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The Bottom Shelf by Adam Jahnke

Blu Thunder

Adam Jahnke - Main Page

I've taken some minority positions over the years here at The Bits. Even so, I don't expect a single other person whose name has ever appeared on the site to agree with the one I'm about to stake out. Ready? Here goes…

This awesome new Blu-ray format? I'm not crazy about it yet.

Don't misunderstand. Blu-ray at its best is pretty terrific. The picture quality is phenomenal. The sound, done correctly, is even better. There have been some undeniably fantastic releases on the format and I'm delighted to have them in my collection. And yet… I'm not entirely won over. Not yet.

For starters, I hate the remote. It's bulky, uncomfortable and chockful of buttons I don't understand and have never used. Granted, this may just be a feature of the particular Panasonic player I own and every remote control I've ever owned has had its fair share of mystery buttons that I never touched. Even so, it's my least favorite of all the DVD-related remotes I've crossed paths with.

Second, is it just me or do these things take an interminably long time to load? Depending on the disc, I've found myself waiting for several minutes just to get to the main menu. And then there are the discs that just go ahead and start playing the movie without going to the menu first. Is it too much to ask for a little consistency here? Either I've got some time to kill before the player agrees to let me watch the movie or I don't. I'd just like to know ahead of time so I can plan my day.

All of this pales in comparison, however, to my biggest complaint: firmware updates. The proper care and feeding of your Blu-ray player requires you to occasionally update the firmware. However, you have absolutely no idea when you need to do this until you go to play a new disc and it craps out on you. This problem is presumably solved if you've got your player connected to the Internet, in which case it should update itself automatically. I don't and frankly, don't want to. Maybe I just need to get used to the idea of this brave new world where one day, every single electronic gizmo in my house will be in constant communication with the Master Control Program. Personally, I'd rather they didn't and will resist it for as long as possible.

Now I already know what the Blu-ray boosters are thinking. At best, I'm just nitpicking. At worst, I just don't like the solutions that are being offered. Well, yes and no. The fact is that I genuinely dislike these parts of the Blu-ray experience and if I do, others probably do too. There are issues with this format that mean it's maybe not for everyone. Plenty of people have asked me if they need to get a Blu-ray player and my answer is always no, you don't "need" to. In fact, depending on what kind of television you have, Blu-ray may well be a big waste of money. I always tell people to worry about getting a high-definition TV before you even think about dipping into the Blu waters. Assuming you're already in HD, I'm still hesitant about recommending it unconditionally. Generally, I tell folks to wait. Sooner or later, Blu-ray will probably sneak into your house, either through the acquisition of a new computer or a gaming system. If your current DVD player up and dies on you, then sure, get yourself a Blu-ray player to replace it. But I'm not telling people, you've gotta run out and get one of these. When DVD came around, on the other hand, I was doing just that. I told everybody who'd listen, you've gotta get one of these machines right now and stop using your VCR. No responsible person should be doing that with Blu-ray.

Now I'm not trying to suggest that Blu-ray doesn't work as advertised. In my experience, it most certainly does. But hardware is only as impressive as the software you put in it and despite many home runs, most Blu-ray Disc releases so far have been missed opportunities. Here's the problem as I see it. Blu-ray has been touted as the ultimate in home viewing. In other words, it's really not going to get any better than this, at least not in our lifetime. The Blu-ray release of a film should be the end-all and be-all presentation and some, like Blade Runner, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and the James Bond series, have lived up to that promise. I don't believe I will ever buy another edition of Blade Runner for as long as I live. And this, friends and neighbors, is not what the studios want to hear.

The studios have made a tidy profit off of DVD over the past decade, thanks in no small part to the proliferation of re-releases. As consumers, we tacitly encouraged this practice by opening our wallets, even if we grumbled a bit as we did, buying the same movie in different editions two or three times. That will be a harder sell with Blu-ray, if for no other reason than because of the higher price. I'm dismayed that Disney has released a multi-disc collector's edition of No Country for Old Men, a movie I already bought on Blu-ray back when there was no hint that another version would be forthcoming. I don't want to see studios saying, "Blu-ray is the ultimate presentation of your favorite movie! Except for this version that we're quietly working on, which will be even ultimater." It looks as though this new edition of No Country has some great stuff on it but unless it's personally delivered to my house by the Coens themselves, I absolutely refuse to "upgrade" from one Blu-ray to another. I suspect I won't be entirely alone on that.

