Well, I may have reversed my opinion on the film, itself, but I have to tell you that I'm still not keen on Spielberg's grainy documentary aesthetic. The film looks grubby, glaring hot and ill-defined. But, hey, this is exactly how it is supposed to look, so there is absolutely no point in beating the picture up over it. The only thing that actually leaps out from the screen at you in anything that you would normally associate with high-def imagery are the titles, which shine with a simply gorgeous metallic silver/chrome gleam, excellently capturing the SF flavour of the movie.
Detail, though hampered by that stylised appearance, was always surprisingly good, but this 1080p incarnation, encoded via AVC MPEG-4, reveals an awful lot more again. The bleached-out 1.85:1 frame does not, initially, invite the eye to rove about, this is true. Contrast is over-ramped, grain is pushed and aggravated, edges are softened (comparatively speaking and certainly exhibiting no artificial sharpening) and three-dimensionality isn't top of the list. But there is much to admire about this transfer. Suddenly, more activity can be seen during the crowd scenes - faces and movement beyond Cruise and Co. that have always been present, but just not as readily apparent. The alien hardware may never be revealed in all the clarity that you want to see it in, but there is still more on show now than you have glimpsed before. The texture of the steel (or whatever it is meant to be), the figures and symbols that adorn them, the various hatches, coils, pipes and weaponry that they sport now seem to display more information. The patterns on houses, the tiles, slats, bricks etc, the wreckage of the downed plane, the crumbled and ripped road-surfaces, the fatigues and equipment on the passing soldiers and the faces on the people and the surfaces of the vehicles that the Ferriers zoom past when fleeing the city are all accentuated. You will notice that as the film progresses, we get more and more close-up shots of the characters, and the transfer reveals that detail for these is actually exemplary, with many images of Ray or Rachel or Ogilvy looking quite incredible. Oh, and that little spider that crawls up Rachel's face ... let's not forget about him.
Backgrounds were never meant to be vividly portrayed in this film. Extreme views of the cities at the start and at the end, distances in the countryside and long shots down the Hudson River are not going to stand out with any eye-catching clarity. Instead, they blend in with the texture of the dirty grey/silver palette that predominates. But the shots of the people and soldiers surging up the hill, and the fantastic vista of refugees being vaporised on another slope after the ferry boat sequence deliver some finely rendered imagery, considering the general murk and pyrotechnic light-show taking place around them.
Colours aren't spectacular, of course, they have been muted, desaturated and down-graded throughout. But they are still greater and more vibrant than before. Clothing - jackets, backpacks, Rachel's jumper etc - have a tighter, bolder variety of hues. The pulsing of the lights that coil around the alien probe-snake and, of course, the red weed all look more vivid than I've seen them before. Midnight blues and purples have a finer, richer and less subdued appeal, too. But look at the tremendous green glow that emanates from over the other side of the hill during the "unseen battle" - this looks far more mysterious and unearthly than we've seen previously. I am particularly enamoured with the depth of the blacks. Shadow-play and delineation is clean and sharp. The darker elements for the night-time scenes are finely etched and the consistently deep and solid blacks exhibit only a shred of crushing going on. One particularly nice shot that makes this fine contrast and fabulously atmospheric murk evident is when Ray and Rachel descend into Ogilvy's basement sanctuary and, after shutting the doors behind him, Robbins' on-the-edge ambulance driver, hood on, looms out of the shadows. Great blacks, fine contrast, good detail on Robbins' face. A lot of the paraphernalia down in this warren-like basement is more apparent now, and hints of light shining through and the information they land upon now seem much better resolved.
Naturally, as with Minority Report, 300, Saving Private Ryan etc, there will be those who just look at this and immediately condemn it as being a bad transfer and looking no better than DVD. But War Of The Worlds, as with those other titles, is a nigh-on perfect reproduction of the filmmakers' desired intent. I know that DOP Janusz Kaminski and Steven Spielberg were active in the transfer of Minority Report, but I'm not sure about their involvement with this, though. However, I would be extremely surprised if they hadn't overseen it as well.
