Hitting HD DVD a full month after its Blu-ray debut, Warner's release strategy for 'Blood Diamond' is nothing if not unique.
As I originally wrote in my Blu-ray review of 'Blood Diamond,' Warner has been the most aggressive among its peers in releasing HD DVD titles with interactive features over the last year, but due to what the format-neutral studio has described as technical differences between the two next-gen formats, it has been unable to match those features on its Blu-ray releases. As a result, the studio has generally opted to hold off on releasing titles with such functionality to Blu-ray until it can provide those releases on the format with like-features.
Needless to say, leaving such high-def releases as 'Batman Begins' and 'The Ultimate Matrix Collection' as HD DVD-only titles, this strategy has led to some discontent among Blu-ray fans. With 'Blood Diamond' however, Warner took a different approach. While this HD DVD version of the title includes one of the studio's interactive "In Movie Experience" (IME) picture-in-picture tracks, as well as the studio's first web-enabled content to be included on a next gen disc, rather than holding off on the Blu-ray release as they've done in the past, the studio instead decided to release a pared-down Blu-ray edition of this title a month ahead of its HD DVD counterpart.
And so, as Blu-ray's thirty-day headstart comes to a close, and as this feature-packed HD DVD edition of 'Blood Diamond' finally hits stores, the question of the day for HD DVD fans is this: was it worth the wait? Read on...
It's probably safe to say that the big Hollywood "message movie" has fallen out of favor with most modern cinema-going audiences. The trend appeared to have peaked in the '80s, when extravagant epics with grand political aspirations were all the rage -- films like 'Gandhi,' 'Out of Africa,' 'Reds,' 'A Soldier's Story' and 'Dances with Wolves' earned countless Oscars, critical hosannas and big box office. But ultimately, a string of commercial disappointments ('Cry Freedom,' 'The Power of One,' 'Malcolm X' among them) seemed to put a damper on Hollywood's ambitions to tell sweeping political stories. As filmmakers turned to ever-more-fanciful stories and comic book adaptations to dazzle audiences, Hollywood all but abandoned what was once its bread and butter, and there doesn't seem to have been a major A-list message flick seen in theaters in years.
So it was with high hopes for a rejuvenation of this lost genre that 'Blood Diamond' first hit theaters last Christmas. Produced on a budget of over $100 million, it had all the earmarks of the kind of prestigious, high-minded epic that Hollywood used to consider a sure-fire blockbuster. Tackling the controversial topic of the lucrative blood diamond trade that left Africa on the brink of a civil war, it featured an all-star, Oscar-decorated cast (Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Connelly, Djimon Hounsou), shepherded by a director, Edward Zwick ('Courage Under Fire,' 'Last Samurai') famed for taking tough subject matter and making it palatable for the masses. But for whatever reason, 'Blood Diamond' failed to truly captivate critics and audiences, turning in a still-decent but unspectacular $56 million in domestic box office receipts.
'Blood Diamond' is certainly an ambitious effort, and is as much an intense (and unremittingly violent) thriller as it is a political polemic. Danny Archer (DiCaprio, with a thick Zimbabwian accent) is a mercenary, aware of the blood-stained trails of the diamond trade but simply too cynical to care. Soloman Vandy (Hounsou, again one of the most commanding screen presences around) is a farmer who will watch as his wife and child are kidnapped by one of the many bands of opportunistic local rebels who, covertly funded by the corporations behind the diamond trade, have no compunction against the robbing, raping and murdering of thousands in the name of profit. But after Vandy stumbles upon a fabled "blood diamond" worth millions, Archer will soon get wind of it and attempt to strike a deal. In exchange for the rescue of Vandy's family, Archer will be led to the location of the valuable gem.
In the middle of all this comes American photo-journalistic Maddy Bowen (Connelly). She's noble and ambitious, of course, but also a bit naive -- virtues that Archer immediately pounces upon. Bowen's journey will become a travelogue of atrocity, as she bravely endeavors to cover both the ravages the blood diamond trade is having on families like Soloman's, and the inter-workings of the mercenary trade that Archer reluctantly agrees to expose to her. The optimistic climax, if wholly unbelievable, is probably all that Hollywood could get away with considering the grim subject matter.
The script and Zwick are most successful in the use of parallel to heighten the drama between the three main characters. Soloman will do anything to rescue the family that was torn away from him; Archer watched his family be butchered at a young age and now avoids any emotional attachment at all; while Maddy has completely forsaken the very idea of a family unit to pursue nobility in her career. Likewise, the film gets great mileage out of using their opposing ideologies (or lack thereof) to craftily straddle all political viewpoints on the blood diamond conflict, thus (potentially) deflecting any critical charges of bias. DiCaprio and Connelly in particular shine best when their characters' butt heads with dialogue as warfare, tearing into each other like members of a high school debate team. Hounsou, conversely, seems to relish Solomon's innate belief that honor comes not from political affiliation but from the simple charge to take action. It is when the film tackles these thorny topics in fiercely human terms that it manages to genuinely stir our passions and hint at resonance.
'Blood Diamond,' however, eventually feels narratively constricted by its over-reaching intentions. The movie is at once overlong at 143 minutes and thus too sprawling to work as a crackerjack thriller, yet not long enough to achieve the grandeur and scope of the best political epics. It's a bit like a two-headed bulldozer that pummels you with intensely violent action cliches while trying to placate you with heavy-handed, didactic moralizing. Ironically, 'Blood Diamond' ultimately works best when it tones down the bombastic and tells, in simple terms, the story of a man trying to rescue his family. Perhaps had Zwick and 'Blood Diamond' tried a little less hard to tackle such a huge issue from all angles and just focused on its effects on one man, it might have achieved true greatness.
