Star Wars was without a doubt one of the most influential films of all time. Now, I’m not saying it was the best. It’s fair to say that it’s a ripoff of some much better films, wrapped up in a total ripoff of the look and feel of 1930s sci-fi. But when you look at the world of cinema before Star Wars, and after it, you realize that this film really did change the world. It changed the way movies were made and licensed. It made its creators rich in ways that were never expected, and it created the modern idea of a “movie franchise,” for better or for worse.
A long, long time ago…
It all started in 1977 with a film that looks pretty bad by today’s standards. If you watch it today, you’re not seeing that version however. Any true fan knows that George Lucas monkeyed with his creation several times over the years. The result is a mix of remastered and reprinted effects, CGI added later, and some out-and-out frustrating changes to the film in order to make it fit the tone of the later films better.
Had you gone into a theater in 1977 without having ever seen a film like Star Wars, you would have been impressed. But if you were to see the original print of Star Wars today, even a pristine print would look horribly dated. The effects are cheesy and the models look like… models. It was a technical tour de force in 1977 but today you can see fan films that are 100 times better.
…but it doesn’t need to be far, far away
The good news is that you can actually get some idea how this actually looked. There’s a project called “Negative 1” which has restored the original print several times. Their first effort was in HD and is available at The Internet Archive. This year they completed a new 4K master, calling it version 4K77. It’s available by registering for these forums, at least in theory. That site seems to go up and down.
It’s worth pointing out that this is at this point the only 4K master of the original Star Wars.
I watched the Blu-ray version, followed by the original HD Negative 1 remaster and then the 4K version. The 4K version is generally the best of the lot quality wise, but it’s also probably the worst experience. In 4K practically nothing is left to the imagination and you really get the full effect of just how bad this film looked at the time. The above image shows the 4K version before noise reduction. It’s the purest way to watch this film and you certainly suffer for your art here. It really shows you how much the art of film has advanced.
While the 4K version showed me the purest form of Star Wars, the Blu-ray version showed me its most hopeful version. Keep in mind this film (eventually) came with the subtitle “A New Hope.” Therefore, it seems appropriate. Yes, the effects are a little cheesy, especially in comparison with newer films. However, the effects actually seem more grounded a lot of the time. The CGI takes away from the realism but there is so much done with practical effects that you end up feeling like you’re not “overstimulated” in the way you would be with a Transformers film or any current film today where a city is destroyed.
My favorite way to watch
My favorite is still the “Negative 1 Silver Screen Edition,” in other words the HD version of the original film. Yes, the effects are cheesy. But you don’t get any of the cut scenes that just slow down the action. Plus, Han shoots first. Back in 1977, George Lucas intended it that way. If you’re watching this film by itself and not looking for some sly tie-in to the other ten films, it makes more sense.
The quality of HD is enough to show me that this was a 1970s film with 1970s film grain. If you’re not a person of that era you might find the grain annoying but to me it just takes me back to those movie theater days. It shows you just what was possible then, not what was possible in post production 40 years later. Looking at the original is absolutely worth it.
One more thing to mention
Disney, who owns Lucasfilm (and therefore the entire Star Wars universe) will tell you that these versions are unauthorized. Technically that means it’s illegal to download them. Do so at your own peril. I don’t expect Disney to try to enforce their copyright but it is always possible. Just use your own good judgment.