo (Harrison Ford) frozen in carbonite—with little dimples and cracks and pits—are also clearly visible. We get several nice interior shots of the Falcon’s cockpit, alive with hundreds of glowing and blinking lights of different colors, all vibrant in HDR.

 

While the Hoth battle scene is one of my very favorites—and is as exciting today as ever, enhanced with both better images and audio, and with the details of the snowy landscape now more visible thanks to HDR—I think one of the most visually striking parts of the film is in the carbonite freezing bay. Here the deep black of the room is accentuated with glowing orange, with bright blue lights and with smoke all around. When Vader and Luke face off here in the first saber duel, it looks

absolutely phenomenal. The visuals are crisp and sharp with tons of contrast, creating incredibly cinematic images that are every bit as dynamic and compelling as anything you’ll see in modern film.

 

As good as the images are, the sound does an equally impressive job of bringing Empire up to modern sonic standards, with the mixers taking every opportunity to have ships and objects flying or rumbling past overhead. Right from the start, probe droids launched from the Destroyer whiz across your ceiling, not to mention all the flyovers from tie-fighters, snow speeders, mynocks, and more. Ghost Obi-Wan (Sir Alec Guinness) and the Emperor’s voice boom from overhead and all around as appropriate.

 

Beyond the big action scenes, we get a ton of ambience and atmospheric sounds in nearly every scene. Take a moment and listen to all the little things that are happening inside the Rebel bases on Hoth . . . there are shouts from off screen, ambient little buzzes and droid noises, and mechanical sounds of repairs going on. Outside on Hoth, the blizzard whips wind and snow around the room. On Dagobah, we are immersed in jungle sounds, with creature noises and leaves rustling, and a brief rainstorm that showers the room.

The Empire Strikes Back

Bass is deep and powerful when called for, whether it is explosions or the mighty foot stomps of the AT-AT walkers. Perhaps most important, dialogue is always clear and properly placed, not always in the center channel but tracking characters as they move off screen.

 

I honestly can’t say enough about this 4K HDR transfer of The Empire Strikes Back; it is truly reference quality in every way. And having purchased the Star Wars films in so many formats and versions over the years—VHS, letterbox VHS, LaserDisc, DVD, Blu-ray—I was seriously planning on sitting this round of Star Wars releases out. But after watching Empire, I am starting to question that decision. If you are a Star Wars fan, you have never seen the movies looking like this, especially in a fine home theater. In many ways, it feels like seeing them again for the very first time. And that is a priceless experience.

 

John Sciacca

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as
 Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

The Rise of Skywalker

The Rise of Skywalker

There hasn’t been a lot of good news swirling about lately, so it was a real treat to open my email on Saturday morning and see a message from Kaleidescape announcing that Disney and Lucasfilm had decided to give fans a little bit of weekend fun by releasing the latest Star Wars movie a few days early. (It as originally scheduled for March 17; the disc release is scheduled for March 31.)

 

While the Mouse House offered no official announcement (at least that I could find) about the reasoning behind this early release, the company did make an announcement that Frozen 2 “will be available three months ahead of schedule on Disney+ in the U.S. . . . surprising families with some fun and joy during this challenging period,” an allusion to the COVID-19 pandemic.

 

With more families staying at home, a bit of Star Wars could be just the thing to lift spirits.

 

Officially carrying the weighty title Star Wars: Episode IX—The Rise of Skywalker, this film brings to a conclusion the space opera created by George Lucas back in 1977, and wraps the final trilogy of films which began in 2015 with The Force

Awakens and continued in 2017 with The Last Jedi.

 

Following the mixed fan reception of director Rian Johnson’s Jedi, which received a favorable critics’ rating of 91% on Rotten Tomatoes, but a dismal, franchise-low audience score of just 43%, Star Wars looked to finish strong with Skywalker. But there was difficulty early on as initial writer and director Colin Trevorrow was quickly replaced due to “creative differences,” and J.J. Abrams was brought back in to helm the ship and finish the trilogy he began with Awakens.

 

To be fair, Abrams had an almost impossible task here—to conclude a saga that had taken on myth and meaning in people’s lives, with expectations far beyond what any movie could ever deliver. To its credit, Disney threw a ton of money at the film (an estimated $275 million), and J.J. tried to give fans the farewell they wanted, even bringing back a host of characters not seen in years, including Lando Calrissian (Billy De Williams), Wedge Antilles (Denis Lawson), and Wicket (Warwick Davis), along with even more that are only heard. And while he reversed the tide of Last Jedi’s ratings, scoring an audience score of 86%, he also managed a franchise-low critic’s rating of just 51%.

