- BD-25 Single-Layer Disc
- 480i/MPEG2 (Supplements Only)
- 2.35:1 Widescreen
- English 5.1 PCM
- English 5.1 Dolby Surround
- French 5.1 Dolby Surround
- English SDH
- English Subtitles
- French Subtitles
- Spanish Subtitles
- Chinese Subtitles
- Portuguese Subtitles
- Thai Subtitles
- Trivia Fact Track
Exclusive HD Content:
The Fifth Element (Blu-ray)
Sony / 1996 / 94 Minutes / Rated PG-13
Street Date: June 20, 2006
List Price: $28.95
it at Amazon and save)
Reviewed by Peter M. Bracke
Thursday, June 15, 2006
"I don't want one position, I want all positions!"
Did I pick the wrong movie for my first Blu-ray review? As any self-respecting tech-geek knows, the first disc you choose to fire up a new format can be akin to a religious experience. Okay, maybe I'm going overboard, but really -- what hardcore home theater nut doesn't remember what the first laserdisc was that they ever bought? Or the first DVD? So it goes now with Blu-ray. And coming only a mere two months after the launch of HD DVD, it has been a bit of an embarrassment of riches -- when was the last time two major new consumer electronics formats launched so close together?
Anyway, for my inaugural Blu-ray experience, I went with 'The Fifth Element.' Not, honestly, because I love the movie, but because it has long been regarded as one of the finest-looking standard DVDs out there. So I figured the Blu-ray version must be a home run, right? Well, not so fast. Unfortunately, as you'll find out later on down in the video section, this one didn't quite meet my expectations. So I apologize upfront that what may be the first Blu-ray disc review you read won't be an unequivocal, four-star rave. That said, this is only one of many, many Blu-ray titles to come, and we all know you can't judge a new format just by one disc.
But I digress. How's 'The Fifth Element' as a movie? Well, I for one have always had mixed feelings about the films of French auteur Luc Besson. He's certainly audacious, with a bravura visual style, a vigorous sense of pacing and seemingly no fear when it comes to engaging in narrative flights of fancy. Yet many of his films have thus often felt a bit disjointed to me, as if all the cinematic razzmatazz is more important to Besson than the story he is trying to tell. And of all his films, I may feel this most acutely with 'The Fifth Element.'
The plot is classic goofy sci-fi (though perhaps the story is besides the point?) As 'The Fifth Element' begins, we learn four stones were taken from Earth in 1914 by a race of giant mechanical turtle-like creatures called the Mondoshawan in order to keep humankind safe from evil. Flashforward 300 years and as the Mondoshawan are returning to Earth they are attacked by a group of mercenary dog men, the Mangalores, which leaves our planet defenseless. But out of the wreckage of battle, scientists are able to salvage a claw that they use to regenerate a new "perfect being" called Leeloo (Milla Jovovich). Too bad she escapes from the lab, and crash lands on the cab hood of Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis). They are soon thrust into a sort of treasure hunt to save all mankind. They must restore "the fifth element" -- a sarcophagus that stands in the middle of the four stones -- to restore harmony to the galaxy. Er, something like that.
To be honest, I often had absolutely no idea what was going on during a lot of 'The Fifth Element.' This is one loud, colorful, pop tart of a movie. It's like 'Blade Runner' meets 'Xanadu' meets 'The Apple,' only even more outlandish. The plot is so crazy and convoluted, just missing 30 seconds of it is the equivalent of missing 30 minutes of another movie. Certainly, many sci-fi fans will love this -- Besson wisely hints at a larger mythology, which gives the world he creates a life outside of just the visuals. But it is also hard to take any of it seriously, because it is all so day-glo-tastic, and the cast is having such a good time chewing the scenery, there ultimately seems to be little at stake aside from the ballooning costume budget.
Oh, did I mention who else is in this movie? Simultaneously amusing and obnoxious is a pre-'Rush Hour' Chris Tucker, who as DJ Ruby Rhod seems to be channeling Prince and that guy from the 'Mannequin' movies. Then there is Ian Holm as Vito Cornelius, a member of an eternal line of clerics (don't ask). Normally a very serious actor, even Holm looks like he is struggling to keep a straight face during most of the movie. And who can forget Gary Oldman as the freaky arms merchant Zorg -- it is saying something that of all the actors here, he might actually be the most restrained. Even in the ridiculous get-ups he is asked to wear (all designed by Madonna favorite Jean-Paul Gaultier, of course).
