Beowulf - Director's Cut Blu-ray Review
PictureComing to Blu-ray bearing the same phenomenal 2.40:1 transfer as the recent HD release - both VC-1 encodes - Beowulf looks absolutely pristine. Really, though, did any of us actually think that this direct from digital source transfer wouldn't it?
Contrast is immaculately held throughout, with absolutely no errors committed in the separation of light and dark in the same image, or transitions between the two from one scene, or shot, to the next. We have absolutely stygian blacks for the nights and, crucially, the caves that Beowulf ventures into. The turning of dark sea and a cloud-filled night into stark, blazing white-yellow of a lightning strike is marvellously executed and looks wildly potent and electrifying, with detail and shading suddenly whacked up to the top end of the spectrum before vanishing again into the busy murk of a storm. The trinkets and the glowing horn (!) in his hand as Beowulf investigates Grendal's cave are fantastic elements of variously-sized light in the blanket of deep shadow. In fact, to go on about the terrific blacks would be merely list one great example after another. These are amongst the best black levels that I have seen on disc. Period.
Colours are not of the hugely vibrant Incredibles style. They have been deliberately downplayed and the palettes for much of the film embrace the cold greys of the landscape and skins that have been forgotten by sunlight. But on the warmer side, roaring fires have rich oranges and reds. As do costumes and robes and the spectacular spilling of blood reveals a really luscious gleaming claret. The supernatural blue-white flames of Grendel's attacks are splendidly eerie and the enchanted silvery glow to the dream Beowulf has of Queen Wealthrow is well captured. But look at the golden radiance of the dragon, or his human form (Kim Newman quite rightly likened the bipedal alter-ego to an “angry Oscar”) and the simply fantastic lighting and ambience of the Mother's gem and bone-littered lair when illuminated by the golden drinking horn. Or the purple inlaid into the crown he inherits from Hrothgar.
Detail is simply jaw-dropping. Check out the lines around Beowulf's older eyes, or the pebbles on the beach, or the chainlink on the armour. Or the detail on that crown on Beowulf's head as the camera tracks around it in gorgeous close-up. Even the sweat glistening on Beowulf's face as the Mother circles him. The depth and shadow on the dragon and the wonderful etching of the leafless winter trees against the frosted land is equally well presented. And for the ultimate combination of everything in one fell swoop, look at the shot of a small Beowulf running along the ridge whilst, in the middle-distance, the dragon incinerates all within roasting-range, and in the background, on the far side of the ravine, warriors erupt into flame. Very impressive.
One thing is for certain, the clarity of this image reveals that most of the finite CG attention was spent on Beowulf, himself. Although Hopkins' definitely pokes through the grizzled Hrothgar and the monsters look absolutely tremendous with the glinting golden scales on the dragon's hide igniting the screen like a million fireflies and every suppurating sore and welt on poor Grendel oozing and livid. So whilst certain things stand out and others don't - or, at least, not as much - this is not a fault of the transfer, it is just an awesome picture highlighting spots that may not have been filled in with quite as much slavish regard for detail as others.
Fast movement is perfectly rendered with Beowulf's energetic leaping about amid the flames and shadow of the Mead Hall, or sliding up and down glistening wet sea-serpents, or swinging beneath and scuttling about on top of the dragon looking utterly smooth and intricately well maintained. And even if this version is not the much-mooted 3D version that wowed and amazed at the Imax, there are still plenty of moments when that 1080p depth borders on just such a effect. The obvious shots - the spear in Beowulf's face, the arrows raining over the gorge, Grendel leaping into view etc - all look appropriately amazing. But the whole film has a unique sense of three dimensionality anyway, with lots of imagery lifting easily and effectively from the screen. Beowulf's seduction by Grendel's Mother for instance, or the scene on the grey beach when the hero turns and strides from his brow-beaten enemy and flings the axe away. All presented with an uncanny refusal to flatten or soften.
