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Blu-ray Reviews: The Tree of Life

Originally published in Sound and Image, 2012
Last updated 30 August 2012

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The Tree of Life
2011 - Icon Film Distribution Pty Ltd
Director: Terrence Malick
Starring: Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler and Tye Sheridan

Movie: Picture: Sound: Extras:

(The following review was published as part of a combined review with Taxi Driver.)

There are two kinds of movies in the world: those meant to entertain, and those meant to say something. Both The Tree of Life and Taxi Driver are definitely in the latter category, although entertainment is not entirely absent either.

Taxi Driver is that grimy Martin Scorsese work from the mid-70s, set in a grimy social setting in grimy New York City. For this genre it's at the peak, sitting at #44 on IMDB's Top 250 list with a score of 8.5. For what it sets out to do, it is perfection in every artistic sense.

As is The Tree of Life. This is largely a gentle meditation on an imperfect young American family in the 1950s. Much of the time it is shot with breathtaking beauty.

The picture quality of The Tree of Life was for the most part first class, which was vitally important for a work of this kind. Focus is beautifully precise and your eye is drawn to exactly what the movie maker wants. Lovely colours and totally free of artefacts, except for the occasional instance of posterisation. There is clear banding in some of the early underwater scenes. This kind of thing is always a challenge for consumer conveyances of video, limited as these are to eight bits for each of the three colours. Subtle colour gradients step from one level in the possible number space to the next gradually, leaving banding.

But I was left with the uneasy feeling that perhaps even this was avoidable. The video bitrate was a little under 22Mbps, which is perhaps a touch below average. Would a higher bitrate have allowed even smoother transitions between bands? There was plenty of the room on the disc. Only a little over 60% of its dual layer capacity was used. The sound was encoded at 16 bits in DTS-HD Master Audio, so it used well under 2Mbps. There was stacks of capacity for throwing more bits at the video. As it happens, this disc was a remaster after an error in the first version (which, I hasten to assure readers, was never released into the wild), so there was even less reason not to go for more bits.

Would it have changed anything? Probably not, but we could have been certain, then, that the disc was as good as it could possibly get.

As for Taxi Driver, Sony Picture Home Entertainment has given it the premium treatment. You can play it with MovieIQ, which uses BD-Live to dial up information on the actors and so on during playback. You can run it with the original script synchronised, scrolling in a window in the corner of the screen. This speeds up and slows down to keep pace with the action. The movie can be resized to 50% or 25% to avoid the action being obscured. You can cut the synchronisation and move through the script to a new place, and then have the movie jump there.

If that isn't enough, there are three different commentary tracks, with subtitles, and over three hours of other content.

The picture is a little grainy -- grimy, I'm tempted to say -- in accord with urban film-making sensibilities of the time. The Blu-ray captures this. Nothing is especially sharp, but there is a marked boost in clarity compared to the old DVD.

The sound bites -- especially with Bernard Herrmann's magnificent score. It's a bit crunchy, without much happening in the surround, but again fits what's on screen perfectly.

Running time: 138 minutes
Picture: 1.85:1, 1080p24, MPEG4 AVC @ 21.67Mbps
Sound: English: DTS-HD Master Audio 16/48 3/2.1 @ 1799kbps (core: DTS 16/48 3/2.1 @ 1509kbps)
Subtitles: English
Extras: Movie IQ, Synchronised scrolling script playback; Bookmarks; 8 Featurettes (1080i60 - 105 mins); Documentary (480i60 - 71 mins); Storyboard comparison (1080i60 - 8 mins); Picture Galleries (1080i60 - 9 mins)
Restrictions: Rated (Australian rating); Locked to Region B

The following video bitrate graphs were generated by BDInfo 0.5.7:

Just out of interest -- and remember, this version was never released -- the following is the bitrate graph for the original encode. This had been inadvertently compressed down to fit on a single layer disc. One of these days I must draw comparison frames from both of these. The average video bitrate for this encode was, compared to the 21.67Mbps of the real release, a mere 11.76Mbps:

The video bitrate graph for an encode made in error

© 2002-2012, Stephen Dawson