Look up the word "polarizing" in the cinematic dictionary, and you're likely to find 'Crash' as its definition. Though far from the most controversial movie ever made, it did get people talking when it was first released theatrically back in the Spring of 2005. But, oddly enough, that was only a prelude to the backlash that was to come. As the film picked up more critical and awards buzz over the next few months -- ultimately culminating in an unexpected windfall of Academy Award nominations and, eventually, a Best Picture upset win over the heavily-favored 'Brokeback Mountain' -- the more it seemed to inspire extreme love/hate reactions. You could almost hear the gasps all over the world as 'Crash' took home the gold that night -- not because of the debatable merits of the film itself, but because it just wasn't supposed to happen. A little, low-budget indie full of cuss words, one that wasn't on anyone's radar only a few months prior, was now suddenly lauded by the crusty old white members of the Academy as the year's best picture? Even now, it seems if not impossible than highly improbable.
Yet another study of race relations in the hotbed of L.A., this time told through interlocking stories a la 'Short Cuts' and 'Traffic,' 'Crash' is an eagerly manipulative, button-pusher of a movie. Director Paul Haggis (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Robert Moresco) has made no bones that his film was clearly meant to be a bit hyper-real treatise, carefully populated by characters and plot contrivances engineered to get us to think about the issues simmering beneath the surface, however incredulous. And on that level, the film does work in its own self-conscious way. Sure, we never fully buy everything that happens during the film's very compressed time period of a couple of days -- characters "crashing" into each other like bumper cars, their lives intertwining and their motives laid bare through overtly racist exchanges -- but then believability isn't the point. The morality of the story is all that matters.
Unfortunately, I have to come clean and say I initially fell into the 'Crash'-haters club. The first time I watched it was on video (after I borrowed one of the now-infamous million-plus DVD screeners Lionsgate sent out as part of its shameless Oscar-baiting campaign last fall), and it felt like little more than a slightly edgy, well-shot TV movie. Sort of like 'Law & Order' with a big name cast and characters screaming a lot of racial epithets back and forth. I certainly never felt like I was watching a future Best Picture Oscar winner. So I was as shocked as anybody (and irritated, admittedly) when 'Crash' snagged the gold over 'Brokeback Mountain,' a film far more accomplished, emotional and honest. Clearly, the Academy must have either had a knee-jerk reaction to the 'Brokeback' hype, or suffered from its own rampant egotism, favoring a film about itself that reminds us that even if we are all a little bit racist, goshdarnit, even selfish L.A. white people can find redemption, too.
Now, watching the film again on this new Blu-ray release (and honestly, I really did not want to see this movie again), I can now understand somewhat its appeal. With the 'Brokeback' outrage subsided, it seems pretty obvious that Haggis did not sit down to write 'Crash' and say, "I'm going to write a Best Picture Oscar classic!" Like other previous much beloved/much hated Academy Award winners ('Forrest Gump' comes to mind), 'Crash' seems to now suffer largely under the weight of too much acclaim. Haggis' button-pushing is a bit heavy-handed, but he's playing in a world of archetypes and melodramatic movie conventions. 'Crash' is clearly an allegory, almost a fable, with it's characters worst flaws blown up to big-screen proportions to get at larger issues, not to bask in its own smug self-satisfaction. Sure, 'Crash' is horribly unsubtle, but in retrospect it is also not quite as pretentious as it seemed when all the hype blew up around it.
Still, though I no longer dismiss 'Crash' out of hand, I can't say I've been converted, either. Despite the fine performances, the evocative cinematography, the pretty theme song and Haggis' obvious passion for the material (say what you want about his film, but this guy really believes the pseudo-profundity he's spouting), 'Crash' still feels too easy, too pat. It's characters' backgrounds and motives are too neat and tidy, and its chintzy racial politics reduce a complex problem to a simplistic morality play . I know, I know -- that's what popular art is supposed to do. But I just wish 'Crash' could have done it with more subtlety and less histrionics. Because regardless of its virtues, it is likely go down in history as one of the most undeserving Best Picture Oscar winners ever. And yes, I have seen 'The Greatest Show on Earth.'
