Anyone who is desperately craving copies of all of the Star Wars movies on DVD should look over the options available and think about what they want, because at this point there are good commercial copies of all six movies readily available. The discs that we have finally received from Fox prove that LucasFilm does at least provide high quality audio and video as well as some good extras, when they finally get around to releasing a title on DVD. The original trilogy's 2004 DVD release, reviewed below, makes any SE bootleg irrelevent, just as the Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith discs did in 2001, 2002, and 2005. I've retained reviews of the Phantom Menace and SE trilogy bootlegs just for the sake of amusement at this point, even though I don't recommend wasting your time on any prequel or Special Edition bootlegs. Bootleg activity continued beyond 2004, however, solely because of the changes made by Lucas to the original trilogy for the 1997 Special Edition re-release and the subsequent changes for the 2004 DVD's. Fans' desire to have a digital archive of the original theatrical versions of the trilogy led to a strong interest in bootlegs based on the 1993 or 1995 LaserDisc releases. By the time the Limited Edition discs arrived, those bootlegs had gotten surprisingly sophisticated, so I've left my reviews of those discs in place along with the reviews of the official releases. Links to each page are available below and are reproduced at the top of each review.
The void created by the lack of official DVD's for the Star Wars movies allowed for the appearance of a large, shady, and often unclear assortment of imitations and substitutes. There have been numerous bootleg versions of the Star Wars movies, created from available sources such as official Laserdiscs and Video CD's and even "borrowed" theater prints (complete with nicks and lint - from what little I've heard, the first Phantom Menace bootlegs were made this way, and were almost unwatchable). Even Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith fell victim, probably due in large part to the activity surrounding bootlegs of the original trilogy. These discs provide a way to have the movies on DVD, but it comes at the cost of quality. How much quality? I've documented some of my thoughts on the Star Wars DVD's I've seen, both the excellent official releases and several of the many, many bootlegs that have materialized over the last four years or so. In general, bootleg discs are not going to be good enough to stand up against an official DVD release, although some more recent fan-organized efforts to preserve the original theatrical versions of the trilogy have attempted to disprove that notion. Some of the bootlegs, such as the first Phantom Menace discs (derived from theatrical prints), are not even as good as a worn out VHS tape. In light of the release of the trilogy on DVD in September 2004, the bootlegs are really only appealing to two types of Star Wars fan: the fan who likes to collect everything available, and the fan who is interested in preserving thr original theatrical version of the trilogy on some format other than VHS and LaserDisc. The very best of the new bootlegs can rival the widescreen VHS copies (although you don't need to rewind the DVD's, and you can watch them as often as you want without wearing them out) or even the 1993 LaserDiscs. In other cases, they aren't even as good as the VHS copies. For more information on the Star Wars bootleg DVD's, try these links to The Digital Bits.
In 2001, I had the chance to look at two different bootlegs of the original trilogy, which I'll call versions A and B. While I didn't have a chance to look at version B very long, I was able to switch between it and the version A disc to make some comparisons.
Notes on Version A (produced by "LOOK" from 1997 SE LaserDiscs):
These discs are supposedly produced by a company called "LOOK." Each disc starts by playing a Dolby Digital demo, accompanied by the logo for LOOK. These are the 1997 Special Edition version of the movies, apparently taken from the SE Laserdiscs released at the time. The time display on A New Hope and Return of the Jedi does not work, and no chapter stops are present. Also, the menus on A New Hope and Return of the Jedi are not accessible from my Panasonic DVD-A310 or my Toshiba SD-1600, but they are accessible from a computer DVD-ROM drive. On all three, subtitles are "burned in" and cannot be turned off, and in many cases they overlap the English "alien" subtitles. The bit rate appears to hover around 4.0 to 4.5 Mbps on all three discs. Side changes on the Laserdiscs appear from time to time, although less so than for the Phantom Menace bootleg reviewed above - in a few cases, brief bits of movie are lost. This is most noticeable at the end of the forest battle in Jedi, after Chewie brings his stolen AT-ST to the bunker door. Han's line "I've got an idea" and the first 10 seconds or so of Luke and Vader's saber duel are missing.
Video quality was fair (probably better than VHS) when using my Panasonic A310 connected to a Mitsubishi 27" direct view using S-video cables, but deteriorated significantly when using my Toshiba SD-1600 connected to a Toshiba 20" direct view using component video cables. When using the component video connection, the image developed significant artifacts and became very blocky.
