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Blu-ray Reviews: RoboCop

Originally published in Sound and Image, April/May 2008, v.21#6
Last updated 6 April 2010

RoboCop cover RoboCop
1984 - Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment South Pacific Pty Ltd
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Starring: Peter Weller, Nancy Allen, Dan O'Herlihy, Ronny Cox, Kurtwood Smith, Miguel Ferrer, Robert DoQui, Ray Wise, Felton Perry and Paul McCrane

Movie: 4.5 Picture: 4 Sound: 4 Extras: 0.5

RoboCop is a movie of confounding expectations. The business suited Ronnie Cox is, it quickly becomes apparent, sociopathic. Kurtwood Smith looks like he'd play a wonderful, family-friendly, uncle in any other movie. Here he is as evil as you can get.

Meanwhile, Aryan-looking Peter Weller gets shot to death by Smith and his body parts become the core of a cybernetic-human hybrid: RoboCop.

There's a lot to be said for those techniques of movie-making where the horrible is sketched, hinted at, implied, but not quite shown. Well done, this can have a huge impact. RoboCop eschews that approach. Instead, it builds up the tension, and then provides the release, brutally and with buckets of blood. You'd be hard put to find a more violent movie, even today. This release appears to be the director's cut which is roughly a minute longer than the original theatrical release, the better to extend the scene in which an ED209 robot malfunctions and shoots a bureaucrat, and shoots, and shoots, and shoots.

The English sound is delivered in losslessly compressed DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio. So it delivers an effectively perfect representation of the sound as originally recorded. I'm assuming here that there was a discrete surround recording, because the movie was distributed in part on 70mm prints with 6-track audio. Still, I suspect that the original sound elements have been remixed because many scenes have careful steering of sound details that wasn't common in movies made in the pre-Dolby Digital era. Clapping in a company boardroom surrounds you. The sound of a criminal urinating in an abandoned factory starts at the extreme left with considerable ambience, and then swings to the front and focuses abruptly as the stream comes into sight. Somebody was very thoughtful with the sound.

But still it was restricted, presumably by the source elements. When ED209 is shooting in a confined room, the sound of the bullets thudding into a body is louder and more bass-laden than the shots themselves. There is occasionally fairly strong bass, but little that is extremely deep.

Still, for 1987 the sound is impressive.

The picture, too, is excellent if you take 'excellent' as meaning a fine representation of what was captured on film. There is plenty of grain in some scenes, and focus can vary a little, but to me it looked like what was on the film was faithfully transferred to this MPEG2 rendition. You will never see any better than this in a cinema revival of the movie.

The Australian release seems to be slightly different to the US one, in that we get a couple of movie trailers and they don't. Do not buy that one. This may be an ancient movie, but the US version is apparently region coded (as is this one -- of course, it's Region B).

Running time: 103 minutes
Video: 1.85:1, 1080p24, MPEG2 @ 20.74Mbps
Sound: English: DTS-HD Master Audio 24/48 3/2.1 @ 3382kbps (core: DTS 24/48 3/2.1 @ 1509kbps); Italian, Spanish: DTS 3/2.1 @ 768kbps
Subtitles: English, Italian, Italian (text titles), Spanish, Spanish (text titles), Danish, Finnish, Norwegian, Swedish
Extras: Trailer (1080p24, MPEG2, DD5.1 @ 448kbs - 1 min); Trailer for 'Planet of the Apes' (1080p24, MPEG2, DD5.1 @ 448kbs - 1 min)
Restrictions: Rated R (Australian rating); Locked to Region B

The following video bitrate graph was generated by BDInfo 0.5.3:

Robocop video bitrate graph

Comparison: Blu-ray vs PAL DVD

Here are some comparisons between the two different 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 Criterion Collection NTSC DVD, which I purchased quite a few years ago. This disc was released in 1.66:1 aspect ratio, non-anamorphic, so it suffers particularly from loss of resolution. In addition to showing more of the frame above and below the 1.85:1 theatrical release, it also shows a bit more to the left and right. For this one, the image was captured digitally from the disc and scaled up to a width of 1,920 pixels in order to be comparable to the Blu-ray version.

The middle detail is from the PAL DVD version. For this one, 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 DVD vs the Blu-ray frames, so I am not comfortable comparing the colour, merely the detail and sharpness.

The more I look at the Blu-ray, the more obvious the grain becomes. But any defects fail in comparison to the DVD competition. Notice the MPEG2 noise and edge enhancement in the first two. Notice how you can see fairly clearly the character's suit's lapels in the Blu-Ray, but not the others:

Comparison 1

This shot is near the start of the segment missing from the original theatrical release. There wasn't as much difference between the three as I was expecting, but still the victim's hair strands are a little more clearly defined in the Blu-ray:

Comparison 2

Overall, things are sharper here. But the white girders at the bottom of the communcation tower seem less distinct on the Blu-ray. Are we talking a different print here? What do you reckon:

Comparison 3

Okay, I know I said I wasn't going to talk about colour balance. But look here. The Criterion and PAL DVDs were captured with the same application, but the former looks much closer, colour-wise, to the Blu-ray than it does to the PAL version:

Comparison 4

Same again, here, with regard to colours. He -- or rather the mockup -- looks positively blue in the PAL DVD version. Plus you get more clarity with the Blu-ray.

Comparison 5

© 2002-2010, Stephen Dawson