Star Wars - Special Edition

(All regions DVD - NTSC)

Movie: * * * *
* *

sw_may1.jpg (10267 bytes)( - - -  Important note: see the update at the bottom of this review regarding the official DVD releases - this article is a review of a Malaysian bootleg DVD.  For an article, which includes trailers, about the official DVD box set check here - - -)

One of the most frequent queries I get from site visitors involves the Star Wars DVDs - or more specifically, when they will be out.

I don't really know to be honest. Last I heard George Lucas said that he wanted to finish the third movie in the current instalment (that is, the sequel to Attack of the Clones) before issuing the original Holy Trilogy on DVD. His reason? That he wants to spend time, which he doesn't have right now, on it and bring out something special. When will this be? Make your own maths: Phantom Menace came out in 1999, Attack of the Clones in 2002, so it's still a while . . .

Personally I think that he just wants to sell more units on videotape before then. Why else did they bring out that box set of the Trilogy a while back then? But that's just me being cynical and I shouldn't say such things: Star Wars fan boys might just find out where I live. Those same fans can't wait for them to appear on DVD though, and there is even an e-mailing campaign to force Lucas to bring out the original Star Wars movies earlier than planned on DVD.

Not that I can blame them. When I bought my DVD player and TV set-up I wanted a cool movie to showcase the new equipment I bought and the Trilogy would have been perfect: loads of special effects and really cool sound. I know younger guys probably buy a copy of The Matrix along with their DVD player for just this purpose. (Is there anyone who doesn't own this DVD? Maybe they give it away with the players they sell!) However, being a bit older and having seen the original film as a 10-year old back in 1977 I'd rather have Star Wars. Or better: The Empire Strikes Back.

sw_may4.jpg (13355 bytes)Unfortunately this is not to be. The only Star Wars movie available on DVD right now is the lousy Phantom Menace. And while this disc features some fantastic sound and great visuals, the movie is basically two neat video action set pieces sandwiched in-between dull dialogue and actors looking lost and lonely. This isn't exactly what one has in mind to show off to visitors admiring your, ahem, equipment.

We want Star Wars damn it! So how about the pirate Star Wars DVD, usually from Malaysia, one can find and order via the Internet, I can hear you ask. While I cannot recommend or encourage any illegal activity here - it'll get me into a world of trouble - the truth is that fans are still going to want to check out these discs no matter what. So I did some research and managed to secure a copy of the first movie on DVD at my local, er, "dealer".

From what I gather, this movie may be sold with various different covers, but the disc in question is the same one. What you get for your 10 US$ and (reported) nine weeks of waiting as this gets mailed all the way from Malaysia is a DVD "ripped" (or copied) from a laser disc copy of the 1997 "Special Edition" version of Star Wars.

Laser disc? Yeah, sort of a predecessor of DVD, they were those LP-sized silver discs one had to flip over halfway through the movie since they were double-sided. Laser discs never really caught on and are virtually extinct today, having been supplanted by DVD. However, some laser discs had excellent quality, surpassing some modern DVDs even!

How do I know it's taken from the laser disc? Because, well, it says so before the 20th Century Fox logo and the "Once upon a time…" scrawl starts. Despite featuring the movie in its original widescreen aspect ratio, it features the usual features. There's a garish menu with a swirling background that seems to be designed to make one feel seasick. It has a chapter selection and the movie is divided into several chapters. One can chose between Dolby Surround and a 5.1 sound mix as well as subtitles in several languages including Malay and Chinese (obviously). And that's it.

sw_may5.jpg (8726 bytes)So how's the picture and sound quality? Quite adequate to be honest. Excellent when compared to other pirate discs doing the rounds. Digital media has been hyped a lot lately, but the truth is that I have seen VCDs and DVDs (usually pirated) with picture and sound quality that is, to be honest, worse than your average VHS tape. Is this DVD better than my bought VHS tapes? Well, better and different, but I'll get to that in a minute.

First off, the movie comes in a bog standard plastic black DVD casing (see the Readers' Comments at the bottom of this review). Its cover art is atrocious however - I can't imagine one proudly showing off this to one's pals! It consists of faded 1970s poster art of the original release of the movie on the front and some even more faded photos on the back. No booklet or anything else.

Unfortunately this is the so-called Special Edition one gets, and not the original movies that were spruced up and re-released shortly before Lucas decided to muck them up by inserting redundant scenes and high-tech computer-generated effects that sticks out like a sore thumb in-between state-of-the-art 1970s technology.

