NOW PLAYING: Empire of Dreams

Posted: Monday, September 27, 2004

Don't go looking for this week's film at your local theater, because you won't find it. Instead of reviewing a new movie, I decided to take a time out and look at one of the most widely anticipated DVD releases of all time. Finally, George Lucas has brought his beloved original Star Wars trilogy into the digital arena. And, as you might expect from the famously dissatisfied auteur, his tinkering is far from over. A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, George Lucas changed the way movies were made and watched forever. Everyone but he thought the job was finished, but now, over twenty-five years later, the work continues.

Though there is much to discuss about the three original Star Wars films as they make their digital debut, one of the most fascinating pieces of the four disc set is the inclusion of a nearly three-hour documentary called Empire of Dreams which marvelously chronicles the making-of saga as it unfolded. Chock full of interviews with the original cast and crew, Dreams is a rare look behind the scenes of a story we all know by heart. Most interesting of all are the discussions with and about George Lucas himself. Empire of Dreams could easily have been a puff piece, essentially an arm of the marketing juggernaught that Lucas has become. However, though it doesn't deliberately dig up dirt, it doesn't shy from recounts of those dissatisfied with Lucas style. Stories of cost-overruns, near financial ruin, and an almost universal beleif that the movie would fail populate the first half of the documentary which spends the time exclusively on the first film, the original Star Wars. Lucas, highly agitated by his experience with the Hollywood studio system, an outdated behemoth now in it's death throes, was nevertheless forced to depend on those deep pockets in order to realize his exceedingly ambitious vision. The Star Wars was a throwback to thirties serials; reminiscent of Buck Rogers. It dealt with grand themes, mythology and mysticism, and most of all, big, expensive set pieces. Lucas, on the strength of the success of American Grafitti, his first mainstream film, was able to broker a deal that, while it did not ensure that he would reap the box office benefits of Star Wars, did give Lucas exclusive rights to the next two films in the trilogy, and more importantly, a huge lion-share of the marketing profits, a heretofore miniscule piece of the profit pie. Lucas turned that piece into pure gold and made for himself a lasting and ever growing fortune, out of which came The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, as well as the two new installments The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones. George Lucas is truly the world's most successful independent filmmaker.

Empire of Dreams spends the majority of it's time discussing the first film, giving successively less time to Empire Strikes Back, and even less to Return of the Jedi, originally titled Revenge of the Jedi, before it was decided that "revenge" isn't perhaps the best activity for the noble Jedi to engage in. I was a little disappointed that the second two films get relatively short shrift, though there are some interesting tidbits. For example, no one in the cast or crew but the director and producer knew that Darth Vader was Luke's father, even as they were filming the climactic scene. Mark Hamill was told, in private, only moments before the scene to ensure the proper reaction. And James Earl Jones, who learned of it while dubbing Vader's famous voice, assumed, like much of the rest of the country would assume, that Vader was lying. Overall, Empire of Dreams is a fascinating look into a world we rarely get a glimpse of and, though it has it's problems, is far superior to the normal making-of films found on most DVD's these days.

The three films themselves are released much in the form that we last saw them in 1996, rather than in their original version. This will be a problem for purists, but Lucas' oft-repeated explanation is that he was never really happy with his limitations, and new technology has allowed him to make the movies as he had always intended to. This makes sense when considering additional special effects sequences that would have been impossible in the seventies and early eighties. It makes less sense when considering the tone altering changes such as the infamous "Greedo shoots first" scene in Star Wars (adjusted slightly in this newest version), or the shrill scream uttered by Luke as he falls through the mine shafts of Cloud City in Empire Strikes Back (thankfully removed.)

Whether you are a fan or not, it cannot be denied that Star Wars is now an integral part of American, and world culture. To George Lucas, we can offer two sentiments: one, a heartfelt thank you for introducing us to lifelong friends. And two, a plea for restraint. They may have started out your movies, but they belong to all of us now. Grade forEmpire of Dreams: B+

Empire of Dreams is not rated. Each film is rated PG for sci-fi violence.

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