RoboCop (UK - BD RB)
Chris Gould dips his toes in the Blu-ray waters with Fox's release of RoboCop
Paul Verhoeven’s satirical, ultra-violent (by 1987 standards) movie about a cop gunned down in the line of duty and subsequently resurrected as a crime-fighting cyborg is one of my all-time favourites. I’ve previously reviewed both the Criterion and MGM releases of the film, so I’ll dispense with the lengthy recap and instead offer a brief synopsis for the uninitiated.
RoboCop tells the story of Alex Murphy, an honest cop transferred from his cushy post in Metro South to the horrors of the Metro West district. No sooner have Murphy and his new partner Lewis geared up, they are thrust into a high-speed shootout with an armed gang led by Old Detroit’s unofficial crime boss, Clarence Boddicker. After tracking the gang to an abandoned steel mill, Murphy is caught by surprise and sadistically tortured before being shot in the head and left for dead.
Seeking a subject for their new crime-prevention program, corrupt mega-corporation OCP resurrects Murphy as a cyborg known as RoboCop and sets him about the task of cleaning up the city. However, it's not long before RoboCop begins to remember his past life and starts out to track down and bring to justice those responsible for his death, while at the same time trying to come to terms with the loss of his humanity.
I was pleasantly surprised to find the director’s cut of the film on the disc, which features approximately a minute’s worth of footage that was cut from the theatrical version to obtain an ‘R’ rating. In particular, watch out for ED 209's first appearance in the OCP boardroom, which is an excellent example of the black humour found throughout the film, and Murphy’s very graphic death at the hands of Boddicker’s gang.
This Blu-ray edition of RoboCop is presented as a 1080p/24 MPEG-2 encoded transfer at its theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1. Before I go on I have to state that I’m basing the MPEG-2 information on the US release of the film, which looks to be identical to this one. Unfortunately the check discs I receive for review rarely include press releases with detailed specs, and I don’t have a BD drive in my PC to allow me to check them out for myself.
I can be more confident when discussing the aspect ratio, which is sure to be a bone of contention. Back in 1999, Criterion released Paul Verhoeven’s ‘Director’s Cut’ of the film at his preferred ratio of 1.66:1. That particular transfer opened the image up somewhat, but its non-anamorphic nature resulted in a fairly weak presentation. However, many people still prefer it to the anamorphic transfers that followed, which were either 1.78:1 or 1.85:1 and had slightly different colour timing. Personally I’m of the opinion that, while Verhoeven prefers the 1.66:1 ratio, the film was theatrically exhibited at 1.85:1 and that should be considered the OAR as it is how most people would have originally seen it.
Obviously RoboCop was a low-budget movie to begin with, but the image presented here belies those humble origins. The increased resolution allowed me to pick out previously unseen detail (such as the lettering on RoboCop’s helmet) and added depth and realism to the image. The print is also much cleaner and free from grain than I remember (and a huge improvement over the Criterion edition). Compression artefacts aren’t a problem and colour rendition is fairly good throughout; certainly better than the older MGM standard definition release. However, it’s not all good news.
Although cleaner than other versions, the odd speckle is still visible on the print and detail levels sometimes fluctuate mid-scene. This is particularly apparent during effects shots, which I believe were accomplished with the use of rear-projection. Low-light scenes often contain more grain than they should, blacks can look a little muddy and brightness and contrast have a nasty habit of fluctuating. While it’s true that colours are generally acceptable, skin tones aren’t quite as realistic as I’d like (think reddish-pink). While this was a problem that affected the older release, I was expecting it to be rectified for the film’s official high-def début. Some slight edge enhancement is also present, but I didn’t really notice it sitting around ten feet away from my 42” screen.
Being that this is my first Blu-ray review it would be very easy to get carried away with the quality of the transfer. However, if I’m to be fair I have to compare this to other Blu-ray titles, not to five-year-old standard definition releases. While I don’t want to be overly critical of the transfer, simply because many of the ‘faults’ are down to the source material, I just can’t justify top honours for this one.
