DVD has a new herald. Until recently the "Star Wars: Episode I" has been universally hailed as the best DVD in the market. It is time for the disc to move over and give up its throne… for none other than "Star Wars: Episode II." But I’m getting ahead of myself…
10 years have passed since the events in Episode I and much has happened. Anakin Skywalker is still Obi-Wan’s apprentice padawan on the brink of becoming a true Jedi. Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman) has given up her throne to become a senator in the intergalactic counsel. The Republic is in turmoil as a group of star systems threaten to leave the Republic. As a result the Republic is on the brink of civil war and the remaining Jedi Knights are having increasing trouble to keep order in the galaxy.
After a failed assassination attempt on Padmé, Obi-Wan and Anakin are assigned to protect her and soon they are able to prevent another murderous attempt. Quickly they follow the assassin to find out who wants to rid the Republic of her. The traces lead to a mysterious bounty-hunter who seems to live on a planet that, according to the archives, does not exist. Leaving Anakin behind to protect Padmé, the young Jedi has increasing trouble facing his own demons and his love for Amidala, while Obi-Wan tries to solve the mystery.
"Star Wars: Episode II" is an exciting film that is much darker and dramatic than Episode I was. It is every bit as epic and George Lucas does a great job pacing the 142-minutes of the movie by sprinkling in plenty of action scenes that gradually build to the final battle, the beginning of the Clone War. The visuals are striking and oftentimes breathtaking as we visit exotic locations, see strange creatures and spaceships. The digital backdrops and elements of the film are extremely well done and integrated. oftentimes making you wonder whats’ real and what isn’t. Although occasionally the effects still appear unnatural and digital matte-paintings look like, well, matte-paintings, there can be no question that the movie pushes the envelope as far as it is possible with today’s technology, and once again George Lucas proves that he is one of the greatest visionaries of our time who understands how to use technology to tell his stories.
Upon viewing the "Star Wars: Episode II" DVD it becomes immediately evident, how much superior this disc looks to almost anything in the market. Since the movie has been created entirely in the digital domain, using digital cameras and processing the entire footage and all the effects digitally, Lucasfilm decided to use the digital master to directly "clone" a DVD from. The result is simply staggering. This is what DVD was made for! Never in the 5 years that I’ve been reviewing DVDs have I seen a transfer of a live-action movie that can hold a candle to the presentation of "Star Wars: Episode II." The difference is truly striking as there is not a hint of noise in the image and even still frames look amazingly sharp and detailed without any graininess. The colors are superbly rendered and literally leap off the screen. Especially the battle scenes with countless lightsabres, explosions and projectiles coloring the screen, you won’t believe how amazing the picture looks. Blacks are absolutely solid and the shadows are always well-defined and contain plenty of detail. To my surprise and excitement there is no edge-enhancement visible anywhere in the presentation. As a result the image always maintains a sharp looking but without the distracting artifacts of edge-enhancement. The compression is also flawless and you won’t find a hint of pixelation anywhere on this release. Clearly, "Star Wars: Episode II" is the new reference for any video presentation on DVD and I am sure you will make this your own showcase DVD to remind yourself or friends, just how amazing DVD can look.
The same is essentially true for the audio presentation on the DVD. Coming with a 5.1 channel Dolby Digital EX audio track, the sound of the movie is aggressive and makes superb use of the surround channels. The sound field is very wide making sure that surround channels are the most effective in providing directional and spatial cues. It is also one of the few tracks where you have to admit that the rear-center extension of the EX track is truly noticeable as the sound is moving all around you and often comes in from overhead. The dynamic range of the track is extremely wide, leaving enough headroom for even the most energetic moments, as well as the quieter scenes. With a bass extension that goes far below 25Hz this audio track will give your speakers a thorough work-out. The frequency response is as you would expect, perfect High ends are very clear and the entire track is free of distortion and manages to maintain all the individual textures of the sound effects and the music.
The first disc of the 2-disc set also includes a commentary track, featuring George Lucas, Rick McCallum, Rob Coleman, Ben Burtt, Pablo Hellman, John Knoll and Ben Snow. The track offers a healthy mix of insight, technical information and random thoughts on the subject matter. Each participant brings in his own approach to the track and as a whole it manages to add quite a bit of information and value to the release. Lucasfilm already hinted at the fact during a presentation that the individual commentary tracks that make up this "combo" track, may be made available at a later date through the added features on starwars.com, so keep your eyes open.
