Steven Spielberg Director's Collection Blu-ray Review: Finally, Duel in HD!

Universal unveils the HD debuts of four of the iconic director's works in this eight-film set.
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With the fourth quarter upon us and the holiday season that comes with it closing in at an ever-alarming speed, it's the perfect time once again for studios to assemble various collections for established home video collectors and newbies alike. But whereas some sets will shamelessly repackage the same movies that have been released individually over the years, enclosing them in a shiny new shell for those whose are easily distracted by such things, others actually make their new releases of older catalogue titles worthwhile by including an assortment of movies that are actually new to the format in question. In this instance, Universal Studios' Steven Spielberg Director's Collection presents fans with four features that are new to Blu-ray.

Of course, it you buy this set on Standard-Definition DVD, you'll only be picking up titles that have already been released on disc, so fair warning there. But since I'm not reviewing the SD-DVD version, I'm going to stop right there on that one.

Steven Spielberg has come a long way from his humble beginnings as an eager prodigy on the Universal backlot, changing the very method of filmmaking in general by helping to establish the summer blockbuster craze with his mega-hit Jaws in 1975, and going on to become one of America's - if not the world's - most acclaimed visionaries. And his talents were plain to see even in his early offerings for TV - which included, among other things, the pilot of Columbo. But Spielberg's most famous contribution to television is, without a doubt, 1971's Duel, one of the movies in this set to hit Blu-ray for the first time.

Written by the legendary Richard Matheson (and based on his own short story), Duel centers solely on the plight of a salesman on the road. When he left LA early that morning, the aptly-named David Mann (Dennis Weaver) was nothing more than a coward to his wife and the world around him. But when he passes an ominous, seemingly demonic semi, the unseen pilot of the perilous Peterbilt begins a white-knuckled game of cat-and-mouse with the meager man in the Plymouth Valiant. Matheson's sense of symbolism abounds for all to see (Mann has not yet learned how to live up to his name), and an extremely green Spielberg manages to - by the seat of his pants, mind you - create what is easily one of the best TV movies ever made, cutting his teeth on the camera while honing in on the very things that would later make Jaws a worldwide sensation.

Duel itself managed to achieve a reputation around the globe, even earning a well-received theatrical run abroad, wherein the film was expanded by approximately 16 minutes to pad it out accordingly. Since then, most (if not all) home video releases of the movie have presented one form of the European theatrical version or another (give or take a change in dialogue here and there) - including the Special Edition DVD from 2004. But whereas that release presented the movie in its original 1.33:1 television aspect ratio, this Blu-ray gives us a matted 1.85:1 look at the feature. The upside to this is that there is now some extra information on the sides of the frame (the shadow of the word "chicken" is now fully visible behind Weaver as he sits in the diner, whereas it isn't fully distinct in the 4:3 cut), but we lose a bit of the picture at the top and bottom of the screen (including a somewhat important shot of fluids leaking from Mann's car towards the finale).

That said, however, most everybody owns a widescreen television these days. And, just like people used to complain about black bars on the top and bottom of the screen when they tried watching a widescreen movie on a 4:3 TV, those same individuals now make a fuss when they view a 4:3 movie on a widescreen television. Thus, Duel is presented in its matted theatrical form. I would have preferred that they include the dynamic movie in both matted and open matte form, but at least I have the old DVD to fall back on if I get in that mood. But of course, the problem there is that this Blu-ray release has a much better transfer. Most of the movie looks positively beautiful, while some other moments (i.e. scenes of Weaver in the darkly-lighted diner bathroom, etc.) exhibit some signs of the dreaded digital noise reduction (a Universal trademark).

Audio-wise, Duel now has DTS-HD MA lossless options in 5.1 and 2.0 (both are equally good), with a Spanish DTS Digital Surround 2.0 Mono track also on-hand. Subtitles are presented in English (SDH), French and Spanish, and the same special features from the 2004 DVD (interviews with Spielberg and Matheson, art gallery, a terrible 60-second trailer) have been ported over here wholesale.