I suppose many sci-fi fans will love 'The Fifth Element.' I certainly did have fun, even if I never, ever bought a single second of it. It is a big, bright, colorful explosion of a movie -- and certainly looks cool. Ultimately, I don't know how influential this movie has become (if at all), and it certainly cribbed most of its best visuals from movies like 'Blade Runner.' But Besson still manages to create a film with an unquestionably unique cinematic sensibility, even if I remain left with absolutely no idea of what it is supposed to be about.
The Video: Sizing Up the Picture
Okay, here it comes -- the big question. Does Blu-ray deliver the visual goods? Can it match, or even beat rival HD DVD? Of course this is just one title, my first title, so I can't judge the format unequivocally. And, unfortunately, again, I probably picked the wrong disc for my initial Blu-ray test drive, because quite simply 'The Fifth Element' is just not the best HD I've seen, either compared to HD DVD or even-over-the air HD broadcasts. 'The Fifth Element' can't even compare to the best Blu-ray itself has to offer, because I did briefly sample a few other titles prior to sitting down with this one, and all appeared to deliver superior video quality even at a mere glance.
However, make no mistake, this is a good-looking picture if you're not too critical. I bet the average consumer who saw this disc up and running at their local Best Buy would probably think it was darn swell. However, I felt there were some deficiencies inherent in the source material itself that keep this one from hitting a homer, or even a solid triple. Though not as noticeable perhaps on the standard DVD releases (even the Superbit), 'The Fifth Element' looks oddly soft in HD, with a lack of detail and three-dimensionality that ranks it as not-quite-demo material in the high-def sweepstakes.
But first a couple of positives. Most noticeable are the vivid and clean colors. Reds, especially, really pop, and I also loved all the vibrant purples and greens. Contrast is also nicely rendered, with solid blacks and clean whites. But, unfortunately, the big problem here is still the softness. This transfer is just not that sharp, at least compared to the best HD I've seen. The print is also a bit dirty in spots, which really surprised me. This all gives the image a flatter look that I'm used to on HD -- what I expected would be eye-poppingly three-dimensional throughout just plain isn't. Oftentimes, I felt like I was watching a standard DVD upconverted to 1080i -- good, but kinda fake-looking. Indeed, when I compared the Blu-ray version of 'The Fifth Element' to the Superbit upconverted (both via my Samsung BD-P1000 Blu-ray deck), the difference was not as apparent as between most of the the HD DVD and DVD releases I've seen. Still, complaints aside, 'The Fifth Element' does look very good, and this is hardly a bad transfer. It just is not the best that Blu-ray has to offer.
One final mention. Unlike Toshiba's first-generation HD DVD players, the Samsung BD-P1000 is capable of outputting full 1080p (at 30 fps only) via its HDMI output. However, again, without the same title available on both Blu-ray and HD DVD, nor a 1080p-capable HD DVD player on the market, it is simply unfair to try and proclaim one format superior to the other. Until we can compare apples to apples, raw technical specs indicate that both formats should be able to deliver the same high level of video quality, at least when the playing field is level.
(Note: As originally reported by The Digital Bits, some users have experienced poor image quality when viewing Blu-ray discs on the Samsung first-generation BD-P1000 Blu-ray disc player when connected via the deck's HDMI output. Apparently these problems, including decreased resolution and diluted color reproduction, are largely corrected when switching to the BD-P1000's component outputs.
It has also been confirmed that both Samsung and Sony are now aware of the issue, and the problem most likely stems from a faulty internal scaler chip in the BD-P1000. Samsung is reportedly working to fix the problem on future shipments of the unit, and also plans to issue a firmware upgrade to correct the problem on current players.
When assessing the transfer of any Blu-ray or HD DVD disc title, we here at High Def Digest always compare the HDMI versus component output on every disc to detect any depreciable differences in image quality, as well as to confirm whether or not the Image Constraint Token (ICT) has been activated on a particular disc title or not (which would down-convert the component output's resolution to standard DVD quality).
If and when Samsung makes an official announcement of a firmware upgrade that corrects the problem with the BD-P1000's HDMI output, all of our Blu-ray reviews here at High Def Digest will be revisited to reassess picture quality. In light of the continuing problems with the Samsung, and given the fact that it is currently the only Blu-ray player available on the consumer market, some readers may wish to reserve judgment on this or any Blu-ray title until picture quality can be reassessed.)
