The Criterion Collection upgrades Michael Radford's timely adaptation of George Orwell's 1984 for its second outing on Blu-ray with a fresh new 4K restoration, two impressive audio mixes, and a slew of terrific bonus features. The film is a worthwhile adaptation that may not completely hit every moment for moment of the book, but it's a bleak vision made beautiful by Rodger Deakins' cinematography and incredible performances from John Hurt, Richard Burton, and Suzanna Hamilton. Even if you own the previous Twilight Time release, call this one Highly Recommended.
"If you want a vision of the future, Winston, imagine a boot stamping on a human face - forever."
Oceana is the last thriving civilization of the world. The Party is the law, and the party is never wrong rewriting history and depicting world events to meet its vision. Anyone not in line with The Party and supreme leader Big Brother undergoes harsh reeducation - or are eliminated from all historical record. The day he started keeping a secret journal, Winston Smith (John Hurt) was guilty of Oceana's most serious crime - Thoughtcrime. When he begins a forbidden affair with the free-thinking Julia (Suzanna Hamilton), he becomes a target for Inner Party member O'Brien (Richard Burton) and the Thought Police.
Our own Josh Zyber did a great review of the 2015 Twilight Time release on the Off the Shelf blog that you absolutely should check out.
I tend to give movies a lot of leeway when it comes to adapting books and comics. Some stories are naturally cinematic and are easy to deliver to the screen. Others are a bit more esoteric providing great visual potential but difficult to crack characters who live in their heads. I appreciate that Michael Radford went for the middle-line approach with this adaptation of 1984. On one hand, we get to explore Winston's world as a censor literally rewriting history one page at a time. We see how he interacts with others - amiable, agreeing, and even helpful. But then we get to explore his dilapidated home where he fritters away his time lost in thought about a better world that he records in his secret journal as a view screen watches over everything and hears all. It's not a fast-paced action sci-fi extravaganza, it's slow and deliberate. The idea of dramatic revolution isn't a crowd of people armed with guns but a single individual who thinks differently.
Through it all, John Hurt delivers one in a long line of memorable performances. After seeing this film, it's nearly impossible to see anyone else filling out Winston as a flesh and blood individual. Like the novel, Winston doesn't say much. He's a thinker, someone who constantly observes the world around him. The novel gave us insights to those thoughts, but wisely Radford let Hurt use his naturally expressive face to do the heavy lifting opting for voice over only when he's recording his thoughtcrimes in his journal. There is a terrific balance between the visual and character exploration that makes this adaptation a resounding success.
Part of what makes 1984 so impactful is how you can constantly keep applying and reapplying the allegories to contemporary society. It's also a-political, whichever side of an issue you rest on, you can take pieces of Orwell's dystopia and apply them. That's the thing I love about this story - it's a baseline. It's a novel that in some way everyone can relate to or take a piece from and say: "Hey this is how I see this happing in my life today." It should be a conversation starter for people to come together and examine everything around them and to start figuring out how to prevent that nightmare world from ever actually happening. I've read the book about half a dozen times and I've seen this movie about that many and every time I make a round with either I come away with a new little insight in the world around me.
I'm not going to dig into the politics of censorship or ideological indoctrination. You can do that for yourself. This viewing I came away more interested in how the story applies to the technology we have today and how it is being or can be manipulated. When I take off my movie reviewer hat and actually go to "work," day-to-day I'm in internet marketing. Working even in my limited capacity behind that curtain is fascinating and even a little bit scary. I work in the content creation side of things and keyword optimization is a big part of that. Some of the keywords we have to write for look terrible written out and read like grammatical gobbledygook but we have to use them. We have to use them because that's how people talk. More and more people are using voice search through devices that are always listening and monitoring what we do every day so we have to create content that services that. These devices are in our pockets or nestled on our nightstands where they can be easily accessible - but they're always paying attention to what we're saying, reading, and buying. It's already a semi-creepy idea, but it's even creepier when you apply it to this film and how little actual privacy we enjoy today. That was my takeaway from this most recent viewing of Michael Radford's 1984. I'm curious to hear of other people's feelings about Orwell's story and this film.
Vital Disc Stats: The Criterion Blu-ray
1984 arrives on Blu-ray for the second time, this round courtesy of The Criterion Collection. Pressed onto a Region A BD50 disc, the disc is housed in a standard clear case with the fitting number of 984 on the spine. Also included is a poster-booklet insert featuring cast information, restoration information, as well as the essay "Coming Soon to a Country Near You" by A.L. Kennedy. The disc loads to a static image main menu with Criterion's traditional navigation menu structure. There are two different audio mixes for you to choose from with music by Eurythmics or the original score Dominic Muldowney.