After Spielberg had established himself as a serious director with Duel, it was time for studio bigwigs to let him make his big-screen debut, and 1974's The Sugarland Express was the result. Based on an actual event which occurred in Texas back in '69, The Sugarland Express delivered viewers with the newly-established serious side of former Laugh-In starlet Goldie Hawn. Cast here as Lou Jean Poplin, a young lass who has made a few bad decisions in her life, making yet another bad move. After breaking her husband Clovis (William Atherton, in one of his rare non-bureaucratic bad guy roles) out of pre-release probation, the two force an unwitting patrolman (William Sacks) to drive them to Sugarland, Texas so that they may claim their infant son, who has been placed in a foster home there.

En route to Sugarland, the Poplin party of three establishes quite the long line of followers in the guise of a convoy of lawmen on the road, and a devoted parade of people off of it. As the procession - led by the great Ben Johnson - increases in size over the course of the slow-moving chase, our threesome on the road to life actually become as close to being united a cop and the two felons who abducted him can be. At first, it's all fun and games, with even Captain Ben Johnson permitting the entire bizarre affair to progress, citing that these are just a couple of kids. A run-in with a couple of gun-tottin' rednecks (including Bill Thurman, a regular in Larry Buchanan's Texas-made Z-grade TV movie monstrosities from the '60s) proves things could turn real serious right fast, setting the stage for an ending where things spiral out of control.

Gregory Walcott (the star of another Z-grade monstrosity, Ed Wood's Plan 9 from Outer Space) and Steve Kanaly (Dallas) also star as law enforcement officers in this comedy/drama from the era of road trip movies, and Ted Grossman - the ill-fated estuary victim in Spielberg's next project, Jaws - are also featured. Another new to Blu-ray title in the Steven Spielberg Director's Collection, The Sugarland Express isn't the best title the filmmaker has helmed, but it definitely allowed him to depart from the more fiction-oriented TV work he had made previous to this and work with the element of real life human drama he would later perfect. The film is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio in a more than decent presentation with English DTS-HD MA 2.0 Mono and French and Spanish DTS Digital Surround 2.0 Mono audio tracks, and optional English (SDH) subtitles. A lonely trailer (culled from a lesser-quality video source) is the sole extra for this disc.

The Sugarland Express was the first of many collaborations between Spielberg and composer John Williams, who would stay by the side of our filmmaker for better or for worse. And both of those conditions are represented admirably with the next two titles in the set, Jaws and 1941. As just about every person worth talking to in the world should know, Jaws has since gone down in history on many fronts. It was the biggest moneymaker ever at that point in time, helped create the summer blockbuster season as we know it, and created a wave of new filmmaking in general. The story, about ironically aquaphobic police chief Brody (Roy Scheider) of a small island town ("It's only an island if you look at it from the water," as he drunkenly philosophises) who realizes his community has been targeted by a very hungry, very big, and very mean great white shark.

Brody calls in marine biologist Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) to help him convince the city council (led by Murray Hamilton as the mayor of "Shark City") that the presence of the elusive man eater is a threat to the population of the seaside resort province, but the council are only concerned about the financial welfare of the struggling town. After quietly hiring Quint (Robert Shaw, in what has since become one his most memorable performances) - a loud, foul-mouthed shark hunter with a very different take on the world - the trio of determined humans set out to battle a great big fish. Jaws ignited a powder keg (or compressed air tank, if you prefer) of imitations, sequels, merchandising, and much more in its wake, and the same outstanding 2012 Blu-ray release of the motion picture blockbuster is included in its entirety in this set.

