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.
Just a few weeks ago, I received a dual-layer set of bootlegs that were based on the 1993 Definitive Edition LaserDiscs. That set was professionally packaged, with disc art, keepcases with cover art, and disc menus. They were also very comparable to the first set of Definitive Edition bootlegs that I reviewed last year, offering sharper packaging than the earlier set and using a Dolby Digital 5.1 track in place of the uncompressed PCM stereo track. Overall, the two discs were very comparable in quality, but neither set offered one feature that a savvy DVD buyer craves: anamorphic video. (What is "anamorphic," you ask? It is a feature of the DVD format that allows disc authors to maximize the format's resolution with widescreen material by eliminating the black bars at top and bottom of the screen and using the full 480 lines for video information check out The Digital Bits' guide to anamorphic widescreen for more.) On commercial discs, anamorphic video transfers are taken from a print or high resolution digital master and can make full use of the extra resolution. On a bootleg taken from a non-anamorphic 480i LaserDisc, does that extra resolution offer any actual benefit? Well, today we're going to try to answer that question, since I have received a DVD-R copy of a set of anamorphically-encoded bootlegs derived from the same 1993 Definitive Edition LaserDiscs used for the two bootlegs previously mentioned.
The discs that I received from Paul A. are copies made from discs that he had, so they came without cover art or keepcases (and before you ask and I know some of you will ask I have no idea where Paul found them originally, although I'm told this version appears regularly on eBay). Specifically, these are the discs typically referred to online as the Dr. Gonzo set. I tossed them in a slim triple disc keepcase that I had handy and called it good. As with TR47's DVD-R's, the Dr. Gonzo discs have the movies on three discs and the bonus features on a fourth disc. The fourth disc of the anamorphic set is reportedly either similar to or the same as TR47's, so Paul A. and I decided not to bother with it for this review. The movie discs include menus, with options to play the movie, set the audio options, go to specific chapter stops, or view a brief text summary of the movie. These menus are some of the best I've seen on a bootleg, and are also anamorphic. As for the features accessed from these menus, there are a couple of surprises tucked away. First, you can select either a Dolby Digital 2.0 (stereo) soundtrack or an audio commentary. The commentary on A New Hope and Return of the Jedi included Ralph McQuarrie, Dennis Muren, and Ken Ralston, while the Empire Strikes Back commentary added George Lucas and Frank Oz to that list. Second, the discs boast a remarkable number of chapters: A New Hope sports no fewer than 79 chapters, each of which has a thumbnail link from the eight pages of chapter stops. The production notes are rather interesting, and even make reference to the 1993 Definitive Edition LaserDiscs that were used as the source material. It is worth noting that the notes refer to extra features that are not contained on the movie discs themselves, but are instead provided on a seperate disc which I am not reviewing here. All in all, this could be considered the most professionally laid out interface on a bootleg yet, even though the menu does share some of the same foibles I noticed with TR47's supplemental disc: it is not possible to scroll around from the top of a list directly to the bottom or vice versa, and when watching A New Hope the only way to return to the menu is using the "top menu" button (the "menu" button, assuming your remote has both, does nothing). The menu button on Return of the Jedi behaved normally. The copy that I have is on DVD-R, but I do not know if the discs that Paul A. copied for my use were DVD-R's or pressed DVD's.