The liner notes for all three of these discs are similar, and similarly entertaining. Much of the writing on the covers is in Chinese or some other language (I'm not sure which), but all the relevant information is available in English as well. Typos abound, including the note repeated on all three discs that the "Panavision prints by Deluxe Techinicol or" (extra "i" and space in "Technicolor"). Also repeated on all three discs is the note "THIS FILM HAS BEEN MODIFIED FROM ITS ORIGINAL VERSION. IT HAS BEEN FORMATTED TO FIT YOUR TO HT YOUR SCREEN." Ignoring the "TO HT" that appears there for some reason, the discs are not modified. They are widescreen, and are actually identified as such at the very bottom of the back cover. There is also a "Region 6" logo near the bottom, even though the disc has no region code assigned. If this bugs you, there is some great replacement cover art available here, done in the same style as the official Phantom Menace disc.
Notes on Version B (produced from 1995 LaserDiscs):
This was the most common version on eBay auctions in the summer and fall of 2001. These are the original versions of the movies (not the 1997 Special Edition). At one time, I heard reports that these were taken from Asian Video-CD's. In fact, they were taken from the 1995 LaserDisc releases; the Video-CD's were presented in pan-and-scan only and in even poorer video quality than found on these bootlegs. They include decent static menus, with a choice of audio track (several languages), the ability to turn off subtitles, access to chapters, and a featurette of some sort on each disc. As with some of the other bootlegs, the time display on all three discs does not work. Chapter stops are present, but skipping forward during the movie jumps to title 2 (the featurette) rather than the next chapter. This occurred on both my Panasonic A310 and my Toshiba SD-1600. The bit rate appears to stay around 2.0 to 2.5 Mbps in most areas, although it did increase to closer to 5 Mbps near the end of Jedi.
Video quality was somewhat poor when using my Panasonic DVD-A310 to the Mitsubishi TV. In some cases, parts of the image would appear to "twitch" (digital artifacts and "noise"). One case was near the end of Jedi, when the Super Star Destroyer rolled to port and crashed into the Death Star. The smooth outer areas of the upper hull seemed to crawl during that sequence. As with Version A, there was a noticeable deterioration when using component video (SD-1600 to Toshiba 20"); similar blockiness and severe artifacting, although perhaps not as severe as with Version A. Some sections (oddly, those with higher bit rates, which may be a coincidence) avoided the artifacting but displayed severe display problems of other sorts, such as horizontal bars of color scrolling across the screen. I also took a look at one of the discs on a computer DVD drive, and found that the video in that case suffered severe problems with artifacts and some sort of interlacing.
The liner notes for Empire and Jedi are fairly reasonable. A New Hope is a bit more interesting. The front cover includes E-Wing fighters at the bottom (these may not look familiar, because they never appear in the movies; they were introduced as new fighters in the Dark Horse comic book series "Dark Empire", set about four years after the end of Return of the Jedi). The back cover describes the disc as the "complete revised Star Wars trilogy comprising the Special Edition of Star Wars" even though it is not the SE version. The back also includes pictures of Han in carbonite, AT-AT walkers on Hoth, Jabba, and a group of Naboo troopers, even though none of these appear in the movie. The copyright is also listed as 1997 (the year the Special Edition was released) rather than 1977; Empire and Jedi use the years the movies were released, which is more accurate. A New Hope also tosses in the note that the disc is "Sony Playstation 2 compatible," which has also been done on some "real" DVD releases. Lastly, the disc itself for A New Hope says "Special Edition." As with the Version A "LOOK" discs, you can pick up somewhat more coherent cover art here.
Comparison of Versions A and B:
I did some head-to-head tests of the two bootleg versions, comparing both video and audio. In both cases, I noticed that in some places I felt like some of John Williams' music in the soundtrack had less presence than the soundtrack CD. The Version A ("LOOK") version had better black level and fewer digital artifacts on my main system (DVD-A310 and Mitsubishi 27"). Both looked significantly worse on my second system (DVD player and TV in the bedroom, using a component video connection). Where version A won on the main system, it actually looked somewhat worse on the bedroom system (seeing as both looked extremely bad on the bedroom system, I'm wary of trying to draw any conclusions from that). In both cases, I would tend to recommend not using a component video connection to watch these bootlegs.
If you are looking for something to tide you over until the real thing comes out, both are mediocre substitutes. Version A has become very rare on eBay, but offers better video quality than Version B (if you can tolerate the burned-in subtitles). It's rather comparable to or slightly better than watching the movie on VHS, although the soundtrack is perhaps a bit stronger (Dolby Digital instead of Pro-Logic). Version B was more common on eBay prior to the arrival of the Five Star bootlegs (which I hope to be reviewing here later this month), and offers fans a way to store the original, pre-SE version of the trilogy on a digital format. It allows you to avoid subtitles, but the video quality is actually not as good as a good condition VHS copy (and if you're like me, you've got several VHS copies already on the shelf).