Warner Brothers has started releasing movies on Blu-ray and they are using the same philosophy that Sony and Lions Gate are when it comes to picking releases: chose average quality films that will appeal to men. The result is that if you go down to your local retailer looking for a Blu-ray disc you'll find a shelf of action movies and horror films, with the occasional comedy thrown in to please the wives. The topic of this review won't do much to change that. Space Cowboys is a good, if slightly flawed, film directed by Clint Eastwood that is solid entertainment even if it stretches a viewer's ability to suspend their disbelief. While the movie is only mediocre, the VC-1 encoded Blu-ray transfer is excellent. The other Blu-ray supporters could learn a thing or two from WB when it comes to mastering discs.
Back in 1958, the US Air Force was getting ready to start up its space program when a new agency was created and charged with putting an American in space: NASA. The four Air Force officers who were training for the space flights, Frank Corvin (Clint Eastwood), Tank Sullivan (James Gardner), Hawk Hawkins (Tommy Lee Jones) and Jerry O'Neil (Donald Sutherland) were SOL. Sold out by their boss, Bob Gerson (James Cromwell) and never did make it into space.
Flash forward forty years. An old communication satellite that handles most of the telephone traffic for the country is in a decaying orbit and about to crash back to Earth. If that happens, according to a Russian delegate, a revolution could break out. The satellite is using an old navigation program that was written for Skylab back in the pre-microprocessor days and the only person who can figure it out is the author of the program Frank Corvin.
Frank is contacted and agrees to work under Bob Gerson one more time, but only if he and his old buddies can man the shuttle mission that is scheduled to go up to fix the satellite. Over a barrel, Gerson agrees, but is he a man to be trusted? With only a month to the launch Corvin and his crew have to train hard to get ready, but when they get up in space they find something that none of their training has prepared them for.
The whole premise of this movie is a bit hard to swallow. Let me get this straight: the US is going to spend $450 million on a shuttle launch to fix an outdated communications satellite that could be replaced for $80-$100 million? No one thinks that's odd? NASA must have money to burn. And what about the fact that a US navigation program is on the Russian made satellite. Whenever anyone asks about it Gerson just brushes aside the remarks with "that's not important right now" and is never pushed on the issue. In order to do this, Gerson is going to put four unqualified and barely trained (does anyone really think someone can learn to fly the space shuttle in under a month??) senior citizens in charge of this apparently incredibly important mission.
If you can swallow that (or just chose to ignore it like I did) you'll find that Space Cowboys is a pretty decent movie. Not great by any stretch of the imagination, but decent. The cast has a lot of chemistry together and watching them interact is some of the best parts of the film. The banter between Frank and Hawk is amusing and there are a couple of running gags that worked pretty well. The movie does slow down a bit in the middle when the astronauts are training and picking up women, and it would be a stronger film if a few scenes were cut from that section, but this isn't a fatal flaw.
While the beginning is a bit implausible, and the middle did drag a bit, the end of the film makes the rest of it worth while. Once they finally get into space the pace picks up and the movie is much more visually interesting too. There's a bit of excitement and though the ultimate resolution is easy to figure out ahead of time, the ending works well.
Note: The only Blu Ray DVD player on the market at the time of this review is the Samsung BD P1000. Apparently an error crept into the design, and a noise reduction algorithm on one of the chips was turned on which creates a softer picture. As yet there is no fix for this.
Space Cowboys is the first Blu-ray disc that I've seen that was encoded using the VC-1 codec and it looks great. The 2.40:1 1080p image was one of the best Blu-ray discs I've seen. The blacks were rock solid, something that was important during the outer space scenes, and the colors were very bright and vivid. The contrast was also very good. The level of detail was excellent and the picture had a lot of eye-pop. The scene where Clint Eastwood and Tommy Lee Jones are floating in space and looking at the Earth was looked impressive and even the more sedate scenes of the astronauts training had a lot of dimensionality.
Unfortunately there are only a few minor problems that keep the disc out of the reference category. There are a very few print defects, a couple of spots total through the entire movie, that I was disappointed in seeing. A bigger problem is digital noise. There are a few scenes, most notably the ones that take place in a totally blue mission control, where large patches of color are filled with light mosquito noise. This was never distracting, but it was present and marred an otherwise excellent DVD.
This movie comes equipped with a DD 5.1 soundtrack that really does the job. The action scenes really come alive due to the impressive audio. When the shuttle is taking off you get to find out if your subwoofer is doing its job. The low bass really shakes the room and rattles the windows. The rears get put through their paces too and the sound really envelops the viewers. Even more impressive is when they abruptly cut to mission control and the forceful sound cuts out instantly.
The non-action scenes also sound good too with clear dialog and tight sound effects. The rears are used for more subtle effects and it works well. Altogether a very nice sounding film.
This disc gets a good amount of bonus features, for a Blu-ray release, the same ones that were included in the HD DVD version. There are three featurettes included: the half hour Back at the Ranch which gives a behind the scenes look at the filming, The Effects which looks at how some of the visuals were created, and Up Close with the Editor is an interview with film editor Joel Cox who talks about how the film was stitched together. While the first featurette was fun, none of them really did much to enhance my appreciation of the film. They are worth watching though.
The one bonus item that I really did enjoy was Tonight on Leno, an extended version of the segment used in the film where the four astronauts appear on late night TV. This was improvised and quite funny. Leno gets Eastwood to laugh, something you don't see very often.
While there are several implausible events that prevent a viewer from
really getting into the movie and the pace is a bit slow in parts, Space
Cowboys is a decent flick that will entertain older viewers and their
children as well. The Blu-ray presentation is excellent, this is
one of the best Blu-ray discs I've seen with only a very few minor flaws