Will digital video disc replace VHS or just sink laserdiscs?

Remember the scene in Back to the Future, Part II where mad scientist Doc Brown, transported to the Hill Valley of the 21st century, hides out in an alley? Behind his time-machine DeLorean, if you look carefully, you’ll see what used to be a clever futuristic sight gag: great bales of laserdiscs, bundled up as trash.

Is such a future already here?

That’s the debate raging among high-end video collectors, who’ve been wearing out their remote-control fingers comparing laserdiscs (and of course the people’s choice, VHS tape) with the brand-new Digital Video Disc format — also known as Digital Versatile Disc, or just DVD — since it debuted in March. The versatile part hasn’t quite happened yet, since DVD-ROMs for your computer, high-end audio-only DVDs, and recordable DVDs are all still aborning. But movies on DVD have arrived with a bang, with about 120 titles available right now at between $20 and $30 a pop.

Because DVDs pack more than 12 times the data capacity of a CD on the same 5-inch platter, an entire 133-minute movie fits on one side. Many titles offer both a wide-screen and a pan-and-scan version, one on each side of the disc (you can’t flip back and forth; you have to turn the disc over). And if you get the right hardware, DVDs will play not only on your TV set but on your computer.

Are DVDs shaping up as a potential replacement for prerecorded tapes, as boosters like Time Warner (part developer of the technology and EW’s parent company) have insisted? Not just yet. For one thing, four of the biggest home-video companies — Disney, Universal, Paramount, and FoxVideo — have so far declined to release DVDs. It’s still too easy, they argue, to copy them for possible Internet dissemination. But when and if all the Hollywood majors get on board, DVD could save them piles of money: Industry sources estimate that it costs only about $1 to manufacture and ship a DVD, while a VHS cassette, with its moving parts and greater bulk, can cost as much as $4. In light of the economics, the rise of DVD seems inevitable.

In the meantime, having plunked down at least $450 for a basic DVD player, what do you get? Here’s the skinny:

THE PICTURE: In a word, it’s splendid. Though only half as sharp as the standard that digital TV sets promise to deliver within the next two years, DVD’s 500 lines of resolution beat laser (425) and VHS (a pathetic 240 or less) hands down. And on such gorgeously Technicolorful titles as The Wizard of Oz and Singin’ in the Rain, DVD dazzles, capturing the subtlest hues as effortlessly as the strongest. Occasional glitches in the encoding can cause tiny pixels to drop out of the image or cause a background element to lose a bit of detail, especially when the camera moves around; but even on big-screen projection sets, these flaws are rarely noticeable.

THE EXTRAS: So far, a bust. Though DVDs are capable of holding the same alternate-soundtrack and still-frame-appendix goodies you find on deluxe laserdiscs, the first wave of titles rarely features anything worthwhile other than the movie. And the way ads herald DVDs’ multiple-language soundtracks and subtitles borders on insulting. They’re only offered because studios want to sell the same discs in multinational markets, though it is kinda cool to hear Jeanne Moreau speak for a possessed Linda Blair in the French tracks on The Exorcist.