This latest round of releases from Warner mark a significant change in the studio's approach to Blu-ray, because with the exception of 'Full Metal Jacket,' Warner has switched from using the MPEG-2 compression codec to VC-1, which the studio has been using from the start on its counterpart HD DVD releases.
Since each of these movies have previously been released on HD DVD, as we did with Warner's first wave Blu-ray releases, our reviews of these titles will pay particular attention to how the two formats compare.
For a more in-depth look at the state of the format war following the release of these four titles from Warner, check out our feature article, "Blu-ray vs. HD DVD: Round Two -- The Next Dimension?."
As I wrote in my recent HD DVD review of 'Jarhead', it seems there are two kinds of war movies -- those that rub our noses in the grisly reality of combat ('Saving Private Ryan,' 'Platoon') and those that examine everything else around it, whether soldiers suffering the dehumanizing effects of boot camp or the cost of war on those back home ('Tigerland,' 'Gardens of Stone'). So leave it to Stanley Kubrick to again flout convention and fuse the two together in his 1987 Vietnam war movie, 'Full Metal Jacket.' Essentially a two-act play, it's a flawed would-be epic often as frustrating in its incongruity as it is fascinating in its complexity.
I prefer Act One. Meet Gomer (Vincent D'Onofrio), perhaps the most lovable slob of a grunt in movie history -- though of course, since this is a Kubrick film, boot camp won't go so well for poor Gomer. Relentlessly tormented by his fellow soldiers and "leatherlung" drill instructor (R. Lee Ermey, in a performance that became an instant classic), he's always one step away from mental and physical collapse -- and madness. I won't spoil the first act climax (and it's a good one), only to say that his Jack Torrance-esque disintegration will be internalized by Joker (Matthew Modine) who, as Act Two begins, is plunged into the heart and hell of war. Assigned to the front lines of battle as a combat journalist, Joker will attempt to remove himself from the depersonalized mass atrocities he witnesses through the safety of his pen -- until the realities are too ugly to ignore, and his own descent into violence unavoidable.
I know I am not the first viewer to say as much, but 'Full Metal Jacket' leaves me split right down the middle, just like its structure. (I'm sure Kubrick loved reactions like that.) It is just impossible not to take sides, and I found myself far more drawn in by the first half. The plight of poor Gomer (D'Onofrio is terrific, by the way) is often mesmerizing, and is perfectly suited to Kubrick's cold, austere visual style. Kubrick has never been a particularly warm filmmaker, but here he found a perfect thematic foil for his perfectionism -- the military's systemic and unforgiving process of dehumanization, one solider at a time. Kubrick's methodical pace and completely unsentimental worldview rips Gomer literally and figuratively apart, and is an apt microcosm for brutal toll war takes on the human soul. Combined with director of photography Douglas Milsome's sterile visuals and a droning, unsettling score by Vivian Kubrick, the first half of 'Jacket' is its own mini-masterpiece.
Unfortunately, Act Two feels more or less generic, not a facsimile but far too similar to other, better war movies to stand on its own. Part of the problem is that Joker (though Modine gives an earnest, admirable performance) is simply less riveting an antagonist than Gomer. (It is also worth saying that once Ermey leaves the scene, the film never quite recovers from his absence.) Kubrick also seems to be restating the same themes he already so breathtakingly depicted in Act One -- it almost feels like a restaging of the same core concept, only refashioned out of war movie cliches (the grunts, the sniper, the injured screaming and dying all around). I also never felt that Kubrick quite knew how to stage the action, especially the climax, which is too much an exercise in existentialism to be really gripping as a visceral experience.
But make no mistake, all of 'Full Metal Jacket' is still well worth seeing. The second half may not measure up to such a powerful first 45 minutes, but in many ways the film's contrasts and jarring inconsistencies is what still makes it so intriguing almost twenty years later. Flawed, to be sure. But then leave it to Kubrick to make one of the most challenging, unconventionally conventional war movies ever made.
As I wrote in my original review of 'Full Metal Jacket' on HD DVD, I've never been all that impressed with the visual look of the film. I always thought it was a rather ugly, drab movie, one lacking in any bravura sense of style, and hampered by a very soft, flat look. Unfortunately, this new Blu-ray release doesn't do much to reverse my opinion, as it is on par with the HD DVD version. However, 'Full Metal Jacket' on Blu-ray is noteworthy, because it is the last title Warner is producing on Blu-ray using MPEG-2 (at least for now). But regardless of codec, 'Full Metal Jacket' is down there with the least favorite transfers I've seen on either next-gen format.
