One of the things I find most pleasing here is that, unlike Netflix, Disney+ isn’t charging their subscribers extra to view these films in 4K with HDR. I’ve long felt that Netflix made a huge mistake by doing this. The other mistake Disney+ isn’t making is that they’re not (thus far at least) saving their best films for 4K streaming exclusively. Yes, those animated films I mentioned are not available on physical UHD discs, but it’s unlikely they would be released as such given the current state of the disc market. Meanwhile, Paramount is restricting titles that would certainly sell well on physical 4K to iTunes (and that’s almost certainly because Apple is paying them a lot of money for the exclusive rights).
And that gets me to what I don’t like about Disney+ (and streaming in general). Licensing rights and deals complicate the hell out of a consumer’s ability to seek out and find the content they want on streaming services. At launch, there’s a lot of great 4K/HDR content on Disney+, but as we reported yesterday, there are titles that aren’t available, because Netflix has the rights until next year. And there are reports too that some of the content currently on Disney+ is going to leave it again in 2026, headed back to Netflix. This is exactly the kind of thing that makes consumers frustrated. And it’s part of why physical media was so huge at its height: Fans of film on disc knew that they could go to Amazon, find almost anything they wanted, and the disc was just a mouse click and two days in the mail away from their front door. It was one-stop-shopping. That is not the case with streaming, and as good as Disney+ is, it’s not the case there either.
But all of that said, I am certainly thrilled to have the chance to view the original Star Wars films, not to mention Rogue One and The Force Awakens, in native 4K with HDR. I’m confident that these films will all be released on physical 4K next year, but for now—especially in anticipation of The Rise of Skywalker arriving in theaters next month—it’s great to finally be able to marathon the entire Saga in 4K. And aside from the fact that streamed 4K just doesn’t have the data rates to be able to compete with the quality of 4K on disc, I’ve been impressed by the quality I’m seeing. I should note that during the first six hours or so of viewing the Disney+ streams, I noticed quite a bit of compression artifacting. But as the service has ramped up its resources, that seems to have lessened a lot and it’s much less apparent now.
Now… many Bits readers have asked me to comment on that quality, so here goes. I’m going to talk about the original Star Wars Trilogy only today—A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi. I’ll return to discuss the Prequel Trilogy, Rogue One, and The Force Awakens soon enough. But for now, here’s my take:
It does appear that these films were mastered from recent scans of the original camera negative, and reports are that this was done back around 2013, when it was briefly planned to return all of the films to theaters in 3-D (a plan which was abandoned after the lackluster theatrical box office to the re-release of The Phantom Menace in 3-D). As a result, the uptick in resolution is very strong, with fine detail and texturing much more refined than we saw on the previous Blu-ray editions. (I’m particularly pleased to report that the fine detail lost in the Lowry Digital BD mastering—think starfields, etc—is back and as it should be). You can see the improvement in all of the wear and tear on the droids, the imperfections in all of the costume armor (Vader, Stormtroopers, etc), and in the dirt and aging on ships and settings. There is certainly detail here now that you may not have noticed before unless you have access to the fan-produced 4K77 and 4K83 releases online. (There’s a patch of what looks like burlap sewn into the shoulder of Obi-Wan’s robes, for example.) Grain levels are mostly very pleasing and cinematic on all three films, though I would note that it appears there’s been just a little bit of DNR applied to a random shots during the battle on Hoth in Empire and the climactic battle sequences of Return of the Jedi. Why, I have no idea. But of the three films, Jedi seems to offer the least increase fine detail. It’s in no way bad looking, it’s just notable that Jedi seems to be the least improved of the three in detail over the Blu-ray release. There is one exception to this, however: The sequence in Jedi when the Rebels arrive on Endor—which on Blu-ray was oddly blurry (likely caused by some kind of registration error in the film scan)—has finally been fixed. And that is a major improvement.
Before I get into the changes that have been made (and of course there have been a few changes), the one other thing I want to comment on here is the color grading. First of all, you’ll be pleased to note that the HDR grade is very restrained—it simply expands the contrast to add a bit of pop to the specular highlights and to deepen the blacks, without sacrificing detail. HDR is available on Disney+ in both HDR10 and Dolby Vision. I would say the latter has a slight edge in terms of optimizing the image for your display. HDR10 looks great too, but there are a couple of very dark scenes (the trash compactor, for example) where there’s a bit of black crush on HDR10 that doesn’t seem to happen with the Dolby Vision. It’s minor, but worth noting. However, I am thrilled to report that the color grades on all three of these films are not only terrific, but someone has actually gone to the effort to restore the original theatrical coloring. Gone are all the ugly blue and magenta pushes that plagued the Blu-rays. These films are now quite close to the original theatrical look, and much in line with the 1993 THX laserdisc release. In fact, I haven’t seen these films looking so good in a very long time. These films aren’t HDR dazzlers, but they aren’t meant to be. These are, however, respectful and much appreciated color grades, and I’d like to personally thank whoever supervised them.
Back to the detail for a moment: The native 4K OCN scanned footage looks amazing to be sure. But this has an unfortunate side effect: All of the Special Edition visual effects changes made in 1997 now look terribly low-resolution by comparison. The difference is more jarring than ever in 4K. Watching Luke, Ben, and the droids overlooking Mos Eisley, there’s just gorgeous texture and detail. Then the new approach to Mos Eisley begins, and the footage is clearly upsampled. It looks like you’re watching an early Sci-Fi Channel production. The remastering team have done their best to conform this footage to the rest of the film, but there’s just no hiding the fact that 1997 digital effects look like 1997 digital effects. It’s true of the SE shots in Empire and Jedi too. This footage also has other flaws baked in, like unfortunate edge enhancement. If this is indeed the way we’re going to see these films from now on, I at least wish Disney and Lucasfilm would spend the money to update the CG models to higher resolution and re-render these scenes in native 4K. Because as they are, these scenes are just fugly.