Have I got a complaint about the actual transfer, then? Well, there's no DNR, no EE, no smearing or banding, and no compression artefacts. But I did detect some very minor aliasing during some of the earlier crowd sequences at the intersection. It is only slight, but considering the otherwise exemplary care and attention that this image and that for Minority Report have received, I was a little surprised. Is it enough to mark it down? Probably not, to be honest, but considering that it didn't need to be there, I'm taking this transfer's total down to 9.5 - which sadly translates as a 9 on the official score-card.
But this is an excellent and exceedingly faithful transfer of a difficult source.
Spielberg's War Of The Worlds swiftly became a go-to disc for showing off your sound system at home when it was released with pulverising DTS on DVD, and it has remained something of benchmark for lossy surround vigour and detail ever since. So, naturally, expectations have been running extremely high to hear what this lossless DTS-HD MA 5.1
And the thing is - everything that I said about the previous track still applies here ... only more so!
Remarkably intense, War Of The Worlds storms ahead of the competition for sheer boom-boom-shake-the-room aural dynamics. The lossless track sounds louder, clearer and much, much deeper, opening up the film to a staggering degree of gut-punching power. Right from the outset, at Ray's dockyard, we have big trucks rumbling heavily across the front, from right to left, with a real sense of weight to them. Even the baseball through the window has a cracking full-on impact that would have mischievous kids in the street ducking for cover. Of course, when the real action kicks in, you could be forgiven for thinking that a demolition crew had set to work on your house. The lightning strikes carry a marvellous organic “thwup!” sound that you can hear sizzling down through the scales, and this is magnified almost exponentially when Ray and the kids cower from the crashing plane. This latter sequence shrieks like a banshee, literally screaming at you like a sonic dust-devil as it sweeps across the environment. When the first tripod roars out of the ground salvage-junkies will be searching the living room for strewn wreckage, such is the convincing level of impact and directionality as debris is hurled about. You can actually hear all the bricks cracking as fault-lines climb up the sides of buildings, and the scattering of individual shards of glass from windscreens is strangely delightful in its subtlety and clarity.
There is a great level of sustained rumbling for the emergence of the tripod that, combined with the gut-punching depth of Williams' churning music provides a first class statement of .LFE delivery across the full environment. Even the rockets fired by the soldiers at the end have an incredible whumph! factor, and are steered impeccably. The detail within the massive strides of the tripods and their associated shuntings, steamings, gear-changings and engine-gratings is highly involving and enjoyable - to wit, the war-machine that suddenly looms up behind our three stragglers after they have escaped from the Hudson and clangs past them. Listen to the hellish business they conduct outside Ogilvy's house and, more acutely, how quiet it becomes when they suddenly cease. The directional skittering of debris and the perfectly placed splashing of the puddles as the aliens investigate the basement is also a fine example of just well even the smallest of effects are handled.
Of course, you've also got that sinister siren-call of the tripods that swoons across the full soundscape with eerie, bone-chilling resonance. Whether further away or right on top of us, this menacing fog-horn is pitched to perfection, remaining ominously deep but rising, with clarity, to its higher registers. The slight distortion that you may, or may not pick up on during its debut call is not a fault of the transfer, but inherent in the original sound mix.
Explosive effects aside, the subtle moments are pin sharp too, with successful rain tippling down, ambience and voices emanating from all around the set-up and the distant gunfire and missile runs sounding genuine and authentically distant. The score comes over well amid this sonic extravaganza, with the choral passages truly floating across the ceiling and the string section searing where required. I had absolutely no problem with any of the dialogue being drowned out, even amid the shouting and screaming and warfare on the hilltop as Ray and Robbie struggle to get through to one another. Their dialogue here, as when Ray tries to inform a soldier of a vital development later on, is necessarily and intentionally dipping below the cacophony.
Aye, this track works just as wonderfully as you'd hoped it would, easily matching the best sonic deliveries that the format has presented us with. This is an ear-blistering aural assault that resounds with awesome bass levels, clear and clever steerage, marvellous detail all-round and a well-rendered high end. It is, of course, top stuff that results in another demo-track to wow your friends with.
Well done, Paramount.
