Stanley Kubrick: Visionary Filmmaker Collection Technical Review (UK - BD)
Chris takes a belated look at the recent Kubrick boxed set courtesy of Warner...
FeatureI had hoped to provide a thoroughly comprehensive review of this seven-film set, but sadly we didn't receive the collection until the Saturday before release and the sheer amount of content coupled with my current workload has forced me to rethink things. I've decided to do away with any sort of commentary on the films themselves and focus on the technical elements of the set. (There are already many reviews of Kubrick's work by more accomplished film critics than me anyway.) It's probably worth mentioning that the UK misses out on two films included in the US set, namely Dr. Strangelove and Spartacus. This is because Warner does not own the UK distribution rights for those films and while it's a lamentable state of affairs I'm not going to dwell on it. I should also point out that the version of The Shining in this set is also the shorter International cut of the film.
The oldest film in the collection is presented in black and white at Kubrick's preferred ratio of 1.66:1 (1080/24p AVC), so it’s black bars to the left and right of the frame. It's a solid effort for a film shot in the sixties, with reasonable levels of detail and decent contrast. While true that the transfer exhibits some softness this is just as likely to be attributable to the original photography as any nefarious digital tinkering. There's a fine layer of grain covering the image that lends a very film-like appearance, and there are very few if any film or digital artefacts. This is one of those films that you show to people who think that Blu-ray is only suited to Pixar animation and big-budget action films from the last five years.
Lolita arrives with a DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 Mono track that does its best to remain faithful to the original audio. It's a perfectly serviceable track with clear effects, but it is of course severely limited in scope compared to a proper multi-channel soundtrack. Dynamic range isn’t great and there’s really nothing at the low end, but dialogue is always perfectly intelligible so I can’t complain too much. This is how the film was supposed to be heard and I’d rather that than some forced 5.1 bodge job.
2001: A Space Odyssey
Originally shot on 65mm film, Kubrick's science fiction classic arrives at its original 2.20:1 (1080/24p VC-1) aspect ratio and looks absolutely marvellous for a feature released in 1968. The transfer is very clean, with few (if any) film artefacts, and while grain is present throughout it’s so fine as to be almost unnoticeable. Detail is also extremely good throughout. Although much of the film takes place on antiseptic looking space stations and spacecraft the splashes of colour that punctuate these scenes are something to behold. The hues almost leap off of the screen, with some wonderfully colourful vistas during the ‘Dawn of Man’ sequence, and the red, yellow and green spacesuits towards the end really pop. Blacks are suitably inky for a film set largely in space and shadow detail is good. Perhaps the only niggle is some minor posterisation, but it’s fairly inconsequential.
While it defaults to a lossy Dolby Digital 5.1 track, the disc also includes an uncompressed PCM 5.1 track. Although predominantly font-focussed, the track makes good use of subtle ambient effects. However, the best example of all of the channels working in unison comes during the spacewalk sequences, where the astronauts’ breathing can be heard all around you giving the impression that you yourself are inside of a spacesuit! The music is also distributed nicely around the soundstage and sounds quite impressive. What little dialogue there is sounds intelligible, with HAL 9000’s monotone voice a particular highlight. There’s not much in the way of directionality and the low end won’t know your socks off, but it’s a competent sound mix that more than does justice to a soundtrack that is, on many occasions, responsible for driving the plot forward and serving as a narrative device.
A Clockwork Orange
Perhaps the most controversial film in the collection, A Clockwork Orange is presented at Kubrick's preferred ratio of 1.66:1 (1080/24p VC-1) so expect to see ‘black bars’ on the left and right of the image, rather than the top and bottom. Once again looks quite impressive for a film of its vintage, if not as appealing as some of the other features in the collection. The image is quite soft, but I don’t think that it’s as a result of excessive filtering, rather the original photography. In any case there’s a fine layer of grain present to lend a pleasant film-like appearance. Colours are rendered naturally and the feature has a vivid palette that serves as a perfect showcase for the often-garish seventies set dressing. The transfer is relatively free from print damage and debris but some digital artefacting is present, which is regrettable. On the whole this is still a decent effort.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is probably best described as functional, as it gets the job done without really impressing. Dialogue is generally clear, which is especially important given the amount of dialogue and voice-over, but the track lacks dynamic range and sounds a bit hollow. Truth be told, it’s a front-heavy affair and what surround utilisation there is happens to be limited to the score, so don’t go expecting a flurry of discrete effects here. There's not a lot of bass either, even during the scenes where you’d expect it. It does seem likely that a lot of the ‘shortcomings’ are due to the original audio elements, but as I’m not familiar with the film’s original soundtracks I can’t be one hundred per cent sure. Still, there’s only so much that you can do to remix a track without making it sound terribly fake so I’m happy enough with the track.
