My how things change.
When I walked out of the theater after seeing Matthew Vaughn's 'Stardust,' way back in the summer of 2007, I thought it was utter trash. What was the point, exactly, I wondered, for having a movie as tonally confused as that was? At the time, I felt it was gaudy and overstuffed, and so all-over-the-place that it was hard to pin down, let alone enjoy.
Still: something stuck with me. And I rewatched it a few times since its initial theatrical run. The last time I watched it, with this high definition Blu-ray, I am ready to claim that it's one of the best fantasy movies of the past few years. This last time in particular, it really blew me away.
But the problems that I initially ran up against are still very much there and accounted for, but something happened within me. Either I loosened up, or the things that previously bugged me now ended up charming me.
Many of the movie's problems lie in its story, which seems to lean this way and that (it was based on a story by fantasy icon Neil Gaiman), without ever settling on a distinct tone or style. It begins with typical fantasy stuff: there's a town that is bordered by a wall. On the other side of that wall is a mystical realm very different from our own.
On the more terrestrial side of the wall Tristan (Charlie Cox) becomes enamored with a young lady (Sienna Miller), promising her the retrieval of a fallen star. On cue, a star does fall, but on the other side of the wall, so our hero is off on an adventure, over the wall into the magical realm and on a quest to retrieve a fallen star for his love.
Of course, things are considerably weirder in the magical realm, where a host of villains are after the fallen star – primarily there's a gleefully hammy Michelle Pfeiffer as an evil witch who wants to use the star's powers for her own vanity, and Mark Strong is an evil heir to the kingdom of the magical realm, who thinks that securing the star will also secure the throne.
And the big kink in Tristan's plan is that the star isn't really a star – it's a person! Namely, Claire Danes as Yvaine, sporting a questionable wig and an even more questionable English accent. So, with all of this crazy stuff going on, with magic and scheming and whatnot, there's a kind of romantic comedy core, a kind of fantastical 'Midnight Run,' where these two start off bickering and become quite fond of each other.
The movie never quite settles on a specific tone or style. One moment, it's this fierce, dark film with these royal brothers scheming against each other and slitting each others' throats (instead of red blood, Vaughn wisely replaces it with green) and in the next, it's a crazy steam-punk adventure with Robert De Niro showing up as a gay "lightning pirate" (don't ask) named Captain Shakespeare. But this is one of the film's charms. So much happens in every second of this movie – spells are cast, distracting cameos pop up (uhhh... Ricky Gervais?) – and everything happens so quickly that it requires more than one viewing to really even attempt to nail this down.
The chief sentiment that comes out from all of these viewings is the amazing audacity of the movie: it doesn't care if you can keep up with it, or that you're veering wildly from comedy to drama to horror and back again. Vaughn shoots the movie in a similarly assured way, with zooming, computer-assisted camera movements and a ratatat editorial style that keeps things moving. He rarely pauses for the kind of awe-inspiring grandeur shots that are such a crutch for fantasy directors (paging Peter Jackson). Vaughn created the rock'n'roll fantasy movie. No wonder I didn't get it at first.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Stardust' makes its long overdue Blu-ray debut thanks to Paramount Pictures. It's housed on a 50GB Blu-ray disc, which is Region A locked. The cover is kind of dopey, but that's okay.
This transfer is an absolutely gorgeous hallmark of the format and the fact that some out there are scoffing at its presentation is beyond me.
Everything is sharp when it needs to me (colors, textures, fine detail) and somewhat murkier when that is required, as well (like when a swirl of cast spells obscures some of the image). What was truly striking, to me, was the vibrancy of the colors and the almost three-dimensional depth of the image.
While the "lightning pirates" thing isn't one of my favorite stretches of the movie, seeing a steampunk dirigible zooming through the sky, on this Blu-ray, is a striking event. What's more – the many visual effects seem to be enriched by the upgrade to high definition, which is often not the case (Blu-ray often has the effect of bringing out the phoniness in most special effects). It's just a jaw-droppingly opulent visual experience, one that I'm sure to find myself revisiting often.
What's interesting is that the almost crystalline clarity of the image never betrays its ultimate film-like qualities. There's a fine coating of grain on the image that makes it look like something that ran through a film projector at some point in the not-too-distant past, but it's free of any tell-tale sign of film damage (there's no debris or any other gunk). Additionally, it has survived the high definition conversion process without any technical glitches – no aliasing or macro-blocking and, thank the lord, no digital noise reduction, either.
It's sometimes hard to articulate why a certain transfer of a certain film strikes you in the way that it does. This isn't the case of a Pixar movie where you can just say "it's perfect" and move on. There is real depth and richness here that deserves that you just watch it, without the cold "perfection" of some computer generated movie. It looks like a film. It feels like a film. And it is just gorgeous.
Thankfully, as impressive as the video presentation is, the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sound mix is just as spectacular. I mean it: this is a reference quality mix, because it really mirrors the experience of the movie. What I mean by that is that the film starts out with a relatively toned down mix, with few atmospheric flourishes or uses of the surround channels. But as the movie progresses, and things become wackier and more oversized, the mix pumps it up accordingly.
In short: this mix sounds amazing. There's a great sequence about halfway through the movie where all of our characters come together in this little inn. The entire sequence culminates in the inn catching fire (or transforming or something), with racing jets of green flame, characters escaping by magical means, and all sorts of complicated wizardry. This is rendered so vividly that you'll think you were there in the middle of the maelstrom and it's a high water mark that's matched and exceeded by later sequences in the film (like the final showdown).
This is reference quality stuff, where all of the bases are covered (things like surround sound support, clear and crisp dialogue) but that it takes things to a whole new level. This is a reference quality mix if there ever was one, and stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the pristine video presentation.
All of the extras on this disc were also presented on the DVD way-back-when. Nowadays, if a movie is a financial and critical failure they would dump it on DVD or Blu-ray with very few extras. But at the time, it looked like 'Stardust' could have been a big summertime blockbuster, so all of these extras were prepared. And then it bombed. But we still got a great disc! And it's all reproduced here! Woo!
As far as I'm concerned, 'Stardust' is a new classic. Of course, I didn't feel this way initially (so if you don't feel the way, that's fine too). But repeated viewings have exposed 'Stardust' for what it is – a bold, ambitious, totally brilliant fantasy film that in many ways pushes the genre and its format into altogether uncomfortable territories. Sure, there are some missteps along the way, some tonal and stylistic inconsistencies, and it's way too long. But it's also so awesome and fun and great. And there's no better way to watch the film than on this Blu-ray – it's got reference-quality audio and video, and a fine collection of extras, anchored by an illuminating commentary track and long-ass documentary. 'Stardust' is pretty magical.