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Pearl Harbor, the Vista Series

Pearl Harbor, the Vista Series, on DVD

By Jim Bray

Buena Vista Home Video has released an all-new version of its epic Pearl Harbor, a tour de force four disc DVD set that's a spectacular example of the digital disc medium.

Too bad the movie doesn't deserve such royal treatment.

The film was pilloried upon release as little more than a popcorn flick, intellectually empty eye candy - not that there's necessarily anything wrong with that, especially in a summer flick - and unworthy of being listed with the great historical dramas of Hollywood's history.

There's justification for this criticism. Johnny Carson once described the Academy Awards show as (I paraphrase) "two hours of sparkling entertainment, crammed into a four hour show," and this applies even more to Pearl Harbor: it has maybe half an hour that's worthwhile to watch (the attack itself, which is absolutely stunning), crammed into three hours and four minutes.

So Pearl Harbor's first problem is that It's too long. If they'd ended the movie after the attack (which would logically have been the climactic event in a movie that isn't titled "Pearl Harbor and After"), it wouldn't have been as much of an ordeal. And a vacuous and derivative two hour movie is much easier to take than a bloated and pretentious vacuous and derivative tart.

Then there's the all-too-common problem among movies of the script - or lack thereof. Pearl Harbor is, if nothing, derivative in the extreme. Now, disaster movies like Earthquake et al have never usually been known as masterpieces (Titanic being a notable exception), but they can at least exhibit some creativity.

But Pearl Harbor recycles shots and situations from so many other movies I found myself remembering lines like "Great kid, don't get cocky" (Han Solo to Luke Skywalker in Star Wars Episode Four) when an American airman chortles at his shooting down of a Japanese fighter. And thinking of Titanic as the US ship raises up in the water on its way to capsizing.

And Saving Private Ryan as the handheld camera bobs and weaves, and dives under water while bullets whiz around.

And on and on and on.

Now, paying homage is one thing, but Pearl Harbor doesn't give us a James Cameron, Steven Spielberg or George Lucas wanting to tell a Big Story; it's Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bay wanting to make another big-budget blockbuster, which (though my assessment may be a tad unfair, since I don't know these gentlemen) isn't the right attitude going in if your goal is a work of art.

The story, such as it is, is one of the most clichéd to come from "the magic store:" the love triangle. Rafe (Ben Affleck) and Danny (Josh Hartnett) are best friends. Rafe falls for beautiful nurse, Evelyn (Kate Beckinsale) and they plan to settle down and spend their life together. But History has other ideas and, after news comes that Rafe has been shot down, Danny and Evelyn fall in love.

Naturally, Rafe returns in the end, and the two former best friends hate each other.

When the attack comes, they have to put their feelings aside for the higher cause, even though they still hate each other. Eventually, one performs a Selfless Act to save the other's life and the love triangle is settled without the two male protagonists resorting to a duel.

Pretty original, eh?

As mentioned, the Japanese attack on the American base in Hawaii is by far the best thing about this movie, and if you didn't have to sit through the rest of the flick it alone would be worth the price of admission.

This spectacular sequence (though it also includes much that's derivative) is beautifully done, with plenty of action and visual and audio effects that are nothing short of outstanding. Unfortunately, it's some of the derivative stuff threatens to sink even this part.

For instance, after one of the battleships is attacked it starts flipping over, causing people to fall from the deck and into the water. The shots are right out of Titanic, though rather than get sued (or, to be kind, to be more historically accurate - though I don't know if it is) the ship tips over sideways instead of bow first.

After the attack, the movie becomes even more poorly done, with even sloppier writing. It's actually funny at times, but since the laughter comes at times when the movie is trying to be serious this is not a good thing. In the end, Pearl Harbor tries so hard to come up with memorable lines and meaningful dialogue, that it crosses the line to pathetic.

Oh, and this is the director's cut, so you get even more stuff inflicted on you - including gross out shots of body parts that were originally cut for reasons (I expect) of good taste.

Fortunately, thanks to the DVD's chapter stops, you can eschew sitting through the movie itself and head straight for the attack, sparing yourself from a true ordeal in your home theater.

And I daresay that's what many home theater retailers are going to do, because as far as being a DVD goes, Buena Vista has done a superb job. The picture and sound are about as good as you could want in a DVD, and are an excellent way to showcase the quality of a home theater.

The movie itself is wonderfully presented in a THX-certified (which includes the THX Optimizer for helping you tweak your home theater) 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, and 5.1 Dolby Digital or DTS surround sound (there's also Dolby Headphone audio mix included, which is a nice touch).

The colors are rich and deep, the images are razor sharp, and the overall picture is nothing short of superb. Ditto for the audio, which surrounds you and envelopes you in the action in just the way it should. This disc is a real DVD tour de force.

And so's the entire package. This Vista Series release stretches over four discs, the first two of which contain the movie itself (and since the attack is on disc one you'll never need to take the second disc from its package!), with some supplemental material like three audio commentaries featuring the filmmakers.

With two entire discs of supplementary material you'd expect a lot of stuff, and you'd be right. Here's a list of stuff you get to make this movie more worthwhile:

  • Animatic scene concepts from Director Bay
  • "Boot Camp" segments showing the actors preparing for their ordeal (but not ours!)
  • "Deconstructing Destruction," with interactive special effects sequences
  • 2 History Channel Documentaries that are in some ways better than the movie itself
  • Multi angle breakdowns of action segments
  • A DVD ROM "Definitive Bibliography"
  • Collectible Pearl Harbor post cards
  • 24 page companion booklet
  • and "much, much more."

The package says there's over 12 hours of special features in this Vista Edition, and though I didn't time them I don't doubt it (though three audio commentaries of a three hour movie adds up to nine hours all by themselves).

Still, if this is what Buena Vista is planning with its Vista Series, I'm excited. I look forward to similarly brilliant DVD releases of some films that actually deserve such spectacular, loving treatment.

Pearl Harbor, from Touchstone Home Video
194 min. anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1), 16x9 TV compatible, Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 surround, Dolby Headphone audio
Starring Ben Affleck, Josh Hartnett, Kate Beckinsale, Cuba Gooding Jr., Tom Sizemore and Alec Baldwin
Produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, Michael Bay
Written by Randall Wallace, Directed by Michael Bay


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Updated May 13, 2006