The next title in the Steven Spielberg Director's Collection is the 1979 comedy 1941 - a movie that proved even the type of highly-acclaimed filmmaker who has become a household name following two ginormous back-to-back hits (Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind for Columbia Pictures) is bound to stumble and fall just like anyone else. And 1941 was definitely an instance where Spielberg stumbled a bit. With an insanely overboard script by Back to the Future's own Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale (who would later tone it down a bit with the much better Used Cars), the story here takes place in a chaotic and paranoid Los Angeles several days after the Battle of Pearl Harbor. Every civilian is worried about another sneak attack, but seems to suffer from one form of insanity or another, whereas every enlisted man just wants to get laid.

Meanwhile, off the coast of Southern California, a Japanese sub (commanded by Toshiro Mifune) surfaces with an accompanying Nazi officer (Christopher Lee) in tow, looking to destroy Hollywood. Unfortunately, the bad guys are just as crazy and incompetent as the Americans, and their attempts to locate the movie-making capital of the world results in the destruction of the Pacific Ocean Park. And while the miniatures used in that epic battle are quite cool, 1941 is mostly just an irritating, overbearing assault on one's eyes, ears, and sense of humor - taxing each equally. John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, John Candy, Treat Williams, Ned Beatty, Tim Matheson, Robert Stack, Warren Oates, Nancy Allen, Slim Pickens, and Joe Flaherty represent just some of the many talent that doesn't quite get enough chance to shine in this crazy madcap controversial comedy.

Another new to Blu-ray release here, 1941 is presented here with an option to view the feature film in both its original theatrical cut and its extended home video release, which runs nearly thirty-minutes longer. Included here are the same special features the few fans of the movie saw on the 1999 DVD release of the movie, presented once more in their non-anamorphic Standard Definition glory. While that is most assuredly quite a bit of a bummer, the video/audio aspects of either cut of the feature film is a marked improvement. The movie sports a new, quite beautiful HD transfer, and one need only check out the paint factory scene to see how well the color balance is. In terms of aural support, a 5.1 DTS-HD MA mix is the sole option here, and subtitle are offered up in English (SDH), Spanish, and French.

Redeeming yourself after the notoriety of something like 1941 is not an easy task, but after introducing the world to the character of Indiana Jones in Paramount's international blockbuster Raiders of the Lost Ark, Spielberg found himself returning to the top of the world again. But it was the 1982 Universal hit (double entendre included) E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial that really took the cake. The tale of a funky, creepy-looking alien critter (created by Italian effects artist Carlo Rambaldi) left behind on Earth after its kind depart unexpectedly and the dangerous dilemma that follows, E.T. has since become required viewing for audiences of family-friendly fantasies, as well as anyone who just loves a good ol' heartwarming fish-out-of-water drama. Or the sight of Dee Wallace in a cat suit, whatever floats your boat.

After Spielberg made the controversial mistake of enhancing the film's special effects and replacing guns with walkie-talkies (à la his filmmaking buddy George Lucas), he presented audiences with the original unaltered version of the film for its 30th Anniversary Blu-ray Edition, which is exactly what we get here in the Steven Spielberg Director's Collection, so don't panic.

In-between the second and third (real) Indiana Jones outings and having helmed two very powerful dramas for Warner Brothers (The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun), Spielberg sat in the director's chair to create his first official remake, 1989's Always - a modernized take on a World War II romantic drama, 1943's A Guy Named Joe with Spencer Tracy. Updating the action from warbound pilots abroad to that of domestic aerial firefighters. Here, Richard Dreyfuss stars as Pete, a selfless hotshot pilot who loves to fly by the seat of his pants and take a risk if he thinks he can get away with it - something his devoted girlfriend Dorinda (Holly Hunter) disapproves of highly. In fact, Dorinda has the overwhelming feeling Pete should retire from the business and start training a new generation of flyers.

Alas, one final stunt - performed to save the life of his comrade in arms Al (John Goodman) - results in Pete buying the farm. Greeted by a kindly angelic-type being who calls herself Hap (played by Audrey Hepburn in her final film role), Pete is given the task of watching over a younger pilot named Ted (a tall drink of water named Brad Johnson). As fate would have it, Ted signs up as a trainee of Al's, who has since taken the job Pete was originally going to assume. At first, Pete is having the time of his death in watching over the junior hunk, guiding him to do all the wrong things just to annoy his old pal. But when Dorinda - whom Ted feels is the only woman for him, having met her once before Pete's death - appears back in the frame, Pete has a hard time letting the love of his former life go.