I may be in more of a minority position when it comes to upgrading from DVD. I'm genuinely perplexed when people get excited about announcements of catalog titles coming to Blu-ray, like Ghostbusters or the Star Trek movies. Yes, I have replaced a few old DVDs with Blu-rays. I never completed my James Bond collection, for instance, and always wanted the complete set, so I've been happily upgrading those as they come out. I also picked up 2001 but I'd only ever had the original, non-remastered, non-anamorphic version, so that was an easy call to make. But Ghostbusters? Hey, I like that movie as much as the next guy but the DVD is already pretty good. Here's a better example: The Wizard of Oz. The three-disc collector's edition released a few years ago was and is phenomenal. When it hits Blu-ray, it'll probably be even more insanely colorful (if possible) but in terms of extras, how much Oz do you really need? Final example and probably one of the titles most desired on Blu-ray: The Lord of the Rings. I still haven't made it through everything on those extended cut behemoths. When Peter Jackson's ultimate Blu-ray set finally comes out, they'll probably be so overloaded with stuff that you'll need to be bedridden for months if you want to make it through the whole thing.

For my money, Blu-ray's promise as the definitive home theatre presentation of a movie is not being used to its full advantage. For every Blade Runner, there are countless discs like La Femme Nikita, John Carpenter's The Thing and Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead, discs that either drop some or all of the already-produced DVD extras or butcher them in an ill-advised attempt to make them "interactive". I believe this is because DVD producers, the creatives who tapped into the format's potential in the first place, are not being consulted enough. There could be a number of reasons for this. It could be the studios saying, "We're not going to pay you again for something you've already done and we can just do ourselves." It could be the producers themselves feeling as though they've already done all they care to do on a particular project and want to move on to new challenges. Either way, it sells the new format short and results in far too many discs that fail to live up to their potential.

I can't just point fingers at the big, bad studios, either. Now that independent companies are getting into the Blu-ray game, they shoulder some of the responsibility themselves. Criterion has done a generally superlative job with their Blu-ray releases so far. But I held off on purchasing The Last Emperor on DVD when it was announced it would be part of their opening Blu-ray salvo. I was disappointed to discover that the Blu-ray dropped not only the hefty print supplements but also Bertolucci's extended cut of the film itself. In this case, the DVD seems to be more definitive than the Blu-ray.

Blue Underground has been releasing some of their past successes on Blu-ray as well and while it's gratifying to see cult movies hit high-def, I'm saddened that it seems to be the sole focus of the company now. I remember when they released David Cronenberg's Fast Company on DVD several years ago. For decades, this had been one of my holy grail films, something virtually impossible to find on video by one of my favorite filmmakers. I was giddy with excitement when I finally got it in a fantastic DVD along with Cronenberg's even-harder-to-see short films, Stereo and Crimes of the Future. That disc will be hitting Blu-ray in a month or so and that's swell but I'm nowhere near as excited as I was originally, even though I like the movie very much. I rely on companies like Blue Underground and Criterion to dig deep and show me things I haven't seen before, not to revisit ground they've already covered. Now if Blue Underground released Umberto Lenzi's Eyeball on Blu-ray, I'd be excited. They haven't done that one yet on any format. But the technical improvements from one format to the other just isn't enough for me.

Blu-ray has unquestionably changed the way I buy movies. Virtually every new release I've picked up in the past year or so has been on Blu-ray and some of those, like Iron Man and Wall-E, can truly be considered definitive presentations of their respective films. But I would caution the studios to not fall back into the routine of double-dipping. You are charging a premium and people actually seem willing to pay it, providing they receive a premium product. You have set the bar high with this format and we now, not unreasonably, have high expectations. It's time for you to start consistently living up to them.

Dr. Adam Jahnke
ajahnke@thedigitalbits.com


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