Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Terminator: Blu-ray vs. LaserDisc

The 1984 film The Terminator made by James Cameron stars Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, and Michael Biehn. It is the classic action sci-fi cyborg thriller flick.

I purchased the THX certified LaserDisc of The Terminator in 1995. It wasn't a reference quality LaserDisc like the THX pressing of the Terminator 2 directors cut by any means but it wasn't a bad transfer either. The original was a low budget production and to reduce costs the film was mixed with mono audio. I have enjoyed watching this movie many times over the past decade, it was a good purchase.

The Blu-ray version of The Terminator is a BD25 disc that uses the MPEG-2 video compression codec at an average 18.54 Mbps data rate. The picture visuals are far from reference quality but they are a huge step up from the THX LaserDisc. Video noise is mostly absent and the image isn't that grainy. The Blu-ray also has much more detail and is cleaner than the LaserDisc. Unfortunately these improvements have a downside in that the special effects shots are now more obvious and fake looking. It's a good looking disc and the extra detail provides a definite high-defness. This is probably the best The Terminator will ever look and it is a dramatic improvement over the old THX LaserDisc.

The old THX LaserDisc, as did the theatrical release, had a mono audio track. Cameron had a limited budget for Terminator and decided to spend the available funds on special effects instead of on a surround soundtrack. This was a good choice as the SFX really made the film work. The mono track obviously lacked any stereo or directional sound information. The mono track also lacked bass and sort of dynamics during the scenes with gunshots and explosions.

Several years ago Terminator was remixed with multichannel surround and many sound effects were recreated. The Blu-ray has an uncompressed LPCM 5.1 16-bit sound track along with a 640 kbps AC3 5.1 track those with older audio equipment. This new remixed audio track is impressive with strong bass and extreme dynamics. The battle scenes now have a kinetic sound force that matches the intense action on screen. You can hear the bullets whizzing around the room. Directional pans add a nice touch to some scenes. The rear surround channels are used throughout the film for an added ambience; urban city noise, crickets near the woods, humming sodium lamps in the parking garage, and buzzing machines in the tool shop. One strange ambient surround effect is the choice of crickets inside Sarah Conner's apartment. What are crickets doing inside? Other than that slight flaw, the sound design is well done and almost a bit over the top in some action spots. I enjoyed the new 5.1 remix immensely and it is a huge improvement over the mono track. This is the surround sound track that Cameron probably wanted originally but couldn't afford.

So what about purity of essence and faithful reproduction of the original version? Is 5.1 remixing like B&W colorization or the adding of CG effects years later? The 5.1 remix definitely has more impact and excitement than the original mono track which was lackluster and boring. So as a home theater enthusiast I like this new 5.1 mix but it would of been nice, form a purity of essence standpoint, if they included a compressed version of the original mono track for posterity. Other than for comparisons, I probably would never listen to the mono track but it's the sort of thing that should be included these days with multi-gigabyte Blu-ray discs.

The video and the audio of the Terminator Blu-ray are huge improvements over the old THX LaserDisc. The Blu-ray video has fine high-def details but it isn't close to being reference quality. The 5.1 remix has strong bass, explosive dynamics, nice directional pans, and enveloping surrounds. The Blu-ray provides a better viewing experience and I'll probably be watching The Terminator a lot more often now.

Highly recommended.

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