Roberts Blossom and Marg Helgenberger co-star in this tearjerker of a love story, which didn't fare all that well at the box office on account of it being decidedly out of Spielberg's typical range. Though it certainly isn't a classic, it's an interesting view today, 25 years after the fact, and I'd take this over his other remake, The War of the Worlds any day. The last of the new to Blu-ray titles in this eight-disc set, Always is presented in a lovely High-Def transfer, with an English 5.1 DTS-HD MA lossless audio mix accompanying. French and Spanish DTS Digital Surround 2.0 tracks are also included on the disc, as are English (SDH), French and Spanish subtitles. Sadly, much like The Sugarland Express, there are no special features here other than the film's theatrical trailer, which, for some reason, sports a copyright date of 2010 (?).

Lastly in this set, we have yet another high and low point from Spielberg's career: the ultra-successful Jurassic Park and its lackluster overhyped sequel, The Lost World: Jurassic Park - the presentations and special features of which in this set are identical to that of the the previous 2011 Blu-ray releases. The first installment, from that far off year of 1993, represented not only a fine example of filmmaking in-general, but also ushered in a new wave for cinema: that of special effects. The story here, based on the Michael Crichton novel (with a screenplay co-written by the author himself), should fall into that same category as Jaws when it comes to topical conversation with just about any halfway interesting person you meet, but in case you missed it: imagine Westworld with dinosaurs. There.

Incorporating mostly animatronic effects over the still new-to-the-arena CGI, Jurassic Park left its own epic tidal wave of a wake, spawning its own venerable assortment of imitations, merchandising, and sequels - the first of which, 1997's The Lost World: Jurassic Park, was also directed by Spielberg. Although it proved to be hit at the box office, the film in itself was quite a bit of a letdown, receiving more Golden Raspberry nominations than Oscar nods (and failed to win a prize at either ceremony). With most of the film devoted to special effects more than anything else, the tale loosely based itself off of Michael Crichton's own literary sequel, taking basically the same concept and mashing it together with King Kong.

The Lost World: Jurassic Park hasn't exactly succeeded in winning over more fans in the years that have followed, and its inclusion in Universal Home Video's Steven Spielberg Director's Collection may be seen as something of an odd selection in my opinion, mostly because it's a sequel to another film in the set more than anything. Frankly, the whole assortment is is a bit of a mixed bag, representing the epic, the good, and the not-so-great. I suppose some people will be upset that Schindler's List or Munich are not included here, as they were also Universal titles (whereas those people who don't understand the concept of studio ownership will no doubt be upset that the movies Spielberg directed for other companies are not included in this set).

To put it as simple as possible, this set is obviously geared at family-friendly audiences who don't want to be "depressed" by a topic as serious as that of the Holocaust. While the unrated antics of the uncut version of 1941 may have earned an R rating several decades back, it pretty much falls onto the PG-13 side of things today. Plus, it's a comedy. Likewise, none of the movies in this eight-film set step over the MPAA's PG-13 rating, so keep that in mind whether you're looking to form a complete Spielberg anthology or simply buying a nice assortment of movies for the family to enjoy. The set is presented in a book-style format (akin to say, Universal's Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection from 2012), and comes with a bonus booklet.

Of course, the real selling point here for purists will be the HD debuts of Duel, The Sugarland Express, 1941, and Always. Providing you don't mind double-dipping any of the other titles included here, this will probably be the sole purpose for many a purchase. I imagine single-disc releases will find their way onto the market sometime down the road, but this is the only way we'll be able to see a cult classic like Duel - which is most assuredly a highlight of the collection - in HD. And I'll recommend the Steven Spielberg Director's Collection for those new to Blu-ray titles alone.

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