The launches of Blu-ray and HD DVD have been frustrating in more ways than one, thanks to numerous hardware delays, wavering studio alliances and spotty software support. But perhaps most vexing for early adopters has been the inability to compare the two formats via a direct, head-to-head comparison using the same movie title. Until now. With the release on Tuesday, August 1 of 'Training Day' on Blu-ray (along with two other titles -- 'Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,' 'Rumor Has It...') Warner Home Video has become the the first studio to unleash discs on both formats -- all three were released on HD DVD last month.
So it is with much glee and anticipation that we sat down for our first Blu-ray versus HD DVD test drive. We picked 'Training Day' to kick things off, and to see how well the Blu-ray version stacks up against its HD DVD rival. How would the two formats compare in terms of video and audio quality? Menu navigation? Breadth of supplemental content? The results were sometimes significant -- and surprising -- as the thorough once-over we've given the Blu-ray disc below illustrates. But first, a quick review of 'Training Day,' the film...
For me, the cop drama has always been the close sibling of the military movie. They may arm themselves with different artillery, and borrow from different cinematic traditions, but it's still all about "To Serve and Protect." I think American culture drills into our heads the idea that the highest form of service one can perform in life is for their country. It doesn't matter if it is on the front lines of combat in a foreign country, or the front lines of Anytown, U.S.A. -- cops and soldiers are our Greatest American Heroes, and you better bow appropriately when they march by.
However, because America is also a nation of contradictory impulses, we need to knock down what we place so high up on a pedestal -- that which we worship we also want to see fall from grace. (It makes us feel better about our own failings, at least.) Perhaps that is why it is difficult to recall a cop movie made in the last twenty years that doesn't somehow deal with police corruption. In fact -- and this is an entirely informal survey -- I'm hard-pressed to name a single modern cop flick that didn't revel in the seamy underbelly of life behind the badge. According to the movie universe, law enforcement is a noble profession, but it is also an ugly one -- and no archetype is beloved more by filmmakers than the Big Bad Dirty Cop.
'Training Day' is probably the most successful example of the Big Bad Dirty Cop movie from the past couple of decades. It was a pretty big hit at the box office back in 2001, it earned generally positive critical notices and even scored some Oscar gold, with a Best Supporting Actor nom for Ethan Hawke and a Best Actor win for Denzel Washington. The plot is pretty straightforward. Hawke is rookie charge Jake, whose "training day" sees him assigned to ride with Washington's Alonzo, a hardened cop so crazy and crooked he'd eat Dirty Harry for breakfast. Alonzo breaks just about every rule in the book of Internal Affairs: making Jake smoke crack in his first ten minutes on the job, shooting fellow cops if it suits his needs, and spouting kooky cop platitudes all along the way. Though you're never quite sure if he's supposed to be funny or not, this is a guy you don't want to fuck with.
I find it somewhat odd that Hawke landed the Best Supporting Actor Oscar nom while Washington took home the Best Actor trophy -- not because Washington doesn't nail the role perfectly, but because Hawke is actually the film's main character and has the most screen time. Technicalities aside, Washington is 'Training Day,' and the film would have been completely ridiculous if his performance didn't work. His Alonzo is the ultimate Big Bad Dirty Cop -- just unhinged enough to be appropriately larger-than-life (near mythic, even) but not so over-the-top as to become a caricature. Sorry for the cliche, but Washington totally rips it up.
Too bad, then, that for me the film ultimately lets Washington down, with a script that abandons his character in a third act so ludicrous I was left genuinely incredulous. I won't ruin any of the plot "twists" (which I found fairly obvious anyway), but suffice to say all the challenging moral questions the film initially poses are not only never answered, but are betrayed by a needlessly upbeat ending that recycles the climax of a million other standard action thrillers. 'Training Day' works in its first two-thirds because it dramatizes a reality where the line between good and bad is wafer-thin, and the moral choices Jake must make are not clear-cut. There is no one right course of action, no one obvious way out, no one simple solution. But the screenplay throws that away with a neat and tidy wrap-up that meshes poorly with the ambiguous and gritty reality the film (and its cast) strove so hard to create. The world view of 'Training Day' says the bad cops are not always punished, and the good ones must make compromises and work within the system if they are to weed out corruption. The conclusion seems to suggest exactly the opposite.
Still, 'Training Day' is worth seeing, not only for the performances by Washington and Hawke, but because for at least most of its runtime, it is an engaging thriller. Antoine Fuqua directs with attitude to spare, so the film coasts along on its energy alone. It's not enough to surmount the film's disappointing finale, but for its first two-thirds or so, 'Training Day' is a pretty suspenseful, thrilling ride.
'Training Day' on Blu-ray has a lot to live up to. Had this title been released on the format before it hit HD DVD, it likely would not have come under nearly as much scrutiny. Videophiles have been waiting with bated breath to see not only if 'Training Day' looks great on Blu-ray, but if it tops or at least equals its rival. Surprisingly, the differences between the two versions is substantial in more ways than one -- and unfortunately for the Blu-ray camp, though it is quite a close race, it ultimately doesn't go Blu-ray's way.