1984 proves to be a bit of a visual curiosity. When Radford and his cinematographer Rodger Deakins went to shoot the film they wanted to make it in black and white, but the studio balked. So, they shot it in color - but release prints underwent a bleach bypass to give the image a devastated desaturated appearance. Because this process wasn't applied to the original negative, that's why there are some full-color home video releases out there - and they look weird. For a time VUDU had the full-color version, but I don't know if it's still available. For the 2015 release, the desaturated effect was accomplished digitally, and again for this version. This is not the same transfer as the one pressed for Twilight Time's Blu-ray.
For Criterion's release, they went back to the well. After a full 4K restoration supervised by Deakins, nicks and scratches were removed and the "bleaching" effect was also fully supervised by Deakins. Just in the terms of relative details and image quality, this new transfer easily outpaces Twilight Time's already impressive 2015 disc. You can see more facial features, skin pigmentation, details in the clothing, and the intricate set design work. Grain structure feels a bit more prominent but gives the image a nice film-like appearance. I would also say black levels and contrast are much better handled here than before.
On the front of the bleaching desaturation effect, the color tones are a bit cooler, steely with reds dipping further into maroon. This isn't a full teal/cyan orange push or anything like that. It's just a cooler looking image that gives the visuals an even more stark and oppressive vibrancy. Skin tones look much pastier and look appropriately sickly for a society that's given the bare minimum to survive on. To that end, it'd rather difficult to discuss color saturation when the image has been so purposefully manipulated. The uniform blue jumpsuits everyone wears still pop nicely but other colors are appropriately muted. Later in the film when Winston is being tortured, greens have a much stronger presence than the 2015 release where pasty whites and blues would dominate.
With the new restoration effort, I'm happy to report that speckling isn't an issue anymore as this is the cleanest I've seen this film. Some instances of frame wobble have also been taken care of. Black levels are delightfully inky with bleak shadow gradience that constantly makes you feel like someone is always watching in the dark corners someplace. Whites are well balanced, scenes like when Winston does his forced "workout" routine in front of his windows, the light doesn't bloom quite so heavily. All around this is a bleakly beautiful looking image that showcases Deakins' amazing abilities as a shooter and brings this horrifying world to life.
Just like the 2015 Twilight Time release, we get two different audio tracks with different scores. The first is the traditional theatrical score featuring Eurythmics the second is the full Dominic Muldowney score that was originally intended for the film. Personally, I like the Eurythmics score for the music, it's great to just listen to on its own, but it doesn't 100% fit the film it was forcibly sandwiched into by the studio. Tonally, it's a bit too 80s synth for its own good. On the film, Muldowney's score is a more natural sound that keeps a lower dissonant tone to the film but doesn't fill up the movie with music. There are long patches of silence that provide much more natural atmosphere.
As for the quality of these LPCM Mono tracks, I was impressed with Twilight Time's DTS-HD MA 1.0 tracks, but these LPCM mixes get the edge. There is much more power and oomph with these tracks than before. The opening propaganda video is a particular note where the crowd voices and the booming audio of the loudspeaker really punch and rumble more than before. Dialogue clarity is spot on. Sound effects, even in the limited capacity of the mono mix find a nice resonate tone to give the mix some atmosphere and depth. Clean of any distortion or hiss, these are two fine audio tracks - you'll just have to decide which kind of movie music you like best!
For the bonus features package, 1984 is blessed with quality instead of quantity. The new interview footage was great - especially the stuff covered by Radford and Deakins, but I would have loved to hear a new audio commentary with the pair. Sadly, we don't get the isolated score track from the Twilight Time release.
NEW Michael Radford on 1984 (HD 22:11)
NEW Rodger Deakins on 1984 (HD 20:24)
NEW From Page to Sceen George Orwell's 1984 (HD 21:24)
Behind the Scenes 1984 (SD 4:42)
Trailer (HD 2:20) Honestly this is a pretty terrible trailer, but it gives you a look at how the film appeared with full color. It's so damned 80s and not at all like the main film itself.
George Orwell's 1984 is one of those rare perfect allegories that remains timeless -- what could have been applied to fifty years ago can be reexamined and applied to today. Michael Radford did the near-impossible by delivering a rock-solid adaptation of the material. I don't call it perfect, some notes are a bit too thick, but overall it's very, very good - and scary. I love the cast of this film. While John Hurt was an exceptional Winston, Richard Burton in his final screen performance owns O'Brien as a true cinematic villain so evil in what he does he believes in his own innocence. It's a hell of a film - and depending on the soundtrack you choose you may have a different reaction to it!
The Criterion Collection gives 1984 a fitting upgrade for the film's second outing on Blu-ray. Not to say that the original Twilight Time release in 2015 was bad, it was quite excellent, but this is a much better release simply because of the restoration work and the in-depth interviews rounding out the bonus features. Whether or not you previously owned the Twilight Time release, The Criterion Collection edition of 1984 is an easy one to call Highly Recommended.