The first thing that struck me about the film's 1.78:1 (1080/24p VC-1) widescreen transfer was how clean and, well, new it looked. Honestly, if it wasn't for the locations and seventies/eighties dress you could be forgiven for thinking that it was made far more recently. Detail is generally very good, something that I immediately noticed in the fabric of Jack's clothes during his interview, but there are numerous examples throughout in both close-ups and wide shots (the panoramic helicopter sequences are simply gorgeous). The colour palette is natural, with accurate skin tones and warm hues during the opening scenes, but it becomes more muted as the film progresses. The film is largely free of artefacts, both film and digital, although the odd blemish is still present and I can't rule out the use of noise reduction (even if some of the softness can likely be attributed to the original photography). This is the first copy of the film I've ever owned and I think I've been lucky to miss out on what I'd led to believe were some less than perfect VHS and DVD releases. This Blu-ray isn't perfect, but it's pretty damn good.
The Shining features a PCM 5.1 soundtrack that delivers a reasonable supply of spine-tingling moments. Wendy Carlos' score is used to great effect throughout and the surrounds are employed to set the creepy tone, although one gets the feeling that it never reaches its full potential. The mix betrays its mono origins due to a lack of any discrete action and most of the effects remain firmly rooted at the front of the soundstage. Fidelity is generally fine, but it's not up there with most modern features, the dynamic range is also limited and there's little bass to speak of. Thankfully dialogue is always clear, which is the most important thing as far as I'm concerned. Overall then this is a functional if uninspiring audio mix that does the job, but won't win any awards for audio excellence.
This is probably the most contentious transfer of any of the films in the collection, mainly because its aspect ratio differs from what many see as Kubrick’s preferred 1.66:1. Instead the film is presented in 1.78:1 (1080/24p AVC), but to my eyes there are no framing issues of any significance so I’m not totally convinced that the film wasn’t intended for 1.85:1 projection. At any rate, Barry Lyndon is a soft film that might have looked particularly bad on Blu-ray had someone gone overboard with the digital toolset available to them. Thankfully it looks as though someone knew what they were doing when they transferred this one, as virtually everything looks spot-on. The image is detailed in spite of the soft photography, colours are ably reproduced, grain is present and correct, blacks and shadow detail are good… To be honest there’s not a lot wrong with this one when you consider the age and technicalities of the original cinematographic process. In fact it’s actually a very good effort.
The disc includes a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack that respects the film’s mono origins while delivering more atmosphere than would otherwise be possible. The frontal array is still heavily favoured for most of the running time, but the surrounds are occasionally called upon for ambient effects and music. Said effects are clear throughout although they are a bit on the thin side, but thankfully dialogue is audible at all times. Bass isn’t particularly strong, but ferocious FLE would not befit a film like Barry Lyndon. The overall volume of the track is quite a bit lower than the rest of the films in the collection though, so you’re going to have to crank the amp for this one.
Full Metal Jacket
My personal favourite in this set is furnished with a 1.78:1 (1080/24p VC-1) widescreen transfer that features natural colour rendition and a reasonable level of detail, although the photography itself is quite soft. I didn't spot any appreciable print defects other than the odd white speck, and digital artefacts don't appear to be an issue (there's plenty of natural film grain). I'm not going to bore you with an in-depth analysis of this particular transfer because I have previously written a full length review (linked below), but I will say that it's definitely the best the film has ever looked on a home format.