The Audio: Rating the Sound
Unlike the backers of the HD DVD format, Sony is taking a different tack with the audio on their Blu-ray offerings. Like all of the initial Blu-ray titles I've received thus far from the studio for review, 'The Fifth Element' includes neither a Dolby TrueHD nor a Dolby Digital-Plus soundtrack. Instead, Sony presents the film in PCM 5.1 surround -- meaning uncompressed audio. (Optional English and French Dolby Digital 5.1 surround tracks are offered, however.) Also gone is the DTS 5.1 surround track included on the previous Ultimate Edition and Superbit DVD versions. So, trying to compare this disc to any HD DVD Dolby Digital-Plus track would be pointless (different formats, different movies). I can only compare the uncompressed PCM track here to the Dolby Digital and DTS tracks on the previous DVDs.
Audio format issues aside, I can honestly say the PCM track here does sound noticeably superior to both the previous Dolby and DTS tracks. Of course, it helps that 'The Fifth Element' has indeed stood the test of time as a film with absolutely terrific sound design. This disc produces one heck of an involving and enveloping soundfield, with full use of all channels for more than just the odd effect or music cue here or there. The sense of space and imaging to the mix is often quite stunning. Pans from channel to channel are almost transparent, even more so in PCM. Dynamic range is also a bit fuller than on the old DTS track, and especially the Dolby Digital. Low bass also really delivers some punch, but it is tight with no distortion. And thankfully, I did not have to ride my volume control at all during the movie, trying to balance dialogue with bombastic effects -- this mix is very even and the levels are just right.
If just this one disc is any indication, I can safely say after having reviewed a couple of dozen HD DVD titles that Blu-ray is certainly capable of delivering a soundtrack as good as any I've heard on the rival format. Of course, the real test will be a direct comparison of the same movie head-to-head on HD DVD and Blu-ray. But until the studios begin to release their titles on both formats, I think it is fair to say neither format can really be said to be technically superior to the other -- at least for now.
The Supplements: Digging Into the Good Stuff
As expected, Sony has ported over the same extras that were included on the previous "Ultimate Edition" DVD release of the film (though not all of them). Unfortunately, that release wasn't so great. Director Luc Besson declined to be involved, so all of the bonus content felt like reheated EPK material (and it was). So certainly, the appeal of this Blu-ray release won't be because of its extras.
First, though, note that like all of Sony's first Blu-ray titles, 'The Fifth Element' boasts what the studio is dubbing "Seamless Menu Navigation." Basically, it is the same nifty real-time menu system that Warner uses on their HD DVD releases. You can access all the disc's chapters, options and extra features "live" while the movie is playing, with no interruption. However, Sony has not integrated Warner's zoom function, which allows you to magnify the picture, nor a chapter bookmarks function. At least that I could find.
Now, on with the extras. There was never commentary proper on the Ultiimate Edition of "The Fifth Element,' but there was a trivia fact track, which is replicated here. As usual with these types of features, there is lots of needless if fun trivia, from bits on the cast and production to how many times the number "five" appears in the movie. Cute.
But the real centerpiece of the Ultimate Edition DVD was its five featurettes, all with the word "Element" in their titles (clever, huh?) Alas, all that material was culled from the same set of EPK interviews with the cast and crew, and Luc Besson was nowhere to be found. It was never gonna win any awards, I must say. Still, it's not here, along with the previous Ultimate Edition's other extras including an extensive still gallery and trailers. Why Sony is not including all the extras found on the standard DVD versions with its Blu-ray releases is a mystery to me.
HD Bonus Content: Any Exclusive Goodies in There?
No exclusive HD bonus content (unless you count the menu navigation system). But as one of the first Blu-ray titles, I wasn't really expecting any.
'The Fifth Element' is a tough one to rate. Simply by virtue of it being one of the first Blu-ray titles, it had to look perfect or I would likely have been disappointed. And it does look good, no doubt -- it just is not the best HD I've seen. Also a problem is that this film has been released so many times before on standard DVD that maybe only some exclusive HD content here would have elevated it above being just a decent upgrade. Still, it is clear even from this release that Blu-ray can deliver on the bottom line, so I only expect to be even more impressed by the coming Blu-ray titles in the week's ahead.
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