If you're a fan of 'U-571' you should probably skip this section and just jump down to the tech sections below. I don't know if it was just the mood I was in or what, but I laughed all the way through this movie. It's not that the subject matter is silly, or that the film is poorly made, or badly acted. Instead, it's something about the whole tone of the film, its jingoism and relentless provincial myopia that makes it feel like a parody you'd see if Mel Brooks decided to do 'The Producers 2' about the movie business, substituting 'U-571' for 'Springtime for Hitler.'
The plot can be summed up with one quick phrase: Thank God for the U.S. Navy! When a German U-571 is seriously damaged, apparently its crew are too stupid to know what to do. So the U.S. is called in to save the day, not out of any sense of human obligation of course, but because our military realizes it can seize the "Enigma Coding Machine," which will allow the Allied naval forces to locate and track submerged German U-Boats. So the Navy sends in a crack team of U.S. seamen disguised as Germans to "rescue" the sub. But when the evil Germans send reinforcements, the mission goes awry, and our brave American soldiers must use every last ounce of their wits and training to survive.
I know, I know -- I'm going to get hate mail calling me a traitor for what I just wrote. And I am aware that the makers of 'U-571' never claimed their film was historically accurate (in fact, it was the Britain Navy that captured the Engima codebooks, months before the U.S. even entered the war). I am also not slighting the real-life bravery of our armed forces during WWII, nor am I against mindless Hollywood entertainment. But 'U-571' is another one of those wish-fulfillment fantasies where only the Americans show any sense of wit, wisdom, intelligence or courage, and are painted in such broad strokes as idealized supermen that any sense of reality, plausibility and authentic heroism is thrown out with the bathwater.
What also makes 'U-571' so funny to me is that it is so lacking in subtlety. The film seems to want to be the American brother of 'Das Boot,' the German classic also about soldiers trapped inside a claustrophobic submarine environment. But compare the way in which director Wolfgang Petersen dramatized 'Das Boot's ideological clashes and interpersonal conflicts with restraint, nuance for character and a powerful use of silence, versus 'U-571' helmer Jonathan Mostow's sledgehammer approach, where pretty Hollywood actors scream platitudes at each other, blow lots of stuff up and wax philosophical about the Importance of It All. I also liked the way none of the American soldiers could read German, yet easily took command of the German sub and its technology. Man, these guys are good.
Also humorous is that Mostow and the cast apparently have never seen Quentin Tarantino's now-famous "'Top Gun' is the Gayest Movie Ever" monologue from the 1994 indie flick 'Sleep with Me.' Because if they had, they may have re-thought their PC approach to the sub's crew, who never utter a single misogynist, homophobic or racist comment, despite the fact that there is no female love interest in the film, every guy on the boat looks like he just stepped out of an Abercrombie & Fitch ad, and nearly the entire sub crew is improbably, hilariously Caucasian. If 'U-571' was meant as a camp parody, it would have been brilliant.
I could go on, but I guess I should just say I didn't get this movie and leave it at that. Again, I know some of you out there likely love it and find it a fine tribute to the bravery of our Armed Forces. So enjoy away. But for me, all that was needed to turn 'U-571' into one of the best comedies I've seen in years was a Mel Brooks song 'n' dance number.
I'm not sure what it is about 'U-571,' but Universal just loves to tote this movie out whenever it wants to launch a new format. One of the studio's first releases on the DVD, D-VHS and now HD-DVD formats, apparently the studio regards this film as great demo material. And even I have to agree -- it looks terrific.
Given its D-VHS release as well as via frequent broadcasts on HD cable channels, the quality of this transfer will likely not surprise fans of the film. Overall, it is exceptional -- a sparkling print, rich blacks, excellent contrast and rock-solid color reproduction pack a wallop. I was especially impressed by how spot-on the fleshtones appeared, as well as how adroitly this transfer handled difficult colors. Note the smooth reds in the film's opening sequence, a hue which is traditionally hard to resolve on video yet there is no fuzziness or noise here.
