Halloween is finally here, and what horror releases do gore-hounds have to look forward to this week? The aptly named ‘Cannibal Taboo,’ three Echo Bridge direct-to-video messes (‘Cruel World,’ ‘The Final Patient,’ and ‘Mysterious Island,’), ‘Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter’-- a low-budget horror/comedy that tries way too hard -- and ‘Hell Ride,’ a ridiculous exploitation flick whose only ties to horror lies in a misleading title. By comparison, ‘Dead Space: Downfall’ is the only legitimate horror release hitting the market this week. But can a low-budget cartoon effectively fill such a gaping high-def horror vacuum?
For the non-gamers among you wondering where this direct-to-video release even came from, ‘Dead Space: Downfall’ is a feature-length, animated prequel to EA’s latest Xbox 360 and PS3 hit, the uber-creepy survival-horror actioner ‘Dead Space.’ This tie-in project introduces the volatile crew of the USG Ishimura, a mining ship that extracts massive amounts of ore from uninhabited planets. After a team of Ishimura scouts stumble upon an engraved monolith (dubbed the “Marker”), they return it to the ship and ignite debate amongst the crewmen -- some believe it to be a mystical, religious artifact, while others believe it’s a product of an ancient alien culture. Their arguments are short-lived, however. As people soon begin to lose their minds, commit suicide, and murder their colleagues, a parasitic organism overruns the ship, converting corpses into lumbering beasts. Now, a small band of survivors must attempt to stop the menace, retain their sanity, and decipher the origin and purpose of the Marker.
Honestly, I wasn’t expecting much from ‘Dead Space: Downfall.’ I thought it would be the sort of paper-thin bore a company like EA would concoct just to nab extra cash from gamers. Thankfully, that isn’t the case. Not only has its creators crafted a convincing universe that doesn’t always follow the usual A-to-B conventions of its genre, but they’ve injected a bit of cultural and societal commentary into the mix as well. With plenty of nods to films like ‘Alien,’ ‘Dawn of the Dead,’ ‘Event Horizon,’ and ‘The Thing,’ ‘Dead Space: Downfall’ is a blast to watch. The voice acting is solid (minus the brief work from a few supporting actors), the animation is much better than I thought it would be (especially once you get past the first five minutes which, admittedly, are choppy and problematic), and the overall tone and atmosphere is genuinely twisted. Granted, had the visuals been cloaked in deeper shadows, it would have increased the film’s scare factor but, like the game, the film prioritizes action and gore over chills and shivers.
Bias alert! Before you get excited by my praise and give any serious consideration to ‘Dead Space: Downfall,’ you should be aware that those who’ve played the ‘Dead Space’ videogame (like myself) will enjoy this animated project far more than anyone approaching it blind. Don’t get me wrong, I still think it’s a decent standalone flick, but its story may feel truncated and slightly clichéd to anyone who hasn’t dug through its source material. I imagine my score would probably be a half to full star lower if the animated film didn’t fill in the blanks, so to speak, of one of my favorite videogames of 2008. In fact, most of the criticism that has been leveled against the film (its focus on dismemberment, the underdeveloped religious war that nearly erupts on the ship, and minor elements like the status indicator on the engineers’ suits) perfectly tie into the videogame and will be a real treat for anyone who’s already explored every virtual inch of the Ishimura.
Ultimately, gamers should nab this unexpectedly cohesive and compelling release without hesitation, while non-gamers and adult animation aficionados alike should give it a rent before sinking cash into what’s essentially a companion piece to another story. Fans of ‘Dead Space’ will find a lot to love in ‘Downfall,’ but the uninitiated won’t be swayed so easily.
Crisp, clean, and faithful to the animators’ efforts, ‘Dead Space: Downfall’ boasts a 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer that offers fans an excellent technical rendering of the production. Colors are bold and vibrant, blacks are inky and nicely resolved, and contrast is strong. The animation itself occasionally leaves a lot to be desired, but compared to the film’s bland SD release, this BD edition delivers a staggering upgrade. Better still, the animated lineart is sharp and detailed, the various textures and background details scattered throughout the Ishimura are impressive, and the CG-enhanced elements of the film look fantastic. Finally, these detail aren’t marred by source noise, artifacting, or other intrusive digital clutter.
The only issue I had was one I have with the majority of animated features available on Blu-ray: color banding. While I’ve come to expect it, there’s nothing worse than seeing a pool of blood or beam of light divided into four or five separate distinct colors. Ah well. Animation fans will be happy with the transfer’s reliability, confidence, and technical strength.
Anchor Bay’s noteworthy Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround track also makes a fine addition to this release, especially considering the limited, low-budget nature of the film’s original sound design. Aside from a few negligible exceptions, dialogue is crystal clear, ambience is ever-present and immersive, and the various channels are kept quite busy with the crowds of attacking Necromorphs and the distant screams of their victims. Low-end LFE support isn’t as consistent as I would have hoped, but several effects (including the groaning plates of the Ishimura and the crumbling chunks of rock being pulled from the planet) pack some serious punch. On the technical front, channel pans are transparent, directionality is predictably loose but decent overall, and prioritization does a good job balancing the competing elements of the film’s soundscape.
’Dead Space: Downfall’ features an atmospheric surround track punctuated with bursts of chaotic activity. Had more time been invested in its design, this TrueHD experience would have been amazing. Still, factoring in the production budget and nature of the project makes its shortcomings easier to swallow.
Like the DVD, the Blu-ray edition of ‘Dead Space: Downfall’ is surprisingly short on supplements. No commentary, no documentaries about the animated film or the video game that inspired it, and no introduction to the voice cast or animators. Instead, we get an unsatisfying collection of minor supplements that amount to little.
I wouldn’t go so far as to call ‘Dead Space: Downfall’ a must-have release this Halloween, but I will say it took me by surprise. While those who’ve played the videogame will respond more to its story, newcomers shouldn’t skip it without at least sampling the goods. This Blu-ray edition features a technically proficient video transfer (that outshines its DVD counterpart), a notable TrueHD audio track, and a few supplements to round out the package. I do wish it had more special features but, in this gamer’s opinion, ‘Dead Space: Downfall’ is definitely worth a look.