Review for Highlander: Immortal Edition
I think I’m gradually coming around to the realisation that I will slowly, and surely upgrade as much of my collection as I can to High Definition. Most films just look so much better that way, and even when the improvement isn’t as obvious, I can still appreciate that they look better than the DVD, and more importantly they sound better, now finally sidestepping that PAL speed-up nonsense that we had to live with for so many years in the UK. One day they’re going to do that comparison thing for movie collectors that they do for cigarette smokers. You know, if you didn’t smoke 20 a day since age 15, you could have gone to Barbados on holiday five times. If you didn’t double, triple, and quadruple dip on your movies, you’d be driving a Lamborghini. Anyway, the fourth time for Highlander, from 4:3 VHS to widescreen VHS to DVD and to Blu-ray. There can be only four?
Russell Nash is a New York antique dealer with a difference. He was born 400 years ago in the Highlands of Scotland as Connor MacLeod and he is different from most men. He was mortally wounded in battle with a rival clan, yet when he didn`t die of his wounds, his clan cast him out as evil. Yet he had to wait for the arrival of Juan Sanchez Villa-Lobos Ramirez to learn of his true potential. As passed down since time immemorial, they and a select few individuals are immortal, destined to live through the ages and battle for the prize. The only way that they can die is through decapitation, when the victor will claim the loser`s Quickening. Legends foretell of a Gathering in a distant land, where the few survivors will meet and fight to the last, the victor will have control over the destiny of man.
In New York of 1985, the police are baffled by a spate of decapitation murders and when they capture Nash fleeing from the scene of a killing they assume they have the culprit. But Nash is a cool customer and gives nothing away, and lacking evidence they let him go. However, forensic consultant Brenda Wyatt is tantalised by evidence of the sword used in the crime, a sword that by all rights shouldn`t exist, and she pursues Nash on her own initiative to learn the truth. The truth that she uncovers is beyond her wildest imaginings though and soon she is caught in the middle of a titanic battle for the future of mankind. For Victor Kurgan has pursued MacLeod down the centuries and is the strongest of all immortals. If he would win the prize, mankind would suffer an eternity of darkness, and in New York only two immortals survive but "there can be only one".
Highlander gets a 1.85:1 widescreen transfer on this disc at 1080p ratio using the VC-1 codec. This is one of those Blu-ray discs where I have to keep reminding myself that it looks better than the DVD, and indeed it is a major step up from the standard definition release. It’s just that it doesn’t look all that great for a Blu-ray. Inconsistency is the problem here, inconsistent levels of detail, inconsistent density of grain, and inconsistent levels of sharpness. The colour balance is certainly better, richer and more vibrant, and you can appreciate the detail in the costumes, the props and the sets. I never really noticed the peacock feathers in Ramirez’ attire before.
Shadow detail is lacking though, any smokiness or haziness in the image erodes detail, and twilight scenes or scenes set at night tend to lose everything into the background. Daytime scenes on the other hand have a level of clarity that I have never seen before in this film. Worse however is the compression, with skin tones appearing smeared at times, and I even spotted mosquito noise, especially on the Scottish peaks in the background of the 16th Century scenes. It’s a poor Blu-ray transfer, but it is much better than the DVD release.
You have the choice between DTS-HD MA 5.1 Surround English and German, DTS-HD MA 2.0 Surround English and Italian, DTS-HD MA 2.0 Stereo Portuguese and 2.0 mono Spanish, with subtitles in these languages and several others. The disc defaults to the 2.0 Surround English track, and that is actually the better choice, even if it is only encoded at a constant 0.7Mbps, as opposed to the usual 1.5 for stereo. It’s a nice, front-focussed stereo track which throws a little work out to the surrounds, but the dialogue remains clear, the action comes across well, and the music is excellent, as you would expect from that iconic Queen soundtrack. I gave the 5.1 audio a quick try and found it to be overcooked, the surround effects feel artificial and not organic, and the sound felt a little hollow and muddy.
This disc comes from Optimum Releasing just before they became Studiocanal, and both logos are present. Insert the disc and you get 14 nation choices for the animated menu.
On the disc you’ll find a feature commentary with Director Russell Mulcahy. It’s an adequate enough track, he’s a little gappy and unfocussed in his comments, but it’s easy to listen to. Regarding one scene, he opined that “It makes no sense, but it looks good”, which is a useful thing to remember when watching the film. I still haven’t figured out how Brenda got down from the roof at the end of the film as quickly as Kurgan and MacLeod fell through the skylight.
The trailer is here, one of the ‘all the good bits’ trailers running to 2:31 HD.
There are 5 deleted scenes totalling 6:14 HD, but they all lack audio (or indeed subtitles relating the script at those points), so they really just satisfy idle curiosities rather than add to the film.
The Christopher Lambert interview is taken from the Warner DVD release that I previously reviewed, running to 8:26 in 480i SD, in French with subtitles.
Most substantial is the Highlander Documentary, split into three parts; A Legend is Born, The Visual Style, and A Strong Woman, presented in 480i SD, and with the Play All option running to 85:06. It’s taken from a 2006 German release of the film, as I assume is the audio commentary. It’s a nice detailed retrospective of the film, looking at its creation with the writers, the look of the film with the cinematographer and the set designer, and a brief interview with Roxanne Hart, who played Brenda in the film. There are twelve subtitle tracks with this feature, but none of them are English.
Decapitations aren’t cool anymore, not in the same way they were back in 1986, when Highlander first came out. Now people are being decapitated for real, the videos posted on social media. I think that took the shine off this viewing of Highlander for me, the same way that I couldn’t enjoy Die Hard 2 for a few years after 9/11. At least I hope that’s the case. The alternative is that I’m finally growing out of the first Highlander movie, the way I did for the rest of the franchise around ten years ago. This time I merely enjoyed the film, partaking of the pop-video style action and visuals from director Russell Mulcahy, enjoyed the eminently quotable dialogue, and revelled in the colourful characters. Gone was the utter love affair for an eighties cult classic, gone was the religious belief that this film was the best thing ever, gone was the certainty that it transcended cinema and approached a way of life. Highlander is just another movie now, and I feel old...
I still enjoy the film though. There’s something about the juxtaposition of epic fantasy in contemporary times that really appeals to me, the idea of a secret, underground world existing alongside our own. There’s also the romantic vision of immortality as both a blessing and a curse, the idea of people living today who have also lived through grand historical times. There’s something about history that is abstract when it comes from the history book and classroom lessons. In a sense history as a living, breathing set of events ceases to exist when those that experienced them directly pass on, but in Highlander those events still remain alive. It’s one of the strongest aspects of the first film that really works, but which became gimmicky in the sequels and the television series. But then again, the appeal of the film could just boil down to epic sword fights in Manhattan!
The film still holds a degree of charm, and I’ll always hold onto a copy in some form or another. But it’s beginning to feel very much a film of its time. The Blu-ray is watchable enough, but it could have been better. It’s another one of those titles that I now own where I can happily say that it looks better than the DVD, but I’ll still hold on for a better release down the line, as I know I will dip again.