Now that the format war between HD-DVD and Blu-Ray seems to have been settled, I thought it would be appropriate to offer some reviews of recent Blu-Ray releases. As an early adopter I am therefore pleased to present reviews of two classic SF movies now available in the HD format to get us off to a good start. The screen-caps here are courtesy of www.dvdbeaver.com.
CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND - 30TH ANNIVERSARY ULTIMATE EDITION
A very handsome 2 disc set that not only features the original theatrical version from 1977 and the Special Edition from 1980 but also the 1998 Director's Cut which was issued on the Collector's Edition. The beauty of it is that all three versions are on one disc, branched together. There are still scenes in the theatrical edition that haven't been kept in subsequent versions, and the Special Edition obviously has the 'interior of the mothership' coda which is absent from the Director's Cut. The Director's Cut is an effort to return to the theatrical version whilst also keeping some of the additional scenes from the Special Edition. Confused? Not to worry. The set includes a fold out guide to what's in, what's out, what's longer, what's shorter in all three versions of the film. One of the nifty things is that you can choose an option to watch the film with onscreen cues to tell you about the alterations between the three different versions presented here. Access is via a sweet little menu that emulates the bank of coloured lights that the scientists use to speak to the aliens.
I've watched the Director's Cut and I have to say for a film that's 30 years old it looks very striking in High Definition. You have to be aware that the quality of some library titles will not necessarily jump out at you as much as current titles. With the best will in the world a 30 year old film is not going to look as good as something that's 5 years old. But there are many sequences in the film that do look stunning in HD and the detail is immaculate. There is some grain in the picture but you would expect that as the film stock and cameras were not as sophisticated back then, film is inherently grainy and often directors make an aesthestic decision to retain grain in their films. There is a curious blurring occasionally in the corner of the frame but I put that down to the original material being used. The opening sequences in the air traffic control room are sharp, with deep blacks and vibrant colour and the abduction of little Barry and the keynote image of the open kitchen door with the flood of yellow light again looks breathtaking.
Overall, the contrast levels are good, colour is glowing and the sharpness is very favourable. It isn't as three dimensional looking as some HD transfers I've seen but this is probably the best quality this film can be seen in right now. The audio is available in DTS-HD 'Lossless" Master Audio 5.1, and an Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track. The soundstage is excellent, great right to left stereo effects on all speakers, a thumpingly good bass and great mix between dialogue, effects and John Williams exquisite music. The sound is marginally better than image in this case but only marginally.
Extras include a new interview with Spielberg at around 20 minutes and also in HD, "Watch the Skies" a six minute featurette, "The Making of Close Encounters" the brilliant feature length documentary by Laurent Bouzereau from the Collectors Edition DVD, 7 deleted scenes (10 mins). Massive photo galleries and a storyboard comparison are the icing on the cake. There is also a very lovely 64 page book full of biographies, anecdotes and glossy photos.
This is retailing for less than £20 and is a bargain. Not only is it a decent HD transfer with great extras but it is also a wonderful film, an epic full of innocence and hope, and featuring stunning visual effects, brilliant performances from Richard Dreyfuss and Teri Garr and direction from Spielberg that isn't drowned in unnecessary sentimentalism.
Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (Sony Home Entertainment - Blu-Ray HD 1080p - SBR26501) On release now
2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY
This is a single disc and comes with a commentary from the actors Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood. I haven't listened to this just yet so can't venture an opinion. There is a host of extras, including Channel 4's excellent '2001: The Making of a Myth' which is full of production detail and interveiws. There is a 20 minute featurette - 'Standing on the Shoulders of Kubrick: The Legacy of 2001' looking at the impact of 2001 on key film directors. 'Vision of a Future Passed: The Prophecy of 2001' looks at imagery of the future that came out of 2001. Some vintage material can be found on '2001: A Space Odyssey - A Look Behind the Future', '2001: FX and Early Conceptual Artwork' at 10 mins long features input from Christiane Kubrick and 'Look: Stanley Kubrick!' is a montage of images from Kubrick's work on LOOK magazine. There is an audio-only interview, with Stanley Kubrick involved, that runs 75 mins.
The transfer is very good indeed and better than previous restorations. The colours are intense and the levels of black are superb and adding this to the incredible detail present gives you a very three dimensional quality to the picture that's often eye-popping. Very little grain is evident and there is a tiny bit of noise on the opening 'Dawn Of Man' sequence but nothing significant to worry about. This is a bold, high-contrast, colourful transfer that does Kubrick's visual literacy real justice. The best presentation I've ever seen of this film makes this an almost reference quality release and an essential purchase for budding Blu-Ray collectors. The sound is Dolby Digital 5.1 and whilst not a dexterous use of the stereo landscape it highlights the use of classical music very well. The approach to the space station from the Earth is a particularly stunning use of sound and vision.
It's a key film, still very powerful even now, and is one of the best examples of pure cinema I can think of. It is detached emotionally but then that's Kubrick for you so don't let that put you off a visionary achievement about human evolution hand-in-hand with machine evolution in the vastness of the universe. Thanks Arthur. C. Clarke. RIP.
2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (Warner - Blu-Ray HD 1080p - 79838) On release now.