Among the featured reviews at my MSN home video column this week is Universal’s Blu-ray edition of Spartacus: 50th Anniversary. While I didn’t watch the entire Blu-ray (my review of the film itself was based on earlier viewings of the film, including the Criterion DVD), I viewed over an hour of the disc and found that it looked quite good, an improvement over Criterion’s 2001 DVD in clarity, if not quite in color, which I found it tilting a little toward red in the skin tones, but not to any egregious level. (For the record, I have a Panasonic 50-inch plasma screen that is now about three years old.)
But I also found a small but fierce uprising taking Universal to task for an inferior job of mastering, led by film archivist and restoration expert Robert Harris, who produced the 1991 theatrical reconstruction and restoration. (I thought about framing this with Harris a modern-day Spartacus leading a consumer uprising against the corporate masters, with Universal standing in for Rome, but thought better of it.) In a post in the Home Theater Forum (launching a thread numbering over 200 posts as of this writing), Harris decries the loss of detail due to the overuse of digital noise reduction (DNR) technology on ten-year-old HD master, instead of returning to the original materials with the latest technology and create a new, definitive HD master. There are some excellent frame captures at the AV Science Forum that support his criticisms. The comparisons between the DVD, HD DVD and Blu-ray images show greater clarity in the high-def formats, but also a “waxy,” smoothed-over quality, especially in the human faces. On DVD, we see a softness of detail, but on Blu-ray the increased film clarity is accompanied by increased digital grain.
To be clear, my column at MSN is more focused on cinematic content than the finer technical points of the image and sound, but that’s not to say I ignore those issues. I call out poor print quality and technically shoddy digital masters when I see them (Facets’ release of Dialogues of the Exiled), just as I praise stellar releases (see my Blu-ray reviews of The Seventh Seal and Last Year at Marienbad). The problems with this disc are simply not that apparent on my equipment, but that’s not to say they won’t be on another viewer’s home system, especially someone with a bigger screen and more exacting state-of-the-art equipment. I found a few other respected critics working in the odd space between film review and technical review who came to essentially the same opinion, but also chose to defer to Mr. Harris for the definitive critical appraisal, notably Glenn Erikson (aka the DVD Savant) and Gary Tooze (at the essential DVD Beaver).
But there’s a bigger issue at the center of this debate: what is “good enough” when it comes to something like this? Spartacus is a case where original materials have already been painstakingly restored, where the masters are the cinematic equivalent of high-definition (65mm film, which effectively has over four times the resolution of 35mm film), and where the film itself—a lavish, visually impressive epic by one of the most revered directors of all time (even if he did essentially disown the movie)—demands greater attention than your basic action extravaganza. Robert Harris may be more demanding than most—it’s personal, and he is understandably protective of his great work on the film—but he is also an authority on the technologies of film restoration and digital mastering and one of the most informed and impassioned critics of the work being done on Blu-ray releases. (And you disagree with Mr. Harris at your own peril. Not that he is anything but a gentleman in his interactions on the home video forums, a man who graciously agrees to disagree with other respectful comments and critics, but some of his followers can be quite rude with anyone who holds a differing opinion, even if they haven’t seen the disc with their own eyes yet. But that’s the web forum culture for you.)
It’s hard to say whether a boycott against this title will have a positive or negative effect, if it has an effect at all. And it’s hard to say how many people who purchase the Blu-ray will even be aware of the issues debated here. But the fact is that, at least for the time being, the current Blu-ray editions of any but the most egregiously botched releases are going to be with us for a while. Screens are going to get bigger, better and less expensive with time and what is just fine now may likely disappoint on my next upgrade (try watching the old tapes you made from TV on your state-of-the-art widescreen, especially the ones recorded in EP). So while I can’t personally get so worked up over the deficiencies of this release, I support Harris in his campaign to call Universal to task for choosing to digitally scrub a technically deficient ten-year-old master rather than return to the original elements for a new, definitive edition, especially when they call it “The Perfect Hi-Def Movie Experience” and “Perfect Picture and Purest Digital Sound Available” right on the case.