DVD Reviews - Nature Films in Imax, Batman, Blade Runner and Space Jam

      Date posted: May 3, 1997

Africa The Serengeti
An IMAX Film by Graphic Films Chicago
DVD Compressed by AIX Entertainment, Released by Lumivision
40 Minutes

Africa The Serengeti      I recall seeing this film first at the excellent and intimate IMAX theatre in downtown Winnipeg, where it was a great spectacle of nature, graphic in its portrayal of the wildebeest’s place in nature as a migratory food chain. As I’ve noted elsewhere, just about every African predator eats these odd-looking antelopes, so they must taste better than they look.

     The 500-mile annual migration across the Serengeti plain loses surprisingly little in its transition to the smaller screen, aided by the auxiliary subwoofer track in giving us the true sense of thousands of thundering hooves. I found James Earl Jones’ narration excessive and intrusive after the first watching, and would have been happy to be able to eliminate it, but unfortunately, it is in all front channels, not just the centre one.

     Technically, this is the best of the three IMAX films reviewed here, with fewer digital artifacts and better resolution. It was watched the most often as a a result, a good quick demo to visitors seeing DVD for the first time. But repeated viewing, especially of the first 5 minutes, created greater familiarity with DVD artifacts from the digital video compression, after the “wow” wore off. These include a shimmery, sort of sparkly, wobbly quality in backgrounds on lateral pans, rather like looking through air with heat rising in it. Also, every once in a while, a portion of the picture would dissolve into a kind of pixelization, something made more obvious by the general sharpness of images, especially in closeups with relatively little motion. As Joel Silver suggests elsewhere in this issue, one should back off the sharpness control to properly enjoy DVD, because artificially boosting luminance (the way most TVs are set up) will exaggerate its compression artifacts.

Antartica: An Adventure of a Different Nature
An IMAX Film for the Museum of Science & Industry
DVD Compressed by AIX Entertainment; Lumivision
40 Minutes

Antartica      If Africa is hot, Antartica is cool, even cold. When I saw this film on the big screen, it seemed as if they had the air conditioning turned up a little too high…Brrrrr. Both historical and natural, it looks both across and under the Antarctic ice, revealing a richness of life’s diversity even below freezing. Though the film gets a little cute when dealing with the penguins, it also offers some great shots of the stark landscape from helicopters and planes. There is great visual beauty in this film that makes one less concerned about digital artifacts, but then, the panorama is less busy than the African plain or the Brazilian rain forest.

     Technically, the overall resolution seems a little lower than that of Africa, but one notices fewer artifacts of the process, too. There is a problem with the soundtrack, in that with some players and playings it seemed to cluster at right front, both narration and effects, with little surround. I couldn’t quite pin down this phenomenon in the short time with this disc, but it seemed to be something in the Dolby Digital coding. The narration, the cool English voice of some ubiquitous actor, is subdued, even funereal, as this film is partially a requiem for earth, its spoiling by man recorded mercilessly in the ice cores sampled by the Antarctic visitors.

The Tropical Rainforest
An IMAX Film for The Science Museum of Minnesota
DVD Compressed by AIX; Lumivision
40 Minutes

     This was the first commercial DVD I received from Pioneer with the DVL-700, and, frankly, when looking at it, I wondered if there wasn’t something wrong with the player. Luckily, I also had the dealer demo disc from this company to show what the format was really capable of. Rainforest in its long shots of the great green expanses of trees has very poor resolution; it’s almost schizophrenic visually, the closeups of insects, birds and reptiles very clear, with beautifully saturated and differentiated hues, but on anything else a VHS-like smearing of detail persists.

     The film is quite interesting, if, like the Rainforest itself, rather languid in pace; were I a kid watching this on a science class excursion, I think I might be inclined to doze off halfway through the second eon of the evolution of the forest.

     The sound is very enveloping and naturally recorded, with the narration by Geoffrey Holder; whoever he is, he sounds very Caribbean, “dee voice of dee islands,” but he doesn’t pummel us into submission like old Darth Earl Jones. Again the voice is imbedded in all three front channels, and cannot be removed with the centre channel. Maybe this is something IMAX should think about. As I’ve noted elsewhere, remember the LD release of The Blue Planet.

Warner Home Video
Audio Remixed for Dolby Digital Pan-and-Scan and Letterboxed Sides

Batman      This film is, I think, still the best of the Batman series, and it’s nice to see it again with discrete surround sound in Tim Burton’s dark Gotham clouded over by evil, a morally warped Chicago with its strangely transfigured landmarks. Though the chemistry of Keaton and Basinger makes the film initially interesting, it is the chemically re-constituted Joker of Jack Nicholson who steals the movie completely. Is it a moral failing that Burton makes evil so much fun?

     Having spent many hours in the Art Institute looking at greatness, I was perversely amused at its despoiling by the Joker and his crew; childish wonder turns to childish glee at childish vandalism, if only for a few moments of film. Without going on about its lack of qualities of moral redemption, Batman is a lot of fun to watch, and here it is beautifully presented by the DVD medium in either screen format. Obviously, the letterbox conveys more of the odd urban landscape, but on smaller screens the pan-and-scan will have greater immediacy. The letterbox, however, is not very extreme; it looks like about 1.85-1, so either is eminently watchable on a decent monitor.

     I don’t have the laserdisc, but I’m sure the DVD in either screen shape conveys more detail and more of the darkish tonal shadings of Burton’s vision of Gotham City. Its resolution is superb, and the video is very film-like in texture, with little (if any) of the artifacts I found periodically distracting in the IMAX films. This film is a good demonstration of both the purity and subtlety of colour and nuance that DVD can convey.

     Sonically, the film takes a giant step forward with its discrete surround soundtrack, especially in the big battles near the end with rocket planes and other Batman hardware. This makes the film even more enveloping and exciting.

Blade Runner: The Director’s Cut
Warner Home Video
Dolby Surround, Pan-and-Scan & Letterboxed Sides

Blade Runner      Ridley Scott’s futuristic film bears many similarities to Batman in style and tone, though it is grittier, if also rather dark and warped in its view of the urban future. We also tend to find sympathy with the villains, if not being particularly amused by them in this film.

     The difference between the two presentations is quite extreme, the original aspect ratio looking like 2.35-1, so a lot is lost in the pan-and-scan version laterally. It is also quite a bit grainier and shows frequent artifacts of the sort discussed above, in particular, a kind of wiggly shimmer in pans. The widescreen is cleaner and has notably better resolution. Watch the TV-sized version only on smaller monitors. Given the digital bitstream limitations in realtime, it is probably the case that better picture resolution (ie., less compression) can be achieved with letterbox, the black bars allowing more of it to go to the actual picture displayed. This certainly seems to be proven here.

     Though it says Dolby Digital in small letters on the back for “English only,” I could find no sonic evidence of this, and little surround at all, though the stereo was very good. Of course, Scott uses the surround track sparingly, rather than as an ambient part of the action as in more recent films. This does not make Blade Runner any less absorbing.

Space Jam
Warner Home Video
Dolby Digital; 1 Side, Pan-and-Scan Only

Space Jam A Space Jam is what we have here, so I’ll say simply that this somewhat silly film with all its animation is a perfect vehicle to demo DVD: very sharp, with amazing wraparound Dolby Digital sound, it fills the screen but does not compromise resolution. There is, however, some discrepancy between the goody-goody Jordan seen here, and that currently on the court with Chicago, if you’ve seen any playoff games. I like this movie a lot, but I like my Michael mean!!

Andrew Marshall

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