 

Abrams also faced the major obstacles of losing Carrie Fisher, whose Princess Leia was supposed to be a central character in this final episode, and having to follow some of the story choices Johnson took with Last Jedi. The result is a movie that feels a bit disjointed at times, shoehorning and repurposing previously shot footage and dialogue of Fisher where it could, and feeling like it was rewriting Johnson’s film at others. The result left some with more questions than answers.

 

Like many of you, I grew up with Star Wars. I saw the first film at a small theater in Carmel, California while my parents were out shopping when I was 7. I can remember that first Star Destroyer flying overhead and thinking this was like nothing I’d ever seen before. When the movie was over, I walked out and met my parents outside, told them how amazing it was, and then turned around and went back in and watched it again.

 

For the record, I enjoyed Skywalker, but left the theater on opening night a bit conflicted. When my wife asked me what I thought of it, I said, “I liked it, but I’m not sure it is the movie I wanted. But I’m not sure what I wanted.”

 

No matter how great this film was, it was always going to be somewhat of a bittersweet experience for fans. We all watched the final credits knowing this was the end of 

something that had become important in our lives, and now there is no more Star Wars to look forward to. (At least in the manner that we’ve grown accustomed to. Disney and Lucasfilm will most certainly continue to mine that galaxy far, far away for stories for years to come.) For me, this is now the third time I’ve “lost” Star Wars, the first being when Return of the Jedi finished in 1983, the second when Episode III—Revenge of the Sith finished in 2005.

 

Now, I’m not going to presume my review or analysis of Skywalker is going to sway your decision to watch it, nor am I going to bother wasting time and space trying to recap the plot—especially since this is an almost two-and-a-half-hour film that concludes 42 years’ worth of storytelling. If you’re a Star Wars fan, you’ve already seen the movie, and have already drawn your own conclusions, and have likely already pre-ordered the mega box set of all the films, scheduled for release at the end of the month. (Incidentally, the other eight films in the Star Wars saga were also released in 4K HDR with Dolby Atmos soundtracks at the same time as Skywalker.) But if you haven’t seen Skywalker by now, maybe you can be swayed to give this a viewing in your home theater. I assure you, it’s well worth the time, and I feel it improves on repeated viewings. (I far more enjoyed it on my second viewing this past January in Las Vegas on the only Sony Premium Digital Cinema in the country.)

 

OK, with that out of the way, lets get down to it: How does the 4K HDR release of Rise of Skywalker look and sound? Fortunately, this is a far less controversial question to answer, as the presentation is top-notch! The film even garnered three Academy Awards nominations, for John Williams’ original score, visual effects, and sound editing.

 

Shot on a combination of Kodak film stocks, Skywalker’s transfer is taken from a true 4K digital intermediate and uses HDR throughout to really pump colors and highlights, with a Dolby Atmos soundtrack that surrounds and immerses you in the action.

 

From the opening scenes, Kylo Ren’s (Adam Driver) unstable lightsaber sizzles on screen, glowing and seething with bright reds. The final battle on Exegol is like an HDR demo reel, with dark skies dotted with glowing engines of ships, and illuminating the room with frequent bright blue-white bursts of pupil-searing lightning strikes and laser bolts.

 

While space is never “pitch black” in Star Wars films, images remain clean and noise-free, and we get some true blacks in interiors. The scenes aboard Ren’s Star Destroyer (which reminded me of what an incredible job Disney did of transporting you into the Star Wars universe in its new Rise of the Resistance ride) look fantastic, with gleaming, glistening black decks, bright lighting illuminating hallways, and laser blasts and sparks.

 

The underground sand worm’s lair on Pasaana is another scene that could be a recipe for producing a video and compression nightmare, with dimly lit passageways illuminated by BB8’s glowing lights along with a couple of flashlights and the searing blue of Rey’s (Daisy Ridley) lightsaber. Blacks remain deep, with lots of shadow detail without any distracting banding or other artifacts.

 

Closeups reveal a terrific level of detail, showing every pore, strand of hair, stitch, texture, and bit of wear. Part of owning the film—and watching it repeatedly—is the you can revel in the attention to detail in nearly every shot, such as the creature design and the large interiors. The only scenes that appear “soft” are the ones with Leia. All of her shots are comprised of previously unused footage shot while filming Force Awakens. The previous background elements were removed digitally so she could be composited into the new shots.

 

Disney has received flack over the soundtracks on many of its top-level releases, but the Atmos audio included here is beyond reproach, with lots of dynamics and activity. Whether it is the snap and hum of lightsabers, the effects of Force energy, the waves crashing on the moon in the Endor system, the thrum of various engines, or explosions, bass is deep, powerful, and room-energizing when appropriate.