I found absolutely no evidence of edge enhancement, noise, smearing or compression artefacts. Deep saturation revealed no trace of banding either, with solid colours and greys looking purposely textured and clean. The only that I noticed to the detriment of the image was some slight - and I mean very slight - shimmering to be seen on Beowulf's chain-mail during the aftermath of the dragon-battle. But this is nothing to detract from Warner's disc receiving top marks for visual performance.
SoundIf the video slides up to scratch with the performance of the HD, then it speeds past it with the audio from what I've been told. Beowulf on BD has a TrueHD track whereas the HD disc was relegated to just DD +. Although I have not heard the DD Plus track, I have it on good authority that it most definitely kicks ass. But if it beats the overwhelming power and sheer immersion of the TrueHD, then I'm just a CG-rendered reviewer with a motion-captured monkey on my shoulder. This is just textbook stuff, folks.
You want a super-wide frontal array - you got it. You want extremely dynamic room-filling super-sonics that place you very enjoyably in the heart of the action - you got it. You want roaring bass-levels that have the power to rock you back in your seat, if not out of it altogether - oh boy, you most certainly got 'em. Split-channel whip-around effects are seamless and never less than totally convincing, carrying the kind of air-dislodgement that you crave from a lossless transfer of an already fantastic sound design. The rear speakers are hugely engaged and deliver incredibly vital effects from soft echoes to bodily impacts, from the tinkling of mead into goblets and the chatter around a packed banquet hall to galloping of a horse from somewhere behind you and the incredible flapping of dragon wings as the beast swoops overhead.
Steerage is excellent, too. The afore-mentioned dragon sequence showcases it all really. Directionality of the beast, cascading debris, screams and shouts from below, the showering spray of it entering and then leaving the sea at high speed and the whistling-by of the tree-tops beneath Beowulf's dangling feet - all uncompromised by the transfer and all blisteringly good. The sound of the revelry that first aggravates Grendel to acts of hideous murder is tracked by a retreating camera that whips along the ground away from the Mead Hall until we arrive at a scalp-scratching troll, the noise having risen accordingly from virtually nothing to a tumultuous and incessant pounding that shakes the foundations. If my neighbours had come calling to complain about the noise - there's no way I would have heard them with this racket going on!
Alan Silvestri's score is given a real show-piece presentation. The chanting choir will have those same neighbours thinking that they've just been relocated to a Welsh mining village. The powerful percussion that the composer is especially renowned for will buffet the listening environment with tremendous weight and precision, and those stabbing blasts of brass are carried upon it with absolute clarity. A warm mid-range ensures that the gentler elements of the score have sweep and a fidelity that suffuses the room. Dialogue is excellently reproduced as well and there is never a moment when voices - which are nicely directional, too - can not be clearly understood. The Mother's voice, soothing her misshapen baby reverberates from around you and Beowulf's own husky growl is deliciously detailed.
There is also a DD 5.1 mix, but this is neither as clear, nor as aggressively rich and detailed as the TrueHD. Bass is less emphatic and directionality less acute to the ear. But, that said, the film still sounds very impressive even with this mix.
ExtrasOk, the HD disc wins out in this department. Picture-in-picture - yep, that old bugbear - is conspicuous here by its absence, meaning that we don't get to see the cast performing in all their dotted glory on the multi-camera set known as the Volume. But we do get to see all the features that adorned the SD double-discer. I think. I haven't seen that version, though, so I can't fully comment. What is available here is predominantly on-set footage of the actors getting used to their scuba-suits and dots ensemble, performing their lines amid the virtual location and generally having fun in makeup, preparation or rehearsal. Sadly, although we get to see the portly Ray Winstone suiting up and going through his paces in many sequences, we get to see exactly nothing of Angelina Jolie, which is naturally a huge disappointment.
We get A Hero's Journey: The Making Of Beowulf, which is a very decent chronicle of how the production began and how Zemeckis introduced his cast to the ridiculous things they would be wearing and the equally ridiculous things that they would have to do as virtual rituals for the cameras every time they shot something. This is fine, warts 'n' all stuff that totally eschews the typical EPK nature of such things.
