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.
A couple of years after the Star Wars bootlegs started appearing (and several months after I did my comparison of the two bootleg versions described above), a new bootleg version arrived on the scene. They were labeled as the "Five Star" editions (presumably borrowed from Fox's real "Five Star Collection"). The all-region discs claimed to include DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 audio, which may at first seem suspicious since there has never been an official DTS mix created for any of the Star Wars movies. Odds are that a "home brewed" DTS mix would be little more than a waste of disc space, as it would have to be ported from the existing LaserDisc Dolby 5.1 track and would be able to offer nothing new. They are also often listed as including anamorphic widescreen video, even though LucasFilm and Fox have not ever released an anamorphic transfer of the original trilogy. Of course, past experience with bootlegs (as outlined above) and their labeling has proven that they might not be entirely accurate...
I was very interested in this set, as the information available online suggested that they might provide video quality that the other bootlegs had lacked. Past experience with bootlegs and some innate caution / distrust / paranoia (take your pick which it really is) prevented me from getting too excited, however. So what features does this new set actually have? They do appear to be encoded for all regions, with NTSC video. The video is widescreen, but not anamorphic (toss it in a DVD-ROM drive and look at what you see -- the video will be letterboxed in a 4:3 window). There are three audio tracks: English DTS 5.1, English Dolby Digital 5.1, and English Dolby Digital 2.0 (stereo). There are English, Chinese, Thai, and Malay subtitles, which are thankfully not burned in to the video, allowing them to be turned off (unlike the LOOK bootleg reviewed above). Some sources indicate that it is a dual-layer disc, which would be surprising indeed as most previous bootlegs that I'd heard about were DVD-5's (single side, single layer) and would offer the potential for better video quality than other bootlegs since a movie the length of these really deserves the extra space. In fact, the inclusion of a DTS track (with the associated demands on a disc's "bit budget") in a 140-minute movie would make a dual-layer disc almost essential to avoid significant and potentially devastating video compression artifacts. So are the Five Star discs really dual-layer?
Here's an interesting comparison for you: the first disc of the official release of Phantom Menace contains 7.82 GB of data (the second disc contains 7.90 GB, by the way) and the movie is presented in anamorphic widescreen; the Phantom Menace bootleg is not anamorphically enhanced and contains less than 4 GB of data (around 3.7GB, if I remember correctly); and the LOOK version of A New Hope is also not anamorphically enhanced and contains 4.16 GB of data. The Five Star A New Hope disc? Not anamorphically enhanced, but a quick check on the computer will reveal that the disc contains 6.47 GB of data - proof positive that this is a dual layer disc, just like the note on the cover claims. It's the second layer -- the near-doubling of available space -- that allows for the official release of Phantom Menace to look so much better than the other bootlegs (well, that and a few other factors, of course). It's the second layer (along with some reasonably care with the mastering process) that separates the Five Star bootlegs from the rest of the crowd in terms of video quality. Granted, the DTS track uses up some space that might have been used to boost the bit rate on the video -- just one of the reasons that this bootleg (and any bootleg, for that matter) should not be able to match the video quality of the official LucasFilm release that we should eventually see -- but they had plenty of space left on the disc anyway. The second layer does make a difference. The bitrate hovers around 6MBps pretty consistantly (compared to around 4.5 on the "LOOK" bootlegs). Also, the editing of the side and disc changes from the LaserDisc source were handled much better than on some previous bootlegs (the "LOOK" version of Return of the Jedi is missing between five and ten seconds near the end, whereas my initial impression is that the Five Star discs lose less than a second). On my little Toshiba SD1600 DVD player (connected to a 20" Toshiba 20AF41 set in the bedroom via a BetterCables Silver Serpent component video cable), the video quality is a bit on the washed-out side, with a soft image and more grain than I'm used to. All in all, fairly disappointing, although previous bootlegs also had trouble with this set-up -- possibly a combination of a lower-end player and a revealing video interface. On my primary system (a Panasonic DVD-RA60 DVD player connected via BetterCables Silver Serpent S-video cables thru an Outlaw Audio Model 950 pre/pro to a Mitsubishi 27" set), the video quality was much more pleasing. There was still some grain, and some scenes seemed a bit soft, but the blacks were solid and the contrast was very good. At least on my primary system, the video quality on the Five Star discs landed comfortably between VHS and a middle-of-the-road DVD (better than a poorly mastered disc like the original DVD release of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but not quite in the same league as a really respectable transfer). This is a step up from other bootlegs that struggled to be anything more than a 5" silver video tape. Sure, Fox and LucasFilm could do better, but it's an impressive effort for a bootleg.