Surround and height speakers are used frequently to immerse you in the scenes and action. The speeder chase on Pasaana has laser blasts that shoot around the room and troopers launching and flying overhead. The scenes on Kijimi are filled with expansive street sounds to place you on location, with wind blowing, snow falling, and distant shouts and voices. The height speakers are also used to good effect during Rey and Ren’s Force chats, Emperor Palpatine’s (Ian McDiarmid) booming voice, and the voices of Jedi past that echo in Rey’s mind.

 

Sonically, my favorite scenes are aboard the remnants of the second Death Star. These scenes are among the most interesting from an audio standpoint, with loads of drips, creaks, and groans of wires twisting and metal straining as the giant ship constantly settles while Rey moves about in the cavernous interiors. The exterior shots are filled with the roar of wind and crash of waves and water splattering—all of it an ambient feast for the audio senses!

 

Beyond dialogue being clear and easily intelligible, the soundtrack also does a wonderful job presenting Williams’ score, what he says will be his final time working with Star Wars.

The Rise of Skywalker

Even if Rise of Skywalker isn’t your favorite film in the Star Wars saga, the movie is worth purchasing just for the extras, including the feature-length documentary The Skywalker Legacy, along with five other featurettes. Included with the Kaleidescape release as a digital exclusive is “The Maestro’s Finale,” which has John Williams looking back on his 40-plus-year career working with Star Wars.

 

While this might not be the conclusion to the Skywalker saga that some wanted, this is the one we’ve been given. And there is still a lot here to enjoy, especially in a home theater setting. Get a bowl of popcorn, turn down the lights, turn up the sound, sit back and enjoy, and I all but guarantee the Force will be with you.

John Sciacca

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as
 Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

Checking Out Disney’s New Star Wars Land

Checking Out Disney's New Star Wars Land

Since the release of the first Star Wars film in 1977, fans of all ages have imagined themselves being part of the action in some way. Whether it was piloting an X-wing fighter, wielding a lightsaber, or just hanging out with the scum and villainy in a space cantina, Star Wars created a galaxy fans wished they could inhabit. And while there have been a host of video games to help bridge this gap, there hasn’t really been a living, breathing world fans could truly immerse themselves in.

 

When Walt Disney Company purchased Lucasfilm in 2012, there was a lot of speculation over how they might incorporate Star Wars into the Disney theme parks. While the parks already had a Star Wars attraction in the form of the Star Tours

Checking Out Disney's New Star Wars Land

CLICK THE IMAGE TO ENLARGE

simulator ride, this offered the chance for something even bigger; and in 2015, Disney announced it would open Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge in both Disneyland in California and Disney World in Orlando.

 

This entirely new land is set in the Black Spire Outpost on the fictional planet of Batuu. It encompasses 14 acres

at both parks and features shops, dining, and attractions, delivering an experience of the Star Wars universe unlike anything fans have ever experienced before.

 

I had the opportunity to visit Galaxy’s Edge in Orlando this past week, and thought I’d share my thoughts on the new land, and specifically the Rise of the Resistance attraction, which is perhaps the most complex ride system ever created, thrusting fans right into the middle of a scene from a Star Wars film.

 

Galaxy’s Edge is part of the Disney Hollywood Studios section of Disney World, but is cleverly set off from it so you are never pulled out of the feeling that you’re in a different world. You enter through a cavernous tunnel area that transports you from 

Checking Out Disney's New Star Wars Land

the main section of the park. Once inside, tall mountain spires, fabricated canyons, and well-placed trees cleverly conceal other areas of the park so you are never reminded you’re in Hollywood Studios.

 

There is a variety of appropriate artifacts all around the land, including a full-scale TIE Echelon sitting on a stage where Kylo Ren occasionally appears. You’ll also find a full-sized Wampa and other Easter eggs and artifacts while browsing inside stores. The Galaxy’s Edge cast members also wear costumes appropriate to their jobs; whether it’s ride attendants in Resistance garb, First Order soldiers, or store clerks, everyone looks the part. Stormtroopers patrol 

the area looking for Resistance members, regularly stopping and “harassing” guests. (They walked by my youngest daughter, pointed at her and said, “We have our eyes on you!”)

 

One of the land’s most iconic features is a full-scale Millennium Falcon that sits outside the Smuggler’s Run attraction. You can walk right up to and almost all around the Falcon and see the careful attention to detail in every aspect of the ship. The

Smuggler’s ride queue lets you feel like you’re walking inside the actual Falcon, including being able to sit at the Dejarik holographic chess board where Chewie and R2 played.

 

The actual ride takes place inside the cockpit, where guests can be either pilots, gunners, or engineers on a mission to recover Coaxium shipments to help Resistance fighters. Advanced 4K video at 120 frames per second in a variety of video panels 

combined with motion and interactive controls provides a convincing illusion that you’re actually aboard the famed Corellian freighter; and the ride’s length and outcome is determined by how well the crew does their jobs.

 

Galaxy’s Edge takes on a completely different look at night, as the Disney Imagineers use a variety of concealed lights to light up the mountains, canyons, and attractions.

 

The land’s biggest attraction is the brand-new Rise of the Resistance, an 18-minute ride containing 65 Audio-Animatronic figures and requiring the largest concrete pour in the history of Disney Parks and more than five million lines of code to

Checking Out Disney's New Star Wars Land

control aspects of the ride. This is a multi-part experience that uses an amazing combination of video projection and screens, visual effects, synchronized lighting, animatronics, trackless vehicle, and amazing size and scale to place you aboard a First Order Star Destroyer in a way fans never thought possible.

 

You enter the ride near a large turret/cannon, and then the queue is hidden from First Order eyes as you wind around inside a mountain. There are loads of cool set dressing throughout the queue, including 

discarded tools, cages of weapons and uniforms, and ventilation pipes. (NOTE: Ride spoilers follow. If you’re planning to visit Galaxy’s Edge and don’t want to have the ride experience spoiled, stop here . . .)

In the first section of the attraction, you see BB-8 and a hologram transmission from Rey telling you that the Resistance is moving to another base and it is imperative we don’t reveal its location to the First Order. From here, you transition to a transporter to head off to the new base.

 

On the way to the transport, you pass a replica of Poe’s X-Wing fighter, set back in a cavern that can only be seen from the Rise ride.

 

On the transport you stand just feet away from Lieutenant Bek, a Mon Calamari animatronic pilot that talks and moves convincingly. The front of the ship is a cockpit filled with video screens showing your space flight, and if you look out the back of the transport, you can watch your ship taking off from Black Spire Outpost, including leaving the Falcon behind. The transport soon comes under attack, rumbling and quaking appropriately as it’s hit by TIE fighters and then ultimately grabbed by a First Order Star Destroyer’s tractor beam, which pulls in and captures the ship.

When the transport door opens, you’re greeted by First Order officers who command the group to get out of the transport (our first group was lingering for a bit, causing one of the officers to shout, “I said ‘get out!’”) and lead you into the largest-scale scene from any attraction: Dozens of stormtroopers standing at attention on the deck of a Star Destroyer with a huge screen staring out into space.

Checking Out Disney's New Star Wars Land

It is massive set dressing, and both times I went through the ride this moment literally brought a hush over the riders as they stared gob smacked at the sheer size and scope of this scene. Everything about the area is designed to make you feel like you are literally stepping right on onto the set of a Star Wars film, and it succeeds in every way. This holding area is packed with detail, but unfortunately you aren’t given as long to linger here as you’d hope . . . and the ride part hasn’t even actually

begun yet!

 

You then walk down detailed hallways and corridors of the Destroyer, harassed by First Order guards speaking in clipped accents who play their parts wonderfully. One guard singled out a guest wearing a T-shirt that said, “I’m with the Resistance” saying, “Why are you wearing that shirt? Do you think it is going to help you? Do you think that shirt will save you from the blasters of these highly trained stormtroopers?!” You can tell they are enjoying their rolls and are leaning into creating a fantastic experience.

 

From here, you are led into a holding cell where you’re going to be 

interrogated, with General Hux and Kylo coming out to threaten you. But the Resistance comes to your rescue, cutting a large hole through a steel door that glows a convincing red, and you are quickly moved into a trackless vehicle helmed by an R5 droid to make your escape.

 

The car races around the inside of the Destroyer, where you come under fire from a variety of stormtroopers, their blasters leaving sparks and scorch marks on different parts of the ride. At one point, your vehicle drives into a huge room where you’re confronted with two full-sized AT-AT walkers, again placing you in the immense scale of the attraction, with a lift taking you right up to face the walkers.

The vehicle drives on, taking you through various parts of the ship, including another massive room where you have to slide past three giant turbo lasers blasting at X-Wing fighters that are visible attacking outside of massive video-screen windows. The lighting, sound, and visual effects all do a fantastic job of creating an incredibly believable scene.

Checking Out Disney's New Star Wars Land

You soon find yourself aboard the bridge of the ship, where full-sized animatronics of Kylo and Hux are watching the battle unfold out of the windows. Kylo spots you, and your vehicle drives away, but he then attacks, jumping towards you with his fiery red saber piercing the ceiling overhead and cutting out a large hole in an incredible effect.

