Based on George R. R. Martin's wildly popular fantasy novel series A Song of Ice and Fire, HBO's Game of Thrones has duplicated the book's success by refusing to cut corners. With production, costume, and sound design on par with most Hollywood blockbusters---and, of course, a layered mythology mostly adapted from the source material---it offers more proof that the small screen is where it's at, running circles around Peter Jackson's exhausting The Hobbit trilogy with energy to spare. Not that there needs to be a Thrones vs. Rings rivalry akin to Wars vs. Trek (after all, it's easy to love both), but HBO's small-screen wonder shows no sign of slowing down: the recently-ended fifth season enjoyed the series' strongest ratings to date, which obviously means that a sixth is right around the corner.
The show's first season, by comparison, didn't exactly draw in huge numbers...especially considering its budget, which reportedly hovers around $6 million per hour-long episode. This was obviously a huge risk for HBO and, in some ways, still is: consider the much cheaper-looking Walking Dead, which pulls in roughly twice the viewers. Either way, almost every round of Game of Thrones has been money well spent: the creators chose huge sets over huge stars, relying on the stories and stunning visuals to build a franchise strong enough to act as the company's centerpiece. The gamble paid off, or I'd be reviewing Game of Thrones: The Complete Series instead of a reissued version of the first season designed to milk a few more bucks out of the ol' cash cow. Not that I'm complaining, of course.
Right from the beginning, Season One opener "Winter Is Coming" still remains impressive nearly five years later. This 62-minute episode apparently cost in the neighborhood of $11M to create, but the end result drops new viewers (and returning veterans) back into the land of Westeros, introducing multiple families and landscapes in a relatively easy-to-follow manner, laying solid groundwork for the next nine episodes and series as a whole. It's only part of the reason why television epics have a unique advantage over their big-screen counterparts: each segment of the greater whole is more flexible. While the challenge of fitting an entire book--or, this case, a handful of chapters---into a one-hour chunk of easily digested visual entertainment, HBO's shorter ten-episode season format doesn't have the time to wear out its welcome or completely exhaust the creative team with a year-long onslaught of production roadblocks. I'm instantly reminded of earlier television juggernauts like Star Trek: The Next Generation, which typically crammed 26 big-budget episodes into each of its seven seasons and exhausted its franchise in the long run.
That's not the case here, at least not yet. Season One is paced well from start to finish, allowing the stories, subplots, and character arcs to breath fairly naturally; this makes Game of Thrones an easy candidate for marathon viewing on home video. But what initially sold me about the series---and still does---are the uniformly strong performances, which are easy to recognize even if certain characters are designed to be unlikable blowhards. Though a few supporting characters (such as Daenerys Targaryen, played by Emilia Clarke) are given little to do early on but play the victim, there aren't any real weak links in the chain. Our closest thing to big names are Sean Bean (Eddard Stark), Lena Headey (Cersei Lannister), and Peter Dinklage (Tyrion Lannister); all three are up to the challenge, but it's the newcomers that end up stealing the show. Season One's refusal to succumb to stunt casting is also appreciated, giving it a chance to build its own identity instead of letting viewers play "spot the celebrity".
Still, it would be a crime to not praise the series' countless other fundamental strengths just a little bit more, as almost every facet of its production was either nominated or award-winning during this first year. From the costumes and makeup to set design, visual effects, editing, and the original score, Game of Thrones is a true "total package" series where almost every dollar of its budget appears on-screen, giving first-time and returning viewers every reason to be fully captivated by the world it creates. That should be the objective of any fantasy franchise, so it's good to know that Game of Thrones has no trouble maintaining its illusion. The stunning sound design even deserves special mention...which is good timing, as it's been given a little extra love this time around on home video.