But first, a note on this comparison. For this second wave of Warner Blu-ray reviews, I again hooked up my Toshiba HD DVD and Samsung Blu-ray players to our reference HD monitor (the Toshiba via 1080i, the Samsung via 1080p, per what each player current supports) using both HDMI and component outputs. This time, however, I mixed up the comparison in two ways. First, I used an outboard video switcher to route the signals, to avoid the cropping issues I previously experienced with the Samsung when I reviewed the first batch of Warner releases. Second, and more importantly, I forced a friend of mine (who owed me some big time payback) to come over and orchestrate a "blind" viewing test. He'd flick the switcher between the Blu-ray and HD DVD signals, and not tell me which was which. Sneaky, huh?
The result was a noticeable change from the first batch of Blu-ray titles I reviewed. Any differences between the Blu-ray and the HD DVD were just about nonexistent. Aside from a slightly darker cast on the Blu-ray, just as I noticed on my first round of Blu-ray versus HD DVD comparisons -- though it is so minor here that it could just as easily be attributable to slight discrepancies in connections or the hardware -- I would say the Blu-ray and the HD DVD are siamese twins. I highly suspect that any differences one might find noticeable are entirely hardware-specific, and not really inherent in the software.
That said, my biggest problems with 'Full Metal Jacket' master are the softness of the image and the wonky fleshtones. The image looks just as off on Blu-ray as it did on the HD DVD. I don't know what Kubrick intended, so I'm only guessing here, but how come in some scenes everyone looks rather reddish, like a pig? Skintones are frequently unnatural, as if the tint setting on my TV was wrong. The image is also very soft, lacking in sharpness and depth. Detail is generally weak, and hardly superior to even an average DVD transfer.
To be fair, 'Full Metal Jacket' is nearly twenty years old, and was made before the era when CGI took over and made every movie look plastic and perfect. And there are some sequences that impress -- a few of the sunset exteriors during the initial boot camp training sequences boast more vibrant colors, and the film's second half sometimes makes bold use of deep nighttime blues. I also appreciated that fine background details are more apparent on this Blu-ray release. Still, this disc is far from the one you're going to pull out to showcase your home theater setup.
Unlike the HD DVD release of 'Full Metal Jacket,' which contained a Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 Surround track, the Blu-ray version is presented in standard Dolby Digital. But remember that both are encoded at the exact same bitrate of 640kbps, and the Blu-ray format doesn't require the use of Dolby Digital-Plus anyway, except for recordings that utilize more than six channels (such as a 6.1 or 7.1 mix). And just as with the HD DVD release, the audio for 'Full Metal Jacket' is similar to the video -- not a huge improvement over past video versions. Not helping matters is that this film was made almost twenty years ago, and Kubrick has never been a big exploiter of fanciful surround sound in the first place.
The mix is almost entirely front-heavy, especially the first half. Dialogue is well-recorded for a 1987 film, but the technology limitations of the time still come through in the lack of heft to the frequency range. Highs and lows just aren't there to any discernible degree, with that flat, dull sound typical of soundtracks of this era. Kubrick's use of songs on the soundtrack are also weakly rendered, barely sounding like they have been remixed for stereo. I also never sense much in the way of dynamics to the soundtrack, and the Dolby Digital-Plus track does little to help flesh out the sound compared to the standard DVD release.
The only time the soundtrack comes alive at all is during the battle scenes during the film's second half. There are occasional instances of effective surround use, and some interesting atmospheric trickery with Vivian Kubrick's atonal score. Still, it all sounds rather dated -- movement of sounds from channel to channel is pretty obvious, and I never felt truly engulfed in the action. Certainly, this is a far cry from 'Saving Private Ryan' -- but I really didn't expect much anyway.
As with its HD DVD counterpart, all of the extra features from the previous DVD release of 'Full Metal Jacket' have been ported over for the Blu-ray version, but that's a disappointment -- because there really weren't any. Okay, sure, there is the film's original theatrical teaser trailer (which is shockingly lousy at selling the film) presented in 4:3 fullscreen, 480p video and mono, but that's it.
Though Warner has recently announced it will be reissuing four Kubrick classics as new two-disc special editions later this year -- including '2001,' 'Clockwork Orange,' 'The Shining' and an unrated 'Eyes Wide Shut' -- 'Full Metal Jacket' is not one of them. Hopefully someday we'll get a full-fledged special edition of the film, but in the meantime, this will have to do.
I think 'Full Metal Jacket' is far from perfect, and not one of Stanley Kubrick's best films. I also wasn't as sold on the film's second half as the first, but even if you are only a casual Kubrick fan, the first half of 'Full Metal Jacket' still makes it a must see. As for this new Blu-ray release, it doesn't offer much of an upgrade over the standard DVD, let alone the HD DVD -- in fact, they look and sound exactly the same. So regardless of what format you own, I'd only buy this one only if you don't already have the standard DVD release.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.