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review added: 7/2/02

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U-571
2000 (2002) - Universal

D-VHS D-Theater

A Few Words on D-VHS

review by Dan Kelly and Bill Hunt of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVsHigh Definition 1080i

U-571 Film Rating: C+

Tape Ratings (Video/Audio): A/A

DVD Comparative Ratings (Video/DD Audio/DTS Audio): C+/A-/A*

*if graded on D-VHS scale


Specs and Features


117 minutes, PG-13, High Definition 1080i, letterboxed widescreen (2.35:1), 16x9 enhanced, clamshell case packaging, languages: English (DD 5.1 - 576kbps), subtitles: none, Close Captioned

U-571 is director Jonathan Mostow's fictional retelling of the capture of the Enigma technology. The Enigma was a coding device that allowed the German Navy to communicate in secrecy with their U-boat fleet during World War II. This technology, along with other coding devices, allowed the Germans to rule the waters of the Atlantic (including the eastern seaboard of the United States). To be quite honest, there's not a whole lot of weight to the story of U-571. What you've read this far into the review is the basis of the story. The film also has the requisite big stars, who are there to get people to see the movie and to carry it from point A to point B - Harvey Keitel, Bill Paxton, Matthew McConaughey, Jon Bon Jovi (and a few others thrown in here and there for good measure).

Because this is a fictitious account of the events that led to the capture of the Enigma, the director (who also co-wrote the story) lets himself take quite a few liberties with the sequence of events. It was, in fact, the British that first captured the Enigma in 1942. The U.S. Navy DID capture the Enigma decoder, but it wasn't until almost two years after the British had done so. In effect, the director shoots himself in the foot by pointing this out in the footnotes that precede the rolling of the end credits. Does this alteration of events make the movie any less enjoyable? No, but shaky story-telling and a failed attempt at patriotism (none of the characters are performed or written in an exceptionally heroic manner) keep this film from being anything more than a handful of great action sequences sewn together loosely with a story that is nearly stretched beyond the breaking point.

On occasion, Mostow (whose Breakdown I thought was more fulfilling) loses sight of the story and gets caught up in the action. At a crucial turning point in the story, a good portion of the cast is lost in the midst of action, and we don't find out who's left until long after the smoke clears. This much of the story I didn't like. But what makes this movie worth watching are its tense, underwater action sequences. There are plenty of pumped up explosions and fiery battles to satiate the appetites of those who miss the days when Schwarzenegger made great action flicks. If you're in need of a good dose of testosterone-driven fluff, that's not going to clutter your brain with otherwise unnecessary information, then look no further than U-571. If you're looking for a great story to go along with that, then forget it. This isn't the movie for you. DK

The video quality of this film on D-VHS is absolutely stunning, displayed at roughly double the resolution of the DVD video image (reviewed previously here). Submarine movies almost always expose the DVD format's limitations, by stressing the MPEG-2 decoding with the chaos of falling rain and splashing water, as well as the murky, undefined blue-greens of the ocean depths. Not so on the D-VHS. I am amazed at the level of detail and definition to be found in the picture. Whether it's the explosion of bubbles during a submarine dive, or the crisp naturalism of thousands of tiny waves lapping on the ocean surface, the high-resolution D-VHS picture quality NEVER wavers. There is tremendous depth exhibited here - damn near as good as you'd see in a theatrical showing of this film. Never will you see dreaded MPEG-2 compression artifacting. Indeed, at a video bit rate of 28.2 mpbs, all you're likely to notice is the light film grain inherent in the source print. There is absolutely none of the edge enhancement seen in the DVD's picture either. The DVD looks noticeably softer in terms of overall image quality (in direct A/B comparison) than the D-VHS version. Colors also appear somewhat less saturated and overall lacking in fidelity on the DVD. This is true of everything from subtle fleshtones to bright fireballs. I also noticed a welcome improvement in contrast here - blacks seem much richer and more natural on D-VHS, while still retaining exceptional detail in shadows. As good as the DVD image quality is, it doesn't hold a candle to the D-VHS version. It's not even close.

The audio quality of the film's Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is also improved by the D-VHS's 578 kbps bitrate (the DVD is encoded at 448 kbps by comparison), although the difference here is not nearly as obvious as the picture improvement. The D-VHS audio seems slightly richer on the low end than the DVD, and I'm not quite sure which I prefer. However, the D-VHS's soundstage is somewhat smoother, wider and more coherent than the DVD's (which is, on it's own, of exceptional sonic quality). There seems to be greater clarity to the imaging - it sounds more precise than the DVD. I noticed this particularly during a meal scene on board the sub, in which cutlery and other assorted dinnerware slides back and forth across the table as the waves rock the vessel. That fork hitting the deck always turns my head. Overall, the Dolby Digital D-VHS soundtrack has a slight edge on its DVD counterpart - not by a great deal, but the difference is there. I would say that the DTS soundtrack on the DVD is roughly equal to the D-VHS version however.

Of course, being a linear D-VHS videotape, there are no extras to be found here. Nothing. Na-da. Even Universal's usual abundance of marketing fluff is preferable to this. The winner in this category, except on the most bare-bones, movie-only discs, will always be the DVD.

Ultimately, the vast majority of you will stick with your DVD collector's edition versions of U-571. And you should be quite happy and secure in your decision. The DVD delivers an excellent rendition of this film for home viewing. But for those of you who demand only the absolute highest picture and sound quality from your home theater systems... and who have the income to justify the added expanse... the D-VHS version is clearly superior. BH

Dan Kelly
dankelly@thedigitalbits.com

Bill Hunt
billhunt@thedigitalbits.com


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