Following in the footsteps of The Royal Tenenbaums, director/writer Wes Anderson brings together a strange blend of rich visual textures, surreal environments, aloof acting, and disarmingly candid dialogue in The Life Aquatic to precise effect. His movies are impossible to categorize, and The Life Aquatic is no exception. If I were to try to categorize it in some way, I might choose the word "Ironic". My use of this word does not represent the usual cliché of imparting a false sense of depth or meaning to one's art by exploiting formulaic tactics. Rather, Wes takes bold and deliberate steps that would at first seem to work counter to each other and diminish the end result. Yet what makes Life Aquatic a film worth respecting is that the opposite ends up being true...some how these counter-elements spin together and resonate until they produce a strange yet palpable harmony--perhaps most surprisingly, one that can become emotionally involving.
Wes begins by establishing a unique language for each vehicle of the film. Visuals are filtered through a carefully chosen color palette and are saturated to provide a surreal, other-worldly presence (the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Amilie, and The Matrix are three other films that come to mind that use color-manipulation so dramatically). Actors are selected with almost caricature-like demeanors and appearances. The acting (like Royal Tenenbaums) style feels cold and aloof--almost satire-like. At the same time, the story is very "theatrical" and largely dialogue-driven, and in spite of the reserved acting performances and sometimes blunt script-writing, the conversation between characters is discernably real and reflects a warm sense of intimacy. The "Irony" for me is how these seemingly divergent (or at least incongruous) paths of surreal imagery, cool-acting and unbelievable events, in the end, manage to conspire to capture your emotions. What would have been the "weakness" of a poor film by another director becomes the very strength of Wes's work...he uses the friction and interplay of these tones to work together in unexpected ways precisely because he means to. I think that's the difference...many other directors make "mistakes" they don't intend which serve to erode the film's energy; Wes makes these "mistakes" intentionally...deliberately and with purpose (yet without coming across as arrogant or off-puttingly avant-garde)...and in doing so creates an entirely new way to experience a film--one that sets forth its own rules and cannot be judged by an existing measure except by what it offers itself to the viewer.
If you judge art by the criteria that I use, "did the art succeed according to the intensions of the artist?" then The Life Aquatic is a very "good" film because it does just that--whether or not you like it is an entirely different matter. I'm sure that the response to his work by individual viewers is widely varied...even among those who would consider themselves in favor (I hope you share some good discussion about your point of view in this thread...as long as it doesn't get argumentative or too off-base, I encourage a bit of "movie talk"...this film warrants it). Whatever you think of his work, it's certainly unconventional, and it's no wonder that like with Lynch, Wes has earned a loyal following eager to digest his atypical delights.
I saw that "THE CRITERION COLLECTION" banner across the top of the packaging and I allowed myself to become vulnerable and hope for more...more that is than the typical "soft focus, digitally-processed and ringy" look of most Miramax/BV live-action DVD titles. Lucky for me, my heart was saved from utter-heartbreak just in time by my memory of the Royal Tenenbaums DVD which (despite also being co-released with Criterion) suffered the typical "BVD" ("Buena Vista Dvd") syndrome. So when The Life Aquatic graced my 106" screen in all it's 2.35:1 glory...I was at least partly prepared for what I saw. Folks, sadly, The Life Aquatic looks pretty much like typical BVD... which is to say in a nutshell: "Great colors, contrast, black-level, and shadow detail, but an overly-soft image that looks digitally processed with a slight "haze" and some instances of ringing from EE (probably what's imparting the sense of "digital noise" to the overall-image).
But let's talk about it in more words...those too disheartened may wish to skip to the audio and bonus-material section now...
Good... Typical of Buena Vista DVD, color is simply outstanding, and for this film this is critical. The overly-warm tones, almost gold-infused richness to the palette come through boldly without ever appearing to overload the video medium. In the commentary you'll hear Wes and co-writer Noah Baumbach discuss their choice of film-stock to achieve exactly this effect...they were trying to recreate that warm-skew in color that is sometimes seen with cheaper 16-mm and, in fact, my first reaction when the film started to play (before I listened to the commentary) was "Wow...it has the warmth, richness, and gold-tones of old-fashioned 16-mm film". Yes...aren't you glad you have someone like me reviewing these DVDs for you? Black level is solid as a rock and dark scenes (many night-time scenes and underwater scenes which could have been challenging) and I didn't find myself distracted with any unpleasant MPEG compression noise...at least none that seemed obvious to my eyes when engrossed in the film. All of these strengths are the typical trade-marks of Buena Vista DVD titles as are the weaknesses...