The second disc of the release contains all the supplements, and if you’re familiar with the Episode I DVD release you will feel right at home. Thanks to Van Ling’s menu design, Lucasfilm managed to create a menu system for the release that is new and fascinating, yet a the same time feels very familiar. Fully animated menus have been created and in some instances, entirely new footage has been created for these menus, such as a new fight scene between Obi-Wan and Jango Fett that serves as the backdrop for on of the option screens. Like on Episode I, this DVD contains three separate menu themes that are selected at random, representing the three main planets of the movie. Time-out and little gimmicks make surfing the menus a pleasure and you will often find yourself looking at these elaborate menus for minutes, just to take in all the detail and thought that has been put into them.
The supplements feature 8 deleted scenes, seven of which have once again been created specifically for this DVD. The eighth scene was actually excised from the movie before its release. You can view these scenes with or without commentary, though the introductions do offer quite a bit of insight into their placement, dramatic role and, of course, why they never made it into the film.
This time around Lucasfilm provides three documentaries on the DVD, all overlooked by Jon Shenk, who directed the amazing "The Beginning" documentary found on the Episode I DVD. The documentaries focus on different areas of the production.
Running 56-minutes, "From Puppets To Pixels" takes good look at the process of digital creation. Covering various digitally created creatures from the movie, the documentary hones in on Yoda and the process that took him from Frank Oz’s hand puppet to becoming a 3D digital character. It is a revealing documentary that, I think, makes the problems that come with the digital domain, much more tangible and comprehensible for average viewers without a background in digital arts. The challenge, both artistically and technically, that these creatures represent is nicely explored and it covers the process how the filmmakers – lead by Animation Supervisor Rob Coleman – solved these problems step by step one day at a time.
"The Previsualization if Episode II" is a 30-minute featurette that lets viewers experience how digital filmmaking has involved and what the process is to create such a bombastic movie as Episode II. When the majority of your sets are digital and many of your actors only exist in the digital realm, it is important that the filmmakers know exactly how to approach each scene. Shot by shot the entire film is conceptualized using computers and mock-up models – which can be very elaborate, actually. The featurette show us how these elements are created and how George Lucas actually spend 3 months editing this previz footage to create a mock-up version of Episode II before beginning principal photography. It is an intriguing look at today’s filmmaking process that is so radically different from the traditional approach.
One of the most exciting featurettes comes in the form of "Films Are Not Released. They Escape." For once we get an in-depth look at the creation of audio for a motion picture. While in the final film everything appears natural and seamless it is easy to forget that it is an extremely laborious process to record, create and edit all the sound elements for a motion picture. This featurette covers dialogue recording, ADR, sound effects, foley and alien language creation and gives viewers the chance to see for themselves how time-consuming many of these processes are. To me, this featurette is the best of three, especially because it covers an area hardly ever tackled in supplements.
The 12 web documentaries that were released on Starwars.com during the production of the movie are also included on this DVD in their full glory, offering further insight into the making of the movie.
The DVD also contains the three original electronic press kits (EPK) that were created for the launch of the movie. You may have seen footage from these EPKs in various TV shows before, but it is a nice addition to have them in their original form here on the disc. It is all promo fluff, but it helps make the DVD complete. The same goes for all the trailers, and TV Spots that are included on this DVD, as well as an extensive gallery with new and old photographs, posters and other images. The John Williams music video "Across The Stars" is also included on the release, although for some strange reason only with a Dolby surround audio track.
To round out this release you will find a fun visual effects clip on the disc that has been prepared by ILM. It runs through a series of effects shots from the movie and provides a nice look at how these shots evolved by gradually adding in detail. And, last but by far not least, a promo for "R2-D2: Behind The Dome" the mockumentary from starwars.com is also included on the DVD.
The DVD also contains a few DVD-ROM features, mostly additional information, as well as few exciting easter eggs, including a DVD credit reel full of hilarious bloopers.
As I pointed out in the opening paragraph, "Star Wars: Episode II" is the new king of DVD. The fact that the video and audio presentation is significantly superior to that of Episode I makes this the better disc, although nothing can really rival Jon Shenk’s "The Beginning" documentary from Episode I. I wouldn’t have thought that it is possible to surpass the quality of the Episode I DVD, but here it is. Without the 15 year wait, the saga finally continues… in your living room… in amazing quality! Hail the king…