My initial test of the video quality was performed using the same Panasonic DVD-RA60 DVD player I've used for the last two years and the Zenith C32V37 32" HDTV that I used during my review of the dual layer set. This setup offers a mid-sized display (not as large and revealing as the typical high definition RPTV sets that have taken center stage on most television sales floors, but still larger than the 21", 25", and 27" standard definition sets that can still be found in many homes) and a non-progressive scan DVD player. My initial reaction was very positive, as the C32V37 showed off the opening scroll and the capture of Tantive IV by Vader's Star Destroyer as well as I could ask any bootleg to. After watching a bit longer and sampling some more busy scenes (inside the cantina, for example, as well as much of Empire), I recognized the same softness and lack of image detail that could be found on the other Definitive Edition bootlegs. Experiencing this loss of detail on an anamorphic transfer could be considered a confirmation of my earlier suspicion that without a high enough resolution source, anamorphic video can offer no practical benefit to a bootleg. How did it compare to the other two DE bootlegs? TR47's set seems to still offer the best color balance of any of the transfers, although these anamorphic discs matched the dual layer set in that regard. There were a few scenes where the transfer seemed muddier than TR47's set, such as the beginning of Threepio's oil back at the Berus' farm. A couple of scenes seemed to struggle less with the matte effects than either of the other DE bootlegs, such as the first time the Millennium Falcon flies in front of clouds at Bespin, but the color balance throughout much of The Empire Strikes Back (Hoth, the interior of the Falcon, the swamp around Luke's X-Wing at Dagobah) seemed oddly biased toward blue and portions of Return of the Jedi (including Artoo and Threepio's approach to Jabba's palace) where the color shifted and shuddered somewhat. Dot crawl in the opening scroll of A New Hope was minimal and generally unobtrusive, similar to TR47's discs. Like TR47's discs and the dual layer set to a lesser degree, this dot crawl seemed to disappear on The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. In the end, I felt that Dr. Gonzo's anamorphic set offered what I would consider a respectable bootleg transfer imperfect, but superior to a VHS copy and representing an effort to provide a quality product far superior to the sloppiness that earlier sets showed. The anamorphic transfer is attention-getting, but appears to offer no practical benefit.
Out of curiousity, I decided to try progressive scan playback to see if 480p offered any benefit. My primary player is still non-progressive, but my DVD recorder (a Panasonic DMR-E80) is also a progressive scan player, albeit not a very remarkable one (the DMR-HS2 that Panasonic produced prior to the E80 scored a dismal 48 on Secret of Home Theater and High Fidelity's DVD Player Shootout). I decided to spot-check a few segments from A New Hope. I'd initially planned to also look at bits from Return of the Jedi, but I found that the E80 didn't yield as good a picture as the my primary player, the RA60, so I cut the test short.
The unusual commentary track aside, I was a bit wary of the Dolby Digital 2.0 track. TR47's set included a stereo track, but it was uncompressed PCM audio that offered very respectable fidelity and decoded to surround very nicely with Pro Logic II processing, while the dual layer set offered a Dolby Digital 5.1 track that may have sacrificed a slight edge in fidelity for good surround sound from receivers that might lack Pro Logic II. This disc took the worst from both worlds, sacrificing the convenience of 5.1 digital audio and the lossless nature of straight PCM for a compressed stereo track. This decision may have afforded them a little more bit budget for the video and the extra Dolby Digital 2.0 commentary track, but it did end up coming at a price. Pro Logic II will still decode to surround with the reliability that I've come to expect from it, but there is clearly some loss of fidelity, most notably on A New Hope. The soundtracks on Empire and Jedi are not as thin sounding as A New Hope and they yield a better surround experience with Pro Logic II. With many movies, this would probably not be all that critical, but with Star Wars the sound has always been an integral part of the experience. In the end, the Dolby Digital 2.0 track on these discs is passable but not a great success. It is possibly the set's main weakness, as both of the other DE bootlegs surpass it in this regard.
With the official release of the trilogy mere weeks away, the once-common bootlegs of the Special Edition are disappearing. The three bootlegs I've reviewed in the last year all focus on the original theatrical cuts of the trilogy, all of them choosing to use the 1993 Definitive Edition LaserDiscs as their source rather than the 1995 "Faces" THX set. I've heard rumors of a couple other sets currently making the rounds, including a four-disc set based on the 1995 THX LaserDiscs, but in light of the impending official release and the number of DE bootlegs I've already accumulated I currently have no plans to pursue any of these additional original theatrical bootlegs. The trio of bootlegs (TR47's DVD-R's, the dual layer set, and the anamorphic set reviewed here) are all closely related to each other in content and quality. Each has certain advantages: TR47's PCM audio probably offers the best preservation of the original source as well as the best color balance of any of the sets, while the dual layer set offer a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack that is very comparable to TR47's PCM but will provide a better surround sound experience for those who can't apply Pro Logic II to the PCM stereo. TR47's set still probably offers the best video quality of the three. Where does that leave the Dr. Gonzo anamorphic Definitive Edition set? Overall, image detail is as good as the other bootlegs, although color balance is not always as good as TR47's. If it is all you can find, if you are specifically interested in the commentary tracks (which I haven't had a chance to listen to yet), or if you have a widescreen HDTV and prefer not to use the TV's zoom command, then I would see no reason to shy away from it, but I would not go out of my way to find a copy just for the sake of the anamorphic transfer.