 

With Galaxy’s Edge, the Disney Imagineers have raised the bar on what an immersive experience can be. The entire Rise of the Resistance ride is an overwhelming feast for the senses, delivering an experience unlike any other Star Wars medium to date. The ride has so much going on at any second, I dare say you could go through it ten times back-to-back and still not see every detail. I can’t recommend it enough.

John Sciacca

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as
 Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

The Mandalorian: More Than Just Star Wars

The Mandalorian: More Than Just Star Wars

If you haven’t already seen Season One of The Mandalorian on Disney+, it stands to reason that you’re simply not interested. You may even be sick of hearing about it altogether, given that it’s the only thing in 2019 that managed to out-meme that crazy woman from Real Housewives yelling at a cat eating salad.

 

Here’s the thing, though: While much of the discussion about The Mandalorian has centered on its adorable baby-alien McGuffin or the show’s ties to the larger Star Wars universe, or even on its everything-old-is-new-again weekly release 

schedule, there hasn’t been an awful lot of talk about whether it is actually good. Not as a Star Wars TV series. Not as a lore drop about one of the franchise’s most beloved and mysterious factions. Not even as a small plank in the bridge between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens, chronologically speaking. But as, you know, just a TV show. A thing that exists in and of itself, independent of the fanatical fanbase or larger mythology.

 

The last time I wrote about the series, five episodes into its eight-episode run, I withheld judgment on that matter. Now that we’re a few days past the first-season finale, and I’ve had a chance to watch the season again from front to back, 

I wanted to step back and take off my Star Wars scholar hat and discuss the show on its own terms (not an easy task, since I once defeated the president of the Star Wars Fan Club in a trivia contest and still have the prize to prove it).

 

The Mandalorian is the love child of Jon Favreau, a name you definitely know, and Dave Filoni, who may be unfamiliar if you’re not a big Star Wars fan. In short, Filoni was half of the creative driving force behind The Clone Wars, one of the best TV series of the past 20 years, but also one of the most criminally underrated, likely because it was animated.

 

That aside, though, there’s one massive difference between The Clone Wars and The Mandalorian: The former assumed you were deeply invested in Star Wars lore and wanted to know more; the latter seems more interested in deconstructing the elements that made the original Star Wars trilogy such a cultural phenomenon and reassembling them into something new. Something that both pays homage and reinvents.

 

You don’t have to know much about George Lucas’s space opera/fantasy to know that this means going back to the wells of both Akira Kurosawa and Sergio Leone, the former of which influenced the latter and both of which inspired Star Wars in very different ways. Since The Mandalorian isn’t about a larger civilization-spanning conflict, Favreau and Filoni leave other influences—like The Dam Busters and Tora! Tora! Tora!—on the table and bring in some new inspiration, namely Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima’s epic Japanese comic-book serial Lone Wolf and Cub and the film adaptations it spawned.

The Mandalorian: More Than Just Star Wars

The beauty of Favreau and Filoni’s new pastiche is that you really don’t need to know any of that to enjoy it. Nor do you have to know that the show’s producers have eschewed CGI as much as possible by going back and developing new techniques for photographing and compositing spacecraft models that are very much inspired by the techniques of ILM circa 1976 to 1983. Without knowing any of that, you can just feel it. There’s this wonderful mix of the familiar and the foreign that drives this series.

 

And that’s true of everything, down to Ludwig Göransson’s incredible score, which may be my favorite thing about The Mandalorian. Instead of aping John Williams’ iconic themes, as so many other composers have done when playing around in ancillary Star Wars projects, Göransson gives us something new that isn’t really new at all. Squint at it from one direction and

there’s an undeniable Eastern influence to the tones, the textures, the overall structure of the music. Step back and look at it from another angle, and it could just as easily have accompanied any of the misadventures of the Man with No Name.

 

As with Williams, Göransson also sprinkles in the flavor of Holst and the spice of Stravinsky 

from time to time, but—at the risk of sounding repetitive—it’s the way he combines these influences, along with his own unique aesthetic, that results in something new and compelling that still feels familiar, even if you can’t quite put your finger on exactly why.

 

I hinted above that The Mandalorian doesn’t attempt to bite off more than it can chew, namely in the way that it doesn’t attempt to mash up every classic work of cinema or serial that inspired the original Star Wars, and that’s as true thematically as it is narratively and stylistically. There really isn’t much here by way of spiritual rumination. The mystical is treated as a mystery, and doesn’t play heavily into the meaning of the series.

 

Then again, it can take a while to really figure out what fundamental ideas the show is attempting to play around with, in large part due to its very episodic structure. In crafting this season, Favreau and Filoni seem intent upon letting the writers and directors of each 33- to 49-minute episode create their own little narratives, reminiscent in ways of David Carradine’s Kung Fu from the mid-1970s. And it isn’t until the very end that one episode really connects to the next and a larger story arc begins to congeal.