Accompanying this are a range of mini-featurettes under the banner of Beowulf: Mapping The Journey that can be seen in one lump with a Play All option - which is what I would recommend. These are designed to probe the whole motion-capture business and are surprisingly detailed and entertaining. For the record, we get "The Volume," "I Pose Prep," "What is EOG," "Lay of the Land," "Givin' Props," "Scanners," "Stunts and Rigs," "Plan of Attack," "Fight Me," and "Baby It's Cold Inside." This last piece is merely a joke being played on the harsh taskmaster Zemeckis in order to get some time off because it is too cold on set.
Then we get twelve minutes of Deleted Scenes, which are primarily offered in unfinished animatics. To be honest, there is nothing here that is worth talking about. Most are scene extensions or slightly different variations on the scenes that were used. Nothing spectacular.
The Origins Of Beowulf lasts for all of five minutes, but we get to hear from the great Neil Gaiman as he and Roger Avery join the director to discuss how their adaptation evolved from the original epic poem and the changes that they deemed necessary to make in order for the story to be more cinematic and coherent.
Doing exactly what it says on the tin, The Art Of Beowulf, takes a detailed look at the conceptual artwork, models and research that inspired the look of the characters and the sets. Good stuff.
More artwork and conceptual design can be found in Beasts Of Burden: Designing The Creatures Of Beowulf, a seven-minute examination of the thoughts that went into the creation of the wretched Grendel and his serpentine Mother, the awesome Dragon and the sea-monsters. Again, cool to see and to hear from the artists, themselves ... but over far too quickly.
Finally, we get Creating The Ultimate Beowulf. This is mere 2-minute explanation from Zemeckis about how seeing Ray Winstone perform as Henry VIII convinced him that the decidedly non-heroic-looking actor was the perfect man for the part of Beowulf. It's the voice, you know.
Overall, this is a fine selection of extras that, at least, deliver a pretty comprehensive look at the practice of motion-capture and it is definitely cool to see Sir Anthony Hopkins trying to understand all the technical jargon. But I do miss a commentary when there isn't one.
VerdictBeowulf is a great film, folks. I wouldn't call it action-packed despite this being quoted largely on the front of the disc's case, but it is a visual delight from start to finish, even if some people can't quite take to the CG-ifying of the cast. Neil Gaiman's and Roger Avery's screenplay is a delight in its tight, streamlined determination to leave many things unsaid and, instead, allow the pixel-people on the screen to deliver performances via nuance, expression and guarded looks. Ray Winstone and Angelina Jolie are excellent in their portrayals and they create memorable characters with an appropriately ethereal feel. Crispin Glover makes for a frightening, yet sympathetic monster and Brendan Gleeson just does what Brendan Gleeson always does in a period drama - which is to be consistently reliable in a supporting role. The whole thing rattles along with enormous verve and Nordic vigour, its ode to the Age of Heroes surprisingly erudite, revisionist and intelligent when it could so simply have wallowed in sheer FX-overuse. Robert Zemeckis has definitely improved on his pet project of replacing actors with CG facsimiles since The Polar Express and I look forward to whatever his next example of the form will be.
For now, though, this Beowulf is the best cinematic telling of the tale that I have seen. Gerard (300) Butler's version, Beowulf And Grendel, was bland and boring by comparison - in fact, it was bland and boring even without a comparison - and The 13th Warrior, excellent as it is, is much too loose an adaptation to better this. The BD Director's Cut ensures that this is a harder film than the one that played the cinemas and it is, thankfully, of absolute reference quality. This is one of the best transfers around and deserves to be showcased often to remind yourself just why you spent all that money on new kit in the first place. Extras-wise, it is missing a few things from the HD disc, but there is plenty here to enjoy even if it is doubtful that you will feel the need to return to any of it. Unless, of course, there is a hidden Easter Egg with Angelina Jolie's scuba-suiting and dotting-up in it!
Very highly recommended indeed.
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £24.99
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