Not so good...I missed the theatrical projection of this film, so please forgive me if my assumptions about the appearance of the 35mm source are in error (and DO correct me if I'm mistaken) but I can't help but imagine that the softness and lack of fine detail (especially in mid-to-farground faces) is an artifact of digital processing and not an attribute inherent to the source. Coupled with this softness is a thin veil of noise...what experience leads me to believe is electronic high-frequency boosting exacerbating the otherwise natural fine-film grain structure of the print. The result looks artificial...not film-like in the least. On some titles this effect is subtle enough that it doesn't impede one's viewing pleasure on large projection screen (I watch from approximately 1.6 screen-widths back...the perfect "sweet spot" for good DVD transfers regardless of film-age) but on The Life Aquatic the effect distracts to the point of frustration because the visuals are such a dominant vehicle for the film's communication. I find myself straining to perceive detail that simply isn't there...and attempting to focus on it confronts one with the artifacts of digital processing. Edge-ringing becomes obvious in a few scenes (where sharp-edge transitions are present) and when it does it's bad...watch the sea-plane land at the Steve Zissou's island-research lab...as it draws near and begins its decent...the edge-ringing above the airplane wing is so strong that I'd imagine even narrow-angle viewers watching smaller television monitors might find it obtrusive. Both horizontal and vertical edges are affected...notice the ghosting around the lamp-poles going out on dock at the same locale. I find that after a while I start to "get used" to these artifacts and tune them out...but the minute I watch a properly authored DVD where this layer of digital/electronic noise is absent I find the scales fall from my eyes and it's really hard to feel contented with it again when I come back to it. I'll echo the never-ending plea to Disney: I don't know what and I don't know why...but please fix whatever is amiss in your DVD-mastering process. It may be something as simple as a new contact-prescription for the digital compressionist...you never know!
Picture Quality: 3 / 5
In the past I think I've been too ambiguous with my scoring or at least haven't applied it consistently from title to title, so I've endeavored to define my rating system more clearly to help make the scoring more meaningful (for all titles reviewed December 2004 and later):
|1-2||An absolute abomination. Hurts to watch. Think "Outland" (scan-line aliasing, chroma noise, dotcrawl)-- truly horrid.|
|2-3||Has some serious problems, but one can at least watch it without getting a headache despite all the problems though you might try to talk your guests into picking a different movie to watch if you have a large projection screen. Think Cold Mountain.|
|3-4||Good or at least "acceptable" on a big-screen, but not winning any awards and definitely room for improvement if you view the image wide-angle (though smaller-screen viewers may be quite content). Think the first extended cut of Fellowship of the Ring...decent picture but still some HF filtering and some edge-halos.|
|4-5||A reference picture that really makes the most of the DVD medium and shows extraordinary transparency to the film-source elements. Non-videophile observers can't help but remark "WOW". Think The Empire Strikes Back or the Fifth Element Superbit (full “5” would be sans EE).|
The audio presentation on this disc is as curious a bundle of characteristics as the rest of the film. Dialogue fidelity is generally poor--voices often slightly overload the recording medium and occasional distortion accompanies loud exchanges. The vocal tracks also sound undeniably "recorded" as if laid down less-than-state-of-the-art equipment and mixed/mastered accordingly. However, just as the visual color tones of the movie are inspired by old 16-mm documentary footage, I'm prepared to accept that the recording style for the dialogue may have similar roots. And in its favor, little if any of the dialogue sounds looped...it sounds like the dialogue you're hearing is the dialogue that was spoken when the actors were performing their scenes (whether or not this is actually the case).
Much of the score is synthesizer-produced (much on that in the special features and commentary) and intentionally banal sounding. The David-Bowie songs (performed in by Portuguese singer Sue Jorge) change their character whether happening in the context of the film or overlaid as the soundtrack...and when overlaid the sound often bursts with powerful dynamics (more powerful than most of the "action" in the film). Music is also the place you'll find the deepest bass response...this is not an effects-laden/bass-heavy score but from time to time the music defines these parameters nicely.
DD versus DTS:
I'm always pleased when Buena Vista offers dual-Dolby Digital/DTS multi-channel audio, and The Life Aquatic makes great use of both formats...and phrased it that way for a reason: I find that titles (be they Buena Vista or not) that offer dual DD/DTS generally fall into one of three categories:
- [*]The differences are obvious, and one mix/compression scheme clearly stands out as better (usually DTS but not always).[*]The differences are not obvious, and even LP-loving audiophiles with tubed gear would have a hard time telling which one was which...and if one has the edge over the other it's very very subtle...[*]The differences are obvious, but neither mix/compression scheme stands out as "better"...they both do different things better and trade off other in other areas at the same time.
An example of a film that fits squarely into the first category for me would be Moulin Rouge (ignoring the lip-sync on the DTS track which Fox pretends doesn't exist but exists all-too-well on three different-brand DVD players I have tried). I'm sure most of you can come up with plenty of examples that fall into the second category. And an example of a film that falls into the third category is (you guessed it) The Life Aquatic...
I found myself reminded of the comparison between the DD and DTS tracks of The Return of The King (extended edition) which followed a very similar pattern to what I hear on The Life Aquatic. Forgive me for not doing a scientifically-valid double-blind A/B test...I did the next best thing...I turned the video off and just listened to the audio and shuffled back and forth between the audio tracks until I was confused as to which one was selected...and then I would switch to the "other" track and try to perceive what differences that I could. Some consistent patterns became clear...
In Dolby's favor... The Dolby Digital sounds clearer, brighter, and in some ways more immediately detailed than the DTS yet without sounding irritatingly bright (at least in my system...which tends to be forgiving of bright recordings). In comparison, the DTS sounded much more laid-back, and dialogue was "less sharp" which at times made it more difficult to understand. It was also clear that the DTS was recorded several decibels lower than the DD track...especially as far as vocals are concerned. Carefully adjusting volume to provide the same perceived "loudness" of dialogue helped restore much of the intelligibility, yet the DTS track still sounded distinctly darker (this is what reminded me of Return of The King) in comparison to the more forward-sounding DD track...at times bordering on murky-sounding. The Dolby Digital track also surprised me with it's more "apparent" sense of hall/ambient information. Usually this is precisely the area where the DTS track takes the lead and shows DD's limitations...but in this case the "dark" character of the DTS tended to swallow-up some of the ambient information that the DD put right-up-front. I think we're hearing two different mixes...or at least two mixes that have been independently manipulated...the Dolby Digital being EQ'd to bring up the midrange and treble, slightly compressed (dynamic-range compression) to raise up low-level information, or both. At least that's my theory.
In DTS's favor... After careful level matching, the DTS track came much closer, but never quite matched the sense of "clarity" that the Dolby Digital track had. However, upon extended listening it became clear that subtle tones were rendered more naturally on the DTS track which was most paramount in musical information and dialogue. Also, however "clear" the DD track sounded, it also imparted a marginally flatter-sound to the dialogue with a slight raspy-edge to some of the dialogue that was less edgy on the DTS track. The DTS track still won out for having a subtle improvement in inner-detail, "roundness" and depth-of-soundstage but the trade-off in this case was in perceived clarity.
This one's a tough call, and not knowing what the uncompressed master sounded like prevents me from making assumptions as to which presentation is more faithful. I think in a case like this your preference is likely a result of your own personal taste coupled with the sonic signature of your audio system: folks with "laid-back" systems or who crave a crisp-sounding treble are likely to favor the Dolby Digital presentation; folks with bright or forward-sounding audio systems or who prefer a relaxed/mellow sound will prefer the DTS.
Sound Quality: 4 / 5
The last DVD that overwhelmed me with SE content like this was the 10th Anniversary Clerks SE. The Criterion folks clearly got involved on the extras and fans will have hours and hours of material through which to sift.
- [*]Feature Commentary: Director/writer Wes Anderson and co-writer Noah Baumbach casually, but informatively, talk about the film seated at a cafe. The choice of venue is curious...and despite the locale they manage to carry on scene-specific commentary all the same. Their discussion is excellent and really ferrets out a wide range of details about the making of the film...technical, financial, creative and pragmatic factors all get covered. Here's the most unusual element and one that I hope you'll appreciate--the commentary is in stereo placing one guy in the left speaker and one guy in the right speaker. The effect sounds believably more like a conversation rather than the usual 1.0 DD mono commentary with everyone coming out of dead-center.
[*]Deleted Scenes: There are quite a few deleted scenes (I think about 10) presented in 4x3 lbxed form. Some are clearly video-source...as in VHS...but others appear film-based and don't have the combing and video artifacts of the poorer material. Why am I telling you this...we don't watch deleted scenes for picture quality anyway. There is a "Play All" feature so you can watch all the deleted scenes one after the other (no director's commentary). Some of them seemed odd to have been cut quite honestly...but here they are to be enjoyed by fans everywhere...
[*]Theatrical Trailer: Can you believe it? Yes...and it's 16x9 OAR too...though clearly sourced from video material or badly mis-flagged as there was combing galore on my screen (please post how this translates on your system...I'm curious of the combing artifacting is "hard coded" into the image or if it's a deinterlacing problem of my Momitsu).
[*]Starz on the set: Behind-the-scenes featurette detailing cast and crew (not heavy on technical aspects)...comes across as marketing documentary but still full of fan-worthy material.
- [*]Interviews: with various cast and crew...specifically Owen Wilson, Cate Blanchett (both of which are also included in other more lengthy documentaries on the disc) and a very impressive interview with Devo member Mark Mothersbaugh.
[*]David Bowie Songs performed by Seu Jorge: Help me out here...I think I may have run into a special feature that refused to function properly on my DVD player. I'm in the process of digging out my old Panasonic to be sure. When I select this feature, I get a 10-second blurb talking about Sue Jorge performing the David Bowie songs and then I bounce right back to the menu.
[*]Interview with composer Mark Mothersbaugh: Wow. this one really takes the cake...at least for me. Devo member Mark Mothersbaugh composed the score for the film (and many of Wes' other films) and goes into great detail about the creative process he employs. This feature was the only 16x9 WS featurete though it doesn't appear to originate in high-definition by the looks of the soft image quality. Also interesting here...many of the snippets of the film are woven into this featurette in 2.35:1 OAR (16x9) and look much more film-like than the actual feature-film. Detail is still severely lacking, but the artificial/electronic glare of EE is absent...and the image has an ease and naturalness that's very (or at least more) pleasing. Anyone suspected that the edge-ringing in the feature-film is a compression artifact like Mosquito noise should find the clips of the feature film here clarifying. Note: the film-clips are flagged as video and so my Momitsu was only applying bob/weave deinterlacing for the film-based segments...contributing further to their soft appearance. With cadence-based 3-2 pulldown my guess is that these clips would look even more impressive. Oh...back to the content...film-clip PQ comparison aside, this really is a stellar piece and I think you should definitely give this one a watch if you're trying to decide which special features to check out and which ones to pass up.
[*]Italian TV Interview "Mondo Monda": Watch the director and co-writer take on a Trey-Parker/Matt Stone persona and really work this one. It has to be a joke...but it's brilliant. I got quite a few laughs out of this one and fans will heartily enjoy.
[*]Making of Documentary: several of them! "This is an Adventure" is refreshingly non-edited and doesn't even have any narrative...just behind-the-scenes footage which (also refreshingly) appears to be film-based or at least progressive-scan video based. This natural-looking 4x3 image was easy to watch though chances are the non-devotees will find lacking in interest.
[*][b]Image Gallery: Great images but disappointingly only 4x3 encoded...so some of the wider images don't make good use of the potential 720 x 480 resolution or screen real estate for those with 16x9 displays.
[*][b]Aquatic Life: A wonderful documentary on the stop-motion puppetry used for many of the under-sea life forms. I actually had no idea that effects that looked so bad (intentional at times) took so much work to produce.
[/list] ...and more!
Those of you who've seen The Life Aquatic already know if you're interested. Those of you who haven't seen this film need to be cautioned to view with an open mind...having seen (and enjoyed) Royal Tenenbaums would be a good warm-up. Wes takes the most unlikely of elements...a disjarringly artificial undersea world, a strange and surreal visual style coupled with downplayed acting and direct-speech style writing all melded together into an astonishingly successful result. Additionally, Wes imbibes his characters and their relationships with a feeling of intimacy that draws the in the viewer in spite of the meld of unconventional rhythms. Much like crying when Bambi's mother gets shot and then remarking to yourself "I'm feeling emotion for a character that doesn't even exist as an actor...it's just a cartoon", you may start watching The Life Aquatic pointing out to yourself all the obstacles the film puts in your way to connecting with the characters only to find yourself inexplicably at one with them.
The DVD presentation is a mixed blessing: On the one hand the bonus materials are top-notch (and there's lots and lots of them) and the audio presentation is probably as good as is possible given the source...providing the viewer with both Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 options. Where this DVD falls short is in terms of its video quality, which while having excellent color, contrast, and black-level rendering, falls sadly short of image detail. Coupling the soft-picture with a bit too much digital noise and edge-ringing makes the presentation difficult to enjoy on a wide-angle viewing system (front projection and those watching their high-resolution HD displays from less than 2 screen-widths distance). However, short of an eventual high-definition presentation, this is likely to be the best the consumer will be afforded...so if you're a fan of the film or director Wes Anderson, the bonus material and audio presentation can more-than justify your purchase.