But what really elevates 'U-571' to the level of greatness is how extraordinarily three-dimensional and detailed the picture is. This has that picture-perfect look of the best transfers, where you feel like you could reach out and touch the images on the screen. 'U-571' is filled with tons of close-ups of things like sweaty-browed soldiers, and you can see every bead of perspiration. It is also a film of visual contrasts -- the dark, low-lit interiors and the bright, panoramic daylight vistas are rendered with equal astounding clarity. Great stuff.
Also, note that 'U-571' is the first HD-DVD title that has also been released on the now-defunct D-VHS format, which makes for an interesting comparison. Clearly, both come from the same source material, so it really is a wash between the two for me. Both match each other in every respect -- detail, sharpness, contrast and depth of color. However, I still give the edge to the HD-DVD because as a physical media, disc is simply superior to tape. I often had problems with dropouts due to simple wear and tear on my D-VHS tapes, but that's not an issue with HD-DVD. So given the identical picture quality, I can't imagine anyone preferring the D-VHS.
'U-571' sounds fantastic, at least for a non-high-res presentation. In fact, the film's sound design is up there with the most aggressive, sonically enveloping mixes you are likely to hear on home video. Given that, it is unfortunate Universal has not produced a Dolby TrueHD track for this HD-DVD (as the format promises quality that rivals the original studio master), only Dolby Digital-Plus and standard DTS options.
As a listening experience, 'U-571' is all about the action. Shots are fired, missiles are launched and subs are blown up. It is highly immersive, with rear channels employed almost non-stop during the battle scenes. I loved the level of directionality of discrete effects, though the surrounds do flatten out a bit compared to the front soundstage, which boasts cleaner pans. I also liked that there are many fairly subtle uses of atmospheric effects during scenes when crew members were simply talking to each other, which is very effective. Even the film's rather heavy-handed score bleeds nicely to the rears.
Dynamics are strong for a standard Dolby mix. The source is very clean and low bass very strong -- almost to the point of distraction. Dialogue, however, is balanced too low. I frequently had to adjust my volume levels to compensate, which quickly got irritating. All in all, 'U-571' remains a strong presetnation, though a high-res audio option is sorely, sorely missed.
Another direct port of the extras found on the standard DVD release, 'U-571' boasts a pretty good package of material, more than I personally ever wanted to know about the making of the film.
First up we have the obligatory screen-specific audio commentary with director Jonathan Mostow. Though his somewhat monotone voice and slow pace made this one a slog to sit through at times, he certainly is passionate about his film. Growing more lively as he goes on, Mostow starts by focusing primarily on the historical background of the film (and use the term "historical" loosely), then goes more in-depth on the film's many production challenges. I can't say I cared that much in the end, but if you like the film this is a pretty good if sometimes dry commentary.
Mostow was also vital in preparing the rest of the disc's supplements, as he hosts just about every one of them. All are a series of featurettes, though interestingly only one is really about the making of the movie with the rest historical perspective pieces. Sadly, the 13-minute "Spotlight on Location" is one of those lame EPK things comprised entirely of on-set interviews where everyone says how great the movie is gonna be. Uh-huh.
Thankfully, the historical vignettes help take up some of the slack. "Enigma" offers insight on the central element of the film's story, and explains why the device was so integral to the world's efforts in stopping the Nazi regime. "Britain Captures the U-110" gives us the real story behind the Americanized events depicted in the film, and frankly had 'U-571' told this story it would have been much more interesting. Also fascinating is "Capturing the U-505," which is essentially made up of narrated archival footage but is far more engaging than your typical newsreel. It also is an unintended tribute to the effects technicians of 'U-571,' who so skillfully restaged the scenario for the film.
Once again, Universal has elected not to include any of the film's theatrical trailers or TV spots on an HD-DVD release. Bombs away!
I'll admit it, I thought 'U-571' was so earnest it was campy. Maybe I'm just guilty of treason. Whatever the case, while I can't recommend this film, this is such a great looking and sounding HD-DVD release that yes, I would say it is just about the reference standard for the format so far. If you really want to impress your friends, just whip this puppy out and fast forward to one of the sub battle scenes. It really will blow you away.
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.