If you haven't seen, or at least heard about Star Wars, then you really must have been living on another planet for the last quarter of a century. The seminal Sci-Fi classic redefined cinema throughout the late seventies and eighties. The issue of a DVD release for the original three films, and the more recent first prequel has been one of the perennial chestnuts of the DVD world. The Star Wars films have always pushed the envelope of technology, and yet George Lucas has thus far refused to release even the barest forms of the films onto the current high quality home theatre format - DVD. Citing the lack of time to spend creating his dreamed-of Most Special Editions, our George has left fans hanging. It is hard to feel that this stance is not motivated in a large part by money, when Lucasfilm seem more than happy to make more money out of repeated VHS releases from newly mastered film stock.
This lack of a DVD release has generated interest in Star Wars laserdiscs, and DVD's subsequently pirated from the same masters. This simply reflects the fans' desire to obtain the best quality possible, and rubbishes Lucas's claims of being true to the highest quality Star Wars experience. However, Lucasfilm has licensed one release of the Star War films on 5 inch discs - all four films are available as officially authorised VCD (Video VD) releases in Malaysia.
Bear in mind, for a second, the actual facts of the different formats. While VHS enjoys a paltry 352 x 240 resolution, the VCD standard employs a slightly improved 384 x 288 picture resulting in a total 110,592 pixels per frame in the 4:3 image used on these discs. Compared to the 768 x 576 resolution, 442,368 pixels per frame of a 4:3 aspect PAL DVD (some 300% greater again) it is clear that there is still a significant improvement in picture quality to be obtained. While we now know that a DVD release of TPM is planned for October this year, bear in mind that George Lucas has indicated that he might only concentrate his efforts on a complete DVD release once the new trilogy has been completed (putting it at a mind-boggling late 2005), the VCD must vie for the format of choice to keep fans entertained in the mean time - if not for TPM, then certainly for the original trilogy. (Will DVD even be the premier home cinema format in 2005?!)
Both the original trilogy boxset and the Phantom Menace being reviewed here originate from Malaysian company Video Van, and are imported by CoolVCD. Bought together with international packaging, the cost is around $45US, or about £30.
The trilogy comes in a splendid box set with the same design and presentation as the most recent UK VHS special edition. It is apparent that the production values on these discs are high, with well-printed covers in separate dual cases. The discs are the single-sided CD format (silver) with very smart multicolour silk-screened prints on the label side.
Being VCD's, once inserted into the DVD player (or the PC), these discs do not enjoy any form of menu whatsoever. You simply play the disc. At least there are chapter breaks unlike some VCDs. So, how do the Star Wars VCD's shape up?
Once the disc is inserted, a couple of copyright screens are displayed in particularly garish colours. The second screen demonstrates a particularly worrying streak from a block of red colour the kind of which should not be exhibited in a digital reproduction. (Interestingly, this anomaly is not reproduced on a PC, so may be something to do with analogue conversion.) Thankfully, this problem does not appear on the actual presentation, and all these discs are notable for avoiding the kind of colour bleeding and flaring which occur on even the best VHS tapes.
Following the copyright warnings, there is interestingly a Fox Studios Australia trailer, indicating that the Malaysian market is being targeted by the Antipodean tourist industry. The trailer is somewhat tacky, and in parts looks like footage from the 70's.
Before the main presentation is a short featurette which is the same as the footage released on the most recent VHS boxset featuring George Lucas talking about the plot developments of Episodes 2 and 3. The featurette explains that Episode 2 is going to return to Tatooine - back to the original homestead. There are interviews with Bonnie Piesse and Joel Edgerton (playing Aunt Beru and Uncle Owen). There is also some discussion about and views of the new homestead set, and footage of the actors working with George Lucas.
The picture in this feature tends to bluriness, especially on the clips from the original films. There is also interspersed the odd clip of behind the scenes and stock footage from Episode 1, and these are again unimpressive in quality.
The featurette then moves on to an interesting section featuring Anthony Daniels. He talks aboutC3PO's evolution, and how the character will gain a 'skin' this next episode, albeit one of worn, burnished metal. This is a slight spoiler insight, with some background footage of Daniels in Episode 2. Lucas also talks with (somewhat bridled) enthusiasm about the bigger picture of seeing the whole story come together over the six films.
Moving on to the main presentation, the film is presented in a 4:3 image cropped to pan and scan, and although this is for the most part carried out sympathetically it is still clear that large sections of information and action are missing from the sides of the screen. The opening text and Tatooine space battle scene promise much, as the blacks are deep, and the picture appears crisp. Sadly, once the action moves inside the rebel ship, it is clear that this is very much a VCD, and it's lack of definition is in no way going to compete with the glories of DVD. The fast scene changes, smoke and green jackets of the rebel troops all conspire to render the picture blocky and blurry.
Although better than the same clips in the preview section, the quality is pretty ropey throughout, with a certain amount of pixellation. Sometimes the picture tends to clarity, but generally the image is poor. The quality equates to a VHS, but doesn't really improve on it and cannot be recommended over it. In some places, the poor quality from digital glitches makes the picture less enjoyable than the comparable tape.
The one section where the picture really excels itself is when the action moves back to space. The climax attack on the Deathstar is crisp, and once again the picture demonstrates good contrast and black levels. Even with the action moving quickly on the screen, the picture maintains a higher level of detail that is particularly pleasing.
