Matthew McConaughey may be in the middle of a romantic comedy binge right now (OK, so it’s been going on since about 2003…), but there was once a time where the rough-and-tumble McConaughey was just that: rough. Headlining action movies and films in which C-G-I were more important letters than S-E-X, McConaughey at one point in his career was known more for his grit than his grin. One of the most poignant of those roles can in U-571, a story about a U.S. Navy captain sent on a top-secret assignment to disguise themselves as Nazis and infiltrate a damaged German U-boat. Hardly the stuff of fluff, eh?
Universal has wisely released U-571 on Blu-ray at a time when, quite frankly, moviegoers need reassurance that McConaughey is capable of more than being a beach bum. Sure, the movie’s eight years old; Blu-ray owners can still find solace in McConaughey’s portrayal of a man facing insurmountable odds dozens of leagues under the sea. Perhaps the biggest solace, though, can be found in the audio encoding of U-571 itself, because to be quite frank, Universal has managed to deliver quite possibly the best-sounding movie ever to grace a surround-sound system.
Submarine movies are nothing new, and in fact, their plots are often either contrived or laced with factual implausibilities. What sets them apart, however, is their unique settings, which provide brilliant opportunities for immersive audio and intense action. In each of these cases, U-571 fits the genre perfectly. Although compelling, the plot has so many historical snafus that critics celebrated its farcical premise almost as much as its very release. Lt. Andrew Tyler (McConaughey) and his crew are yanked from their shore leave and told to infiltrate a damaged U-boat and capture a coding device known as the Enigma Machine, which will help the allies finally break the Germans’ codes. Then, the U-boat must be sunk. Sounds like pretty basic spy-flick fare, but a submarine hardly provides the most open environments in which to sneak, which leads to some intense close-quarters encounters of the Nazi kind.
However, with that claustrophobic action came such intricate audio that U-571 won the Academy Award for Best Sound Editing in 2001. Fortunately, Universal upheld that history in the Blu-ray release of U-571, and we have DTS-HD Lossless Master Audio to thank for it. As we’ve come to expect from DTS-HD, it’s not necessarily the explosions that immerse us in a Blu-ray movie, but the subtle environmental audio that creeps from the rear channels like fog rolling over the water. Whereas the loud explosions inside and outside the sub of course sound grand, it’s really the small sounds — the water dripping from wet pipes, the sonar pings echoing off the walls, the creaks of the submarine’s exterior as it dives deeper — that immerse you in the environment more than anything else. Quarantine-like settings such as a submarine provide plenty of opportunities for these nuanced sounds, and U-571 on Blu-ray delivers in every possible way, much like it did theatrically eight years ago.
The 1080p transfer is also excellent, though it unfairly pales in comparison to the audio. In the videogame world, we’re often obsessed with how water looks, so it might seem silly to say the water in U-571 looks realistic. But in the case of this film’s transfer, that’s really the best compliment we can give it. From the waves and lighting to the intricate details on the movie’s machinery, every detail seems to pop from the screen, even in spite of the occasional film grain. The fact that this detail holds up in the film’s numerous close-up shots is especially impressive; sweat never looked so good.
Where U-571 drops the proverbial ball is with its bonus features, of which there are only two. Granted, the demo-quality audio will probably be the main reason Blu-ray owners pick this one up, but a few more bonus features to justify the price would’ve been nice. The first bonus is an audio commentary track with director Jonathan Mostow. Remember the boredom-induced coma we all experienced by the teacher in Ferris Bueller? Yeah, Mostow has that same appeal. Fortunately, his production insight is compelling enough that you can wade through the first half of the track, and by the second half — in which either Mostow improves or your mind numbs to his monotone presentation, one of the two — the information picks up a bit.
The second bonus feature is also feature-length: a picture-in-picture track that includes video segments that were once separate bonus features on the film’s HD-DVD release. About half of these PiP video insights are historical in nature (remember that bit about historians decrying the film’s liberal use of the word “history”?), while the rest are comprised of cast and crew interviews. Normally these bonus features would suffice, but editing them into a PiP track doesn’t really constitute anything “new,” and it would’ve been nice to see something — perhaps BD-Live connectivity to more historical documents — unique to the film’s release on Blu-ray.
U-571 won an Oscar, which in most cases would compel people to snap it right up on Blu-ray. But before you go into U-571 thinking you’ll be inspired by its narrative quality, remember what category it won: Best Sound Editing. U-571 is easily a showcase piece for DTS-HD audio, and it’s a good video reference too, for those in need of something to show off to friends. But in terms of the movie itself, U-571 is a decent action/drama, no more, no less. Well, unless you really do need a reminder that McConaughey can play roles outside of beach bums and wedding coordinators. In that case, U-571 is a must-buy.
Buy U-571 on Blu-ray at Amazon.
- Score: 7.4
— Jonas Allen