Now back to the subject of changes: As many fans will be aware, Special Edition changes were made in 1997, and again 2004 and 2011 for the DVD and Blu-ray releases. It should be no surprise then that additional changes have been made for 4K, though for the most part they’re minor and actually count as improvements.
- The iconic Fox “fanfare” music has been restored to all of the films (it was removed on some Digital releases). The Fox logo used is the new one (not the vintage one from 1977, 80, and 83), but at least now it’s consistent. And hearing that music again before the start of each of these films is encouraging.
- One (and possibly more) sky replacements have been done to the scenes in which the droids arrive on Tatooine. They’re subtle and actually make the scene more consistent, so aren’t especially objectionable.
- Some of the SE effects have been tweaked again or redone, for example the shot in which R2 is hiding behind the rocks from the Sand People. The rock positioning has been adjusted and the lighting on R2 has been tweaked to at least make the shot look a little more natural. The SE change is still objectionable, but at least it looks better now.
- Lightsaber blades have been tweaked all through the films so they’re now more consistent looking, accurate, and stable. And they are now the correct color consistently—a significant improvement to my thinking.
- I also believe that there’s been additional effort to clean up matte boxes and lines, especially in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. Again, this is appreciated and an improvement.
- Unfortunately, as you may have heard by now, there’s been another change to the Han/Greedo scene. And it’s even more jarring than before. After Han says his iconic line, “Yes, I’ll bet you have,” the film now cuts back to a quick shot of Greedo again, who mutters an additional bit of Rodian dialogue (non-subtitled), before they both shoot at once, Han’s head weirdly shifts to one side, and Greedo falls. The Verge has confirmed with Disney that this was indeed a change made by George Lucas back in 2013. But again, it’s like putting lipstick on a pig. I suppose I’m glad Lucas is now happy with the scene, because certainly no one else is.
I swear, this brief bit of footage from the original Star Wars has become Gen-X’s Zapruder film. The good news, at least, is that with the release of these new 4K versions, the 4K77 team will have near perfect footage to work with in restoring the scene as it was for bootleg fan releases. (And this release is certainly superior to that effort, good as it is, given that it originates with a recent OCN scan.
Now, I haven’t watched all three of these films with a magnifying glass, so it’s possible that that additional changes have been made as well. As we see and/or hear about them, we’ll let you know. It’s also important to stress that all of the other SE changes remain. Vader still shouts “NOOOOOO!” before he tosses the Emperor, Boba Fett’s voice is still that of Temuera Morrison, and Anakin Skywalker’s Force ghost is still played by Hayden Christensen. So as expected, these films would seem to continue the Special Edition evolution that began in 1997.
As far as the new Dolby Atmos mixes for each film, I’m pleased to report that they have a nice full sound without requiring a volume bump (though when you do they get even better). A New Hope begins with a nice wide front soundstage, and the stages seem to expand a little more with each film. Bass is firm, and dialogue is clean and clear. There’s plenty of atmospherics for environmental effect. John Williams’ iconic scores swell all around the listening space. There’s nice use of the height channels in each film too. The opening Star Destroyer fly-over shot is a prime example. And when the Falcon arrives at Alderaan, there are lovely channel to channel panning effects as debris from the planet races by and overhead. The height channel use gets more aggressive with each film. Empire takes full advantage of this during the Battle of Hoth and the asteroid chase. There’s lovely ambience on Dagobah too, as well as in and around Jabba’s palace in the next film. Jedi also thrills sonically with its speeder bike chase, as well as its climactic battles both on Endor and in space above.
The bottom line is that these films now look and sound better than they have in many years. That’s no small thing. They look so good, in fact, that I’m now eager to actually own them on physical 4K Ultra HD, regardless of the SE changes. At least these versions are much improved over the existing Blu-ray releases. And I’ll be eager to compare the physical versions to these streams; I have no doubt whatsoever that the added bandwidth of disc will make them look and sound even better. If I were to grade these streaming 4K versions, I’d probably do so thusly:
A New Hope (Video/Audio): A-/B
The Empire Strikes Back: A-/B+
Return of the Jedi: B+/A-
[Editor’s Note: We’ve just learned that the 1080p HD versions of these films on Vudu have now been updated to the new 2019 versions described above. They’re starting to be updated elsewhere as well. Thanks to Bits reader Cory S. for the heads-up.]
Back to the overall Disney+ service again briefly. Aside from a few glitches in the first 24 hours, it now seems to be running quite smoothly. The only bug I’m encountering at this point is a frustrating but random tendency for the Closed Captioning to default to on when watching films, even though I’ve turned it off in the settings. (Hopefully, they’ll fix this in a future update of the app.)
Also, this is worth noting: Of the classic Disney animated films the service is offering in standard HD only, word is they’re unedited. Dumbo (1941), for example, doesn’t have any un-PC material removed. Instead, the service offers a disclaimer that notes the film has “outdated cultural depictions.” That’s encouraging, and I hope it marks a change in Disney’s approach to this issue going forward. It’s better to acknowledge history than to erase it.
So that’s it for my thoughts on classic Star Wars in 4K and Disney+ for today. I’ll likely chime in on Friday with thoughts on the Prequels, Rogue One, and The Force Awakens in 4K.
One last note today: TCM is running an absolutely tremendous line-up of great classics films tonight, including The Battle of Algiers, Breathless, The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus, Dr. Strangelove, Seven Samurai, and Rashomon! So be sure to set your DVRs to check them out. If you’re a longtime Bits reader, you’re probably already a fan of these films. And if you’re new to the site, we can’t recommend each of them more highly.
That’s all for now. Stay tuned...