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.
Shortly before rumors about a potential Fall 2004 release of the Special Edition Trilogy appeared in September 2003 at sites like The Digital Bits, I received an e-mail from someone calling himself TR47 offering copies of the original trilogy on DVD -- not the special edition that appears on the Five-Star bootlegs, but the original theatrical cuts. I've heard this before, and I've even seen a set of the most widespread OT bootlegs (which are most notable for having some of the least satisfactory video and audio quality of any of the bootlegs), so I was initially sceptical. When prompted for more details, he explained that this set was produced from the 1993 Definitive Edition LaserDiscs, considered by many to be the best version of the original trilogy available. He is burning them to Ritek 4.7GB DVD-R discs (my set had "RiDATA" stamped in the spindle area, which is the factory-direct name for Ritek discs). There has been minimal clean-up work done to them (noise and anti-alias filters). The video is non-anamorphic widescreen (which is to be expected; see some of my previous reviews for the specifics on why claims of anamorphic video on bootlegs are often unreliable), and the soundtrack is a direct duplicate of the LD's uncompressed PCM stereo. The audio is an unusual change from most other bootlegs, which typically strive to include Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtracks. The DVD format generally doesn't use PCM audio (which would require close to 1.2GB for a two hour movie), instead relying on Dolby Digital 2.0 tracks to carry stereo soundtracks, but DVD players are certainly capable of passing PCM audio easily enough -- they do it any time they play an audio CD through the digital output. This stereo soundtrack is taken directly from the LD, which means that it includes the steering for Pro Logic surround, so any receiver with Pro Logic decoding (including all of those Dolby Digital receivers) can readily produce surround from the stereo track. Those of us with Pro Logic II (including myself, thanks to my Model 950) are capable of producing something even closer to a DD 5.1 experience from these discs. I'll let you know how well Pro Logic II worked on them in a little bit.
I ordered a copy in early September 2003 for $30 including shipping, and received them within a week or so. They came packed in a bubble-wrap envelope and a plastic CD sleeve, with no cases or disc labels. They came through the trip undamaged. Each disc had a Post-It© note with the number 4, 5, or 6 stuck to the face to identify it; I replaced these with hand-written labels using water-based markers (the same Dixon RediSharp! markers I use for my own DVD-R's). I planned to store them in two-disc cases along with my Five-Star discs, so I didn't mind the absence of cases or other "luxury items." I tossed them in a PC DVD-ROM drive first, which quickly verified for me that they are non-anamorphic widescreen. There is no menu; the movie begins playing immediately. Since the elimination of a menu saves a few more bits for video, I see no problem with this bare-bones approach, especially since there are no special features to be found on the discs. There are numerous chapter stops, far more than I've seen on other bootlegs, which is a nice touch. While I had the first disc in the DVD-ROM drive, I let it play a bit to see how the video looked. The opening sequence looks clean and smooth; while not as good as a modern anamorphic DVD transfer, it is superior to VHS and some of the more mediocre non-anamorphic commercial DVD transfers, such as the initial DVD releases of 2001: A Space Odyssey or Monty Python and The Holy Grail. Nicks and lint are present (obviously carried over from the prints used to create the 1993 LaserDiscs), but they are typically minimal. On A New Hope, the lighter scenes appear nearly pristine, with some lint and debris showing up in parts of the darker scenes. Return of the Jedi appears to have somewhat more dirt and video noise, but it is all carried over from the LaserDiscs. The transfers to DVD appear to have had very little effect on the video quality. Viewed on a large, high resolution display like a 21" computer monitor, the image is a bit soft; when viewed on a large high-resolution set, this may stand out. On standard TV's, I did not notice any significant softness; the discs looked very good running through my Panasonic DVD-RA60 to my 27" Mitsubishi. Color balance seemed to my eye to be better than I'd seen on any of the other bootlegs I've looked at. Side and disc changes appear flawless, unlike some previous bootlegs that dropped out or even lost sections of the movie at the changes. I had to dig around online a bit for some details on the side changes for the Definitive Edition LD's, but I did find it and checked several points on Return of the Jedi but was unable to spot the changes. One question that I've had about all of the original trilogy versions relates to those portions of the movies that had been most damaged by age prior to the 1997 SE restoration. A segment of Vader and an Imperial officer in the corridor of the corvette Tantive IV was often cited as an example of the 1997 restoration work; this segment (around the eight minute mark) looks excellent on these DVD-R's. Overall, I was quite satisfied with the video.
