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Blu-ray Reviews: Babel (HD DVD)

Originally published in Sound and Image, Sept/Oct 2007, v.21#1

Babel cover Babel
2005 - Paramount Home Entertainment (Australasia) Pty Ltd
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Starring: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Mohamed Akhzam, Peter Wight, Harriet Walter, Trevor Martin and Matyelok Gibbs

Movie: 3.5 Picture: 5 Sound: 4.5 Extras: 1

Babel is a bit like a highly specified, but ultimately unsatisfying piece of hi fi equipment. You glance over the specifications, you examine the build, and you decide that this amplifier must be it. But when you get it home, it just isn't very satisfying to listen to.

So it was with Babel, at least for me. The 'specifications' are excellent: Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett star. The filming is mostly in exotic locations such as Japan, Morocco and Mexico. The director is the illustrious Alejandro González Iñárritu, of 21 Grams and Amores perros fame. But I found it disappointing. It's probably because I'm a movie cretin who prefers plot and emotional involvement to the 'higher values' -- after all, it did receive the Golden Globe award for best drama. Still, I sat through its entire 143 minutes, quite interested. But more in the sense of watching a travelogue, than being drawn into the world of the movie. For me, it was something to be watched, but not re-watched.

The movie consists of four vaguely connected stories, with a gun providing the link. Don't expect the gun to provide thrills and action.

The acting and cinematography is impeccable.

So why did I choose this movie for review? Because it differs from all the other HD DVD titles I've so far acquired. Both HD DVD and Blu-ray support the MPEG2 video compression standard of DVD (albeit at a much higher bitrate). But they also support two new video compression standards: VC-1, which is based on Windows Media 9, and H.264/MPEG-4 (Part 10)/AVC (the three terms are interchangeable). These latter two take advantage of developments in the art of digital compression since MPEG2 was first specified, yielding higher compression for the same quality as MPEG2.

I understand that most Blu-ray titles still use MPEG2* (Blu-ray players typically don't report the video codec used). But until now, all the HD DVD titles I've tried have employed VC-1. The reason is simple: HD DVDs don't have as much space available as Blu-ray, so picture quality would take too much of a hit if MPEG2 was used. But this disc doesn't use VC-1, instead the Toshiba HD DVD player reports that the video is 'MPEG4AVC'. According to Wikipedia this is better for 'low bit rate single pass encoding' than VC-1, so maybe the length of the movie demanded the different standard.

The movie, the trailer and the menus all use AVC, while the Paramount HD promo clip uses VC-1.

For whatever reason, the picture quality is superb -- even the Morocco sections which were filmed on 16mm instead of the 35mm used for the rest.

The sound is presented in Dolby Digital Plus at a full bitrate of 1,536kbps. Sounds clean and nice, but nothing special.

Unusually, the very limited extras aren't accessible from the pop-up menu. In the 'Extras' slot during the movie is a 'Home' button, which takes you back to the main menu from which the extras can be accessed.

* At that time, anyway.

Running time: 143 minutes
Video: 1.85:1 anamorphic, 1080p24, MPEG4 AVC
Sound: English, French: Dolby Digital Plus, 3/2.1 @ 1,536kbps
Subtitles: English, English for the hearing impaired, French, Spanish
Features: Trailer (3 mins), HD Promo (1 min)

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