Contact: Whither Blu-ray?

This 1997 Robert Zemeckis showboat is almost as well known for lawsuits and controversies as it is for the content on the cellulose. Contact opened to mixed reviews, but subsequent awards and nominations seem to have vindicated those who liked it. Anyone who still hasn’t seen the film and who expects it to closely follow Carl Sagan’s 1985 book may be disappointed. It is really best to view the two as separate entities as they don’t parallel very much, aside from the general movement of the story. It’s been twelve years since the film’s release, and most people have either seen or know about all about it; a full-on review isn’t needed here. That being said this film is a good mix of the cinematic candy that audiences crave and a reasonably brainy story.

Contact Blu-rayIn some ways, Contact takes audience naïveté for granted, but overall, the convincing portrayal of crowd behaviour and the bandwagon effect help make the film ring true. Jodie Foster’s success at bringing a little human vitality to the fairly unsympathetic Dr. Arroway, and Matthew McConaughy’s eminently likeable Palmer Joss bring a nice chemistry to an already extremely well-cast film.

Blu-ray has been pretty good to Contact. The image is clear and sharp, but avoids the hyper-real look of some other high-def releases by maintaining a little of the film grain. Colours are vibrant (if on the warm side — you may need to adjust your tube), detail is fabulous, and most of the image quibbles come more from the source material than the Blu-ray medium. Overall, the video toasts that of the DVD release in every respect.

But in some ways, the transfer to high definition has made the movie’s age painfully clear: the off-world segment shows the dark side of that era’s composite shots, being neither all that convincing nor up to the standards we expect of more recent films. The damage isn’t nearly as bad in standard definition, which makes an excellent argument for re-doing  effects from some earlier movies when rejuvenating them like this.

In today’s Dolby-ed world, a release’s sonic envelope weighs as heavy as its imagery when it comes to transporting viewers from their couches into the story’s universe. And it’s here that Contact falters slightly. Aside from bright spots like the wormhole sequence, the soundtrack is slightly anemic, despite huge opportunities for sound magic. In a DVD world where 5.1 systems weren’t the norm, this wouldn’t be a problem. As things stand, it’s a bit of a let-down. On the bright side, the sound is crisp, dialogue is clear and Alan Silvestri’s score fits perfectly into the overall mix. Even with the underwhelming use of the Dolby 5.1 soundtrack, the sound is still an improvement on the DVD release.

The extras don’t offer anything over the DVD special edition. There are commentaries by Jodie Foster, Robert Zemeckis and producer Steve Starkey, and effects guys Ken Ralston and Stephen Rosenbaum; the usual featurettes and trailers; and a 5.1 music track. Where the Blu-ray platform rocks is in the space devoted to language tracks. If you want to watch the movie in Portuguese with Finnish subtitles, knock yourself out.

On the negative side, the menu system is less than scintillating. First off, the film auto-starts. This is definitely not a plus for anyone who likes to set up the home theatre and go get snacks while the menu loads.This is key: auto-start is only appropriate for movies that are going to be put on by harried parents looking for a way to distract kids, and who will likely put the disc in the player and walk out of the room. When putting out Blu-ray movies for grown-ups, make them spin up to a menu screen. Please.  Also, selecting the special features from the pop-up menu brings the viewer to a full screen of unimaginative menu items that is actually a little overwhelming at first. Contrast this with the well-thought out menu systems of the James Bond Blu-ray releases or the new Star Trek disc, and things start to look shabby. The film could also have benefited from a little Star-Wars-level remastering: the opening sequence is dramatic, but a re-do with current tech would have made it 21st-century-style spectacular, and the later off-world sequence could similarly have used a visual touch-up in the worst way.

The upshot is that, while Contact’s arrival on Blu-ray is far from perfect, it’s a real step-up from the DVD version. If you already have Contact in your library, then whether or not the upgrade is worth it depends on how often you watch the film. If you don’t yet own this landmark movie, then Blu-ray is definitely the way to go.

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