RoboCop arrives on Blu-ray with DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 in English and DTS 5.1 in both Italian and Spanish. Unfortunately it would seem that Fox’s choice of lossless codec means that only a small number of people can currently enjoy the lossless audio, as very few players or amplifiers can handle DTS-HD MA (unlike PCM or Dolby TrueHD). This meant that I had to listen to the 1.5Mbps DTS Core 5.1 track embedded in the DTS-HD stream.
This year marks the twentieth anniversary of RoboCop, and it definitely shows. While the track easily sounds as good as any previous offering, it doesn’t actually sound much better. It is an improvement over the Criterion Dolby Surround mix, which offered limited use of the surround channels, and the excessive bass that marred the MGM release has been dialled back to more reasonable levels. However, this has resulted in feeble sounding gunshots, explosions and other such effects. ED-209’s footsteps don’t so much shake the room as sound like the gentle pad of a kitten’s paws, and his voice lacks the booming presence it demands. This fidelity is lacking at both ends of the audio spectrum, lending dialogue a forced, unnatural quality (and some poor ADR doesn’t help).
However, it’s not all bad news. The new mix is actually a lot livelier than previous attempts, with some genuinely inventive use of the discrete surround channels. Some of the more memorable moments include ED-209 walking on-screen from the front right of the soundstage, various gunshots coming from the left and right surround channels and a hubcap flying directly over the viewer’s head during a car chase! All of this makes for a satisfyingly enveloping aural experience, not least when Basil Poledouris’ wonderful score fills the room. When it comes to awarding marks I’m going to apply the same formula to the audio elements of this disc as I did to the visual ones. Basically this track isn’t a patch on most modern soundtracks, but it’s not actually a bad remix of a low-budget film that’s pushing twenty.
Well, this isn’t going to take long. The only bonus material included on the disc comes in the form of trailers for RoboCop and Planet of the Apes. Both are presented in 1080p, but that’s hardly compensation for such a shoddy effort. How do studios expect to push their brand-spanking new high definition formats by releasing bare-bones discs? What’s more infuriating is that that various standard definition releases of the film have featured multiple commentary tracks and plenty of featurettes. It’s just not good enough.
Another thing that I found slightly odd is that the disc does not feature a main menu. Now I know that Blu-ray features interactive ‘in-film’ menus, but the lack of a main menu just makes this release feel cheap. It’s like they couldn’t be bothered (which I guess they couldn’t). Most of the other titles in my collection have menus, but the majority of those are Sony, Tartan and Optimum efforts. Perhaps it’s just Fox that can’t be bothered…
Okay, so it’s lacking when it comes to bonus material, but this is still the best that RoboCop has looked and sounded outside of a cinema. It’s not exactly the kind of stunning presentation I was expecting from Blu-ray, but that has more to do with the source material than the home video format. While I’d never use the disc as demo material (reference quality this ain’t), it made for a gentle and fairly pleasant introduction to the wonders of high definition and one that I’d recommend to fans of the film.
Of course, if we’ve learned anything from DVD it is that studios love to squeeze every last penny from consumers by releasing multiple incarnations of our favourite films, so those of you who love your extras might want to hold off until a more comprehensive package is available. I briefly considered making some kind of ‘your move creep’ joke to round things off, but in the end I thought better of it. Oh, bugger...
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Chris Gould
Suitable only for persons of 18 years and over
Release Date: 24th December 2007
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English, DTS 5.1 Italian, DTS 5.1 Spanish
Subtitles: English, Italian, Spanish, Danish, Finnish, Norwegian, Swedish
Easter Egg: No
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Cast: Peter Weller, Nancy Allen, Ronny Cox, Kurtwood Smith, Miguel Ferrer
Genre: Action, Crime and Sci-Fi
Length: 103 minutes