How to watch the Star Wars movies

Thursday, July 26th, 2007 Horrorthon Posts

Last November, Horrorthon Elder Statesman jpx took time out from his busy schedule of watching and reviewing horror movies (remember: there is no prize) and generously volunteered to teach us the finer points of Haddonfield study with his excellent, seminal HOW TO WATCH THE HALLOWEEN FILM SERIES BY JPX. Herewith, I humbly present


1) Watch “Revenge of the Sith”

You’ve seen it the fewest times. You were introduced to it the most recently. Tom Stoppard wrote the script! (At least the uncredited final draft.) It’s the one that gave you “a new hope” that there could maybe be good, new Star Wars. It’s dark as hell. It’s the one Star Wars movie that opens with a space battle (and what a battle, at least in terms of spectacle; like the dizzying opening number in a musical). Look, it’s a great movie; maybe a classic; no two ways about it. It’s the closest George Lucas has come to justifying the whole prequel project. Jar Jar’s not in it (except for one mercifully-silent shot at the end) and Chewbacca IS in it. All GCI technical problems from earlier in the prequel trilogy have been solved (reflections on glass; metal robot skin, etc.) Most important, it ends with the most anticipatory “pregnant pause” in the history of cinema: as the suns set over Tatooine (and C-3PO and R2D2 stand nervously in a narrow white spaceship corridor) you have the definite feeling that there might be…I don’t know…MORE to this story…and boy, are you right.


Take a little time off and think about what you’ve seen. Galactic civil war; friends fighting to the death; etc. Go make a sandwich or have dinner or something; get a good night’s sleep and go about your daily affairs.

3) Watch THE ORIGINAL “Star Wars,” “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi”

For this trick, you need the limited-edition “original version” DVDs that Lucasfilm released last year. Remember that these are controversial because they’re not especially good DVDs. They’re not anamorphic widescreen; they’re not enhanced or cleaned up or anything. In fact, they’re just transcoded duplicates of the 1980s laserdiscs of the movies, with scratches, noise, faded colors, etc. and none of the expensive and painstaking restoration work that Lucas made them do in the late nineties and early 00s. But so what! This is “real” Star Wars. This is the magical part where you’re transported back to childhood and you get to see these amazing movies. And amazing they are. The soulful, 1970s storytelling. The groundbreaking music, effects, etc. These bad DVDs give you an near-grindhouse experience of the story, like one of the old-fashioned serials Lucas was copying. It’s exactly the DVD treatment these movies would have gotten if they had turned out to be obscure flops, part of the back-catalog. Just pulp, like seventies sci-fi paperbacks. It’s just a wonderful, wonderful experience. And Han shoots first. But what’s especially good about it (if you’re following my master plan) is that, when the characters refer back to the days of Anakin and the Republic, you know what they’re talking about. You come in at the beginning of Star Wars (and it’s NOT “A New Hope,” by the way; it’s just “Star Wars”—he hadn’t thought of all that yet) and there’s Threepio in exactly the same corridor where you saw him last. But it’s 20 years later and now everything sucks; dirt everywhere; dirt all over him; crappy, underpopulated environments and Casablanca-style dingy towns like Mos Eisley as one would get after twenty years of despotic rule. When Alec Guiness tells Luke to go find Yoda, something stirs inside you, because of “Sith”: you think, Wow, Yoda’s still around? He must be “in exile” as he told Jimmy Smits would happen. Anyway there’s this fantastic, tragic, soulful adventure story of a small group of rebels who manage to overthrow the galactic empire. The first line is “Did you hear that?” and the last line is “He’s my brother.” When you’re done, you’ll feel like you’ve had the best “watching old movies” experience of all time.