What about the audio? I was curious about the raw PCM that was supposed to be included on these discs: not only is it bit-intensive compared to a compressed Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack, it would also be the first time I've run into PCM on a DVD. My Model 950 is kind enough to display the format of any digital audio signal when it first starts playing, so I can quickly tell when the digital cable box or DVD recorder are providing a Dolby Digital signal or a 32K or 48K PCM signal. Likewise, it readily told me exactly what was tucked away on these discs: PCM, exactly as advertised. Obviously, my past experience has made me suspicious and distrustful of claimed features on discs like these, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that TR47 is clearly speaking knowledgeably and honestly about his product. The two-channel PCM audio sounds excellent, and it decodes into surround very well using Pro Logic II. No complaints about the audio from me.
Audio/video sync has been a problem for many of the Star Wars bootlegs. The most widely available original version trilogy (which I've reviewed here as "Version B") suffers from an audio sync error on much of Empire Strikes Back, and there have been reports of intermittent sync errors on other bootlegs. Would these discs suffer the same fate? I haven't watched more than bits and pieces of these discs, but I can report that there has been no indication of any sync problems on these discs. Judging from the obvious effort involved in them, I'd be surprised to encounter sync problems on them.
I still itch for an official DVD of these movies (and for an almost impossible official release of the original theatrical versions), but this copy of the original versions is enough to allow me to part with my widescreen VHS copies from the mid-90's. Considering the probability that Lucas will stick to his many, many past comments and never release the original versions again, having a good duplicate of the original theatrical versions is very appealing to many people, and I think these discs do as good a job as any in providing that. TR47 has given me permission to include his e-mail address in this review -- if you are interested in a set of these, drop him a note. He takes PayPal, and was very responsive to my questions. TR47 contacted me in July 2004 to let me know that he is now shipping internationally and that he has re-priced the set at $25. I have included scene indexes for all three discs below.
A New Hope:
Update - September 3, 2004: The small but still active market for bootlegs of the original theatrical cuts of the Star Wars Trilogy continues to grow, and TR47's most recent series of changes include a price reduction (from $30 to $25), international shipping, and now an impressive content upgrade. The supplementary materials disc that I reviewed in March has been replaced by a new disc (disc four below) and TR47 now has an expanded set of four bonus discs available. All of the material included in his original supplements disc appears on these new discs, plus a heck of a lot more. There's a great deal of material here, and I've only sampled it all it would take probably twelve hours or more to watch it all. Each of the first three discs focuses on one movie in the trilogy and is formatted similarly, with a static menu page at loading that offers the choices "Play All" and "Menu Selection." "Play All" will start playing the disc's one title, in which each bonus item is identified by a separate chapter. "Menu Selection" will go to a page with a series of animated thumbnails grouped six to a page (the first disc has two pages containing a dozen options in total). Each selection will jump directly to the associated chapter. The fourth disc is home to most of the Definitive Edition bonus material (trailers are spread across the first three discs rather than housed here), and that material is spread across six menus all accessible from the root menu: three "Interviews" menus and three "Commentary" menus. Before I get into the quality and specific nature of the material on these discs, I'll start with a summary of what exactly is included.
Star Wars: Bonus Material
The Empire Strikes Back: Bonus Material
Return of the Jedi: Bonus Material
Definitive Edition Supplements
The first disc has perhaps the most varied collection of bonus material. In addition to a "making of" documentary, a few deleted scenes, and the trailers, there are also audition tapes for Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford. Perhaps most entertaining, however, are the segments that were inspired by Star Wars: material from The Simpsons, Saturday Night Live, That 70's Show, and even the fan-made spoof "Troops" (a COPS-style parody following a group of Stormtroopers on Tatooine). The video quality is a mixed bag. "Troops", the trailers from the Definitive Edition LaserDisc, the That 70's Show episode, the SNL bit, and the Simpsons clip are all of fairly good quality, ranging from comparable to and a bit better than commercial VHS (similar to what I get with my DVD recorder at the "SP" recording mode). Some of the more obscure segments documentary, deleted and alternate scenes, audition tapes clearly come from sources that were heavily deteriorated: washed out, grainy, often showing a lot of lint or dirt on the source prints, and generally kind of beat up looking. The inclusion of these segments is neat and I was intrigued to see them, but sadly they're not well preserved.
