Tom Shales: Blu-rays poised to take lead as best viewing format

BEST SUITED: "The Dark Knight's" high-tech bent is perfect for Blu-ray.
BEST SUITED: "The Dark Knight's" high-tech bent is perfect for Blu-ray. (Warner Bros. Pictures, DC Comics)
Tuesday, December 8, 2009

At Christmastime we hark back to memories of gadgets past -- technological wonders that were the most desired gifts of previous spending seasons: the VCR, the Sony robotic dog, the laptop computer, the iPod and its successors like the Nano and the Touch.

What, then, is this year's big must-have electronic toy -- the Zhu Zhu hamster of the home entertainment system and the has-been of tomorrow? Maybe, just possibly, after considerable delay, it's the Blu-ray video disc and the supposedly eye-popping high-def pictures and ear-popping stereophonic sounds it can bring into the American home.

Over the Thanksgiving weekend, replete with its "Black Friday" buying day, Blu-ray discs doubled their previous sales for a total of $69 million in titles sold. Blu-ray sales were up even though overall DVD sales were down nearly 8 percent -- one sign that Blu-ray may be fulfilling its assigned role as "savior" of the DVD format.

To some of us, the DVD still seems new, its strikingly sharp and detailed picture quality a quantum leap up from even digital television as delivered by satellite (DirecTV, etc.) and fiber-optic cable (Verizon's FIOS system, which seems to be giving the cable industry fits). How can this new format already be old-hat, and in trouble? Maybe because such things simply move much more quickly than they used to, and people become accustomed to miraculous wonders overnight. Then they're ready for the next one.

Blu-ray, developed by Sony, was one of two high-def DVD formats slugging it out for a small part of the DVD market until 2008, when Sony mysteriously got Blu-ray approved as the format of choice by all DVD manufacturers. Thus was averted the kind of money- and time-wasting format war that Sony's Betamax fought valiantly but lost to VHS tape in the 1980s.

Although Blu-ray has since its introduction promised radically improved picture and sound quality, supposedly making regular DVDs look pale and puny, the difference has never seemed dramatic enough to justify the considerable increase in price. But now the players, made by Sony and others, have fallen below the $100 line in some quarters, and Sony's PlayStation 3, which plays Blu-ray discs as well as video games, also came down in price to $299 before any retailer discounting.

(Just plan on taking a graduate-level course in advanced electronics before attempting to operate the PlayStation as a Blu-ray device -- or have a 15-year-old standing by to help you through the inscrutable mess.)

The retail price of individual Blu-ray DVDs remains generally higher than the price of the old-fashioned kind, but the cost difference is now proportional to the quality difference; you'll get your money's worth if the pursuit of sharper and higher-contrast and more lustrously colorful images has been an all-consuming obsession.

Blu-ray titles, once a feeble trickle, now pour out of manufacturing plants. Not just the latest animated and action pictures but older titles, including big-time epics and splashy musicals, are also being released in the format. This is good news for movie buffs who can imagine owning a copy of "An American in Paris" or the Warner Bros. classic of classics "Casablanca" in superior Blu-ray.

Collectors' hearts, mine included, flipped when Warner Home Video, which has always been the most bountiful of DVD releasers, announced Blu-ray versions of such lustrous MGM color classics as "Gigi," the Lerner and Loewe musical set in Paris; "Quo Vadis," last of the pre-CinemaScope Biblical epics; and, recently, a 50th-anniversary edition of "North by Northwest," arguably the most sublimely entertaining film ever directed by Alfred Hitchcock.

It's a pleasure to report that the films do have added depth, shimmer and oomph when viewed via Blu-ray and its 1080p maximum high-def standard (via HDMI cable connection, of course, on an HDTV receiver, thus complicating things somewhat).

At the same time, it's clear that revisiting and restoring older films in an attempt to make them equal to today's costliest blockbusters is not, so far, 100 percent successful. Something happens to the color in the older films -- even when it's "glorious Technicolor" -- that seems to flatten it out, reducing depth of field and contrast, and lacking the glossy "snap" you get from a high-tech adventure film like "The Dark Knight" "The Day After Tomorrow" or "The Fantastic Four."

If you wander through any of the many fussbudget techie-nerd sites on the Web, you'll run into passionate and vituperative condemnation of the Blu-ray format, seeing it as not only insufficient but sinister for its invasive anti-piracy technology. It's also being speculated that eventually, downloaded movies on your computer will be as sharp and near-flawless as Blu-ray movies are now -- but don't hold your breath waiting for that to happen.

And in fact, the prospect of being offered a venerable movie title via its fifth or sixth video format is less than thrilling. It's quite possible to own "The Wizard of Oz" in Beta, VHS, laserdisc, several DVD iterations and now Blu-ray editions, each subsequent format supposedly superior to the previous one. (Sadly, I have the dwindling shelf space to prove it.)

And who knows but that some other hi-def format, one that will make Blu-ray images look like faded old Polaroids, won't surface in the next decade, or even before. Wait any longer to buy a Blu-ray player and the trend may be gone, the moment over, and wouldn't that just be too bad?

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