 

Taken as a whole, it’s not difficult to see a very simple thematic through-line woven into this collection of eight largely disconnected episodes: A tale of principles, of honor, of cultural (or familial) baggage, and of redemption—all themes that resonate within the larger Star Wars mythology, but that work just fine on their own.

 

Technically speaking, The Mandalorian is beautifully shot and honestly looks even more cinematic than its $15-million-per-episode budget would lead you to suspect. There has been some controversy over the fact that the show doesn’t make use of the expanded dynamic range or larger color gamut afforded by its Dolby Vision (or HDR10, depending on your device) presentation. Gleaming specular highlights are nowhere to be found, and the lower end of the value scale can be a bit flat. I’m guessing this was largely an aesthetic choice, as it does give the show a somewhat “classic” look, especially in comparison to other contemporary series that do make more obvious use of HDR.

 

I hesitate to accuse Disney+ of being dishonest in presenting The Mandalorian’s non-HDR cinematography in an HDR container, though, and that mostly boils down to a little-discussed advantage of our new home video standards in the era of higher-efficiency, lower-bitrate streaming: The minimization of video artifacts.

The Mandalorian: More Than Just Star Wars

On a lark, I disabled the HDR capabilities of my Roku Ultra and spot-checked an early episode, just to see what differences might pop up. In terms of color purity, shadow detail, overall brightness and so forth, any differences were hard to spot. But without the benefit of 10- (or 12-) bit color, large expanses of clear, pale sky were occasionally rendered like sun-bleached sticks of Fruit Stripe gum, with blatant banding stretching from one side of the screen to the other. Say what you will about the series’ overall flat color palette and lack of value extremes, but simply packing it in a Dolby Vision box does keep visual distractions of that sort to a bare minimum.

 

As for the audio, you’ll definitely want to enjoy The Mandalorian on the best sound system you can. One evening, whilst hanging out at a friend’s house, someone floated the idea of watching the most recent episode, which I agreed to despite having just watched it the evening prior. To be frank, I found it a lackluster experience mostly due to my buddy’s inexpensive soundbar. And it wasn’t really the explosions or gunfire that left me wanting more (although the sound mix does them justice); it was the presentation of Göransson’s score. There’s a dynamic drive to his musical accompaniment, as well as a rich blend of timbres and textures, that simply demands to be heard by way of a well-calibrated, well-installed, full-range surround sound system.

 

But should you give it a chance to shine in your home theater or media room even if you care little for George Lucas’s galaxy far, far away? I daresay yes. At its heart, The Mandalorian is a delightful bushidō/gunslinger mashup that nods at fans quite frequently, but also quite slyly, such that you’re likely to be completely unaware of any allusions or references you’ll almost certainly miss if you’re not a franchise devotee, at least once you get past the first ten minutes of the first episode (the only place where blatant fan service really rears its ugly head).

 

Taken as a whole, it definitely does stand on its own, despite its tenuous connections to the larger mythology, despite its heavy nods to works of classic cinema and television, and (perhaps most importantly) despite the fact that everyone else on your Facebook newsfeed won’t stop memeing the hell out of the series’ most heartfelt moments or most quotable dialogue.

 

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of 
Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound 
American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

Great ‘Last Jedi’ Demo Scenes

The Last Jedi

Following up on Dennis Burger’s lengthy examination of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, I thought I would detail some of my favorite scenes from the movie. While Jedi has been a bit divisive amongst Star Wars fans—read the almost 100 comments on Dennis’s post on the Rayva Home Theaters Facebook page—now that I’ve had the chance to view it a couple more times at home, and after viewing the fantastic included two-hour documentary titled “The Director and the Jedi,” which examines many aspects of Rian Johnson’s filmmaking decisions, I’ve come to appreciate this movie in ways I couldn’t or didn’t during my initial theatrical viewing.

Regardless of your feelings about this latest installment in our favorite space opera, this is the best the franchise has ever looked or sounded and makes for reference demo material at home.

 

Much of Star Wars: The Last Jedi takes place in space, and you’ll marvel at the clean, deep, dark black-level detail of this terrific 4K HDR transfer. During the film’s first moments aboard General Hux’s ship, the floor, work stations, officers’ uniforms, and General Hux’s top and trench coat are all black. But a properly calibrated video display will reveal that these are all slightly different shades of black with clearly visible texture and detail.

During the scene where Rey trains on Ahch-To, note the texture in her staff, along with the detail in the stones around her. When she lights Luke’s saber, the blade glows hot blue-white against the sunny background, the HDR image retaining the dark and deep shadow detail of the craggy rocks while the light of the saber blade exceeds that of the sun!

