DVDs: War Correspondents

War of the Worlds DreamWorks
Movie ••½ Picture/Sound ••••½ Extras ••½
Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith Lucasfilm/20th Century Fox
Movie •••• Picture/Sound ••••½ Extras ••••
Over the course of their illustrious careers, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas created the modern blockbuster and made their names synonymous with epic, crowd-pleasing entertainment. Recently, however, Spielberg movies like The Terminal and Catch Me If You Can left most audiences underwhelmed. And Lucas's Star Wars: Episodes I and II - which ended his 22-year hiatus as a director - thrilled few beyond the series' most devoted fans. Returning to the summer-movie sweepstakes in 2005, both filmmakers took on the considerable challenge of restoring some of the luster to their mega-reputations.

In War of the Worlds, Spielberg adheres pretty closely to H. G. Wells's tale - but that only leads to an overemphasis on violence and gore as the story gradually loses steam. And neither the breathtaking special effects nor the considerable presence of child-star Dakota Fanning can save us from a miscast Tom Cruise and his character's predictable redemption. Cruise may have ensured a big opening for the film, but he also makes the proceedings seem calculated and insubstantial.

Substance hasn't exactly been the strong suit of Star Wars in recent years, but Revenge of the Sith benefits from giving the last word on the saga, and, despite a thin script, it's quite a pleasure to see the series' threads tied together after 28 years.

Worlds' visuals come off better than Sith's because their seamless blend of traditional filmmaking and digital effects has visceral impact. Those giant, creaking tripods from outer space seem all too real - and genuinely scary. Sith's visuals are unconvincing at times, despite all the money and technology. The movie was shot digitally, and huge swaths of it are 100% computer-generated. For all the creative control this method affords, it still lacks the true-to-life feel of first-rate cinematography. Certain scenes and sequences look cartoonish because that's exactly what they are - computer-animated images. After 212 hours, it seems more like you've eaten a big bag of candy than enjoyed a sumptuous meal. Nonetheless, in a head-to-head comparison of Lucas and Spielberg based on their latest films, Lucas emerges victorious. Sith far surpasses its two predecessors - and my own downsized expectations.

The DVD picture on each of these two-disc sets is virtually flawless, with color, contrast, and detail so spot-on that no one's going to get nostalgic about theatrical presentations. And each soundtrack ranks among the most dynamic I've ever heard. Tonal boundaries are stretched to the limit at each end of the spectrum, and the surround channels overflow with spatial information as effects move in lockstep with the action onscreen. Sith's no-holds-barred opening sequence borders on a virtual-reality experience. Both titles make for full-throttle home theater.

Sith trounces Worlds when it comes to extras. In fact, it may provide the most complete portrait of how a film was made. Besides an informative commentary by Lucas and his colleagues, there's a sprawling 90-minute documentary, Within a Minute, that outlines the contributions made to a single climactic sequence by each of the production's departments (almost 1,000 people in all). You also get 10-minute featurettes on the stunts and Anakin Skywalker's transformation to Vader, 15 short Web documentaries, a videogame preview, a music video, and six fully finished deleted scenes (10 minutes) sure to thrill fans.

Worlds also has a 90-minute documentary, but it quickly grows tedious. And as usual, Spielberg doesn't provide a commentary - just a brief onscreen introduction.

Other extras include eight featurettes ranging in topic from Wells to the animated pre-visualizations of scenes. Worlds: [PG-13] English, Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS 5.1, and Dolby Surround; French, Dolby Digital 5.1; letterboxed (1.85:1) and anamorphic widescreen; two dual-layer discs. Sith: [PG-13] English, Dolby Digital EX and Dolby Surround; French and Spanish, Dolby Surround; letterboxed (2.35:1) and anamorphic widescreen; two dual-layer discs.

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