'Crash' is the first Blu-ray title released by Lionsgate that I've gotten
to review, and I was excited to take a look at a disc without the Sony logo
stamped on it. (You never know what a new home video format is really capable
of until you can get content from a variety of studios to compare against each
other.) Though this release still is a big disappointment for other reasons
(see the supplements section below), at least it generally delivers in terms
of video quality. However, I only say that because 'Crash' was never that great-looking
of a film in the first place. Hampered a bit by its low budget (however impressive
much of it is despite its limitations), it often varies significantly in quality,
so this Blu-ray release is probably the best 'Crash' is ever going to look.
Presented in 2.35:1 and encoded at 1080p, this transfer ranges from OK to pretty good (though I do think the filmmaking team pulled off a great deal given the film's meager budget of something like $5 million). It has a shimmering, colorful look, with lots of high-contrast nighttime shooting and a fairly glossy veneer. However, the quality is never consistent. Black levels are wobbly -- some scenes look great, others a bit washed out, and shadow delineation can suffer in some of the more overexposed shots. Softness is also a problem -- the film just doesn't look that sharp most of the time, and some post-production digital tweaking appears to have been applied to jack up the picture. The result is some readily apparent grain and noise, and colors that look plugged up. Though the hues are generally well saturated, they can also look just as blurry.
However, comparing the Blu-ray to the standard DVD, detail is noticeably improved
overall. Though the image is only occasionally three-dimensional, objects and
fine textures that previously just looked like small blobs here at least have
some definition. Not a home run, but with source material like this, probably
the best we could have hoped for.
(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.)
'Crash's budget limitations show also through in the audio department. Though the film's sound design doesn't really feel cheap, it can be as inconsistent as its photography, and certainly doesn't have the sense of depth and presence of a big-budget blockbuster. However, aside from those issues, I am disappointed that Lionsgate has not better exploited the audio capabilities of the Blu-ray format. Unlike Sony, which is providing uncompressed PCM 5.1 audio on all of its initial titles, and the HD DVD camp, which is going with Dolby Digital-Plus and Dolby TrueHD, Lionsgate is giving us only the same Dolby Digital EX and DTS-ES soundtracks as found on its standard DVD releases.
Comparing both the Dolby Digital and DTS tracks here, both sound fine but offer no real upgrade over the previous two DVDs of 'Crash.' Dynamic range is fairly spacious, though only Mark Isham's ethereal score really comes across with any impact. The mid-range and high-end does sound nice and clean, however, with no distortion or hiss. Low bass has some kick, though it still feels a bit muted. Unfortunately, fairing the worst is dialogue. Though it is largely intelligible, levels often vary wildly from scene to scene; I had to resort to adjusting the volume level on my receiver frequently just to compensate. Surround use is also sporadic -- again, only the score is really directed to the rear channels. Given the scattershot sense of envelopment, 'Crash's soundtrack could really use a new remaster that would better take advantage of the capabilities of Blu-ray.
Well, compared to Sony, I will say one thing for Lionsgate's approach to the extras on its initial Blu-ray releases -- at least they're consistent. Unfortunately, that is about the only nice thing I can say, because all of Lionsgate's first discs contain no extras. That's right. Nada. Zero. Zip. Which for 'Crash' is doubly disappointing, because not only does this Best Picture Oscar winner warrant further dissection, but the film has already been released twice on DVD, and both times with plenty of supplements. Why couldn't Lionsgate offer at least the audio commentaries on the previous releases? Some deleted scenes? A meager featurette or two?
Even more puzzling, 'Crash' is presented here in its extended 115-minute "Director's Cut" form. However, it is not labeled this way on the front or back packaging -- I could only tell because this version is unrated, and runs the two minutes over the theatrical version's 113 minutes. Granted, this added material is no great shakes, but what an odd choice for Lionsgate -- release the Director's Cut, don't promote it as such, and include no extras. Hey, don't ask me to explain it!
Unfortunately, I'm a member of the 'Crash' haters club. Granted, I didn't despise the film as much the second time around, but I still don't feel it deserves the acclaim it has received (and certainly not its Best Picture Oscar). But the film has its fans, so I'm enjoy. However, this initial Blu-ray release from Lionsgate is a disappointment. The transfer and soundtrack are fine given the limited source material, but the lack of extras is really lame. I hope the Blu-ray camp gets it together soon and realizes you gotta give us more than just a new transfer -- we want all the bells and whistles, or at least a supplemental package comparable to the standard DVD release. As is, this disc is a tough recommend given its premium $39.95 list price.