It’s an erroneous assumption on most everyone’s part that old movies will yield a mediocre-at-best visual representation on Blu-ray. It’s derived from the assumption that old materials are not pristine, or that the elements have deteriorated from lack of a digital intermediary. While the latter may be true to an extent, the former is completely misguided. If a motion picture is given a meticulous restoration and given the care it deserves, it can shine as much as contemporary motion pictures, if not more so.
You see, some people apparently believe that whatever film from whatever decade will not benefit from a Blu-ray because it “wasn’t shot on high definition.” In point of fact, old movies were shot on film elements, which have a much higher resolution than Blu-ray, and can look every bit as impressive as its contemporaries.
Not every motion picture can receive a full remastering, as some simply do not deserve it, but here are a selection of catalogue Blus that completely blew my mind.
Nobody can be surprised that Titanic sits atop this list. James Cameron and his team gave this movie an astonishingly intricate remastering, tidying up the film elements for its 3D re-release and inevitable Blu-ray. And the results are, in a word, immaculate.
Replace the 1997 production year with 2013, and people would believe it. Shot on 35mm film, Titanic looks insanely detailed and sharp, not to mention colourful and vivid. Every rivet on the ship is visible, every pore and wrinkle on every actor’s face is visible… Hell, some of the make-up effects look kind of obvious in stunning high definition.
Admittedly, if you get up close to your screen, you may think the image could be sharper, but that’s more of a reflection of the limits of 1080p, not the source. It’s the best representation possible until 4K Blu-rays hit the market.
This 1979 masterpiece might be the oldest in the Alien franchise, but it easily looks the best. I was stunned and taken aback at the quality of this image, which is razor-sharp and bursting with detail. In fact, it looks better than most movies produced in more recent years.
What’s astonishing about Alien is that it does not look “dated” at all. It’s a truly beautiful transfer, and it’s impossible for any movie to look any better.
3. Lawrence of Arabia
As opposed to the usual 35mm shooting method, Lawrence of Arabia was filmed with 65mm film, making its quality even more astonishing. Digitally-shot movies are usually lensed in 2K or 4K, but a 65mm negative is better quality than either; it’s closer to an 8K image. And believe me, the Blu-ray is out of this world, full of beautiful detail, and the image looks incredibly vivid. And the fact that it was shot on film and has a film-like texture makes it more beautiful than natively digital movies.
4. Taxi Driver
The first thing you’ll notice about Taxi Driver is its grain structure. Martin Scorsese’s movie is coated in grain, but that’s the result of its original filmic materials, not the transfer. What’s appreciated is that the engineers did not try to diminish the grain and annihilate fine detail in the process. In fact, by not removing any grain, it’s not a conventionally “pretty” image but it’s one of the most authentic and beautifully-detailed images you will see on Blu-ray.
From top to bottom, it’s an immaculate transfer.
Although the older release was given some digital noise reduction, Warner’s 2012 re-release is flawless, benefitting from a new 4K scan that retains the film’s natural grain structure and brings out even the smallest details in the image. This is the black & white movie which will convince you that older, B&W movies have merit in HD.
Sure, there is some inherent softness to the image, but the remastering left me speechless. Contrast and black levels are spot-on, the image is crisp and clean, and there are no digital anomalies like edge enhancement. Casablanca looks extraordinary.
Naturally, there are plenty of other catalogue releases that look stunning, including (but not limited to) Jaws, Blade Runner, Bridge on the River Kwai, and pretty much every Criterion release. But if you’re unconvinced about the merit of older movies on Blu-ray, the above five Blu-ray releases will blow your mind.