Predator - Ultimate Hunter Edition Blu-ray Review
Apparently this is a brand new digital master from an existing transfer from Fox. But, in terms of restoration, this is just a heavily processed hack-job that has been authorised to please all those punters who believe that all hi-def imagery should be bright, colourful and totally shorn of grain, no matter how, or when the movie was made.
Thus, in a move that is massively controversial and already causing heated debates on forums around the world, this new edition of Predator has been cleaned-up and scrubbed with almost unparalleled use of DNR. Screengrabs hit the scene a while ago and vitriol and scorn poured forth at Fox. Was such anger justified, or is the new-look, grain-free Predator something to be proud of?
The answer, folks, comes courtesy of Arnie, himself, because, as it stands now, stripped of all texture and bereft of anything even remotely resembling a film-like appearance, this transfer is “one ugly motherf*cker!”
Predator Ultimate Wax Edition now sports an AVC MPEG-4 encode that, at least, clears up some of the compression issues and artefacts that the previous MPEG-2 transfer had on a crammed BD-25, but it does this in conjunction with raised contrast and much brighter colours. On the surface of things, when you first look at this 1.85:1 image (after being so familiar with the softened grainy, and highly variable picture that Predator has always had) there is a truly eye-popping difference. With no grain left and the fidelity boosted, this looks like a totally new movie, albeit one that has been produced digitally.
“The jungle ... it just came alive and took him.”
Well, ironically enough, the jungle in this image has come alive and in such an uplifted and vibrant manner that many will, I'm certain, be blown away. Colours are richer and more saturated. The primaries lift from the screen and the green of the jungle is varied and dynamic. Explosions have plenty of visual bite to them. The glow-stick blood of the Predator positively throbs, and the thermal vision of the alien's surveillance system is a rich and flamboyant rainbow canvas of thick primaries and bubbling hot points. The light blue of the river provides a nice contrast to the earthy tones of the mud and the foliage. Even the eyes and the tans of certain characters have a greater lustre.
But you cannot get away from the fact that Predator now looks overly processed and totally unrealistic. Many of the more notorious shots - the ones that always looked horribly soft and out of focus - now look considerably worse. You know the main one, when Dutch takes that plunge over the cliff and drops down, down, down into the river? Never looked good, did it? Well, you strip the grain away from that - the grain being the only thing that actually added any sort of depth or dimensionality to the blurry image in the first place - and you are left with a staggeringly bad series of frames that completely ruin the visual momentum and conspire to take you out of the film. Again, the few distance shots of the landscape - the view down into the jungle as Poncho stands on the ridge after the battle, or the view up the river-course that snakes away beneath and behind Dutch, Billy, Anna and the battered Poncho as they stand on the King Kong-style log across the chasm - look crisper and more colourful, but they lack proper depth and naturalism, coming across as resolutely flat and two-dimensional. The film, even when viewed in a faithful transfer, wasn't abundant in its depth of field either but, once again, the grain itself lent the image greater integrity than displayed here.
I'm not convinced that some tiny shots, usually nano-second cuts of one of the lesser characters suddenly making a move, don't still have some fine-grain left in them. And there is an argument that some close-ups, mostly of Dutch, do look extremely detailed and cause the little mischievous devil on your shoulder to whisper in your ear that this is, indeed, a nice looking image that is showing you things that you've never seen in the film before. Certainly, if we choose to be absolutely finite about this (which, of course, we do), you can see that Arnie's stubble, eyelashes, facial pores and cam-cream, his hair, slab-like teeth and even the damn blood vessels in his eyes all seem to stand out a lot more. But then cross-check this with practically everybody else, who will find look nothing but false and waxy by comparison. If Arnie comes across as the best looking of the bunch, then Bill Duke, Richard Chaves and, most obviously of all, Carl Weathers, look uniformly atrocious. Just Vaseline-smeared effigies. The moment when Anna, in the left forefront of the image, tells of the “demon who makes trophies of man” you can see more clearly the bead of sweat trickling down the side of her nose, yes, but her face still looks irredeemably plastic. Then, when an impatient Dutch steps out into the Boy Scout trap, his brawn is like a lump of sunburned play-dough. And, again, when our hero is hiding under the upturned roots and vines and is covered with grey mud. Yes, of course, he is covered in sludge, but look again at the cartoon blandness of his face in the those shots. Even the Predator's plasma-beams look too horribly shrill and clinical, almost like shonky low-budget TV superimposition. Okay, they never really looked all that grandly integrated, but they look a hell of a lot better than this on the older transfers.
Now, all is not lost. It is true that the most ghastly looking DNR occurs in the first few scenes when Dutch is given his mission, but it is also true that the image seems to get better as the film goes on. The jungle foliage is neater, cleaner, and seemingly more detailed. Intricate leaf patterns, say. Shadows are considerably better etched because there is no grain swirling around within them. They now look deeper, darker and far more atmospheric. But, you must take this as being part of a transfer that has heightened contrast and a brighter all-round image. There are a few occasions when the picture looks good ... and you will notice them.
