They Live (UK - BD RB)
Chris Gould takes a look at the Blu-ray release of this John Carpenter favourite
They Live opens with unemployed drifter John Nada travelling an economically decimated United States looking for what little work he can find. Nada eventually finds himself in L.A., where he manages to get casual work on a construction site, and it is here that he befriends Frank (Keith David, who also starred in Carpenter's The Thing), who offers to show Nada to a place where he can get a hot meal and a shower.
Frank takes John to a camp for the homeless, where people are cramped together in makeshift shacks, struggling to survive on what little they have. As the evening draws in, Nada notices some strange goings on at the community church across the street. The following day he decides to investigate, and inside the church he discovers a secret meeting between some of the camp's inhabitants, a crude laboratory packed with boxes of sunglasses, and a rudimentary transmitter.
That night the camp is attacked by swarms of armed police, who disperse the residents, beating many of them to within an inch of their lives. Nada escapes the raid, and the following day returns to the church. Whilst inside he takes a pair of the sunglasses he had seen the previous day and, thinking nothing of it, puts them on before he steps outside. This is when John Nada’s world starts to fall apart. The glasses alter his vision in ways that allow him to see the world as it really it. Posters, magazines, signs, and even money all carry hidden, subliminal messages, and aliens are living amongst the people of Earth!
It seems that only John can see the aliens, who turn decidedly nasty after they discover that their cover has been blown. After a few cool one-liners, a messy incident with a shotgun and a kidnapping, Nada finds himself on the run with no one to turn to but Frank. After convincing Frank of the alien menace (in one of the best fight scenes ever), both he and Nada join up with the underground resistance to try and shut down the alien invasion once and for all.
Oh my, where did it all go wrong? Optimum never sent us a copy of their recent release of Carpenter's Escape from New York to review, but I read plenty of forum posts condemning it (unfortunately after I'd already bought it). Rather than being a true high-definition release, the video was allegedly up-converted from a standard-definition master to 1080p, resulting in a final image that looked little better than the DVD through an up-converting DVD player. As I said, I never reviewed that disc, but by God if they haven't gone and done it again! They Live looks very much like another up-converted transfer. It lacks the definition of a true HD release, with fuzzy, poorly defined detail throughout. The print is in reasonably good shape, even if I did spot the odd white or black fleck, but the aspect ratio is all over the place. The film is supposed to be presented at around the 2.35:1 aspect ratio, but due to some odd window-boxing of the image (black bars on the left and right), it's actually closer to 2.18:1 (and the ratio differs again during the opening credits). This is most annoying if you have a TV with 1:1 pixel mapping. I also spotted numerous instances of aliasing, fuelling my suspicions that this did not come from a progressive film source. Colour rendition is actually pretty decent, as are the strong black levels, but those are about the only positive things I have to say about this transfer.
However, perhaps the worst thing about this release is what appears to be a major cock-up in the video encoding. Now I know many of you will have read the term 1080p/24 on various DVD sites (including ours) to denote hi-def transfers at twenty-four frames per second. However, in actuality film material is almost always encoded on Blu-ray at 23.98fps and the 24fps you read about is simply rounded up for convenience (actually if you want to get really technical, it's 23.976fps). So far this has been true of every film sourced Blu-ray I have checked using my playback software—not so for They Live. According to the program I use, the film has been encoded at precisely 24fps. 'What's the problem?' I hear you ask. Well, if like me your your TV is 24Hz compatible and your Blu-ray player can output video at 24fps for a movie-like experience, you will see a regular 'stutter' in the image, almost like it's skipping a frame.
I have seen this before, when Samsung accidentally 'broke' an early version of their BD-P1400 firmware by telling the 24fps mode to output at 24fps, instead of 23.98. That produced exactly the same stuttering effect I saw on this release. In order to test a theory I unwrapped my copy of Escape from New York and checked it using my playback software. It too is encoded at exactly 24fps and produces a juddering effect when played back on my TV, although it's harder to spot because the film is so dark. Now I'll be the first to admit I don't know much about video encoding, but it seems awfully coincidental that the only two titles to stutter on my system are both encoded at 24fps. Now I'm grateful that Optimum are releasing Blu-ray Disc titles, especially given some of their recent efforts ( Total Recall, Terminator 2), but none of that can excuse the shoddiness of this release. Marketing a disc as high-definition when it comes from what looks like a standard-definition master is just plain wrong, and the encoding issues only compound the problem.
We get both Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS-HD Mater Audio 5.1 tracks for this release. I'm not sure I really get the point of including Dolby 5.1 when DTS is the mandatory codec for Blu-ray and offers a higher bitrate than Dolby, but hey... As usual I was restricted to the Core element of the DTS track, but even that was reasonably impressive given the limitations of the source material. While fidelity is decidedly lacking, surround utilisation is actually pretty good, generating a significant amount of ambience. A lot of this is created by generous distribution of Carpenter's melancholy score, although there are also occasions where character's voices and various sound effects emanate from the surround speakers. Perhaps it's because I'm used to the old Dolby 2.0 soundtrack on the Momentum DVD, but I found the 5.1 effort reasonably immersive. Bass is a little anemic at times, but thankfully dialogue is always clear, although like the rest of the track it lacks the crystal clarity of newer releases. While The Live might not be the most sonically impressive Blu-ray Disc in existence, it does at least improve upon its DVD counterpart.
Without doubt, the outstanding supplemental feature is the commentary track from director Carpenter and star Roddy Piper. While the banter isn’t quite up to the standard of the Carpenter/Russell collaborations, both John and Roddy seem to be having a good time as they recount many stories about the production. Roddy sounds genuinely thankful to John for the opportunity to be part of the film, and Mr. Piper certainly makes for interesting commentator as he tells tales of his many scrapes both in and out of the ring.
A short featurette is also included that, in addition to showing some behind the scenes action, includes interviews with the cast and crew. Unfortunately the featurette is too short to be of any real interest beyond the first viewing. Some short video profiles of John Carpenter, Roddy Piper and Meg Foster are also included, along with the film's theatrical trailer.
It pains me to say this because They Live is one of my favourite Carpenter flicks, but you might as well save your money and buy the existing DVD release for a fraction of the price of this Blu-ray. Okay, so you won't get the 5.1 Master Audio soundtrack, but you will get all of the extras and the video will be virtually indistinguishable from what's on offer here. I was really looking forward to this release, so it's no lie when I say that I am genuinely disappointed. Presumably Optimum employ people with a greater technical understanding of Blu-ray technology than me, so I have to assume one of two things: either they were asleep and didn't notice the problems, or they thought they could get away with releasing sub-par disc. Either way I find it hard to recommend this title to anyone when the DVD is almost as good.
* 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: 22nd September 2008
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English, Dolby Digital 5.1 English
Extras: Audio Commentary, Making of Featurette, Profiles, Trailer
Easter Egg: No
Director: John Carpenter
Cast: Roddy Piper, Keith David, Meg Foster, George 'Buck' Flower, Peter Jason, Raymond St. Jacques, Jason Robards
Genre: Action, Sci-Fi and Thriller
Length: 94 minutes
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