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Region 4 DVD Reviews: Back to the Future

Originally published in Australian HI-FI, June/July 2003, v.34#3

The Day the Earth Stood Still cover The Day the Earth Stood Still
Director: Robert Wise
Starring: Michael Rennie, Patricia Neal, Hugh Marlowe, Same Jaffe and Billy Gray
The Outer Limits (Series 1) cover The Outer Limits (Series 1)
Director: Various
Starring: ... and many, many others
Movie: A-, Picture: A+, Sound: B, Extras: B Movie: B, Picture: B+, Sound: B-, Extras: D
The Internet Movie Database (www.imdb.com) is very helpful to the movie-watcher in many ways. One of the most useful is as a filter for old movies. The Day the Earth Stood Still is an old movie, and a science fiction movie. Science fiction movies from the 1950s were almost uniformly awful, even by the standards of the day. But IMDB advises that regular voters have made it number 173 on its list of the top movies of all times, edging out 2000's Traffic. Not bad for a black and white, 4:3, mono movie. [As of 2008, it had slipped to number 200.]

Now on DVD it still stands up rather well. Sure, it's preachy (get your act together Earthlings or we aliens who have moved beyond violence will destroy you and your planet). And, sure, aliens that look like people to twelve significant digits are passe. And, yep, the music presses every Sci-Fi movie cliche button around.

But the preachiness was perhaps appropriate to the time, the story depends on human-like aliens, and the music ... well, this is where it all started. After all it came from the brain of Bernard Herrmann (Citizen Kane, Psycho, Taxi Driver).

While the sound is mono, all the audio tracks are in 192kbps Dolby Digital 2.0. Oddly, the English version is biased by 2.6dB to the right channel, but not the other languages, nor the informative commentary track (which is conveniently replicated in subtitles). It also uses the Academy sound EQ, rolling off sharply above around 7.5kHz.

The picture quality is superb. The film was restored in 2000, and further digital restoration was applied after conversion to video. And it has been laid down on the DVD at a huge average video bit rate of 7.7Mbps (higher than most Superbit titles).

In light of recent controversies about the media coverage of the Iraq war, have a look at the 1951 MovieTone news reel included on this DVD. Even-handed? Not a chance!

Running a TV series without a different set of characters in each episode, and no continuity of story line, is not easy. The Outer Limits was one that managed the trick. The episodes were linked by genre, primarily Sci-Fi horror, yet each stood alone from all the others.

This DVD set consists of the entire first season dating from 1963. In those days, it seems, there was considerable commitment to the launch of a new series, so this package contains no less than 32 episodes. Consider it as 32 separate little movies (each runs a little over 50 minutes). This package will sell for around $125 for an incredible 26 hours of viewing, yet there are just four discs. How? The discs are that rarely-seen format: double sided, dual layer. Each side has four episodes.

What's startling about this is how good the story lines are and the acting is. Both range from competent to excellent. As good as these are, the special effects are bad. The monsters are liable to induce chuckles. The wires suspending Donald Pleasence's telekinetically manipulated rock in 'The Man With The Power' are clearly visible.

This is also a time capsule. See the young Robert Duvall ('The Chameleon'), the very young Martin Sheen ('Nightmare'). Then there the interesting twists on time-honoured themes: would-you-kill-the-young-Hitler of 'The Man Who Was Never Born', or the Manchurian Candidate-like story of '100 Days of the Dragon'.

It seems almost churlish to mention that there are no special extras: isn't 26 hours enough for you? The sound is poor, but bearable. It's rather scratchy and distortion prone, and rolls of sharply above 5kHz.

The picture quality is adequate (it's all black and white, of course) with the photography performed with film rather than video. It seems that we share this title with the United States, though, because the region coding is 1 and 4, and the video is in NTSC format.

Just remember you'll need to take a week off work to watch the whole thing.

Running time: 88 minutes
Aspect: 1.37:1 B&W (original format)
Sound track: English, French, Italian, German, Spanish, Commentary: Dolby Digital 2.0 (mono), 192kb/s
Subtitles: English, French, Dutch, Italian, German, Spanish, Commentary (English, French, Italian, German, Spanish)
Features: Trailer, MovieTone newsreel from 1951 (6 mins), Restoration comparison (4 mins), Commentary
Running time: 1,584 minutes
Aspect: 1.37:1 B&W (original format) NTSC
Sound track: English: Dolby Digital 2.0 (mono), 192kb/s
Subtitles: Nil
Features: Nil

© 2002-2008, Stephen Dawson