But first, a note on this comparison. I hooked up both my Toshiba HD-XA1 HD DVD player and Samsung BD-P1000 Blu-ray player to my HP Pavilion reference HDTV via its two HDMI inputs. Note, however, that the first-generation Toshiba HD DVD decks are not capable of outputting native 1080p signals (unlike the Samsung), so it was up to the HP's internal processing to upconvert the Toshiba's 1080i signal to 1080p. Also, given the Samsung's much-publicized problems with its HDMI output (due to a reported faulty noise reduction chip that results in a degraded signal via the deck's HDMI out -- Samsung is planning to correct the problem on future shipments as well as issue a firmware upgrade sometime this Fall), I also compared both the Toshiba and the Samsung via component out to ensure the most fair comparison possible between the two discs.
To assess picture quality, I did comparisons of three complete scenes on both discs, one after the other, simply by switching between my set's two inputs. I also compared a dozen individual still images, by pausing each deck on identical still frames and switching back and forth. The picture quality differences between the two transfers is often quite apparent. For example, during the very first shot of the film -- a zoom in on a red-hot, rising sun -- there was some posterization was visible on the Blu-ray, with the banding of colors obvious as the picture faded in. Looking closely at the HD DVD I could also spot some posterization, but it was not nearly as severe. These type of compression artifacts continued throughout both transfers, and I noticed about three or four shots on the Blu-ray with more polarization on backgrounds or during fades/dissolves, which were either not there on the HD DVD, or greatly lessened. So score one for HD DVD's VC-1 compression codec over the MPEG-2 scheme used for Blu-ray -- at least until that format's larger-capacity BD-50 dual layer discs become commercially viable.
Another difference between 'Training Day' on the two formats is that the Blu-ray transfer looks darker. Right from the opening scene when Ethan Hawke wakes up in his bed, the HD DVD exhibits an obvious (if far from extreme) brighter look. However, black levels looked comparable -- the HD DVD did not seem washed out versus the Blu-ray. And while the Blu-ray image still looks detailed, shadow delineation does appear a bit less impressive in the darkest scenes. Fall-off to black is a bit sharper on the Blu-ray, which is to be expected given its darker cast. Conversely, colors can appear slightly more vivid on the Blu-ray at first glance, though the actual saturation of colors appears equal on both. It is not that the HD DVD looks washed out, but the darker appearance of the Blu-ray transfer can make hues seem a bit more deep by comparison. However, it is quite possible that these differences could stem from the aforementioned problems with the Samsung, and not at all a result of any deficiencies with the software. Indeed, we look forward to reassessing 'Training Day' again with a second-generation Blu-ray player.
In all other areas, the two transfers are comparable. The sense of depth and detail of both formats can be terrific. While the brighter HD DVD is more consistent, especially on the darker scenes, the Blu-ray is no slouch. Indeed, anyone sitting down with either disc would, during a casual viewing, be quite impressed by either. But a head-to-head comparison is all about the small things, and given the aspect ratio issue with the Blu-ray disc, plus the compression artifacts and slightly darker cast, I have to give this first face off to HD DVD.
(Note: When I originally compared 'Training Day' on Blu-ray versus HD DVD, I found one noticeable difference between the two transfers I wasn't expecting. Both the Blu-ray and HD DVD are labeled on the back of their respective packages as being presented in the same aspect ratio, but the Blu-ray seemed to exhibit some noticeable cropping on the sides of the picture. Though the total screen area of the bottom letterbox bar was the same on both discs, the total screen area on the top letterbox bar was visibly smaller on the Blu-ray. A physical measurement off of my 65" monitor showed the top letterbox bar is reduced by a good one and a quarter inches on the Blu-ray. Meaning that the picture has either been reframed for the Blu-ray during the telecine process, or the Samsung is outputting a signal that slightly blows up the image.
However, since that first comparison, I have been able to reassess 'Training Day' again using two different monitors, a Panasonic plasma as well as a Toshiba RPTV. Oddly, I did not notice the cropping issue using the Samsung's HDMI output on either monitor, nor on the Panasonic via its Component input. However, the cropping did pop up yet again on the Toshiba via Component. Subsequently, I also received additional independent evaluations from both Warner and Sony, and there appears to be no difference in aspect ratio between the Blu-ray and HD DVD versions of 'Training Day.'
Hence, it is seems apparent that whatever is potentially causing this cropping problem is entirely hardware-specific, and not a result of a problem with the encoding of the disc itself. Unfortunately, repeated requests to Samsung for assistance in figuring out if a flaw or bug in their player may be the root cause of this problem have not been returned. Watch this space for updates once we are able to get to the bottom of this issue.)