4) Watch THE NEW VERSIONS of “Star Wars,” “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi”

You heard me. Go right back and watch the whole story again. Except, this time, pop in those shiny new “Special Edition”/further enhanced DVDs. Zowie wowie kapowie! From the first shot of “A New Hope” you will be completely blown away, I promise. After six hours of transcoded 1980s laserdiscs, suddenly you’re in the present day. Welcome to the world of Lowry Digital’s patented dirt removal system; a completely re-composited special effects library; today’s digital ILM lovingly tuning every shot. The blockade runner gets hit by the Stardestroyer’s lasers and you hear it in Dolby Six-Track. Kaboom! And look at the red paint on the spaceship and the gold glow on Threepio. The movies have never, ever, ever looked this good. And you got the “original version” itch out of your system so you have a slightly more open mind and you’re ready to deal with a huge Mos Eisley and those enormous, dizzying sunset vistas of Bespin’s cloud city and the incredibly good re-do of the Battle of Yavin (with all those amazing new John Knoll dogfight shots). Han has a scene with Jabba, and doesn’t QUITE shoot first, and the Wampa’s appearance screws up the timing of the music on the lightsaber coming out of the snow…but, again, so what! Believe me, you won’t care. It looks and sounds like it was made yesterday. And now, the story’s connection back to the past is making even more sense: you actually SEE Coruscant, and there’s the REAL Emperor on the phone with Vader in the middle of the second movie. And all the hundreds of little tiny mistakes and flubs that you noticed in step 3) are gone. There isn’t a single matte line, scratch, speck of dirt, discoloration or jumping frame in the entire saga. The trash compactor monster blinks. The Falcon flies out of docking bay 94 right in front of you, rising into the late-afternoon Tatooine sun, and you get goosebumps at how real it’s all suddenly become. Ditto the huge crowds on Bespin. The crappy process shots during the sail barge sequence in Jedi are gone; instead, a peaceful herd of wild Bantha move over a sand dune, unnoticed by the characters. Both Death Stars get “Praxis explosions” rather than looking like somebody stuffed firecrackers into a garbage bag full of sawdust and set them off. It’s like somebody waved a magic wand and made the whole thing into state-of-the-art modern cinema. And, again…God, what a story. Unforgettable.

5) Watch “The Phantom Menace,” “Attack of the Clones” and “Revenge of the Sith”

Now you’re ready to bite the bullet and go back in time thirty years, to the peaceful gilded age Obi Wan keeps talking about. And the thing is, if you’ve been carefully following my instructions you’ll be surprised at just how little it all bothers you. Sure, you meet Jar Jar Binks immediately. Sure, Jake Lloyd is the worst actor in the history of civilization. Sure, the story meanders. But it’s okay. This part is just gravy. It’s like (forgive the comparison) dealing with the first few chapters of The Fellowship of the Ring (in which A YEAR GOES BY while the hobbits sit around singing songs about beer and visiting an annoying idiot named Tom Bombadil) and not minding because so much good stuff is coming. Here we are, like I said, in a gilded age, with shiny silver spaceships and Metropolis-style mile-high planet-wide cities and vast civilizations and Jedi Knights and undersea kingdoms and sea monsters and rain planets and clone armies and silly battle droids. It’s the grand storybook past that the characters you know and love from steps 3 and 4 have grown up wondering about. The deliberately old-world 1930s sci-fi aesthetic is an amazing achievement, especially as the story darkens and the “galaxy far, far away” begins shifting into violence and terror. That scary “Imperial” symbol is on Obi-Wan’s starfighter, and his next one looks like a tie-fighter. The Jedi are complacent and guilty of hubris: no wonder they fall so spectacularly. Ian McDiarmid is scary as hell because you’ve SEEN his apotheosis. A heartbreaking flashback if you can overlook the crippling stupidness of the first two movies. And you CAN, is the thing (provided, again, that you’ve followed my instructions). Watching Sith again is optional, except that you’ll want to; trust me. The completed Star Wars canon is a breathtaking achievement; it’s flawed, to be sure, but in the end it’s so much more than the sum of its parts. When you’re done, you’ll be exhausted and amazed by the scope and vision of the saga; and, not only that, you’ll fully appreciate the intricate way that the two trilogies fit together; the meaning and purpose of the overall tale being told; its applicability to our reality; and, more than anything else, the value and power of movies, fantasy, science fiction, and, really, anyone who dares to dream on this large a scale.