What about the audio? Past experience with the bootlegs has suggested that the Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks should be pretty pleasing, since they were presumably lifted directly from the LaserDiscs. These soundtracks were restored as part of the Special Edition release in 1997, so they are fairly modern mixes. They are not the sort of prime demo material that some other discs (such as Phantom Menace and reportedly the upcoming Attack of the Clones), but they are pretty good tracks. What about the DTS, though? Many people assume that DTS tracks will always be superior to Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks, but that is heavily dependent on the skill of the person mixing the track. The DTS track here had to have been home-brewed, as there has never been an official DTS track released that I am aware of. I did some flipping back and forth between the two tracks, and found that the DTS track's center channel is several dB "hot" compared to the Dolby Digital mix. Unfortunately, the other four full-range channels are adjusted in the exact opposite direction, muted significantly. The resulting imbalance destroys the mix, particularly for action scenes. Also, the back of the keepcase has a DTS:ES logo down in the corner, in addition to the DTS logo. My trusty Outlaw Model 950 confirmed that the DTS:ES logo was purely wishful thinking -- the first track is Dolby Digital 2.0, the second is Dolby Digital 5.1 (no EX encoding flag), and the third track is DTS 5.1. I guess even reasonably put-together bootlegs still have to meet a minimum quota of incorrect information on the cover (in this case, anamorphic widescreen and DTS:ES, along with the "THX LaserDisc" demo at the beginning of the disc). The end result here was very much what I expected for the audio: a fairly respectable Dolby Digital 5.1 track, and a DTS track that I wouldn't recommend anyone waste their time on.
I believe that the only reason anyone spent the time and effort to produce a DTS track is to capture the attention of consumers who are enamored of DTS. I will admit that DTS tracks are typically very good, but they also typically appear in movies with dynamic soundtracks that are well suited to home theater fun (movies where the accompanying Dolby Digital 5.1 track is likely also very good). There has been plenty of debate about whether or not DTS is inherently superior to Dolby Digital, with no clear and undisputed winner. Some people generally prefer DTS mixes, but others can find no difference between DTS and Dolby Digital. I often enjoy a good DTS track, but I also have plenty of excellent Dolby Digital soundtracks on the DVD's in my collection. Some people (including the webmaster of the Star Wars DVD Waiting Page) felt ripped off that the Episode I DVD did not include a DTS ES soundtrack. I am of the opinion that I'll happily take DTS when I can get it, but the DVD format has certain limits on how much data can fit onto a single disc. In many cases (especially with a movie that runs over two hours, as all of the Star Wars movies do), the addition of a DTS track can threaten the bit rate of the video. LucasFilm chose to leave DTS off of Episode I because they couldn't fit it in the bit budget. The Dolby Digital EX track on Episode I is still considered one of the best soundtracks around, and I suspect that Episode II will certainly hold its own as well. I also suspect that it will be good enough to merciless pummel any bootleg DTS version of Episode II (yep, they do seem to be around, although with the real thing coming in less than a month I can't imagine anyone wasting the money on a copy).
There are also a few extras tucked into the Five Star releases. After some of the screwy quirks of the LOOK bootlegs, I suppose I could even count the chapter stops and functioning time display as extras, but instead I'll just say that there are chapter stops and the time display does work. You will find actual, working menus (unlike some other bootlegs) with John Williams' score playing in the background (also unlike some bootlegs). The chapter stops are accessible from the menu; I've compiled a chapter list for each disc, which can be found below (two versions of inserts listing the chapter stops can be found on my cover art page along with copies of several different covers). There is the option to view a trailer, which in each case plays a trailer from the 1997 Special Edition re-release (in Dolby Digital 2.0 and 1.85:1 letterboxed widescreen). On Return of the Jedi, the trailer is immediately followed by the 30-minute Special Edition promo documentary, also in Dolby Digital 2.0. The trailer and documentary are lumped together, so you can't jump straight to the documentary. A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back have the trailer only. A separate menu selection for the documentary would have been a nice touch, but that's approaching nitpicking -- I'm happy to find a menu that works and doesn't torment the viewer with irritating music.
A New Hope: