Outlander Blu-ray Review
Okay, folks, here's where it hurts with an unforgivable error on Canadian disc supplier Alliance's part.
Now, I don't know who exactly is responsible for green-lighting this transfer - the director and producers of the film, the studio, the distributors, or Alliance, themselves - but the fact remains that Alliance are the ones with their name splashed on the packaging and, given their less-than glowing reputation for putting out sub-standard releases, the book, I'm afraid stops with them.
When the film in question was originally presented at a nice, wide 2.35:1 image theatrically, why would anybody - and I mean anybody - ever want to see that film then cropped to 1.78:1? Opening-up the frame to reveal more headroom than is necessary and totally destroying the compositions of the movie's often gorgeous visuals is tantamount to a crime. No matter how sharp and detailed the image may be, it is already irrevocably compromised right from the start.
Now, there are times when this image still looks well-presented. Remarkably, there are shots of Kainan standing on a rocky promontory on one side of the frame, with the vast river taking impressive centre-stage and the other bank and the mountains in the distance creating a quite wonderful vista. Exactly how has this been achieved? In short, I don't know - but for each shot that gets by, there are a dozen others that fall victim to unnecessary close-ups and superfluous extra height. In comparing this BD image to the full 2.35:1 counterpart, many shots are chopped and lose contextual information from either side. Faces lined up at the battlements, mountain ranges, caves filled with corpses and gatherings of characters in the village or in the Hall are obvious targets, but it is the composition of the action scenes that seem to suffer the most. All of a sudden, close-up carnage can lose its place in the overall scheme - people plucked-up by the Moorwen's whips and swung about lose a sense of perspective, amassed chaos has no visual coherence, such as when the beast breaks free from a flaming trap, and we have no scale or understanding of the geography about which people are running. I've now shown this film to someone who had not seen, nor was even aware of a full 2.35:1 version, and, truth be told, they didn't notice anything that they thought was amiss. C'est la vie, I suppose. But those who know and understand their movies from a visual and visually thematic point of view, will definitely realise that they are missing out on something.
And the lunacy does not end there, for another damning element is the severe lack of substance in the black level. Right across the board, there is no black in this movie. What is in its place are varying shades of washed-out, highly filtered grey. Naturally, this plays absolute havoc with the night-time scenes or anything set in the subterranean caves which, ahem, accounts for most of the movie. Collateral victims of this also include a loss of depth and visual integrity - if the shadows have no solidity, the image remains flat and unremarkable. Adding to this are some fluttering horizontal bands, too, that flare up particularly during the night-time assault from Gunnar and his crew. Although not present elsewhere, they became a major distraction for me during this sequence.
Now, there are some good points to this transfer as well, folks. Colours, for instance, can be bold and striking. The main recipient of any lavish presentation is, of course, the Moorwen, whose laser-lit tendrils and whip-like tails can sear the screen with a luscious scarlet vibrancy. However, there are a couple of close-up shots that reveal its bio-luminescence glowing intensely - from its open jaws, say - that can't help but highlight the lack of consistency in the dark shadows around it. So, even here, the benefits are dubious and can become a double-edged sword. But, scattered elsewhere around the screen, are some nice greens, natural earthy tones for the mud, the wattle and the general squalor of the camp. Fires look fine, with crisp oranges, reds and yellows and the molten activity in the cave network has an entrancing cast.
Detail is often very fine, too. Facial crags, wrinkles and whiskerage are in abundance, as is the material texture of clothing. You can clearly see the reflection of a shower of sparks in a character's eyes at one point. Even though you will surely have seen much better than this, the level of detail in such things as patterns, armour, shields and weapons, Viking camp knick-knacks and rocky terrain is certainly proof that when transferred properly, Outlander should scrub up very well indeed. And I should state that, even now, the landscapes, in daylight, look quite ravishing. In fact, almost any scene in the daylight looks great. There is an inconsistent high-contrast sheen to the film, though I don't think that it is peculiar to this particular version, as it seems to appear on the SD disc as well, so I assume that the sometimes overly-brightened effect is intentional. Forested scenes - Kainan, Wulfric and co searching out the beast, especially - offers the best of the depth, three-dimensionality and the detail, with plentiful bark, leaves and furs given to vivid rendering. It is also worth noting that the best of the shadows can be found during these seek and locate scenes.
As far as the MPEG-4 encode goes, there is no edge enhancement to worry about and no overt DNR. The grain structure is still apparent, though it is only slight. What niggles further, though, is some blocking and some artefacts present in the image from time to time. However unaffected by all this the casual viewer may be, this is a shockingly bad transfer and a terrible indictment for a BD distributor. I can only advise that purists, to whom the best, and most accurate presentation of a film is paramount - and surely this is point of Blu-ray in the first place - should boycott this, and any other Alliance release that has been mangled thus.
There are also reports that the disc has a glitch that freezes playback. Indeed, my copy does this in both my PS3 and Samsung players at exactly the same point - just before a cool beheading - although going back a scene does seem to cure this and allow smooth play-through afterwards. Wow - this is not a good day out for Outlander, is it?
You know, in my current frame of mind, I feel that I want to give this transfer nought out of ten, but, for those who just don't worry about aspect ratios, this is probably still offers a fair to middling image. But those dire blacks, blocking, banding and what-not just insist on dragging the score down anyway. Thus, Outlander gets a crucially low 3 out of 10. This is a travesty of what Blu-ray can deliver.
And then, just to confound expectations of this ramshackle transfer comes a DTS-HD MA 5.1 - not the Dolby TrueHD track that the packaging claims - that simply rocks.
Right from the start, when Kainan's ship tumbles to Earth, we are treated to immense .LFE-embellishment, tremendous full speaker steerage and a vast, whooshing, room-enveloping pan that serenades the obvious Predator/The Thing visual reference. The sub then plays a fair part in much of the rest of the film, although what I will say is that steerage seems to become less of an important element in lieu of just creating a wide and bombastic soundfield. Which is still nice, I should add.
Detail is actually quite good. I mean we have lots of separate crashes, crunches and impacts during the frequent skirmishing that emanate from within and around the mix. Swords clang with a nice metallic cadence and there is copious ambience floating about the aural environment. Water dripping sounds realistic, as do the various snikks and slithers of the Moorwen's tails and whips, especially during the cave-set final act or during any of its covert snatch 'n' grab missions in and around the camp. Fireballs and roars also do their bit to keep the soundtrack alive and rumbling with throaty activity. The surrounds are given lots to play with, although it is often the quieter, sneakier effects that get the attention, rather than the straight-up wrap-around aggression during the full-bore battle scenes which, as I say, have been done bigger and better.
Dialogue is always clear and well-prioritised and, unless you happen to be listening to Caviezel's monotone mumbling which is several pitches lower than anybody else's voice, always intelligible. The splattering of blood is also pretty well rendered - moist and thick ... as you like it. The score is full and warm, with deep bass rumble and swelling passages of power and breadth, although the copious use of synthetic sound shines through. Fire crackles, arrows whistle, bodies slam, smack and wham against things. Wood splinters and, best of all, the electro-charge of the Moorwen's laser-veins sizzles like a wet finger run around the edge of a wine-glass, or, if you'd prefer, like the vibration of a vast tuning fork.
However enjoyable this track is, it does not compensate for the visual disaster that Outlander has been turned into. No amount of delicious steerage and ferocious bombast could ever make up for Alliance's inescapable blunder. Outlander still earns itself a very respectable and strong 8 out 10 for its lossless audio.
Although the packaging makes no mention of any extras, there is, indeed, the full roster of bonus material that the SD version has.
We have a commentary track from Howard McCain, his producers Chris Roberts and John Schimmel and co-writer (alongside McCain) and executive producer Dirk Blackman that delves into the background of how they fancied a science-fictional slant on the Beowulf story and how their own plot then developed into Sci-fi territory. With a few anecdotes here and there, some comments on the cast and what elements didn't quite make it into the finished film, this chat-track is still a little on the dry and technical side but, for fans, this is certainly worthwhile.
Then we have a very generous helping of Deleted Scenes which, with the Play All option, runs for around 42 minutes. There is a lot of stuff in here, from Viking funerals, a chance to meet Kainan's captain, some lengthier hunting segments - including Wufric finding the wreckage of the spaceship and the discovery of the ransacked grave of the captain - and a lot more character beats. One little moment actually gives us a tad more insight into the mindset of Kainan's land-hungry people, though it is let down by the dreary, half-hearted voices of Caviezel and Myles. Some are mere seconds long and others are slight variations on what we see in the finished cut. What is both interesting and annoying about all these scenes is that they are in the correct 2.35:1 aspect and the black levels are far superior. These are well worth watching.
Visual Effect Tests (9 mins) allows us an opportunity to peruse some crude CG experimentation with the Moorwen and the spaceships, including some very early footage to help make sure that the designs would come across realistically.
In “Animatics" (23 mins) we are shown a large number of pre-production concepts and ideas from all areas of the story. But the best bit has to be the deleted Moorwen attack that sees a small child lured by ghostly lights dancing in the trees that gives a great insight into the hunting traits of the beast. A curious, but cool blend of rough animation and pre-viz.
We also get a reasonably interesting selection of Production Art Galleries that present us with still-frame images from such topics as "Scenes," "Locations," "Creatures," "Costumes," and "Props."
And, finally, we get the movie's Theatrical Trailer.
Die-hard fans may like to know that a special Making-of featurette can be found on-line and, more interestingly, this is touted as being available on the forthcoming UK Blu-ray edition.
Outlander is a great fun B-movie throwback. It is no classic and it wears its inspirations and influences very proudly upon its sleeve, but there is no denying that the concept is a fan-boy wallow in genre cross-pollination. Plus, even if the script is actually clichéd hogwash, it is certainly entertaining to see the likes of John Hurt, Ron Perlman and Jack Huston going through the motions, even if Jim Caviezel and Sophia Myles are, sadly, terrible. McCain's drive and determination to keep the thrills coming is also highly commendable and, despite the fact that the film does feel as though it has stretched its own imaginative elastic a little too far by the final, water-logged climax, there is a sense of tremendous satisfaction once the credits begin to roll. With one of the best monsters in recent cinematic history and a gleeful addiction to carnage, Outlander packs a meaty punch.
But the cack-handed presentation of this Canadian edition means that this is a release that should be completely avoided at all costs - by those who appreciate a film's original visual integrity, that is. If, however, you just want to enjoy the action and don't give a monkey's about OAR, then you will, no doubt, lap this up. But for me and, I suspect, a great many of you out there reading this, Alliance's disc should be shunned. Folks, I bought this so that you don't have to. Therefore, wait for either a full US or UK edition (which is supposed to coming in September) - for you can be sure that they won't ruin this hack 'n' slash, monster-bash with such a foolishly tampered-with transfer.
For what it's worth, I may even take a look at what they've done to Blade for you, too - if I can bear to subject myself to such artless, witless sacrilege again.
Alliance have messed-up big time with this one and I look forward to reviewing Outlander again once justice has been done.
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £19.29
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