Am I Blu-ray?
To upgrade or not to upgrade?
The pursuit of perfection is one of those magnificent obsessions that courts madness, the same way that cutting a number in half brings you closer to zero without actually getting there. Blu-ray, the newly dominant high-definition format, is like that: How perfect is perfect? And when is imperfection good enough?
Think of Blu-ray as the halfway point between DVD and an actual film print. A Blu-ray disc is nearly three times sharper than a DVD. Meanwhile, a film is almost four times as clear as Blu-ray. Video is still video: Move close enough to any plasma or LCD monitor and you’ll see an image that quickly breaks down into tiny blocks of illuminated color. The more you look for flaws, the more you see them.
So why go Blu-ray? Because quality matters. But only for certain releases. This column will separate the wheat from the chaff. Let’s face it: For every Blade Runner, there are a hundred Old Schools—both are fine films (seriously), but only one really deserves to be seen on Blu-ray.
That said, let’s look at the biggest-selling Blu-ray in the history of the medium. The Dark Knight was a monster hit theatrically last summer, so the demand is unsurprising. But its humongous Blu-ray sales (1.7 million units in the first week) mirror the tipping-point DVD debut of The Matrix ten years ago, which firmly established the new medium. And for good reason: The film is an absolutely stunning showcase of state-of-the-art home-video technology. It’s not unreasonable—or even ridiculous—to imagine people using the movie as an excuse to upgrade to a high-def television.
Not for nothing is the movie called The Dark Knight. Inky blacks throughout make Batman dissolve into the evening shadows. Crisp daylight lensing shows off an entire city in dazzling focus and keeps pyrotechnics like the Gotham General Hospital explosion in vivid relief. You can become entranced by the stitching on the Scarecrow’s burlap mask, or the chalky flakes of white greasepaint on the Joker’s haggard face. Check out those razor-sharp stacks of legal briefs in Harvey Dent’s office! Or the glowing orange flames licking at the bonfire of gangster loot! Or the oppressive fluorescent glow of the Batcave’s stark industrial ceiling! (You see what Blu-ray can do to me.)
The film puts all of its $200-plus million budget on the screen, and Blu-ray preserves all that money with impeccable vigor. It’s also a narrative that interlaces digital images—TV broadcasts, surveillance cameras, hostage videos—seamlessly into the story, and the collage feels completely organic on a 50-inch plasma.
The problem here, though, is that IMAX—a large-scale format that stretches the 'Scope picture vertically—is much closer to the classic academy ratio of 1.33, a square, essentially. The Dark Knight sports half a dozen IMAX showstoppers, but when they appear on disc, they get slightly cropped on top and below to fit Blu-ray’s native 16-by-9 rectangle. Blasphemy! In theaters, when the film kicks out from widescreen to IMAX, the result is gaspworthy, and plunges the viewer into an image with voluptuous grandeur. On Blu-ray, the screen simply fills out to the top and bottom edges. It’s like hitting the format button on the remote: curious, but not revelatory. Some things are still better seen in theaters. But for now, Blu-ray is a worthy concession. And yes, a worthy obsession.
Next week: Scorsese on Blu-ray. Worth it?