From the Mouth of Sauron to your ears.
Back in the old times, the days when a vicious war was being waged over the fate of the home video market, there were two competing formats vying for domination and (most importantly) royalty checks for their respective multinational corporations. The two sides battled ferociously, desperately trying to outflank one another, with the Red side gaining ground only to see the Blu side make significant incursions into the public A/V consciousness.
And then one day, known by videophiles the world over as “The Day of Reckoning” or “The Day Blindsided Toshiba Execs Wept into Their Lattes,” Warner Bros. cast their lot in with the Blu side, essentially sealing the fate of the Reds and bringing The War to an end. The chief weapon in the Warner Bros. arsenal? The rights to release The Lord of the Rings in high-definition optical media, one of the most sought-after discs ever to be forged.
And so it came to pass that Warner Bros. fulfilled its destiny, and on April 6, 2010, at the beginning of the Fourth Age, brought out the weapon that helped end the War.
But all is not as it seems…
Clicking on this set’s Amazon link will take you to a nuclear shockwave of Total Consumer Fury — nearly 3,000 customer reviews (prior to the set’s release) and an overall rating hovering at 1.5 stars. Obviously, this isn’t a commentary on the quality of the films. Any cinematic adventurer worth his Mithril knows that Peter Jackson’s epic visualization of the mother of all fantasy trilogies was the greatest thing since sliced lembas bread. And since there have been, roughly, four hundred quadrillion words written about these films, I’ll spare you yet another embarrassingly fawning reaction (except for Liv Tyler’s pale, breathless line readings, which haven’t gotten any more tolerable) and simply focus on the Great Issue of Our Time: Should you give Warner Bros. your money?
These are the theatrical versions and Warner’s choice to give them the Blu-ray treatment over the Extended Editions is what has fueled so much angst. But the angry Amazon mob has a point. Warner Bros. is obviously going to double dip these, just like they are obviously going to double-dip their underperforming Blu-ray release of The Dark Knight. That’s what studios do. They want your money and dangle nifty options for re-releases to tempt you into buying the 43rd version of Evil Dead 2.
I will admit, however, that it is fairly brazen for Warner Bros. to essentially pretend the Extended Editions don’t exist. You won’t get any argument from me that the EEs are the definitive cuts of the Rings trilogy, and most importantly their massive DVD sets still stand as the greatest home video releases of the last format generation. The re-cut features cemented the status of Rings as the true game-changer in modern blockbuster cinema (the large-scale battles in Return of the King have yet be eclipsed) and the four-disc Extended Editions redefined DVD technical achievements and bonus features.
But enough crying into our pints of Prancing Pony ale. These are the Theatrical Editions and they’re the only ones we can currently obtain on Blu-ray. Judging them on their own merits reveals…
Let’s get right to it. The 2.40:1 VC-1 encoded, 1080p HD picture upgrade is the primary attractor for the set (Spoiler: it’s certainly not the extras) and here’s the short of it: the visual fidelity is good, but not great. And that’s a disappointment. The bump in resolution is, of course, obvious from the get-go and a comparison between ROTK on Blu and the Extended Edition reveals a noticeable upgrade. The detailing is crisp, particularly when the camera pulls in tight for one of Jackson’s characteristic close-ups. That Orc make-up? Fantastic. The lines on Gandalf’s face? Carved into your TV set. When the action pulls back — as it does frequently in these films — the resolution softens and the visual bump lessens in its disparity.
Also, the color levels didn’t pop as much as I would have expected, with all three films looking a bit washed-out, especially when compared to the dynamic transfers of high-end Blu-rays, many of which, ironically, have been issued by Warner Bros. The quality of the visual effects are reflected proportionately in the HD as they were in the original standard definition: Gollum, Helm’s Deep, the cave troll, the Balrog, the siege of Minas Tirith, the Eye of Sauron, and Shelob all look super, but the goblin attack in Moria, Aragorn and Frodo’s bridge surfing, and wide shots of the ghost army still struggle. I know this all sounds negative, but let me assure you this is the finest looking rendering of The Lord of the Rings you’re going to find. The gulf in quality from an upconverted DVD, however, isn’t as vast, and for a release like this, that’s sort of a bummer. Overall, a B effort.
A+ here, though. The 6.1 DTS-HA Master Audio mix is killer, an enveloping, aggressive, pounding piece of aural engineering that will absolutely flood your living room with the wondrous sounds of Orc stabbing, Ent grunting, Rohirrim charging, and Howard Shore’s legendary score. Straight-up ear porn, friends.
In the words of Gandalf, to the brain trust that thought repackaging the lame extras of the DVD theatrical cuts was a good idea, do us all a favor and “Go back to the shadow.” I can understand why the theatrical versions were released and I honestly don’t mind as much as some of the major detractors. There are scenes in the EEs that I love, but sometimes you want to sit down and get your Ring quest on without devoting 10 hours of your day to the enterprise. But essentially re-issuing the same selection of lame extras that accompanied the DVD releases of these cuts, and stamping them on Blu-ray no less? Awful.
Forget the features themselves, this move by Warner Bros. stinks and the clunky BD-Live interactivity merely augments the pain. Dated, standard-defintion promotional featurettes from Houghton-Mifflin, Starz Encore, the Sci-Fi Channel, and National Geographic? Really?! We couldn’t get anything new and interesting? And the digital copies don’t count. A big, fat F as in “F-this.”
The extras boondoggle has driven me to Denethor levels of irritability, but in the categories that count the most — the audio and the video — this set mostly delivers and will serve as an okay holdover until the inevitable Super Extended Easterling Edition hits.
Your life is not forfeit.