When thinking of Stanley Kubrick's substantial oeuvre, a word that doesn't come to mind often is "funny." This is a mistake of course, as even his bleakest movies have at least a mischievous twinkle of humor (even 'Eyes Wide Shut' - just think about the film's closing line).
And for a time, Kubrick was out-and-out hilarious.
After getting chewed up and spit out by the Hollywood studio system with Kirk Douglas' 'Spartacus,' he made his goofball take on Nabokov's 'Lolita,' which costarred the very funny, very genius Peter Sellers. After toiling for a while on a straightforward adaptation of a nuclear age thriller called 'Red Alert,' he decided to go in a different direction, transposing the same framework to an all out black comedy.
The result was 1964's 'Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb,' a movie that really is nothing short of magic. It also marks the beginning of Kubrick's reign as one of cinema's all-time great artists - one that would stretch until his sudden death in 1999.
'Dr. Strangelove' is a cautionary comedy. From the brilliant title sequence, which juxtaposes planes refueling to, er, sex, we know what we're in for. A general (Sterling Hayden) orders a nuclear bomb to be dropped on Russia, and then locks himself in a room with a British captain (played by Peter Sellers). A bomber plane (populated by a very young James Earl Jones and a very cowboy Slim Pickens) sets off to Russia. Inside the Pentagon, a group of gruff white men (including an Air Force General played by fabulous George C. Scott and Peter Sellers, again, this time playing the President of the United States as well as, later, the titular Dr. Strangelove) try to sort out the fate of the world. Included in this discussion is a Russian ambassador, who soon lets loose that the Russians have a doomsday device, capable of wiping out all life on earth (as we learn in the special features, this seemingly far-fetched scenario was actually quite plausible).
This could have been a kind of white-knuckle thriller, and in a way, it still is. How far, will Kubrick go, exactly, in the pursuit of bleak, absurdist comedy? Will a bomb actually be dropped because a few knuckleheads couldn't communicate properly? By the time Peter Sellers shows up as a wheelchair-bound goose-stepper, the movie reaches a kind of stratospheric level of comedy that few movies ever attempt these days (an exception, of course, is the very 'Strangelove'-ian, very underrated Tim Burton comedy 'Mars Attacks!') Can you imagine studios that put out 'Confessions of a Shopaholic' or 'Ghosts of Girlfriends Past' ever setting a comedy on the razor's edge of thermonuclear war?
This could have been an absolute folly, but in the skilled and assured hands of young Stanley Kubrick, the movie absolutely soars. Part of this is due to the trust Kubrick places in his actors. Even though Peter Sellers is amazing in his multiple roles and should be commended, I must say that I am always wowed by George C. Scott's performance. His line delivery is positively heavenly.
The movie is also so gorgeously shot - and the sets so meticulously put together - that it gives a sense of reality to the situation. As outlandish as the situations or dialogue get, it feels like the truth. There's an anecdote in one of the documentaries on this disc that when Ronald Reagan took office, he asked where the White House's war room was. There wasn't a war room, they explained to the new president - that was just in 'Dr. Strangelove.' It shows you how provocative and powerful the film really was.
This 'Dr. Strangelove' Blu-ray has been embroiled in a "great grain debate" amongst some pretty prominent movie bloggers. (Of the Blu-ray controversies of this year, this ranks slightly louder than the 'Terminator 2: Judgment Day' digital noise reduction complaints but far quieter than the 'French Connection' fiasco.) Jeffrey Wells of Hollywood Elsewhere compared the look of the disc to that of a swarm of insects, while Glenn Kenny (former Premiere Magazine critic) defended it solidly.
While this disc is far from perfect-looking, I am going to side with Kenny on this one. Kubrick was a notorious grain-freak, going as far as to buy out the grainiest film stock there was (even as late as 'Eyes Wide Shut') and, as a high definition disc, everything is going to be exploded and clarified - even the grain. Overall, Sony's 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer does a great job presenting Kubrick's vision for a new generation.
The only time this is really noticeable is when someone's head takes up the entire frame. Then things do look a bit insect-y, but overall I was very impressed with this transfer. When things are shadowed, either partially or almost entirely, the movie looks gorgeous. Blacks are deep and inky and contrast is strong and well defined. Similarly, textures look dynamite, and detail really pops (the war room has never looked as swank and menacing as it does here).
That said, there are a couple of buggy technical issues that pop up occasionally - there are some odd artifacts and this transfer was not struck from the cleanliest or most well preserved print. The latter doesn't bother me quite as much, since I feel like seeing the occasional scratch or ding kind of adds to the magic of watching an old movie. Better than subjecting it to a processing treatment where every actor comes out the other side looking like a plastic mannequin. Now that would be atrocious.
Thank you Sony! They have packaged this 'Dr. Strangelove' disc with a pair of audio options, both of which are much appreciated. For those wanting the most out of your sound system buck, they have implemented a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track (which sounds very good - more on that in a minute), but for those wanting a pure experience (and perhaps those still gun shy about reworked 5.1 tracks after the 'Jaws' DVD a few years back) can listen to the original mono track.
Personally, I prefer the mono track. Even though, like the video, it isn't perfect or free from deterioration, it is very clear and strong and lively. The mono track adds a certain amount of time-accurate authenticity to the viewing experience. I was bowled over.
Those of you who opt for the more modernized 5.1 track won't be disappointed either, though. Unlike the aforementioned 'Jaws' track, which replaced all the sound effects and made it sound like a 'Jaws' from an alternate universe, this 'Dr. Strangelove' mix adds subtle but immersive atmospherics. Things are just as clean and clear as on the mono track, but with added rear-speaker support which didn't do a whole lot for me, but it's not exactly blasphemous either. (The core of each mix is similar given that this is a dialogue-heavy comedy.) Whatever audio option you choose should leave you happy.
In addition, Sony has packaged this with a French TrueHD 5.1 mix (sacrebleau!) as well as subtitles in English, English SDH, French, Arabic, and Dutch.
You won't see me mentioning the "previews" in this extras portion of the Blu-ray review because an oddball assortment of trailers, some of which have very little to do with the movie, is not an extra. It's a minus. It takes away from the experience, and since Sony is stressing so heavily that this is a truly unique, personal, high class movie viewing experience, the crass shilling doesn't do anything to reinforce their earlier point. What's even weirder is that the original 'Dr. Strangelove' trailer isn't here, even though in one of the documentaries everyone makes it a point to say how innovative the campaign was. (A gallery of the print campaign would have been nice too.)
Most of the extras on this disc are ported over from a pair of special editions previously released on DVD. However, it's nice to have them all under one roof, and there is a nice new HD special feature that is fairly impressive. It should also be noted that this disc is BD-Live enabled.
This, very easily, gets a Must Own stamp from me. An everlasting Gobstopper of a cautionary comedy, this movie really holds up just as well as it did during the time of its release (if not more). You have one of the all-time great directors, working at the top of his game, with a committed cast and beautiful camerawork. This disc is also top notch, with great audio and video and a fine collection of special features (plus a new, engrossing feature in HD!) It just doesn't get much better than this.