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.
The bootleg was taken from the overseas Laserdisc release (there was not a Laserdisc release in the US). The first thing you will notice when you put the disc in your player is that the menu is amazingly annoying, with high-volume screeching MIDI music that becomes painful within seconds of first being heard. On my Panasonic DVD-A310, the menu navigation did not work properly; the only way to get past the menu and to the movie was to press "play" on the remote a couple times until it started playing the movie. The disc includes chapter stops, but not many. Side changes on the Laserdiscs are very noticeable, with repeated rough transitions between scenes that appear to leave out short bits of the movie. At least one or two audio drop-outs occur without any corresponding video interruption, which may or may not be the result of LD side changes.
So how is the video quality? Overall, it's fair. When compared to what a DVD should be, it comes up short. It looks washed out, with weak colors and a very digital look (artifacts). The sense of depth that can be found in the official release is noticeably missing here. It is also plagued by the Laserdisc side changes that create numerous audio and video stutters. The subtitles are also fairly annoying, and cannot be turned off. The fact that they cover the English language "alien" subtitles only makes it more annoying. The audio track carries over from the Laserdisc better than the video, although the very aggressive front sound stage may give your center and main speakers more of a challenge than you're used to. On my old setup (with a Bose Acoustimass 7 system for the center and mains), the dialog sounded echo-y and undefined. When I upgrade to Paradigm Reference speakers, I discovered that the dialog is spread across the entire front sound stage, providing a very powerful and enveloping presence for the audio. As good as the audio is, it definitely does not provide as strong a presence as the official release's awesome Dolby Digital EX track.
The liner notes on the Phantom Menace bootleg are sort of fun. Most of the notes are in a language other than English (Chinese perhaps?). As with many of the bootlegs for Episode I (including the bootlegs released before the Laserdisc appeared, when they were using borrowed theater prints as sources), the disc title appears as "EpisodeL" rather than "Episode I." There is a large note in a box on the back of the case that reads "Side A is Widescreen Version and preserves the original aspect ration of 2.35:1. Side B is a full screen version and is re-formatted to fit your screen." This is all well and good, but it is a single-sided disc with widescreen only.