Hi-Def Sci-Fi

A high-definition convert, Martin nonetheless wonders if many geeky classics are really going to gain anything by the new format...

2001: A Space Odyssey: what the BBC did was a lot worse than this

Is it all over bar the shouting? You can still roast your marshmallows in the heat from hi-def flame wars web-wide, and even if Blu-ray appears to be heading towards inevitable domination on the back of PS3 sales, HD DVD fanboys/girls aren’t going home till the fat CEO sings.

I now have access to a good HD-Ready flat screen TV and the HD DVD drive add-on for my original edition Xbox 360, and am frantically searching the net for ways to cobble together the HDMI connection that might have saved HD DVD if Microsoft hadn’t been so fecking stingy and hedge-betting with version #1 of the 360. 1080p on a gen-1 360 can be accomplished apparently, by cannibalising the native component lead, and I’ve seen videos of this Heath-Robinson approach working.

Truth is, I don’t even know what it is that I am salivating after – what am I gonna do, check out comparative videos on YouTube? Far as I can tell, you kind of have to ‘be there’ both for 1080p and for hi-def in general.

I have to admit that 1080i is no slouch, as I was rhapsodising about last week when I watched 2001: A Space Odyssey on the HD DVD player. Until now, Kubrick’s seminal science-fiction masterpiece has had some mighty shoddy treatment on the small screen, and the great man himself was thinking exclusively in cinematic terms when he shot it. The very fine starfields in the optical shots virtually disappear under PAL, which led the BBC to totally foul up one of the most important film premieres they ever got hold of…

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It was a national joke. It made the papers. Pressured by control-freak Kubrick to show the film in its original widescreen SuperPanavision format, the boffins at Auntie came up with the idea of tacking huge star-shaped stars in the black-areas above and below the letterbox format of the transmission.

Not only did they not follow the action or movement of the shots; not only were they about 7 times bigger than the stars in the film itself; not only were they a different colour; but they remained on screen even for interior shots. Later showings abandoned this lunacy, but were a compromise between semi-widescreen and selective panning. In truth, even the one cinema showing of the film that I ever attended cropped a lot off the ends, so I really hadn’t seen my favourite sci-fi film as it was intended until last week, thanks to hi-def. And now, of course, I want to revisit all my old favourites in 1080something.

I’d do well to remember, however, that I have started on a very high note. The light-gathering power of Kubrick’s big-budget, NASA-designed lenses combined with huge amounts of lighting in controlled circumstances to allow the master to use some of the lowest-grain film-stock available at the time, and I am given to understand that the HD DVD master has been struck in native 1080p from the original negative (whereas Warner Bros put out Full Metal Jacket from a 1080i master).

Not all my favourites – or yours – are going to look as good as 2001 in 1080p. If you’re as late to the hi-def party as I am, perhaps we should both consider just what difference we can expect from some sci-fi classics previous to the native digital age of movie-making…

James Cameron shot Aliens (1986) on –as he admits- the last batch of really grainy stock Kodak put out before their superior next-generation emulsions were released. This gives the film a documentary miasma and hides every single string used by the Skotak brothers, but it may mean very little difference in perceptual quality between upscaled DVD and 1080i/p.

A confirmed hi-def disappointment is Superman (1978). This starry-eyed fable itself could never disappoint, but the HD DVD version I have seen has little to offer above the excellent region 1 DVD edition (or the other non-vanilla recent editions), except possibly in the middle ‘Americana’ section where 2001 cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth uses a little less Vaseline on the lens. If limited definition is part of a film’s production design, it can hardly be enhanced by higher definition.

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For different reasons the same is said to apply to Blade Runner (1982) – wreathed in Ridley Scott’s hallmark smoke and backlighting, and positively drenched in sheets of rain, the Spartan Blu-ray version has been lauded more for the ubiquitous re-packaging of the film and for the quality of the new transfer than for any quantum leaps in perceptual detail at 1080.

At Geek central we are constantly marvelling at the pedestrian works – rom-coms, archive classics and sundry thrillers – that are being rolled out in hi-def, but the truth is that a format change is being foisted on us: we are not expected to cherry-pick only the movies that are likely to benefit from 1080 prints, but to commit to the format itself.

On the plus side, the content-providers are going to have to work hard to win over a generation that has only just swapped a decades-old standard (VHS) for a new one (DVD) without being able to offer the same quantum leap in definition defined by that transition. This could mean a couple of years of return to Criterion-quality extras instead of the trashy bundling of four-minute TV spots, trailers and the other tawdry customary junk that I am wretchedly tired of being suckered in by at HMV/Amazon/Play.

That said, the likes of 2001, which has a respectable collection of documentaries and archive material, has only been available in a bare-bones edition until now, and the general temptation will be to market hi-def re-issues with 80-90% previously seen extras that cost nothing on top and are already available – even if they’re the same old shit that initially disappointed us.

Still, the more pointless the upgrade is (The Day The Earth Stood Still is hardly likely to drop jaws at 1080p, except for the fact that it remains an excellent film), the more effort we are likely to see in hi-def sci-fi re-releases. Ultimately this incentive will dry up –as it did for DVD- with widespread adoption and the event of a Blu-ray monopoly, but it could be fruitful for a while.

Now excuse me while I void the warranty on my Xbox 360 AV cable…

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Martin writes his (mostly) sci-fi column every Friday at Den Of Geek.