'Blood Diamond's 2.40:1 transfer is presented in 1080p/VC-1 video, and predictably, it's an identical encode to the Blu-ray version released last month.
As I wrote in my review of the Blu-ray edition, despite some strong moments, this is a somewhat problematic presentation. Dark scenes have a gritty quality with plenty of obvious grain, which would be perfectly fine (it certainly mirrors the theatrical presentation I saw), however blacks appear to have been lightened up, which severely flattens depth. Noise can be quite intrusive as well, and some banding of fine gradients is also apparent. Colors, too, seem to vary, looking somewhat washed out in darker scenes but wonderfully vivid and lush in the film's many bright exteriors. Detail and sharpness are also clearly superior in outdoor scenes.
To be sure, there are some moments here that deliver a high-def experience as good as I've ever seen. And the print itself is in great shape -- in fact, it's just about pristine. Just don't expect a consistently stellar experience, as the video presentation on 'Blood Diamond' is uneven to say the least.
'Blood Diamond' enjoyed an excellent PCM presentation (48kHz/16-bit/4.6mbps) on the Blu-ray, and this HD DVD boasts a comparable Dolby TrueHD track (48kHz/16-bit). Though in the past I've found PCM tracks to get the slightest of edges in comparison with Dolby TrueHD, in this case I was hard-pressed to tell any difference. The HD DVD easily holds its own against the big Blu, with the film's loud, bustling sound design delivering an impeccable display of sonic fireworks on both next-gn editions.
As much an action film as it is a political drama, 'Blood Diamond' boasts plenty of gunfire and explosions throughout, plus a very percussive, African-flavored score by James Newton Howard that helps keep the energy level high. Low bass is terrific, with a deep and powerful but at the same time tight quality that excels at high volumes. Dynamic range is also very expansive, with a realism that's truly palpable. Dialogue is expertly recorded and perfectly balanced -- I was able to crank 'Blood Diamond' throughout without ever having to reach for the volume knob.
Surrounds, too, are very active. The wall of sound effect from the rears during action scenes is up there with the best soundtracks currently on high-def disc, even if the film doesn't maintain quite the level of sustained atmosphere on the level of, say, 'Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest.' Still, imaging is just about transparent, with discrete sounds directed to specific channels with pinpoint accuracy. When it comes to its audio presentation, 'Blood Diamond' certainly doesn't disappoint.
'Blood Diamond' hit standard-def DVD earlier in 2007 as a two-disc set with a fairly sizable collection of extras. Both this HD DVD and the earlier Blu-ray mirror that experience with all of the standard-def extras, although both next-gen editions also deliver some notable high-def exclusives (see below).
Among the standard supplements, the highlight for me was the 50-minute documentary "Blood On the Stone." Having nothing directly to do with the production, it is instead a very disturbing expose by journalist Sorious Samura, who lost his brother to the blood diamond conflict. It's not for the faint of heart, with often horrendous images of the violence and bloodshed, as well as an unapologetically critical voice of the corruptive governmental and business forces that allowed a verifiable civil war to continue for so long. Even harder-hitting and often more moving than 'Blood Diamond' itself, this is the one must-watch on the disc. (Note that "Blood On the Stone" is the only extra on this entire set presented in 1080p video. However, much of the shot-on-DV footage looks like a 480 upconvert, so don't expect pristine quality.)
The three production featurettes pale by comparison. "Becoming Archer" (8 minutes) is a kissy-poo love-in for actor Leonardo DiCaprio; "Journalism on the Front Line" (5 min.) offers some light background on the Jennifer Connelly character; and "Inside the Siege of Freetown" (10 min.) dissects the film's most harrowing sequence. Unfortunately, all of these vignettes are too short to offer much more than banal insight, and the on-set interviews are the typical promotional fluff, off-set by way too many film clips.
Thankfully, the very strong screen-specific audio commentary with director Edward Zwick picks up the slack. It's really the only extra here where you'll learn anything of substance about the making of 'Blood Diamond.' I haven't always been a fan of Zwick's studied, even dour style when it comes to commentaries, but here he is clearly emboldened by a passion for the project that elevates the track. Though he can lapse into production minuate that gets a bit monotonous after a while, it's his clear understanding of the dynamics of the action and political threads of his storytelling that is most illuminating. Along with "Blood On the Stone," this is the other highlight of the set.
Wrapping things up are a full-screen music video for Nas' "Shine On 'Em," plus a single Theatrical Trailer, also in 480i/MPEG-2 video only.
Part message movie, part action thriller, 'Blood Diamond' suffers from a bit of a split personality, but it still manages enough bracing emotional highs to make it worth the experience. It also features highly impassioned performances by Leonardo DiCaprio and Djimon Hounsou (both Oscar nominees) which are not to be missed.
The big news for HD DVD fans, though, isn't the movie but the disc. Though I wasn't all that pleased with the identical video transfer shared by both editions, the audio is great and so are the standard-def supplements. But where the HD DVD clearly outdistances its rival is with a great IME track (featuring additional content not included in the Blu-ray) and Warner's first-ever web-enabled content on a next-gen disc. While 'Blood Diamond' may only scratch the surface in terms of what's technically possible on a next-gen disc, even as is, it's a real gem.
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.