The second disc offers some similar core content, with a special effects documentary, trailers, some cast interviews, and a documentary on the art of soundtrack creation. There is also a brief demo program called WOW! that was created by THX and an old commercial for Star Wars Underoos. As with the first disc, video quality varies from decent (trailers, WOW! and Soundtrack! documentaries) to somewhat rough. The level of deterioration is not as severe as seen on some of the Episode IV material, but the effects documentary and cast interviews are a bit ragged looking on a big screen.
The third disc has the shortest list, but the two documentaries appear to be longer than the combined content of the second disc. As with the first two discs, there are a few trailers (including the Revenge of the Jedi trailer) tucked in at the end, and as with the other two discs these trailers are all combined into a single chapter. The trailers are still the ones from the Definitive Edition LaserDisc, and as such look much like they did on TR47's original bonus disc, but the documentaries don't look as good. Smaller TV screens will help conceal much of it: when I skimmed through these on the computer, the sense of reduced resolution didn't catch my eye, but on my 32" HDTV it was immediately apparent.
The fourth disc rounds out the collection in impressive form the three "Interviews" sections contain the interviews, still galleries, featurettes, and "Lapti Nek" music video that were included with the 1993 Definitive Edition Laserdisc set, and the three commentary sections actually include each of the three movies with the Definitive Edition commentary tracks. These tracks (which also appear on the anamorphic Definitive Edition bootlegs) each include an array of speakers, all recorded separately and speaking in turn about different portions of the film. They are presented here with the option of jumping to different speakers at different sections of the movie by means of a scene selection index. There are a few spots where one commentary segment ends and the next begins and a portion of the movie is skipped because there was no commentary relating to it, but most of each movie is represented. It's an impressive touch, especially since the video quality is watchable not great by any stretch of the imagination, but similar to an old VHS copy and certainly respectable considering the quantity of data being shoe-horned into that space. The Interviews section looks to have been brought over directly from TR47's original Definitive Edition bonus disc, and the video quality is still respectable.
Obviously, there is a great deal of content assembled on these four discs, and it will take me some time to complete my study of it all, but my initial impression has been quite positive. Some of the content was clearly lifted from low resolution or very deteriorated sources, and the video quality reflects that, but where the source material was in better condition the disc quality is good. TR47's movie discs are still probably the best presentation of the original theatrical cuts available in the bootleg market, and with this expanded set of bonus discs and the CD of cover art that also comes as part of the package his set becomes very difficult to top.
UPDATE - NOVEMBER 26, 2004: TR47's four-disc set of bonus material was assembled by OriginalTrilogy.com forum regular RowMan, and last month he sent me a few updated discs. They are DVD+R's, so the only player I have that will handle them is my main player, a Yamaha DVD-S1500. It took me entirely too long, but I've finally had a little time to spare and have looked through these updated discs. RowMan wanted to try to clean up the transfers on some of the older segments such as the documentaries, trailers, cut scenes, and auditions the segments that I'd previously noted as being not very well preserved. The new versions do offer some improvement, with less grain and static, but there was a definite softness to the image (presumably produced by the digital clean-up) and of course the dirt and lint on the negative used to strike the transfer originally is still present. It's an improvement and does make these segments more watchable, especially some of the most abused examples such as the deleted scenes from A New Hope, but they are clearly still transfers that have had a long, hard life.
UPDATE - MAY 24, 2006: Earlier this month, Fox and Lucasfilm announced the release of Limited Editions of the original trilogy movies (see my news page for details). Each movie's Limited Edition release will contain one disc with the 2004 Special Edition version of the movie and a second disc with the original theatrical version, and each Limited Edition title will be available from September 12, 2006 until December 31, 2006. The second disc will of each movie will be taken from the LaserDisc transfers (either the 1993 Definitive Edition transfers that have been a favorite source for DVD bootlegs or the remastered 1995 "Faces" LD transfers). In light of this announcement, TR47 has let me know that he is discontinuing his Definitive Edition DVD's. He will continue to offer a nine-disc set of DVD's containing an extensive collection of supplemental material. I'm told that the price is $30. The first four discs are the same ones included in the Cowclops/TR47 2005 Definitive Edition Bootlegs. Disc five is the Star Wars Holiday Special from November 1978 along with a few extras. Disc six is the "When Star Wars Ruled the World" VH-1 Special from 2004. Disc seven is the "Deleted Magic" documentary by Garrett Gilchrist. Disc eight is the fan documentary "Building Empire" by Jambe Davdar. Disc nine is a DVD-ROM with a large collection of artwork and other resources.