But, there is even evidence of motion-drag during some elements of fast-action. I've seen a few complaints regarding this but, to be honest, I wasn't troubled too much by it. Plus there are those who cite Gladiator-style “now-you-see-them, now-you-don't” patches where the scrubbing has removed things such as the fast-rappelling ropes - now, once again, I didn't notice anything as untoward as this, either. In something of a pleasant surprise, edge enhancement is not a problem at all, objectivity cleanly blended. No, for me, the densely processed and un-film-like image is, by far, the most damning aspect and, pretty much, negates any of the good points that this transfer has to offer. Predator now looks flattened, unrealistic and, at worst, borderline CG.
Now, I have watched the original SD 2-disc edition and this, back-to-back, as well as had a look at the previous BD, but despite my initially horrified misgivings about what has happened to one of my favourite and most-watched SF-thrillers, I have, perhaps unforgivably, grown somewhat used to this glossy, high-sheen, T-cut version. There is a vibrancy and a colour to the image that, damn my soul, I've sort of come to like. But the absence of depth and texture still mean that this transfer is a failure. Blu-ray is meant to preserve the original look of the film whilst still bringing its inherent higher definition home to us. This means that the grain should be there. It doesn't “mask” any detail whatsoever and it enables a movie to look true, textured and faithful. Despite the positive radiance of the picture, Fox's transfer is none of those things.
In summary, there are those who will love what has been done to Predator - indeed, I have seen this release with a couple of people who positively lapped it up - and nothing that I, or anybody else, says will alter their opinion. For others, this will remain another travesty of completely unnecessary tampering that has been done merely to appeal to the mass-market. How do we score this then? Moments that still contrive to look great in a film that has been completely transformed from its former self. This is Predator, the Botox version. It can't earn more than 5 out of 10, can it?
Whatever our qualms may be about the video transfer for Predator, we can rest assured that no such errors or misgivings plague the audio side of things. For whilst the DTS-HD MA 5.1 track that graces this disc will not rattle the cages of too many recent offerings of similarly bombastic material, it performs quite admirably and delivers an exciting and occasionally thunderous experience that does, on many occasions, provide that essential all-round soundscape.
The original Dolby Surround track is also available, but the lossless option is the way to go.
The heavy-guns roar and belch lead with a fine ferocity. Bullets really do whip across the environment and the jungle is regularly uprooted with violence. The scattering of debris is composed of the usual cacophony, but is also fairly subtle in detail too. Explosions have plenty of bass support and the sub will enjoy some terrific moments of exercise throughout. Old Painless has some agreeable weight and a cool metallic spin that clatters through the ballistics. The meaty thumping that the Predator doles out to Dutch and his walloping footsteps - running and jumping onto the big log, for example - sound appropriately hefty. Ambience comes across well, with birdsong, insects buzzing, background voices, rustlings and twig-snappings emanating from all around. The fizzing and crackling of the Pred's cloaking device, and the delivery of its sound-sampling are now much more vigorously conveyed. Positioning is a mite heavy-handed, but this is a soundtrack that doesn't want to be polite, so be prepared for some sonic bludgeoning. Listen to the thick thwang! of the arrow that Dutch puts through the tree-trunk.
Surround effects are actually really good. I like the positioning of the radio-voices in the helicopter and the distant pop-thump-pop! of the gunfire taking place outside the guerilla HQ as Dutch and Dillon rifle through the enemy plans. There's some nifty Predator snarling and some directionality afforded the alien's mimicry of human voices, such as “Over here” and “Any time”. Rotor-blades filter across the soundscape with believable detail and steerage. The ridiculously fun bit when the team stand there and strafe the jungle for what seems like forever is an ammo-disciple's delight, the grenades going off the icing on the cake. The big explosion at the end - I mean the really big one - erupts from the front and rushes out to the rears. Nice - especially after the Predator's insane laughter has just rippled across the speakers. But the thing that I really liked was the added dimensionality to the underwater moments when Dutch has gone over the waterfall and is struggling in the bubbling froth of the churning river. This now reaches convincingly and clearly around the rear speakers. Great stuff.
Alan Silvestri's score is thick, heavy and powerful. It won't rock the foundations in this audio mix, but you will have little to complain about either. It is not a “warm” presentation. It never was. It is brittle and brusque and mightily percussive. As such, the range can seem fairly limited. The harsh Predator sounds, usually accompanying the wacky thermal-vision, are well-rendered and sound deeper and more guttural than ever before. If I was to pick anything to moan about with the sound, it would be the slight swamping of dialogue that takes place during some of the more score and action heavy moments. Although there is one instance when some speech seems surprisingly down-mixed even during a specific lull in Silvestri's orchestral broadside. This occurs when Dillon bitches about this “Boy Scout stuff” working, and Dutch retorts that “instead of complaining, maybe you should help.” These couple of lines seemed dialled-down to me. I should add that I was never left scratching my head as to what was being said, or reaching for the volume control either. Most of the dialogue is very satisfactorily presented, although with quotes this memorable, you are apt to be saying them along with the film yourself.
