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Blu-ray Reviews: The Fifth Element

Originally published in Sound and Image, March/April 2008, v.21#5
Last updated 21 April 2009

The Fifth Element  cover The Fifth Element
1997 - Sony Pictures Home Entertainment Australia
Director: Luc Besson
Starring: Bruce Willis, Gary Oldman, Ian Holm, Milla Jovovich, Chris Tucker, Brion James, Tommy 'Tiny' Lister and Lee Evans

Movie: 4 Picture: 5 Sound: 5 Extras:

Do I need to discuss this movie at all? What's that I hear? No?

Well, I'd better mention its content briefly, just in case someone reading this hasn't heard of it. Bruce Willis is a retired special forces soldier a few hundred years in the future, now driving a taxi. Into his taxi drops, literally, a Milla Jovovich who has been reconstituted from a small sample of dead tissue. Her role is to save the world. Bruce gets to help her. That's about it.

Oh, except that Gary Oldman gets to play the baddie, as usual. And Chris Tucker is immensely irritating, as usual. Still, it's all fun, action and splendour.

I for one am very familiar with this movie, since this is now the fourth copy of it I own. Okay, it's for professional interest that I have all these. There was the original single layer DVD (without CSS protection, surprisingly), released amongst the first batch of DVDs. Then there was the 'Superbit' version which improved the picture quality by using a better print and a far higher bitrate.

Then there was the Blu-ray release ... the original US one. I used this for our Blu-ray vs DVD comparison early last year, and wrote: 'Watching the movie on screen, the differences were quite subtle. In fact, there didn't seem to be much to separate the SuperBit DVD from the Blu-ray version.' I went on to note a few small areas in which the picture was improved, but there really wasn't much to recommend this disc.

That point apparently got through to Sony Pictures in the United States, primarily from complaints from Americans who acquired or reviewed the disc. And Sony actually responded, remastering it and releasing the new version. This new version is the only one available in Australia.

The first release was, at best, mediocre. The new one is, at worst, superb. There really is that much difference in it. Which does make you wonder what possessed Sony in doing such a shoddy job in the first place! One of the differences, aside from having the telecine device in sharp focus on a high quality print the second time around, is that the video is presented using the MPEG4AVC codec, rather than the first go's MPEG2.

The sound is a good as the picture. Assuming you want English, you have a choice between Dolby Digital at a DVD-like 448kbps, or 5.1 channel LPCM. If you are using a HDMI connection to your receiver, choose the latter. It is cleaner and the bass is even stronger. But you will have to explicitly choose it because the disc defaults to Dolby Digital.

As for special extras, well, there are effectively none.

Note: Comparison between the Superbit DVD, the original US Blu-ray and this Australian version at 'Remastering pays off' here.

Note 2: The video on this release is identical in every way to the video on the remastered US version, although it does differ by lacking the DolbyTrueHD and the two trailers of the US version. For more on the identicality of the video, see here and here.

Running time: 126 minutes
Picture: 2.35:1, 1080p24, MPEG4 AVC @ 27.88Mbps
Sound: English, Spanish: LPCM 16/48, 3/2.1 @ 4608kbps; English, Spanish: Dolby Digital 3/2.1 @ 448kbps
Subtitles: English, English for the hearing impaired, Spanish, English (Fact Track), Spanish (Fact Track)
Extras: Fact track; 7669 Sony Test Patterns (1080p24, MPEG2 - 1 min)
Restrictions: Rated PG (Australian rating); Region Free

This is the video bitrate graph for this movie, generated by BDInfo 0.5.2:

The Fifth Element video bitrate graph

Comparison: Blu-ray vs PAL DVD

Here are some comparisons between the two different PAL DVDs and the Blu-ray version of this movie. At the top of each is the full frame (suitably shrunk down) used in the comparison, with a 200 pixel wide detail from the frame underneath. The left side is from the 'Deluxe Widescreen Presentation' PAL DVD, which was released very early during the DVD era. One thing for which it is notable is that this disc is not CSS protected! The middle detail is from the PAL Superbit DVD version. For both of these, the image was captured digitally from the disc, scaled up from its native 720 by 576 resolution to 1,024 by 576 (to present in the correct aspect ratio), and then, in order to be comparable to the Blu-ray version, from that to 1,920 by 1,080. The details are from those last scaled version, and have not been rescaled again.

The right side is from the Australian Blu-ray. This has not been scaled at all. Different applications were used to capture the two frames, so I am not comfortable comparing the colour between the two, merely the detail and sharpness. For those visitors from NTSC lands, generally the PAL DVD is just a touch sharper than the NTSC DVD.

Comparison 1

Aside from being a lot easier on the eye (I'm talking about the sharpness of focus), in the Blu-ray version Milla Jovovich's expression is visible. By comparison, the DVD versions leave her face as a collection of indistinct blobs:

Comparison 2

You have so much more detail to assess Ian Holm's age in this shot. You can see the all the wrinkles on his forehead, and the little lines underneath his eyes. You can even see his pupils, which merge into his irises in the two DVD versions:

Comparison 3

Texture: Here we see how detail translates to realism in conveying texture. With Blu-ray you can see the pores on Bruce Willis' skin. His whiskers are distinct and defined, not mere splodges. You can even see the individual hairs in the top right hand corner:

Comparison 4

Not everything in your favourite movie is the centre of attention. Here we see the crowd to the right of the blue singer. On the Blu-ray, all its members are far more coherent than either DVD:

Comparison 5

When you're watching Blu-ray, you can see better than with DVD the care that has been taken in actually constructing the movie. For example, the movie makers here went to the trouble of labelling those blue-green boxes near the bottom of the screen 'PUBLIC PARKING'. Not that you'd know from the DVD.

Comparison 6

Two Different Blu-rays

And here are some some more comparisons, but this time we have on the left the original US release of this movie on Blu-ray. This was encoded in MPEG2 format onto a single layer Blu-ray with an average video bitrate of just 17.55Mbps (compared to the MPEG4 AVC @ 27.88Mbps of both the US remaster and the Australian version). Whether the problem was with the capture and compression or the original film doesn't matter. The clarity and detail in the new version is obviously superior to the original.

Blu-ray Version Comparison 1

Blu-ray Version Comparison 2

Blu-ray Version Comparison 3

Blu-ray Version Comparison 4

© 2002-2008, Stephen Dawson