This is yet another exciting week for the Blu-ray lovers among us, and not just because we finally get The Dark Knight to watch on our HDTVs. In fact, you would think that my entire column this week would be dedicated to Batman’s latest adventure, the single highest grossing film of the year. But it isn’t — thanks to Warner Bros. not sending me a copy to review, The Dark Knight has been relegated to the lower section of this week’s column, where BD discs go to live a lonely existence. That’s not to say that I won’t be out there buying it with the rest of you, I just can’t provide my regular insight ahead of time. Sad times for all of you. But I digress, there are a few releases to get really excited about this Tuesday, including one science fiction classic that hit stores last week and a ridiculously popular TV show’s fourth season…
The Day the Earth Stood Still (December 2)
Perhaps one of my favorite science fiction movies of all-time and one of the few pre-1960 films that I’ve had the opportunity to see in a theater, The Day the Earth Stood Still will always have a special place in my movie loving heart. From its use of the Theremin to create the eery tones of the opening theme to special effects that were well beyond their years, its influence on the genre is unmistakable. So to see it finally come to Blu-ray and DVD in a special edition that is loaded with special features is a real treat, for fans of sci-fi and the curious cinephile alike. It’s the simple story of a human-like being who comes down to Earth to warn of an impending attack, one that carries weight and social relevance even today, a story that had the entire world standing still.
Sensory Experience: For those unfamiliar with this movie it is important to note that it was made in 1951. This comes into play in two areas, one being that it was filmed in black and white — which, in my opinion allows it to use shadows beautifully — and it has some rather archaic special effects. Then again, when you really think about it the damn movie was made in 1951 and so many of the effects still hold up today. That is part of the brilliance of this classic, it was so far ahead of its time in so many ways. And in the Blu-ray transfer it still looks very clean. Sure it’s in the 4:3 full frame aspect ratio, which is going to be uncomfortable for some, but for a movie that is 57 years old it doesn’t look bad at all. As well, there are several nuances to the Blu-ray release that are truly spectacular, one in particular being the isolated score track in Dolby DTS-HD surround. Never has the score to this film, one that is so revered, sounded so beautiful. The haunting tones of the Theremin, the sometimes intense and processional nature of the orchestral mix, it all adds to the emotionally captivating nature of the film.
Supporting Materials: The DVD and Blu-ray are full of special features, enough to have any fan of classic films or classic science fiction engaged for quite a while. The original DVD release for this film in 2003 was pretty bare, including only a 70-minute commentary track and a Fox Movietone newsreel from 1951 (which is also included on this release). This time around we get several behind the scenes featurettes that mix archival interviews with Robert Wise and Julian Blaustein with recent commentary from film historians to tell the whole story behind the creation of this classic. One of the overwhelming themes from the BTS features is how dedicated director Robert Wise was to keeping one of the film’s feet very grounded in reality, giving it a poignant balance between the very authentic and that fantastical. One thing that I picked up from the commentary track with Wise and Star Trek II: Wrath of Kahn director Nicholas Meyer is Wise’s distaste for cameras that draw attention to themselves (a la the quick cutting, camera spinning directors of today). In Wise’s mind nothing should ever draw attention away from the story and characters. What an interesting concept, right? Who would have thought that a film could be so captivating and aesthetically advanced without all of those fancy effects of the modern day? Interesting.
In addition to the behind the scenes featurette focused on Robert Wise and Wise’s own commentary, there are a few other very interesting featurettes in this release. One is “Decoding Klaatu Barada Nikto: Science Fiction as Metaphor” which examines the film’s political relevance, both then and now. There is also a wonderful tribute to Harry Bates, the famed science fiction writer whose short story was the basis for the film. Both are not only interesting, but incredibly educational — a good watch for those of us who haven’t spent years studying film history.
Added Value: Along with the aforementioned isolated score track on the film itself, the Blu-ray release also sports a solid list of exclusive special features. There are two interactive features, one that allows you to create your own score with the famed Theremin and another simple Gort shooting game. Neither is incredibly complicated and both are rather fun diversions. For anyone who picks up this release, I will go on record and say that I got through the second level of Gort Command! before I became frustrated and quit. Beat that. Beyond that, there is some stock that should be put into the fact that the special features are in High Definition — they are, in many ways, breathtaking to watch.
Final Verdict: Before Star Wars or Star Trek, before all of the saucer men films of the late 50s and 60s, there was The Day the Earth Stood Still. Within this film you will find some of the real movie magic that inspired so many of the films, science fiction or otherwise, that we see today. It is more than worth it for any movie lover to pick up this release. As for the Blu-ray, it has enough little additions to make it worth a purchase, especially if you are already a fan of the film. Bottom line: go out and buy this release, right now.
Jet Li’s Fearless (December 9)
When it comes to making martial arts films, the modern era has seen no brighter star than that of Jet Li. Over the course of 25-years in the movie business, Li has dazzled us with his incredible speed and entrancing fluidity on screen. And in Fearless, he not only shows us some of those cool kung-fuy moves but he also delivers an emotionally meaty performance. This was his last martial arts epic, at least according to the single behind the scenes featurette, and while I can’t say for certain that it’s his best, it sure isn’t his worst. In fact, Fearless is another in a long line of fine martial arts films from one of the genre’s greats. As for the Blu-ray release, the compliments might just end there.
Sensory Experience: This is a beautiful movie, no doubt about that, rich and full with great set pieces, plenty of great camerawork courtesy of director Ronny Yu and stunt coordinator Yuen Wo Ping (The Matrix). And its beauty extends quite well to the HD medium, showing off gorgeous landscapes and fast motion in a way that is second only to the big screen. The sound mix is fabulous as well, the 5.1 mix engulfing the audience in a mixture of a big score and some brutal fight scene sound effects. As we’ve come to expect from wushu (martial arts) films, it is an aesthetically pleasing experience.
