Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford in Star Wars: A New Hope
With Star Wars: The Force Awakens now less than a year away, fans are beginning to look back at the original trilogy — A New Hope, The Empire Strike Back, and Return of the Jedi — to reconnect with their space-faring heroes (and maybe find a clue as to where they’ll fit in the upcoming movie). Of course, true fans will want to watch the first three films they way they did in theaters — before all those special editions and prequels got in the way. Finding these versions for that special Star Wars fan in your life won't be easy, but we’re going to show you how.
Thanks to George Lucas’s strictly imposed regulations — that the franchise’s new owners at Disney have yet to officially overturn — the original theatrical versions of Episodes IV-VI are harder to find than a Bantha in a Tatooine sandstorm. Still, if you’re willing to invest some time and money (in some old technology), they can be yours. Here’s a guide to acquiring — through legal means — home-video versions of the original original trilogy. (Note: We’re focusing primarily on full trilogy box sets rather than individual releases. And check out the invaluable site, Star Wars on Video, for further glimpses at the franchise’s home-entertainment evolution.)
Star Wars Trilogy Box Set (VHS; 1990)
The Light Side: It’s a piece of home-entertainment history — the very first time all three Star Wars adventures were collected in one handy box —complete with a note from George Lucas printed on the side, stating (only somewhat ironically): In years to come, I hope that your children and your children’s children will enjoy experiencing this saga as much as I have.
The Dark Side: We’re talking late ‘80s-era VHS here, so the quality is far from great. And forget about any extra bells and whistles beyond Lucas’s scrawled note.
Average price on eBay: $40, like this set (pictured above)
Star Wars Trilogy Special Letterbox Collector’s Edition (VHS; 1992)
The Light Side: Remember how Blockbuster Video nerds used to push the letterboxed versions on you? Guess what? They were right. The letterboxing on these VHS tapes is a big visual upgrade — and the packaging is out of this world. The grey slipcase sports a nifty hologram on the cover, and houses a trove of goodies that includes an abridged version of Charles Champlin’s book, George Lucas: The Creative Impulse, the Mark Hamill-narrated documentary From Star Wars to Jedi: The Making of a Saga and a certificate of authenticity.
The Dark Side: No extras on the movies themselves. And the 48-page excerpt from a 207-page book feels a bit stingy.
Average price on eBay: $20 to $50
Star Wars Trilogy: The Definitive Collection (Laserdisc; 1993)
The Light Side: Sure, laserdiscs were bulky (the size of a vinyl LP) and could only store a limited amount of footage. But, for a brief period in the early ’90s, LDs were the format of choice for any serious movie fan. Take for example, this 9-disc behemoth.Offering new letterboxed transfers and restored audio tracks, the set also included interviews, audio-commentary tracks (with Lucas and key crew members like Ben Burtt and Ken Ralston) , rare footage (like a tour of the Lucasfilm Archives), and “how they did it” special effects-related clips. All in all, this really is the “definitive” way to experience the original trilogy.
The Dark Side: Nine discs means 18 side-changes — one aspect of the laserdisc experience we don’t miss at all. Also, early versions of the set lost a few seconds of footage when the discs were pressed, a problem that was corrected for later editions.
Average price on eBay: $60 to $100, as in this collection (pictured)
Star Wars Trilogy (VHS; 1995)
The Light Side: Released two years before the Special Editions arrived, this was the last time the theatrical versions were made available on VHS, as advertised on a sticker affixed to the box. For their send-off, the movies at least got THX digital-sound mastering and a new Lucas interview. (The director also amended his 1990 trilogy box-set note to read: In years to come, I hope that your children and your children’s children will enjoy not only this trilogy, but also the adventures yet to come in the continually unfolding Star Wars universe.)
The Dark Side: By this time — as evidenced by his words — Lucas’s attention was clearly on the franchise’s future, rather than its past. And that’s further reflected in the bland, unassuming packaging. When the Special Edition set made its debut two years later, it was clad in a spiffy gold box. The message was clear: Why would you want those boring old movies when you have this shiny new plaything?
Average price on eBay: $5 to $19
Star Wars Trilogy (DVD; 2006)
The Light Side: For now, this the only way you can own the theatrical versions on DVD (forget about Blu-ray). Best Buy shoppers were able to get their hands on an in-store exclusive that put all three two-disc DVDs — with both Special Editions and original versions — in a tin box.
The Dark Side: These DVDs were not created from new masters, but simply ported over from the Laserdisc versions, in non-anamorphic (bad) widescreen, and without new audio mixes. That half-witted (and scruffy-looking) treatment didn’t sit well with Star Wars fans…though many of them bought the DVDs anyway, because hey, it’s better than nothing.
Average price on eBay: The Best Buy box range from $110 to $250
* * * *
Watch the Star Wars: The Force Awakens teaser trailer below: