The submarine movie genre, especially the WWII submarine movie genre, has been a reliable source of suspense and thrills for decades. The basic elements are almost always the same: an inexperienced crew of young sailors in over their heads, a rickety old boat that could implode from the water pressure at any moment, leaky pipes and valves that need turning at crucial moments, a desperate dive to depths the ship can't take, bursting pressure gauges, depth charges exploding just outside the hull, and that heart-stopping moment after the last torpedo has been launched as the crew hold their breaths waiting to hear if it hits the target. Yes, it's a familiar formula, but produced with a reasonable amount of competence can still deliver tension and excitement. And so we have U-571, director Jonathan Mostow's addition to the genre, which goes through the motions pretty much exactly as described above, with just exactly that reasonable amount of competence if not much more.
Playing fast and loose with historical accuracy, the film gives us a rag-tag group of young American seamen sent on a mission to capture a disabled German U-boat and recover the Enigma code machine that could provide essential intelligence information for the Allied forces. Never mind that in reality the first Enigma decoder was captured by the British Royal Navy; when you're making a big-budget Hollywood action picture the heroes have to be clean-cut young American men, dammit. Halfway through what seems to be a successful mission, the Americans are ambushed and their own ship destroyed. Trapped aboard the wounded German sub, a handful of survivors must learn to operate the foreign equipment speedily to stay alive. This involves much pulling of levers and turning of valves, and the commander yelling "Dive! Dive! Dive!" while volleys of depth charges threaten to pulverize the vessel. Of course, sacrifices will be made and valor formed in the face of impossible odds, with unlikely friends declaring "I'll go to sea with you anytime" before the credits roll. What else could you possibly expect?
U-571 as a film quite simply does what it sets out to do as well as it needs to, and that's about all there is to it. It has the required excitement and suspense in the places where it needs them, but never even attempts to bring anything new to the genre. It's a formula picture with stock characters, predictable plotting, and dialogue that anyone who's ever seen a war movie has heard before. It's not a bad picture, certainly, but nor does it come close to being a great one.
The HD DVD:
U-571 debuts on the HD DVD format courtesy of Universal Studios Home Entertainment. HD DVD discs are only playable in a compatible HD DVD player. They will not function in a standard DVD player (unless the disc specifically contains an optional DVD layer for Standard Definition playback) or in a Blu-Ray player.
Please note that the star rating scales for video and audio are relative to other High Definition disc content, not to traditional DVD.
The U-571 HD DVD is encoded on disc in High Definition 1080p format using VC-1 compression. The movie is presented in its theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 with letterbox bars at the top and bottom of the 16:9 frame. Since HD is natively 16:9 in shape, the HD DVD format does not require anamorphic enhancement as used on standard DVD.
This disc exhibits a little of both the best and worst of what modern video technology has to offer. On the plus side, most of the scenes inside the submarine look terrific. In such cramped quarters, effectively almost every shot is a close-up, and the resolution of fine object detail is excellent. Black levels are well rendered with good shadow detail, giving the picture a nice sense of depth. This isn't a very colorful movie, but the few colors that do appear pop vibrantly off the screen. The photography has some mild grain, well compressed and not at all noisy. In these scenes, the disc offers a pleasing, film-like image.
Unfortunately, scenes above water in daylight suffer from low-amplitude but nonetheless distracting edge enhancement that takes away from that film-like appearance. I'd hoped that artificial sharpening of this sort would be a thing of the past now that we're in the High Definition era, but apparently in this case it's embedded as part of the original video master. This certainly isn't as bad as some of the most notorious DVDs (Tombstone, Pirates of the Caribbean, etc.), but it's still terribly disappointing. Also of note are occasional speckles on the source elements.
The U-571 HD DVD is not flagged with an Image Constraint Token and will play in full High Definition quality over an HD DVD player's analog Component Video outputs.
The movie's soundtrack is available in either Dolby Digital Plus or standard DTS 5.1 formats. Upon comparing the two, there's an obvious volume difference (the DTS is louder by default). After compensating for that, I had a hard time finding much difference between them. Both are quite good.
Submarine movies by their nature provide a standard set of sound design options: creaking and groaning noises from the ship, the ping of sonar, mysterious sounds from outside the hull, and of course the thunderous explosions of torpedoes and depth charges. U-571 has a field day delivering them all with aplomb. The surround mix is superbly directional and immersive, and unleashes plenty of roaring bass that will leave you cowering in your seat during the depth charge scenes. Dialogue is always clear, if a bit flat. The fidelity of the musical score seems a little dull, unfortunately, but it's a bland score to begin with. This is a very good action movie soundtrack, though I didn't necessarily feel it was among the best I've ever heard.
Subs & Dubs:
Optional subtitles – English captions for the hearing impaired, Spanish, or French.
Alternate language tracks - French or Spanish DD+ 5.1.
All of the bonus features on this HD DVD title are recycled from the DVD edition and are presented in Standard Definition video with MPEG2 compression. Most of the supplements from the DVD appear to have carried over.
Missing from the DVD edition are some minor features including production notes and cast/crew bios, as well as the film's theatrical trailer. None seem like very big losses.
- Audio Commentary by Jonathan Mostow - A good, intelligent discussion of the film's development from scripting through release.
- Spotlight on Location (14 min.) – Standard EPK making-of fluff, featuring interviews with director Mostow, some of the cast, and producers Dino and Martha DeLaurentiis.
- Inside the Enigma (7 min.) – A cryptologist discusses the real history of the Enigma decoders, including the fact that they were actually first captured by the British.
- US Naval Archives: Capturing the U-505 (3 min.) – Vintage newsreel footage of a real naval assault on a German U-boat.
- Creating and Constructing U-571 (6 min.) – More EPK filler, focusing on the need to build an actual working submarine for the film's establishing shots.
- Britain Captures U-110 (9 min.) – Jonathan Mostow interviews a former British naval officer who participated in the capture of an Enigma device from a U-boat.
- A Submariner's WWII Experience (8 min.) – Similar to the above, Mostow interviews the U.S. Navy Vice Admiral who served as the movie's technical advisor.
No interactive features have been included.
A just-OK submarine thriller nowhere near the same league as, say, Das Boot or even The Hunt for Red October, U-571 is fairly enjoyable fluff but not much more. The HD DVD offers mostly good (though flawed) picture quality and lots of booming surround sound. My viewing advice skirts right on the edge between rental and recommendation, and could go either way depending on how generous I'm feeling. At the moment, I'm thinking that a rental should be sufficient for most.
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