When it comes to sound, I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the audio on offer on this first disc. ANH was the flagship film for the new-fangled Dolby Pro-Logic, and on this CD-based presentation, the sound has body and detail. The sound effects are strong and convincing and the classic music is reproduced especially well. However, when faced with the truly challenging effects, such as Alderaan exploding, there is a lack of real bite and depth. This is no worse than the VHS releases, and I imagine that a DVD release will contain newly remixed 5.1 tracks with these effects suitably boosted to modern standards. Just don't expect a subwoofer to get a workout with this disc.
|Episode 5: The Empire Strikes Back|
Following identical copyright warnings and trailers, the movie begins immediately. The more modern Lucasfilm logo is featured, and it is clear that the picture is immediately crisper. Comparing the scenes in the Hoth rebel base to similar scenes in the control room at the end of ANH demonstrates a far clearer and more detailed image, which blows VHS into the weeds. The colour balance and detail level on this disc is far, far better than the first disc, and it is a really impressive VCD. The picture withstands close scrutiny in all but the very most demanding scenes of high-detail and action.
This being the Special Edition release, the scenes of cloud city Bespin include newer graphics with a far grander perspective. The modern nature of these effects come across well and the picture quality is excellent. Lightsabre effects throughout the film already look far more consistent and convincing.
The sound effects on TESB are also better - as the probe droids leave the Imperial cruiser there is impressive stereo separation marking the direction they travel in. This excellent quality is carried throughout the presentation, and also the musical reproduction is once again excellent. However, the bass element is still rather lacking - I look forward to the sub-rumbling thumps of the walking AT-ATs as they pound across the Hoth ice in a new 5.1 remaster on DVD…
|Episode 6: The Return of the Jedi|
ROTJ follows the stronger showing of TESB, although it unfortunately reverts back to a somewhat softer picture. Some of the movement is slightly jerky, and more pixellation is seen than on TESB. The colour representation is good, although things go a little astray when the action takes place in Jabba's palace, where the picture lacks detail and looks dark and washed out. Contrast also leaves a lot to be desired. Generally though, the presentation lies somewhere between ANH and the surprisingly good TESB.
The sound, on the other hand, shows improvement again (which may represent developments in the original audio track). Detail level is good, and the vocals are nice and clear. In a similar vein, special effects again look more convincing.
While top-end and mid-range are handled well, once again however the lower ends of the sound spectrum are left sadly unplumbed. Even the mighty destruction of the second Death Star - the largest explosion in the original trilogy, fails to exercise a subwoofer. The very foundations of the house should be wobbling at this point, but there is disappointingly little ground movement going on.
|Episode 1: The Phantom Menace|
This film comes in a separate package, sadly containing two single jewel cases with a full size cardboard wraparound (matching cases to the original trilogy would have been preferable). Each case contains a useful chapter list.
Upon starting the performance, there is the same copyright notice, but a very different Fox trailer, showcasing computer games. Some of the earlier scenes on the Trade Federation ship demonstrate a distracting slight blue tinge, but this soon wears off. From then on, the picture is yet another improvement on even the quality of TESB discs. In some scenes, the level of detail and complete lack of pixellation result in a shockingly good image from these VCDs - indeed the best I have ever seen. It clearly shows that at its best, VCD can be a fair middle ground between low resolution VHS tapes, and the best DVD. The picture does not demonstrate the grain and blur of tape reproduction, nor is there any bleeding or blooming of colours.
Quite a few of the larger scenes look false, and the CGI characters look cartoony, but this is a drawback of the film itself, and not this VCD reproduction. Cinematography also seems to suffer worse from the pan and scan procedure than the previous films. There appears to be more on the screen, and therefore more is missing. Sometimes the lack of information during fight scenes is intrusive and unfortunate.
The sound on this disc is again competent, although it is not quite the same improvement over TESB as with the image. The music is again clear and full, while vocals are also pitched through the centre channel in a coherent manner. It is still such a shame that there is a real strength missing from the lower end, although at least lower bass was tickled once or twice.
The poorer quality of the VCD picture serves, especially in the earlier ANH, to make the special effects look aged and clunky - even bearing in the mind that these are the Special Edition versions of the films. For example the white lightsabre used by Luke on the Millenium Falcon in ANH shakes, and look shonky in the extreme. However, both the effects and the picture quality improve significantly once viewing moves beyond ANH. It is interesting that the gem in this pile is TESB, which many would agree is also the most outstanding film of the series. TPM on the other hand, is in a different galaxy in respect of its picture quality. Sound throughout all four films is impressive for a matrixed Dolby Pro-Logic soundtrack.
Of course, with each film spread over two discs, it is necessary to stop and swap discs during each showing. However, this is no more intrusive than a 'flipper' DVD, and it is a small price to pay for the picture quality of the alternative one-disc presentation.
Although these pictures suffer from the obvious problems of being VCD quality, the final opinion has to be that these discs are…watchable. In comparison to the most recently released VHS tapes, the quality while variable comes out generally better - especially on TESB and TPM. You also benefit from the fact that the image will not be affected by ages or use like a tape, so if you expect to watch them a lot, then the VCD's will last the test of time.
If you are a huge Star Wars fan, or if you have absolutely no patience, then this set would be an excellent buy, and I'm sure you'd get many hours of pleasure enjoying these cinema classics. However, if you are a quality freak or prepared to wait for the DVD releases (October this year for TPM, and later for the original trilogy) then keep your hand in your pocket. Bear in mind the exceptional quality the TPM release is bound to have, and the extra materials available. You may also want to consider the apparently money-oriented actions of George Lucas - although this set might not form part of his European business strategy, he has already released countless versions of the VHS boxset which you have probably already spent money on. Do you really want to pour more money into the Skywalker Ranch, bearing in mind you'll almost definitely still want the DVD's as well? It's your choice.
You can see images taken from all the aforementioned VideoCDs in a seperate feature.