HBO's excellent 2011 Blu-ray set was reviewed by our own Mike Zupan, who similarly gushed over the series' effective translation of Martin's source material...not to mention the Blu-ray's top-tier A/V presentation and bonus features. This new Steelbook edition---which will continue for the show's entire run, most likely---doesn't offer better visuals or more extras, and it doesn't have to. The main differences are a new Dolby Atmos mix (the first of its kind for a TV release), as well as slimmed-down packaging that's attractive in a completely different way than the 2011 set. New audiences will enjoy whatever edition they choose, but only die-hard collectors will end up owning both.
Video & Audio Quality
This re-release appears identical to HBO's 2011 Blu-ray set, but that's definitely not a complaint. Game of Thrones looks spectacular in high definition on these crisp 1.78:1, 1080p transfers, featuring a high level of detail, strong textures, and carefully graded colors that highlight the show's terrific production design. There's a lot of depth to the image, too: shot on Arri Alexa digital cameras, this is leaps and bounds ahead of non-film productions from years past, and only those with trained eyes will be able to tell that Game of Thrones wasn't shot on the same format as a big-budget epic in the era of celluloid. Not surprisingly, the digital source translates perfectly to Blu-ray, thanks to careful encoding that shows no conceivable defects (aside from mild banding on a few occasions). Overall, these episodes look and sound like a million bucks...and if you haven't seen the series on Blu-ray before, prepare to be amazed.
DISCLAIMER: The promotional stills featured in this review do not represent the Blu-ray's 1080p source image.
Honestly, though...as good as Game of Thrones looks, the visual presentation has nothing on this new Dolby Atmos remix, which is the first of its kind for a television series. As always, the mix defaults to a Dolby TrueHD 7.1 presentation for those with *ahem* more modest setups, but this is still a room-shaking experience either way. Featuring a strong amount of channel separation, thundering doses of LFE, crisp dialogue, well-balanced music cues, and just about every other positive that you can think of, Game of Thrones is easily the best-sounding TV production ever released on home video and obviously rivals its fair share of feature-length epics as well. Optional dubs are included in Spanish (Dolby Digital 5.1 or 2.0), French (Dolby 5.1), German (Dolby 5.1), and Italian (Dolby 5.1). Subtitle options include English SDH, French, Spanish, Portuguese, German, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Italian, Norwegian, and Swedish.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging
All five discs, aside from including new Atmos audio mixes for each episode, look to be the same as before with easy content navigation. The other
difference here, of course, is the packaging: it's a standard-width Steelbook case with attractive artwork and even a functional magnet stuck on the front cover. How does one fit five discs in such a case, you ask? Well, that's my only gripe: the discs are stacked on two hubs, which probably won't damage the plastic in any conceivable manner thanks to Blu-ray's durable coating. It does
however, make for rather unwieldy fumbling when it comes time to switch discs....but that's the price you'll have to pay for saving shelf space.
Everything from the 2011 Blu-ray set
, so no complaints here. These recycled extras include seven Audio Commentaries
during select episodes, Previews
and pop-up In-Episode Guides
, the very informative "Complete Guide to Westeros"
, 15 detailed Character Profiles
, an "Anatomy of an Episode"
segment for "A Golden Crown", five behind-the-scenes Featurettes
(including "Making Game of Thrones
" and "The Night's Watch", which are both excellent), and even a few Easter Eggs
. Overall, this is a fantastic mix of supplements...and while nothing's actually new
here, at least those who will be buying Game of Thrones
on Blu-ray for the first time (or even "trading up") won't be missing anything.
Game of Thrones is one of the best things going on TV right now, serving up more thrills, action, and drama than most big-screen blockbusters. This re-release of the first season offers another chance for fence-sitters to take the plunge, although this type of release is aimed more at rabid collectors than cautious newcomers. Featuring a top-tier visual presentation and a brand new Dolby Atmos remix (the first of its kind for a television series), it's an impressive looking and sounding package that highlights the show's stunning production and sound design. The extras are just icing on the cake; there's nothing new here, but there really doesn't need to be. Still, the price point makes this more of a curiosity than a no-brainer, but there's still enough here to consider it a worthwhile purchase. Recommended.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night (and day, if he's bored enough). He also does freelance design work and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs, and writing in third person.