Scanning High-Def

Stealth (Sony; Movie •••, Blu-ray Picture/Sound •••½, Extras: None). The opening aerial assault is also an audio assault: I was so overwhelmed by the dramatic orchestral score, rocket whooshings, and booming explosions all around me that I wasn't even aware of the high-def visuals. Musical instruments were distinct above the racket and nicely separated into the different channels. This uncompressed PCM soundtrack really has the power to draw you into the action. The picture is pretty decent, too, with rich green, red, and purple overalls on the carrier's deck and a vast range of vibrant colors in the scenes set in Thailand. An inspection of the white Navy uniforms, though, reveals them to be only fairly bright (they should be dazzling, or someone would be up on a charge), and the blacks could be deeper. Meanwhile, like most other high-def discs so far, this one has no new extras. Not only that, it deletes the extras from the original DVD.

Van Helsing (Universal; Movie •••½, HD DVD Picture/Sound ••, Original Extras ••½, New Extras: None). I'd always found this monster mishmash highly entertaining, so I was disappointed that its HD DVD proved subpar. Although some tones are rich - especially in the masked-ball scene, where everyone wears saturated primary-color costumes - the generally gloomy, blue-tinted images don't have much depth or detail and are slightly soft. This was less noticeable on the regular DVD, but after watching other high-def titles, the lack of resolution here became quite irritating. In addition, the special effects look much more cartoony in HD. And the Dolby Digital 5.1-channel sound is not as clear as I've come to expect, with some blur on the drum-filled score and not much bass oomph.

The Fugitive (Warner; Movie ••••, HD DVD Picture/Sound •••½, Original Extras ••, New Extras: None). Images in this highly involving action drama have rich blacks, sparkling highlights, and splashes of vivid color throughout. Detail is plentiful, so you can see all the lines in Tommy Lee Jones's face and individual hairs in Harrison Ford's beard. Occasionally, the transfer can be overly grainy. There's some three-dimensionality to the picture, and in shots where Ford is about to jump into the spillway, there's a real roundness to his face and good depth in the image, with the riverbank notably crisp in the background. The Dolby Digital 5.1 sound has good separation in the front channels but little surround action.

Species (MGM/Sony; Movie •••, Blu-ray Picture/Sound •••, Original Extras •••½, New Extras: None). This alien-babe-on-the-lam flick has a bright picture with natural skin tones and fair detail - better in the slimy computer-generated effects.

However, there's a general flatness (except in the occasional close-up), not to mention video noise in darker scenes and on background walls. The uncompressed PCM soundtrack has some nice floor-vibrating low-frequency rumblings, and all channels are frequently engaged - though the sound tends to come at you as a wash, without much separation.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (Warner; Movie •••½, HD DVD Picture/Sound •••½, Blu-ray Picture/Sound ••½, Original Extras ••½, New Extras: None). In A/B comparisons, the HD DVD and Blu-ray Disc editions display striking differences. Overall, the HD DVD picture has a wider contrast range, more distinct highlights, and greater detail. Figures have a definite solidity, with separation between them and the backgrounds - particularly noticeable in crowd scenes like the poolside party. There's also a rounder, more sculptural quality to faces on HD DVD. Tuxedos are blacker, shirts whiter, and scarlet backgrounds more pumped. The Blu-ray edition does lack the artifacts found on some of Sony's discs. The soundtracks on both formats here are in Dolby Digital 5.1, and I couldn't notice any difference between them. Each has realistic car crashes, with well-placed movement of the vehicle effects and boomy collisions that have a genuine pound to them.

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