Lucas said in a magazine interview recently that the original versions of the movies won't be available on DVD at all one day and that he considers the so-called "Special Editions" as the final versions of these movies. This is rather sad to be honest, and a serious lapse in artistic judgement. Anyone remember that stupid scene inserted with the bounty hunter Greedo missing Han Solo (Harrison Ford) at point blank range? Or how about Han Solo pushing around a CGI Jabba the Hut (which looks strangely dated now)?

Still, it is Star Wars and is better than my pan 'n' scan PAL videotapes. Or make that different. Doing a real-time comparison between the DVD and the tapes I made the following observations:

  • Somehow the image of my videotapes is more vibrant and colourful than that of the DVD. The DVD obviously has less pixellation, but seems more washed out.
  • After watching the widescreen DVD, the pan 'n' scan tapes feels positively claustrophobic. (Pan 'n' scan cuts off the sides of your movie to stretch it over your entire TV, while widescreen has those thick black strips at the top and bottom of the screen.) However, some scenes benefit: the huge Imperial star destroyer floating across the screen during the now famous opening scene looks more impressive in pan 'n' scan. But for the rest, the pan 'n' scan diminishes Lucas' world. Take the scene where the droids (R2D2 and C3PO) escapes in the small pod. One can glimpse only the face of R2D2, the "gay robot" as one Simpsons episode tagged him, peeking out from the left-hand corner while dustbin C3PO is off-screen entirely. Lots of people prefer pan 'n' scan, but let's be honest: it's like cutting off the sides of Da Vinci's Last Supper to that you only see Jesus and six disciples.
  • The sound of the DVD is better.

empire5.jpg (11915 bytes)WORTH IT? Well, taking in mind my previous disclaimer about encouraging criminal activities: if you don't have Star Wars on VHS and want some copies desperately, this DVD is better than the official tapes.

RECOMMENDATION: If you already own the tapes, then think twice. The problem isn't that this DVD disc is inadequate, its just that one expects better - and will probably get better one day when the official releases come out. So don't give in to the Dark Side of the Force. "Impatience," as Yoda would say. "That way unnecessary purchases lie."

FINAL NOTE: During the attack on the Death Star sequences it appeared as if either my copy, or the original laser disc it was copied from, was scratched and the image broke down three or four times. Annoying. (See the Readers' Comments at the bottom of this review.) The disc didn't appear scratched, but one never knows: so I took this as an excuse to exchange the disc again. Luckily my "dealer" didn't mind, but remember that with buying pirate copies one doesn't exactly have any consumer protection. Its not like you can run to the cops. 

So I exchanged my disc for another movie (David Lynch's latest surrealist epic, Mulholland Dr., the complete ideological opposite of Star Wars really). After all, I already own the Trilogy on VHS. Point being that I never found out whether all of the discs had those "scratches". Beware.

READERS' COMMENTS: A site visitor e-mailed me with the following interesting comment on this review.

"The disc you are describing sounds very much like mine with the swirling background in the menus you talk about and mine came from Malaysia also. Mine did not come with a case, but did come with the cover art, which has a gold background with old artwork on it, no photos. The cover says 'Five Star Collection' and mine is the dual layer version, so not sure if you had the exact same version. But anyhow I am just letting you know that my copy at least does not have the Death Star scratch/breakdown problem that you refer to. I have all three of the Star Wars Trilogy Special Edition DVDs.

I found Star Wars to have a couple of problems that the later episodes don't have. When C3PO and R2D2 first land on Luke's planet the colour fluctuates for a few seconds as if someone is playing with the controls, it happens once more in the movie too. The picture had quite bad artifacting/compression problems (sorry not sure of correct terminology) on Luke's planet in the bar scene and the shot of the speeder racing across from left to right of screen. I agree with you about the colour saturation difference between the pan 'n' scan VHS and the DVD.  After watching the DVD now though the VHS seems oversaturated and unreal because of it, so for most of the movie I prefer the DVD's colour saturation, except maybe with Empire Strikes Back and the mining planet. Overall I think these pirate DVDs kill the official VHS edition, I am definitely glad I bought them, I am quite happy to watch Star Wars on these until the official versions come out, I cannot say the same for VHS."

UPDATE: The official DVD box set was released on 21 September 2004. It is a four-disc set containing all three movies, plus a fourth disc consisting entirely of special features. They are unfortunately the so-called "Special Editions" of these films. To learn more about these DVDs, click here. If you want to purchase the new DVDs, click on the Amazon link supplied below.


Sci-Fi Movie Page | Movie Reviews | DVD Reviews | What's New? | Search | Contact Us | Discussion Board | Download Scripts | Clips & Trailers

Click here to receive our free weekly e-mail newsletter.

Copyright 1997-forward James O'Ehley/The Sci-Fi Movie Page (unless where indicated otherwise).