 

HDR is used to great effect throughout the film, but especially during the bright outdoor scenes on Ahch-To and anytime a lightsaber blade is activated. The images from the 4K DI are reference in every regard, and virtually every frame will push your video system to its limits.

 

One of my favorite scenes is when Rey visits the dark place on Ahch-To. It just looks so cool, and the Dolby Atmos sound is terrific, swirling around the room as she snaps her fingers. Just following this is a conversation between Rey and Kylo by firelight with a closeup of their hands with fingerprint detail so amazing you could submit it to the FBI for evidence.

 

Check out the detail of Kylo’s wounds when he is communicating with Rey. You can clearly see the effects Rey’s lightsaber attack had on his face and chest from the end of The Force Awakens, as well as the scar in his side from Chewbacca’s Bowcaster. These are the subtle details that really come through in full 4K resolution.

 

The lightsaber dual between Rey and Kylo and Snoke’s guards and the finale battle on Crait look and sound even more awesome at home than you remember from the theater. Kylo’s poorly constructed saber crackles and sizzles erratically, barely containing the blade’s energy, and the ultra-sharp detail makes this more visible than ever before. (Jedi’s audio levels are a bit lower than some other titles, so be sure to turn the volume up to near reference level to truly experience the full impact of the immersive Dolby Atmos soundtrack!) The reds explode off the screen in HDR, producing rich, vibrant detail along with brilliant whites and deep, dark blacks. The orange-red of the Rebel pilots’ flight suits has never looked richer, and even old C3PO gets a visual upgrade from this 4K transfer, with his gold outfit shining brighter than ever before.

 

This is the demo candy you’ve been waiting for!

John Sciacca

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as
 Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

Review: ‘The Last Jedi’ UHD Blu-ray

I’m often accused of spending too much time thinking about Star Wars. It’s a valid observation, but I think the thing that would surprise most of my friends is that the only times in which Star Wars isn’t fully consuming some part of my waking consciousness is when I’m actually watching one of the films.

 

That may seem like a contradictory statement, but when I’m watching a Star Wars film, I’m likely taking it at face value. I’m not deconstructing it as a work of cinema, or pop-philosophy, or fable. There are 22 other hours in the day for that sort of thing. When I’m watching a Star Wars film, I’m in it. Wholly consumed. I’m that five-year-old kid again, taking yet another step into a larger world that will forever guide my destiny.

 

Episode VIII: The Last Jedi is, for now at least, the exception to that rule. For a self-styled Star Wars scholar, the latest film in the saga simply doesn’t allow for that sort of detached viewing experience. At least not yet. For now, after 10 viewings, I still find it nearly impossible to watch this film without deconstructing it.

 

If I had to boil it down to just one reason why, I’d say that The Last Jedi represents a daring attempt by a single visionary to dig down to the heart of what makes Star Wars tick—mythologically, narratively, and cinematically. It’s a film that has the courage to take all six of George Lucas’s original Star Wars films as gospel, to explore every implication of every line committed to the silver screen between 1977 and 2005 completely and honestly—including the most obscure elements and seemingly throwaway lines—while also managing to work beautifully as a film on its own terms. If anything, The Last Jedi is almost as much a work of theological apologetics as it is a work of cinematic art.

 

Despite all of that, though, the film does work as art. In fact, I’d say that more so than any Star Wars film since The Empire Strikes Back, this one is more art than product. And that largely has to do with the way writer/director Rian Johnson distills the cinematic and thematic inspiration for the original Star Wars, then finds his own unique way to recombine those ingredients in a personal way.

 

It’s no secret that the original 1977 film was a pastiche of Kurosawa and John Ford, with a heaping helping of The Dam Busters and old Flash Gordon serials thrown in for good measure. Rather than go back to those original influences—or, as was the case with 2015’s The Force Awakens, mine the original Star Wars trilogy nearly exclusively for inspiration—Johnson goes to his own well here, trading The Hidden Fortress for Rashomon, and The Dam Busters for Twelve O’Clock High, while also sprinkling in a dash of Three Outlaw Samurai and To Catch A Thief and Brazil for a little extra spice.

 

The result is that, as with Empire, we end up with a film that’s true to the spirit of Star Wars, and that expands the horizons of Star Wars, but still manages to be the unique artistic vision of a single auteur who isn’t George Lucas, despite the fact that the Maker’s fingerprints are all over it.