Supporting Materials: This release of the film is the “Director’s Cut,” housing three versions of the film itself. One is a 35-minute longer Director’s Cut, one is the unrated version of the film and the other is the theatrical version. The last DVD release to include so many versions of one film was Blade Runner, and last time I checked Jet Li’s Fearless wasn’t the sort of film that needed to be seen in three different versions. If you’re really a big fan then maybe you’ll enjoy the unrated and director’s cuts, but I can’t possibly imagine you’d be interested in studying all three. The real problem here is that these three versions are crowding the 50gb Blu-ray disc, leaving room for only one featurette. And while it is interesting to go behind the scenes of this film, the lone featurette is nothing more than a junket preview, something you might have seen in an HBO First Look before the film was released.
Added Value: There are no Blu-ray exclusive features on this disc, adding no value to the BD release.
Final Verdict: Chances are that if you’re that big of a Jet Li fan that you must own every single version of his movies, then you probably already have this in 2 different DVD editions and on HD-DVD. So why buy it on Blu-ray if the Blu-ray release adds nothing to the experience? I can’t think of a reason. If you find one, let me know.
Lost: Season 4 (December 9)
There have been times in the past when I have been criticized for not watching Lost. And while I will admit that I don’t watch the show, it isn’t for a lack of interest. In reality, I just never got into it early enough and thus didn’t ever find the time to get caught up. I have committed though, to watching the first four seasons in between now and the time the show comes back on the air in January — a major task, yes. But one that I must accomplish if I am to retain the shreds of credibility that I have left. So how, if I’ve not watched all of the seasons, am I going to be able to review the Blu-ray release of the fourth season? Simple. I turned to the one person I know who loves Lost the most, my dear mom. You guys remember mom — she’s the one who loves Gerard Butler to the ends of the Earth. Well, she’s into Lost as well. And in order to get a beat on this release, I sat her down last week and had her run through season four.
Sensory Experience: As you will know if you watch Lost, it is one of the rare television shows that creates an environment akin to a major motion picture. The beautiful location shooting, the gritty authenticity of the island and the increasingly complex narrative are all there in season four. And the show, put simply, looks beautiful in high definition. It is one of the few television shows that truly looks and sounds great on Blu-ray, something that should not be overlooked.
Supporting Materials: This is where Mom’s insight really came in handy. It is always interesting to see how the average viewer responds to a set of special features. To give you some background, dear ‘ole Mom is normally a big fan of behind the scenes extras — she’s a big fan of the magic that goes into bringing great shows and movies alive. And while Lost: Season 4 sports an entire BD disc of behind the scenes features, it was interesting to hear her describe them as bland and boring. From a more technical perspective, this set is a pretty comprehensive look at season 4, with 8 full-length behind the scenes featurettes. And sure, J.J. Abrams doesn’t appear on the disc and give away all the show’s biggest secrets — something that I’m sure he’s saving for some all-encompassing series box set once the final seasons are done — but there are several great featurettes, many of which focus on the locations and set building, all of which should be interesting to die hard Lost fans.
Added Value: There are a limited amount of BD-exclusive features included in this release, but as we’ve come to learn in the past, even a limited amount can sometimes make all the difference. The most significant of the Blu-ray only features is the “Course of the Future: The Definitive Interactive Fast-Forwards,” a feature that shows off some script pages and additional insider information. It isn’t much, but it is something. As well, I found it funny that the box cover lists “Seamless Menus” under the Blu-ray exclusive features, as if to suggest that the standard DVD’s menus are clunky and frustrating.
Final Verdict: If you are one of those “Lost people” that I hear about all the time then you don’t need me telling you your business. Just go out and buy this season on the best possible format available to you. However, for fringe fans and other curious parties, the $13 difference between the DVD and the BD might be too much. Lost is a beautiful and intriguing show, but the lack of BD-exclusive special features are going to keep it off of my must-have Blu-ray list.
Also Out This Week:
Time to run down a few of the Blu-ray release this week that I did not have the opportunity to review. Click on any of the titles to see more details:
The Dark Knight – It saddens me deeply not to be able to provide an advanced review of The Dark Knight, but I have a feeling that you don’t need me to tell you to go out and buy it on Blu-ray. Perhaps one of the most visually stunning films of 2008, save for Pixar’s WALL-E, The Dark Knight is one of those flicks that belongs in your Blu-ray collection. If you loved the film you should go out and buy the Blu-ray. If you are still on the fence, hang around until next week’s column, when I will have a full write-up.
Dodgeball, Dumb & Dumber and The Mask – There is an upcoming epidemic of comedy favorites from the 90s and early 00s making their way onto DVD. The only issue I take with these releases is that of the ones that I’ve reviewed so far (which you will see in coming weeks) have been barren wastelands of special features. I can’t be completely sure that these releases fall into that same category, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they are just comedy favorites in HD and nothing more.
Horton Hears a Who – CG-animated films usually work pretty well on Blu-ray and I expect Horton Hears a Who to be no exception. Though I would warn you that purchasing and watching this Blu-ray release does make you the likely victim of an in-home pro-life protest.
I Am Legend (Ultimate Collector’s Edition) – From what I can gather there are a limited amount of special features in this, the second Blu-ray release of I Am Legend. So unless you are really hard-up for an additional commentary track then your money is probably better spent elsewhere.
The Blu-ray Report is the weekly column in which FSR’s HD-addicted Executive Editor Neil Miller rants and raves about the upcoming week’s Blu-ray releases. To buy or not to buy, that is always the question. Check back ever Monday to find the answers.