(Original VCD)

Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams
George Lucas

Movie(s): * * * *

Okay, so we all know and love these movies. What else is there left to add? Just the following quickly: watching the original Trilogy again on VCD (how many times have it been now?) made me realise just how bad the recent "prequels" were - especially the dull Attack of the Clones.

After receiving several e-mails to reconsider my two star rating of Attack of the Clones, I decided to give the movie another chance, this time watching it at home on SuperVCD. SuperVCD is a standard developed by the Chinese government as a successor to the existing VCD format and as a possible alternative to the Western DVD standard. The SuperVCD I watched can be downloaded from the Internet as basically three huge files that are then written to three standard data CD-ROMs which can be played on a standard DVD player. (This is all highly illegal of course so don't e-mail me asking where you can download them.)

The results are stunning: sound and picture quality is almost (but not quite) that of DVD; definitely superior to VCD and certainly better than VHS. The only problem is viewing the movie (the longest Star Wars movie yet) like this involves a lot of disc swapping which makes it seems even longer than it probably is. Half-way through the second disc boredom set in and I despaired at the thought of having to sit through another disc. "When will this ever end?" I despaired. Fact is, kids, Attack of the Clones was still dull the second time around. (Spider-man on SuperVCD also involves swapping three discs, but the movie despite its faults never bored me.) The pace is glacial and a lot of time is wasted on dreary plot exposition.

Watching the original trilogy again proved one thing: they are fast-moving, never dull and lots more fun than Attack of the Clones or Phantom Menace, despite their technological advances in special effects, will ever be. Sometimes I wish that Lucas never made these two movies - what was the point in any case?

But enough of that: let no one ever say that I'm not fair (although rewatching Attack of the Clones made me believe that I am a devout masochist). On to the Trilogy on VCD. Are they any good on VCD?

THE DISCS: This is the Star Wars Trilogy Box Set available from, Malaysian-based on-line seller of original Video CDs (VCDs). VCDs are very popular in countries like China where they often actually sell for cheaper than movie tickets! It's a movie encoded in MPEG-1 format (DVDs use MPEG-2) and usually spread over two CD discs. Note that these are not pirated discs.

While it doesn't say so anywhere on the packaging, the movies themselves or Eureka-Movies' web site, these are actually the so-called Special Edition versions. I've come to make my peace (sort of) with the changes Lucas made to these versions released theatrically in 1997, but still prefer the original movies. I really just hate that muddled scene where the alien Greedo misses Han Solo (Harrison Ford) at point blank range! Or where Solo steps on Jabba the Hut's tail!

There are no extra features (not even the chapter selection and basic menu function of the Back to the Future VCDs). The web site mentions a behind-the-scene featurette looking at the "upcoming" Episode 2, but I couldn't find a trace of it on any of the discs. (Since Attack of the Clones turned out to be a turd in any case, the issue is moot.) All there is is an advertisement on all the discs to visit the 20th Century Fox studios in Australia.

The discs (six of them all in all) come in three standard jewel cases which themselves are packaged in an oversized lightweight carton box. (It reminded me of a puzzle box.) It all looks very handsome and professional.

* * * *

Unfortunately watching the very first disc of Star Wars (subtract geek points for me refusing to call it by its new moniker, A New Hope) you'd be excused for thinking that VCD stands for Very Crappy Discs.

The picture quality on this disc is almost unwatchable at times. This is probably due to the MPEG-1 compression used. Even on DVDs, the compression has a tough time dealing with browns and blacks and since these are the scenes set on Tatooine, the desert home planet of Luke Skywalker, the results are expectedly dire. At times objects seem out of focus and the image heavily pixelated. Add to this motion trails and characters that seem to bleed right into the background sets.

Fortunately things improve markedly on the second disc with the scenes set in space and on the Death Star.

* * * *

Later on, with the Empire Strikes Back, some of these image problems will reoccur (with some scenes involving Luke's training on the jungle planet for instance), but are less severe and isn't as distracting. Overall the picture quality of Empire Strikes Back is quite acceptable for the format, and even good in some bits like the scenes on the ice planet at the beginning.

By the way, anyone saying that Attack of the Clones is similar to Empire Strikes Back must have their minds read: this movie is the best in the series. It is fast-paced, thrilling, exhilarating and one actually cares for the characters - very much unlike Attack of the Clones . . .

* * *
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Ironically the picture quality of what is to my mind the weakest movie in the original Trilogy is the best. Return of the Jedi looks consistently good, even in the hover scooter chase scenes in the dense jungle. If only all the discs were this good!

These movies are also presented in pan 'n' scan, which isn't always necessarily so bad as readers of my review of the Star Wars bootleg DVD knows. (In a nutshell: the huge star destroyer in the opening scenes of Star Wars looks more impressive in the claustrophobic pan 'n' scan than it does in wide screen.)

Like the Back to the Future VCDs these VCDs also seem to have been sourced from VHS tapes, but in this case you have to look and listen real hard to notice that. The sound is mostly clear and there are no audible hisses. In some scenes the Dolby Stereo is quite good (asteroids whooshing past when the Millennium Falcon comes across the destroyed planet of Alderaan, for instance).

WORTH IT? At Amazon the Star Wars VHS box set will set you back $39.98 while the VCD set comes in at a mere $20.97 from Eureka-Movies.Com. (Prices quoted are Amazon list prices and exclude shipping.) That is a rather huge  saving. If you already own the VHS tapes, the VCDs however do not realistically represent an upgrade of any sort. Me? I just know that I had a much better time watching the original Star Wars classics on the supposedly inferior VCD format than I had watching the crappy Attack of the Clones on SuperVCD . . .

NOTE: A visitor to this site who also owns this VCD set sent me the following message regarding the featurette I couldn't find:

"The Episode II  mini documentary does exist. It appears on disc 1 of Star Wars (I too refuse to refer to this movie as A New Hope) at the beginning immediately following the Fox Studios Australia promo. Coincidently, I also doubted the existence of this feature when I bought the set a couple of years ago. It turns out it is located in the same 'chapter' as the promo. Therefore, if you chapter skip the ad, which I did initially, you miss it. I wouldn't call this a must see considering the movie has already been released and you seem less than thrilled with the end result.  It features interviews with George Lucas, Anthony Daniels and the actors who play the young Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru with some footage from behind the scenes."

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