The Last Jedi also serves as an unintended farewell to Carrie Fisher, not only as the actor who brought our beloved Leia to life, but also as an uncredited writer and script editor. Her work in the film is some of her best—both onscreen and on the page—but it’s a little difficult to watch the film and not get angry at the universe and Carrie’s own personal demons for taking her from us far too soon.

 

At any rate, the result of all of the above is that The Last Jedi is, for now, a film to be grappled with—a challenging composition that isn’t as easily consumed or processed as most tentpole pictures tend to be. It is, in ways, a cinematic analogue of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, still fresh from its Théâtre des Champs-Élysées debut, with a good bit of extra whimsy and a few adorable critters thrown in.

 

In other ways, though, The Last Jedi is an unapologetic throwback to a less cynical time, and that does make it a bit of an oddball in our current media landscape. For all the talk of this film as a subversive and at times shocking work in the context of the Star Wars canon, it’s hard not to notice how sincere it is. Even characters whose messages run completely counter to the film’s central themes are treated with a level of earnestness that’s both welcome and a little jarring. In fact, one of my few complaints with the film is the rare instance in which this isn’t the case—in which one of the film’s secondary villains is somewhat mocked in a winking way that’s contrary to the film’s overarching but subtle sentimentality.

The Last Jedi

But one aspect of The Last Jedi really hits home for me in such a deeply personal way that it manages to tear down those walls and draw me into its tragic magic completely: The journey of Luke Skywalker. Much has been made of Luke’s portrayal in this film, and I won’t dig into the thoughts of others here. Partly because I don’t care, but mostly because my own connection with Luke overshadows all other discussions for me.

 

The Luke Skywalker we meet in The Last Jedi is a broken man—a once-optimistic do-gooder who has convinced himself that the world is better off without him and the dogma he represents. He’s seen some shit, in the parlance of our times. And without delving too deeply into my own story, it’s a Luke I relate to in a visceral way, because I’ve been there. I’ve struggled with deep, personal losses for which I blamed myself, no matter how far out of my own control they may have been. I’ve been driven to the same level of despair and isolation we see on Luke’s face throughout much of this film.

 

It’s disturbing to watch at times, true. But it also makes Luke’s triumphant return at the end—in which he does the single most Jedi-like thing ever committed to celluloid or CCD—all the more triumphant. Luke Skywalker was my childhood hero. In The Last Jedi, he’s my adult inspiration, in a way I never would have dreamt possible. He’s a reminder that legends are only human, yes. But just as importantly, he’s a reminder that they’re legends for a reason.

 

In my 2018 Wishlist published on the Rayva Roundtable, I rather naïvely hoped this beautiful, moving, deeply thoughtful, and paradoxically fun film would receive the home video release it deserved, right out of the gate. Much to my shock and amazement, it has. The Ultra HD disc is a new high bar in terms of audiovisual presentation. This is the disc you’ll want to pull out when some naysayer opines that Blu-ray or streaming is perfectly sufficient. The High Dynamic Range imagery reveals depths of detail in the shadows I struggled to see even in IMAX.

The Last Jedi

In terms of supplemental material, it seems as if nothing was held back for a more ultimate release down the road. Deleted scenes abound, and in stark contrast with the Blu-ray release of The Force Awakens, the behind-the-scenes features aren’t all back-patting, neck-hugging, Kumbaya marketing fluff. Hell, even the marketing fluff that has leaked out to accompany The Last Jedi’s home video release has been a step up from most everything on the Episode VII disc.

 

The real star of this collection, though, is the feature-length documentary The Director and the Jedi, in which we get some serious insight into just how much Rian Johnson loves, appreciates, and more importantly understands Star Wars. We also see, through the course of the documentary, Mark Hamill angrily struggle to come to terms with the Luke Skywalker he’s tasked with playing in this film, then slowly come around to fully embrace Johnson’s vision. It’s raw, It’s emotional, it’s genuine in a way we don’t normally see in making-of docs. Simply put, The Director and the Jedi is a film that all cinema fans—even those who aren’t Star Wars obsessives—need to watch.

 

Johnson’s audio commentary for the film is also a delight, and it’s fortunate it was recorded before the film’s release, since we end up with the filmmaker’s genuine thoughts and reflections, rather than his reactions to the discussion of his work post-release.

 

But if there’s one bonus feature I’m more excited about than any other, it’s the isolated score track, a feature I’ve been begging for since the DVD days. It’s worth noting that the isolated score (in which you watch the film without dialogue, without sound effects, only John Williams’ brilliant symphonic narrative accompaniment) isn’t actually found anywhere on the discs. To access it, you have to redeem the Movies Anywhere code found in the UHD Blu-ray case and watch the film via your web browser or media streamer.

 

As with the film itself, though, it’s absolutely worth the effort. 

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including
high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of
Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound
American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.