The HD DVD release of 'Training Day' was only the second on the format to include a TrueHD Dolby Digital track (after another Warner title, 'Phantom of the Opera'). Unfortunately, due to disc space limitations, Warner has elected to drop the track altogether on the Blu-ray release. Also note that although the HD DVD release of 'Good Night, and Good Luck' presents the film in Dolby Digital-Plus, the Blu-ray spec also does not require the use of the format except when a track goes beyond 5.1 channels, i.e., 6.1 or 7.1 soundtracks. The actual bitrate of the Dolby Digital track on this Blu-ray version is thus identical to the Dolby Digital-Plus track on the HD DVD, approximately 640kbps.
As expected, 'Training Day's sound mix has a lot going on. Gunfire, explosions, a driving score and a hip-hop song or two -- it's all very precisely rendered. Dynamic range is excellent, with very defined and tight low bass and mid-range, and clear, distinct highs with little harshness. The soundfield is more open in the rears, with plenty of ricocheting bullets bouncing around all five speakers, with imaging from the front to back channels sounding more natural and transparent. Low bass is also very tight, delivering consistent deep frequencies.
At least here's one area where the Blu-ray and HD DVD are equals. Well, almost. Warner has included all of the same extras on both releases of 'Training Day,' and it is a solid collection of goodies. However, here there are a few differences between the menu navigation systems of both formats that once again tip the scales in favor of HD DVD. More on that at the end of this section...
First up is the most informative of the supplements, a screen-specific audio commentary by director Antoine Fuqua. As expected, he heaps tons of praise on his stars, particularly Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke (but also his great supporting cast, including Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg and a hilarious Macy Gray). But he also has plenty of on-set tidbits to share, and some technical minuate, but overall it is a pretty informative look at the making of the movie. Unfortunately, because it is a solo track, Fuqua has to carry the whole thing on his shoulders so a few slow patches mar an otherwise engaging commentary.
Unfortunately, the video-based extras are rather wanting. Sure, the twelve minutes of deleted scenes are pretty good (not essential, but not entirely throwaway either) and the four-minute alternate ending worth a watch, though like most of these things it is more an extended coda than radically different than what's seen in the finished film. But the rest of the goodies are total promo fluff. The 15-minute "HBO First Look Special" is your usual assemblage of EPK interviews, with everyone singing the praises of a movie no one has seen yet. There is little to learn here, so stick to the commentary instead.
Rounding out the package are two music videos, “#1” by Nelly and “Got You” by Pharoahe Monch, plus the film's theatrical trailer. All the video-based extras are presented in 4:3 pillarboxed video encoded at 480i, except the trailer, which is presented in 2.40:1 widescreen.
Now, about that Blu-ray menu navigation system. While much ink has been spilled on the slow-as-molasses start up times of Toshiba's first-gen HD DVD players, I'm surprised no one has mentioned Blu-ray's atrocious menu access times. The Blu-ray may boot up a disc quicker, but with every single Blu-ray disc I've played (Warner or otherwise), clicking between menu options is not only slower than HD DVD, but also even standard DVD. Even simple functions like selecting a submenu or accessing a scene are accompanied by a little icon I call the "hourglass of doom." This symbol will pop up for as long as two or three seconds and the disc's menu animation will stall as the deck access the next chunk of information off the disc. What gives? Even on a standard DVD you can click between submenus almost seamlessly. Quite frankly, with Blu-ray, I feel like I'm playing an old PlayStation 2 game, not cruising around a next-gen high-def disc seamlessly.
That major gripe out of the way, also notable about Warner's Blu-ray releases is that the studio has decided to drop the interactive features that are standard on its HD DVD discs. You cannot bookmark your favorite scenes on Blu-ray like you can on HD DVD, and also gone is the ability to zoom in and pan over an image. Why Warner has dropped these cool if admittedly rarely-used functions I do not know. Otherwise, the navigation system on Warner's Blu-ray discs is the same as its HD DVD counterparts -- no main menu, just an overlay with Scene Selection, Settings, Special Features, etc., that you can toggle on and off in real-time during playback.
Whatever its merits as a film, 'Training Day' has made history by becoming one of the first titles to be released on both the Blu-ray and HD DVD formats. In our first head-to-head comparison, we found the HD DVD to be superior, but only slightly. We noticed a few noticeable compression artifacts and an overall darker cast on the Blu-ray, leaving the HD DVD presentation to be more consistently pleasing. However, Blu-ray hardware is still only first generation, so these deficits could be improved or even null and void as better players hit the market. However, one hardware-agnostic strike against the Blu-ray version of 'Training Day' is that the Dolby TrueHD soundtrack have been dropped completely, and even the disc's menu navigation is more clunky and with less interactive functionality. Certainly, this Blu-ray release delivers fine video quality in its own right, but the format's backers will need to step it up some if they are going to win the hearts and minds of early adopters in the battle versus HD DVD.