Children of Men (HD DVD)

Note: I experienced playback issues with the first screener of this disc sent to me by universal. Trying to play the first copy of this disc in the Toshiba HD-XA2 (with the very latest firmware) I got an error message to the affect that the disc was not the correct format and it wouldn't play. However, that copy did play in the HD-A20 I just received for review. The second copy sent from Universal played in both players. There have been similar reports online.

Children Of Men takes place in England in 2027. There hasn't been a human baby born in over 18 years. Whether the infertility is caused by plague, pollution or gov't experiments is anyone's guess, and in any case that's not what this movie is about. In this childless future mankind has devolved and factionalized into into a violent, base caricatures of itself. Clive Owen's Theo is doing his best to stay drunk and not care when his ex-wife Julian (Julianne Moore) and her revolutionary (terrorist?) allies kidnap him and coerce him into using his family connections to help them transport a woman out of England. Theo learns that this young woman is miraculously pregnant, and becomes embroiled in her struggle to simply have her child and not get caught up in the maelstrom of political interests that want to use the impending birth to their own ends.

While Children of Men has enough elements to cross-classify into science fiction, like the very best sci-fi movies this one is focused on science's effects on humanity, at a dramatic individual level. Of all the gloom and doom future movies I've seen, this one succeeds because more than the pain and suffering, this movie projects the full weight of the characters' hopelessness and despair. [Spoiler Alert- don't read the next sentence if you don't want to know] While that's challenging to the viewer (this is not any more of a casual date movie than Schindler's List) it also makes for a striking contrast when hope soars just as convincingly when the characters in this movie hear a baby cry for the first time in nearly two decades.

Universal has delivered an outstanding, reference quality 1080p transfer encoded with VC-1. It's incredibly rich in minute,textural detail, and has a deep foundation in blacks with an excellent balance of contrast. In other words, very film-like with often stunning clarity and dimensionality and natural edges. And unlike some recent transfers,this one holds its extraordinary level of detail in medium and long shots. There are several scenes that take place in forest, with leaves covering the ground completely. Look at how rock solid the detail there remains throughout, even when the scene is in motion. Ditto the battle sequences at the end, which seamlessly move into handheld, documentary style camera work. Colors are purposefully subdued, but flesh tones and other familiar objects look right. There are no artifacts or distractions of any kind to speak of, just a rich, film-like image that leaves nothing whatsoever to be desired. There are prettier movies to look at, but I just couldn't find anything to criticize here technically.

The Dolby Digital Plus audio, presumably encoded at 1.5Mbps on this HD-30 disc, is also outstanding. Although mostly subtle, there were moments when this soundtrack delivered dynamic impact that had me jumping out of my chair (and my skin!). Surrounds are used effectively and even aggressively when called for, and even in more tense moments the music and subtler sound effects pull you in. There were just a few instances of "what did he just say" with the dialog, but it's mostly clear. Overall, an excellent track that's close to but not quite at the very pinnacle.

In the Extras department, the discs's U-Control features steal the show. Engaging U-Control in the menu and then starting COM brings up a logo when U-Control features are available, which are Picture-In-Picture features that run in real-time with the movie. Some of the features are insighful itnerviews with teh cast and filmmakers, but what I enjoyed most were the chance to view the commercials, advertisements and news clippings that are so densely layered thorughout the film. Not only does it offer a chance to appreciate the density of a production like COM, it actually fills in some back story and character elements that aren't spelled out in the film. I found this so engrossing that I prabably watched half of the movie again right after the first viewing, when I should have been in bed!

There are also deleted scenes, some short pieces about the film, and a 25-minute documentary called The Possibility of Hope that I have a love-hate relationship with. I'm obviously a fan of Cuaron and this movie, and there are some elements of this I appreciaae. But I can't say I'm nearly as interested in hearing a bunch of "philosophers" talk about this movie as they appear to be in hearing themselves talk about it.

One of the shorter pieces, called Visual Effects- Creating the Baby blew me away. I honestly hadn't known this was a CG character! That's how seamless it was!

Children of Men on HD DVD is a triumph in all areas, and a must-have in my book, in spite of the grim subject matter. The movie is fantastic, the picture and sound are just about perfect, and while the disc isn't totally loaded with extras, the stuff that's here is cool and meaningful. Of course COM the movie is what makes that last bit work- this is a movie I really wanted to know more about. And thanks to U-Control and the rest of the feature set I was able to just wade right in. This is what next-gen is all about.

Picture: 10 out of 10

Sound: 8 out of 10

Video reviewed on Marantz VP-11S1 1080p DLP projector, 80" wide Stewart Filmscreen Studiotek 130 screen and either Sony PlayStation3 Blu-ray Disc player or Toshiba HD-XA2 player via HDMI to Anthem AVM 50. Audio sent as PCM over HDMI to Anthem AVM 50. Ayre MX-R monoblocks and Theta Dreadnaught power amps, and Vandersteen loudspeakers. All video cables by Bettercables, all audio cables by AudioQuest