Annoyingly, the only new addition we get with this Blu-ray package is the film's trailer in HD. Frustratingly we still get no commentary from Spielberg, and nothing on the deleted scenes, such as the Camelot sequence. This selection is a direct port of the material found on the 2-disc Sd edition. Which are as follows -
So, still no comprehensive yakking from Spielberg, eh? Definitely could have done with a chat-track over this film - to explain some of the choices that he made.
Commencing with Re-visiting The Invasion (7.38 mins) we get Spielberg making a point about mankind coming together to fight a common foe, although that is not strictly what he depicts in the movie, and he is up-front about the 9/11 allegory. Basically this brief featurette details why he, Cruise and writer David Koepp decided to make the film. Keopp outlines the things he wanted to ditch from Pal's film, like the news reporting element - but, hang on, he's actually using a roving crew of reporters as plot developing aid, himself, at one point! Sadly, this is just promo-pap.
And not much better is the slight H.G. Wells Legacy. Running for 6.35 mins, in this we get to meet some of the writer/fabulist's descendents as they arrive on-set to chat to the director, himself, and offer some small sound bites about the man and his celebrated literary works. Simon Wells (a great grandson, and filmmaker, himself, with the surprisingly enjoyable remake of The Time Machine under his belt) crops up for a chat, too.
Steven Spielberg and the Original War Of The Worlds (8.01 mins) is actually more of a Gene Barry and Ann Robinson and the original War Of The Worlds in that The Spiel doesn't actually have that much input. But we get to hear some nice reminiscences and even visual fx guru Dennis Muren finds an anecdote or two about the original Pal/Haskin movie. Nice little shot of the original Martian, too.
Character: The Family Unit (13.23). Oh dear, more gushing filler, folks. We meet the principles, Cruise, Fanning, Chatwin and even Miranda Otto, who is barely even in the film, and discover just how much they wanted to make this film and how great their companions are. Lame.
Next up is Pre-visualisation (7.45 mins). Well, the other Bearded One gets a heads-up here as Spielberg states that he has only begun to use pre-visualisation as a tool because George Lucas has inspired him to. This little section deals with the creation of computer-animated storyboards for the film's big set-pieces. We get to meet some of the team involved and even get some pre-vis-to-final-film comparisons. Not bad, but too brief.
Next, we get the extensive Production Diaries which chronicles, in four sections, the immense production of the film from literally Day One right on through to the final wrap. Starting with East Coast - The Beginning (22.28 mins) we get lots of interview footage with Director and Star, producer Kathleen Kennedy, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, ILM luminary Pablo Hellman and others. The incredible fast track that drove the production into its almost record-breaking shooting schedule comes across quite apparently and we get a nice section of filming from the very first day of principal photography. Some early ideas for the heat ray frying its victims as opposed to disintegrating them are revealed and we are treated to a dissection of what went into the first tripod attack - the intersection scene. This is all quite cool stuff, actually.
Then we have East Coast - Exile (19.36 mins) which mainly details the much-hyped ferry scene. To be honest, I found this sequence in the film to be another let-down but it is interesting to see how it was achieved. No prizes for guessing that it wasn't actually a real ferryboat getting tipped over, though. A lot of the stunt-work was filmed in a water tank and the ferry terminal crowd scenes called for a thousand extras per night of filming. Vic Armstrong recalls co-ordinating the stunt work required here, too. There's smart conceptual artwork to look out for. Real soldiers on their return from Iraq and Afghanistan were used during the final lacklustre battle sequence in Boston. That had to be a case of Hollywood coming nowhere near to the real thing for these guys.
Then it is the turn of West Coast - Destruction (27.28 mins). In this we finally get to meet Tim Robbins as he is interviewed briefly on the basement set. However, he is hardly revealing, although this brilliant sequence is covered quite extensively with some neat behind-the-scenes footage of him and Cruise wrestling with the shotgun. Pablo Hellman from ILM also reveals that it is best to have an actual prop there on set for the actors to have something to react to, e.g. the umbilical probe. This section also details the downed 747 in the heart of suburbia. Spielberg is convinced that showing less is more with regards to the human fatalities and their lack of body parts amid the wreckage. I'd actually assumed that they'd all been vaporised pre-crash, like the people in the cars during the intersection scene. Vic Armstrong crops up again to explain the chaos of combining live-action shots with CG for that intersection scene and then we get some more stuff on the ferry sequence.