This is a really enjoyable track that has been reassuringly upgraded for hi-def. A very strong 8 out of 10.
Asides from the rather lame 2-minute Sneak Peak and trailer for Robert Rodriquez's Predators, all we get that is new to this release is the 11-minute Predator: Evolution Of A Species: Hunters Of Extreme Perfection which, to be honest, is little more than a platform for the new kids on the block, Robert Rodriquez and Nimrod Antal, to lavish fan-boy praise upon the film that they have now tried to emulate. Everything else in this package will already be familiar to those with the earlier editions in their trophy cabinet.
And although there is plenty here, the majority of it is only so-so, I'm afraid.
The Commentary from John McTiernan is a surprisingly tedious affair. He covers a fair bit of ground, but there is far too much annoying lulls and a meandering style that is apt to put you to sleep. Most of the anecdotes are already pretty well-known ... and fans who have heard this track before will hardly feel the need to revisit it.
The Text Commentary from film journalist/historian Eric Lichtenfeld, on the other hand, is possibly everything that McTiernan's should have been. Fact-packed, informative and enjoyably frank, this takes in a lot of great material, from cut scenes, the Predator's arsenal, the casting and the FX and how the great jungle sounds were achieved. I like John McTiernan's early films enormously, and I wish we could get to see his cut of The 13th Warrior, but his own yat-track pales when compared to this one ... even though this is just text-based.
If It Bleeds, We Can Kill It: The Making Of Predator is the same half-hour retro-doc that first aired in 2001. There is plenty of on-set and location footage from down Mexico-way and most of the cast get some time to fool about in front of the camera. However, there is a little bit too much fawning over Arnold Schwarzenegger from all and sundry. But this is a fun little dissection of a cult classic, just the same. It tries to be all things at once - entertaining and spontaneous, as well as informative.
Inside The Predator bundles together seven little featurettes - Classified Action, The Unseen Arnold, Old Painless, The Life Inside, Camouflage, Welcome To The Jungle and Character Design - that all provide more background on the production.
We can spend 4 minutes looking a the Special Effects, taking in the red suit, raw footage and, ahem, that naff original monster suit. Only brief, this is still a decent bit of creature-feature nostalgia.
Short Takes with the filmmakers is another collection of brief vignettes - John McTiernan on Learning Film, Jesse's Ultimate Goal, Stan Winston - Practical Joker, and the sad facts about stomach upsets in Don't Drink The Water.
Deleted Scenes and Outtakes. Besides a short moment of Anna looking at a very symbolic chameleon and an alternate take of Dutch's hectic slide down the muddy slope, we get to see some good stuff involving the Predator clearly playing with Dutch's fatigued, insect-stricken quarry. I like this sequence quite a lot - but it would definitely have slowed down the big fight-or-flight episode, though. There is also a longer section of Dutch preparing for the final showdown which is more like a montage of ideas strung together.
Forty stills comprise the Photo Gallery, and besides a Predator Profile that disseminates the big guy's exotic equipment, armour and capabilities, we get the trailers both the first two Predator films.
This is the litmus test folks. Plenty of people out there won't give a hoot about the DNR this transfer has received. They will see a much more colourful, cleaner and apparently sharper image than they would have expected from the soft-looking grain-fest that they remember. To them, this will validate them getting a Blu-ray player and a hi-def screen in the first place, and they will doubtlessly deem this Ultimate Hunter Edition a wise purchase. To them, this is precisely what they want from their BD titles. And the sad thing is that the majority of them don't look at sites like this and really have no hope of knowing any better. Odds are these same people would have complained bitterly about it if it had retained its grain from the older MPEG-2 edition, or from the DVDs, or, shudder, the original theatrical print.
So do you skip this and stick with your earlier versions, waiting out in the hope that Predator gets another, more faithful release in two years time when the film celebrates its 25th anniversary? Or do you bite the bullet and explore this garish, texture-less cartoon take on the classic jungle thriller?
Either way, John McTiernan's bold, brash and bruising battler is top-flight entertainment. It seized brilliantly upon the gung-ho action-man heroics of Rambo and Commando and expertly grafted on to such a jingoistic template a fabulous and far-reaching SF angle that propelled it into the realm of something entirely fresh and compelling. Arnie was never better than here, and although many have tried, no-one has topped the original Predator for macho chaos and outlandish villainy.
Sadly, 20th Century Fox scupper what could have been one of the back-catalogue releases of the year, and one can only pray that the Alien series fares much, much better than this when it arrives on Blu-ray.
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £18.59
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