The new blu-ray edition of HBOs classic From the Earth to the Moon arrived today, and eager to see how good/bad it looks I gave it a quick spin. Specifically, I loaded up the two episodes I’d watched on DVD late last year– episode five; Spider, and episode six; Mare Tranquilitas.
I’ll get the negative out the way (and while its a biggie for some, it is pretty much the only negative I can see), and as widely expected, it’s the aspect ratio. Originally filmed in the 1990s when most everyone had a 4.3 television, and a cathode ray tube one at that, the show was filmed for a 4.3 (square) ratio (although thankfully on 35mm film I believe, certainly not on video). So purists baying at losing visual information on the top and bottom of the screen (HBO having expanded the whole image to fill a 16.9 widescreen ratio panel in the majority of homes today) will no doubt carry on their baying. The ideal solution would have been to preserve that original ratio as did HD remasters/presentations of the original Star Trek series and shows like The Prisoner and Space: 1999, but HBO no doubt had their eyes on HD presentations on HBO and worldwide sales to foreign networks, where Joe Public likely switches off aghast at black bars on the left and right of the image on their shiny big televisions. Die-hard fans buying shows on disc or download are the minority audience for shows like this, unfortunately (physical sales very much the minority, it’s the world we are living in, and I feel lucky to have the show on disc at all).
This aspect ratio issue was also true of the last DVD edition of the show, but at least this edition has a saving grace, of a sorts, and that’s the newly-executed visual effects, something I really hadn’t expected when news of this HD edition broke.
Possibly one of the deciding factors against preserving a 4.3 ratio is that the majority of the visual effects (and all of the original CGI shots) have been redone, in full HD to replace the original SD effects, and these have been formatted specifically for the wider frame, so couldn’t have been placed in the 4.3 original. I suppose they could have retained those old original effects shots for the 4.3 presentation but that would have negated any benefit from remastering the original negatives of the live-action material as the effects would have stuck out like a sore thumb (we are fortunate to have the option to keep the original effects shots for the 1960s Star Trek Blu-rays – it’s likely we wouldn’t even have that option were they released today, I doubt the studios would make the effort).
I’ve only seen sections of the episodes but on the whole the new effects shots, while certainly not typical of a modern blockbuster movie due to a no doubt limited budget, look very fine indeed. Much better, anyway, than the original effects shots looked, and definitely succeeding in HBOS intentions of giving the show a fresh update and leaving it more like what viewers expect today. They definitely look more cinematic in composition thanks to them being designed for a widescreen image. When I watched that DVD last year, the visual effects looked horribly dated, particularly on my unforgiving OLED panel- they looked horrible, almost unwatchable, so I commend HBO making that effort. I appreciate some would have liked better CGI but you can hardly expect a remaster of an old tv show to be afforded hugely expensive and time-consuming effects. As it is, what I have seen looks pretty fine and certainly makes the show easier to watch.
The rest of the image has been remastered very well indeed. Colour, contrast etc have been boosted and adjusted brilliantly, and there is plenty of grain for the film purists- likely a result of the image being slightly ‘blown up’ to fill the widescreen frame. Regards this, I’ll have to reserve judgement until I can compare scenes from my DVD but I suspect some care has been given to the framing, I don’t expect it is a simple hack job. A remastering featurette on disc three suggests that considerable care has been given. Skin textures, clothing textures, lighting and colour range are all improved, certainly to my eye (albeit I guess my panel is upgrading the HD image to pseudo-4K anyway). There definitely is a great deal of added detail on the screen, and it definitely looks much better than that horrible DVD did last year- it’s a pretty great HD picture overall; the only real downside I suppose is for those fans who prefer the original 4.3 ratio image. I suppose they can keep (and rewatch) the original DVD edition that was in 4.3 but really, the new remaster is leaps and bounds superior in image quality and they’d be missing out on something here.
So anyway, on the basis of this quick spin I’m very happy and looking forward to really putting HBO to the test with a full rewatch of the series.
Now, if only La La Land can have some really good news for me tomorrow…