The PCM 5.1 soundtrack on offer here is actually pretty good considering the film's age. We're not talking constant surround utilisation and scores of discrete effects, but Full Metal Jacket never really had particularly extravagant sound design to begin with. The track is a predominantly front-heavy affair, with centred and well-rendered dialogue, but the rear channels are used to good effect during the more energetic scenes. Bass is also reasonably powerful when needed, particularly during musical cues featuring drumming. The main problem with track is that it lacks the frequency range of newer releases. This leads to a very 'flat' sounding track that doesn't really offer much improvement over the standard Dolby Digital 5.1. However, this surely has more to do with the limitations of the source material than any flaws with the Blu-ray.
Eyes Wide Shut
The most recent film in the collection was also Kubrick’s last. It is presented here at 1.78:1 (1080/24p VC-1), which differs from the original DVD presentations (they were 1.33:1) and matches the US Special Edition. Although it’s the newest film the transfer isn’t the most impressive in the collection. I would imagine that the source material was quite soft to begin with, which would explain why the Blu-ray isn’t particularly detailed. The image looks quite flat, almost filtered at times, although some of the close-ups look quite good. The palette is awash with deep, rich colours that make the various locations look quite inviting, yet black levels fluctuate between solid and washed out. To be honest when dealing with a film that looks like it was shot through gauze it’s probably unreasonable to expect too much from the Blu-ray transfer. It’s a passable effort though, and one that improves upon the DVD in several key areas.
An uncompressed LPCM 5.1 soundtrack is the order of the day here. The opening party scene is quite lively, with gentle crowd chatter and music providing the atmosphere. Discrete effects are few and far between, but there are a couple of moments that stand out, including busy city traffic traversing the soundstage. Dialogue is always clean and clear and there’s some reasonable bass in a couple of scenes, specifically those involving music. Apart from that the track doesn’t really do much to distinguish itself from the others in the collection, which is surprising given that it’s a more modern mix. It’s functional but uninspiring.
The set includes a generous selection of bonus material carried over from the individual releases. Unfortunately both Lolita and Barry Lyndon get the short end of the extras stick, as they only feature theatrical trailers. 2001 on the other hand is packed with additional content, ranging from a commentary track and documentary, to multiple featurettes, conceptual art, interviews and more. A Clockwork Orange and The Shining are similarly blessed with commentaries and a host of documentaries and featurettes both new and old. Full Metal Jacket isn’t quite as flush, but it does include a decent commentary track and a short feature and trailer, while Eyes Wide Shut includes a number of tributes to the late Kubrick in the form of featurettes and interviews, including one with Kurick’s friend Steven Spielberg. Although there’s nothing new it’s all great stuff and will take you even longer to get through than the films themselves.
The eighth and final disc in the set is, I'm reliably informed, actually the second disc of the two-disc A Clockwork Orange release. It contains the two-hour documentary 'Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures', a comprehensive look at the man's illustrious career narrated by Tom Cruise. Commentaries aside it's the single longest feature in the set and it provides a fascinating insight into the director's world, offering up plenty on information and interview footage with many of Kubrick's friends and collaborators. The final extra in the set is 'Oh Lucky Malcolm!', a lengthy retrospective look at the illustrious career of actor Malcolm McDowell featuring plenty of interview footage with the man himself, along with friends and family.
If you’re a fan of Stanley Kubrick’s work this is a must-own collection. Each and every one of the films benefits from the transfer to high-definition, with most of them looking significantly better than their DVD counterparts. There’s also a great selection of bonus material on offer, with the Kubrick and McDowell documentaries alone offering more entertainment than the supplemental material found on most releases. It’s a pity that Warner does not own the UK rights to all of Kubrick’s work because we miss out on some of the content featured in the US collection, but if you’re a super-fan with money to burn you could always import that version. For those adverse to such actions this is a great collection of some of cinema’s most respected works.
* Note: The images below 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: 23rd May 2011
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English, DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 Mono, LPCM 5.1 English
Subtitles: English, Brazilian Portuguese, Castilian Spanish, Complex Chinese, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French, German, Italian, Norwegian, Portuguese, Swedish
Extras: Audio Commentaries, Dacumentaries, Featurettes, Interviews, Trailers
Easter Egg: No
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Length: 1000 minutes
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