West Coast - War (22.20 mins) Spielberg here says that if he achieved his effects “all in Post Production - that would be an exercise in futility.” Take note, Mr. Lucas. The red weed gets a good going over here, as does the whole human fertilizer notion. We also have a little background on the mob attacking the car, the hilltop battle and the admittedly lacklustre human basket sequence. But it is nice to see The Wizard Of Oz paid homage to with the scene of Ray opening up the practically monochrome door onto the red weed-covered world outside. By the way, Dakota Fanning may be extremely talented but she is also extremely annoying during interviews - you have been warned.
Designing The Enemy: Tripods and Aliens (14.05 mins) sounds really interesting but asides from some cool animatics and conceptual artwork - which almost always looks far better than what we get in the movie - this is just a bunch of tech-heads discussing how to articulate the tripods and give them buoyancy and grace. The aliens, themselves, are only allowed about five minutes worth of attention. Erm, I don't know about you, but I wasn't too fussed on them really. Their sinuous movement is quite cool, but their overall look is a little bit too familiar and generic.
Scoring The War Of The Worlds (12.00 mins) features composer John Williams as he discusses how came up with the score for the film after only seeing roughly sixty minutes of footage. Just enough to give him a feel for the emotions and the drama, apparently. It is also the first time that he has composed for a Spielberg movie without actually seeing the whole thing beforehand. Filmed by Steven Spielberg, this is a little bit of filler but it is still a welcome treat. He is keen to reveal the moments in the film when a choir is augmenting the cue - love that element of almost Tibetan chanting. He claims that he set out to produce a different score and I feel that he has certainly succeeded in doing that. It is also one of the better things about the film.
We Are Not Alone is roughly three minutes of utterly wasted time with Spielberg waxing lyrical about how his dad made him a telescope and - hey presto - gave him a passion for all things otherworldly. Horrible filler, folks.
Then we get a few text pages of Production Notes that aren't very illuminating considering what has gone before and then a set of four Galleries. These contain Sketches by Costume Designer Joanna Johnston (not very good, really), Production Stills (not very good, either), Behind The Scenes (again, not up to much at all) and, saving the best for last, Production Sketches (which is nice). This last batch covers the dazzling and vivid conceptual artwork for the tripods, the mass destruction and the aliens. The images are marvellous, colourful and crystal clear - so unlike the images as they appear in the film.
So, with this selection of bonuses, we get the rough with the smooth. Overall, it is not a bad package. Fanning is an annoyance and there are a little too many lovvie-duvvie giggle shots of Cruise and Spielberg on set. But, on a technical slant, there's more than enough to keep you occupied for a while.
However, this is something of missed opportunity for the release. New material would have been eminently welcome, such as a PiP track or U-Control function, and what about those deleted scenes?
When I first reviewed Spielberg's human-bashing opus, I was arrogant enough to deem it as being “more rumble-in-the-cuds than War Of The Worlds.” In the years since then I have lost count of how many times that I've seen the film, and its power to get under the skin, to excite and to move at the same time, and its controversial decision to play totally against audience expectation are all things that I now find not only commendable, but deserving of classic status. I also foolishly said back then that the film would be forgotten about come the arrival of that coming Christmas. Coming from someone who has since become a completely smitten devotee of the film, and who simply couldn't wait for it to arrive on Blu-ray, this is a shocking turnaround. And, you know what? I love it that a movie can do that to you. To not only instil and encourage opinions, but also to work so insidiously in your subconscious that it can positively overturn them at a later date. The film, itself, hasn't changed one little bit. But it has changed me.
In this day and age of endless franchises, rom-coms, family fantasies and edge-lacking horrors, it is great that a genre film still has the power to do that.
Paramount's long-awaited Blu-ray of WOTW is an absolute winner in terms of AV quality. The audio is reference and utterly thrilling and the image is a faithful testament to Spielberg's vision, whether you find it appealing or not. Extras-wise, we could have done with something new, but at least they haven't jettisoned anything from before.
Cruise on top form, Spielberg apparently laying the foundations of a near-classic under our very noses without us even realising it, and Wells' story enjoying its most emotional outing. Excellent and well worth re-appraising now on Blu-ray.
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