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A view on Blu-ray and DVD video by Leonard Norwitz

Stargate Universe SG-U 1.0 [Blu-ray]

 

(Created by Robert C. Cooper & Brad Wright, 2009)

 

 

 

 

 

Review by Leonard Norwitz

 

Studio:

Theatrical: Syfy & Acme Shark (Cooper/Wright)

Blu-ray: MGM Home Entertainment

 

Disc:

Region: A (as verified by the Momitsu region FREE Blu-ray player)

Runtime: 436 minutes in total

Disc One Size: 43,509,657,557 bytes

Feature Size: 22,538,692,608 bytes

Video Bitrate: 15.96 Mbps

Chapters: 10 Epiodes

Case: Standard Blu-ray case w/ 2 discs

Release date: February 9th, 2010

 

Video:

Aspect ratio: 1.78:1

Resolution: 1080p / 23.976 fps

Video codec: MPEG-4 AVC Video

 

Audio:

DTS-HD Master Audio English 3533 kbps 5.1 / 48 kHz / 3533 kbps / 24-bit (DTS Core: 5.1 / 48 kHz / 1509 kbps / 24-bit)
Dolby Digital Audio Spanish 448 kbps 5.1 / 48 kHz / 448 kbps
Dolby Digital Audio English 224 kbps 2.0 / 48 kHz / 224 kbps
Dolby Digital Audio English 224 kbps 2.0 / 48 kHz / 224 kbps

 

Subtitles:

English (SDH), English, French, Spanish, none

 

Extras:

• Exclusive extended version of the pilot episode “Air”

• Audio commentaries by cast and producers on all episodes

• Stargate 101: Presented by Dr. Daniel Jackson

• Creating a New Universe — Over 40 minutes of Blu-ray-exclusive

• Chatting with the cast of SG-U

• Kino Video Diaries including 5 DVD exclusives

 

 

The Film:

Much has already been written about the "1.0" season, those ten episodes originally broadcast between October 2 and December 4, 2009 and which preceded an intentional hiatus. The second half of the season has its ten episodes already titled on the IMDb but lists no specified air dates, except for #11, which is slated for April 2, 2010. Thus the presumed sense of splitting the seasons for video as well. Clearly, this makes the two halves more expensive than a single season of a similar show, such as Battlestar Gallactica. The lack of information on the cover as to the number of episodes contained in "1.0" suggests a deliberate ruse. (By the way, I admit math was never my strong suit, but does the designation "1.0" actually mean anything? Shouldn't it be, for example, "1a"?) However you come down on this business of releasing split seasons for home video, I'm guessing that most Stargate fans would rather see complete seasons of SG-1 and Atlantis on Blu-ray, whether or not they already have them on DVD, before any further episodes of Universe.

The Movie: 4
One way to look at the Stargate franchise is to think of the stargate simply as a dramatic device that enables the cast of characters to move from one part of the universe to another and thus have to deal with new cultures and civilizations. The original Star Trek television series accomplished much the same with warp drive, and they also proposed a competing military civilization. What the Stargate series have done is to develop the idea that technologically advanced civilizations preceded humans in this part of the galaxy.

In the 1994 feature film with Kurt Russell and James Spader we first learned of another civilization that predates humans and how they moved about from planet to planet through a device called a "stargate" and the subsequent enslavement of interplanetary races. The first television series, SG-1, expanded this notion for ten whole seasons, exploring and developing, in turn, two major civilizations (Goa'uld and Ori). Atlantis, contrary to what you might have guessed, does not take place underwater – well, not exactly. Like SG-1, Atlantis is a military sci-fi adventure that spins off from the earlier series in search of the historical "Ancients" to encounter yet another military civilization (the Wraith). Stargate Universe appears that it will be less concerned with military issues, but rather concentrate on character development among the passengers of a single spaceship.

Universe proposes to be just what the title suggests: an exploration of the known and unknown galaxies. Dramatically it works out to be a sort of Lost meets Voyager by way of Battlestar Galaxy: Several dozen people, scientists, military personnel and the odd civilian, working on stargate technology are sent through their stargate to avoid being destroyed by an invading force to an unexpected destination (making use of the previously indecipherable ninth chevron) that turns out to be billions of light years from their point of origin with no clear means of return. And where do they "crash," you might ask: on what appears to be a huge, uninhabited spaceship named, appropriately enough, "Destiny," which itself seems to have been sent on its warp-bending, autopiloted mission by the Ancients themselves thousands of years earlier.

 


The problems that face these people are several: Deciphering what makes Destiny tick and how to ensure the survival of its new passengers you would think should be job one, especially since the ship appears to be falling apart: air and power reserves did not, it seems, make allowance for hitchhikers. Returning to Earth, however, is a competing priority. I'll come back to this shortly, but it is here where Universe takes a wrong turn right out of the gate. The episodes offer opportunities for transport to various planets for one reason or other and, making use of the Ancient's communication stones (which someone had the good sense to bring along, else there would be no show) they can exchange consciousness with specific people on Earth in attempts to settle past wrongs and consider future plans.

Like Lost, the group – what say we call them the "survivors" - begins to sort itself out into those in favor of first understanding what Destiny is about, and the other needing desperately to get off this flying island and return to Earth – pronto. Sooner would be good. But since no one, not even the brilliant, but socially challenged, Dr. Nicholas Rush (Robert Carlyle) nor the nerdy Elli Wallace (David Blue) are able to sort out how to dial back to Earth, here's where the trouble starts. Instead of the survivors asking, "How can I help?" I believe the first question asked is "Where are we?" It's an understandable concern, but why ask Lt. Scott (Brian J. Smith). He wouldn't have a clue.

Just about everyone immediately and tiresomely gets into rage mode, blaming Rush for placing them there - which is true, though the alternatives were annihilation by the invading force or, if they had tried to avail themselves of the stargate to dial Earth there was the possibility of bringing the battle with them, something like an afterbirth. They figured: Rush got them here, he should get them back home, at once. I found this aspect of the first several episodes unnatural and contrived. I am unconvinced that people in such circumstances would behave thus without first catching their breath. We can sympathize with the suddenness of their crash landing, but especially given that many of the survivors are scientists, their lack of curiosity is appalling and, I felt, not believable. We do have a sense of how passionate the factions are, but to me the question is senseless - I never quite got why everyone was in such a hurry.

The truth is that the others (from Rush's point of view everyone else on board is an "other") simply don't trust him – as if, somehow, Rush knew all along they were going to end up here or, barring that scenario, that he would rather stay there, Locke-like, and enjoy the ride and the scientific opportunities it offers. Battle lines are drawn, and there is a natural fight for leadership, the other candidate being Colonel Everett Young (Louis Ferreira, aka Justin Louis). Young is the ranking commander and very few on board are happy with his having to defer to Rush. (Rush feels the same way.)

Stargate Universe is relatively humorless so far, except for the character of Eli, who seems to be placed there precisely and entirely for "balance," in part so that we don't confuse this series with Battlestar Gallactica, some of whose themes Stargate Universe echoes. I am of two minds about Eli: the first is that his reactions to situations are lazy clones of any number of nerdy situations and characters. In some ways Eli reminds me of Buffy's Xander Harris, pining for the girl he can't have. But it is his similarity to Xander that makes Eli seem so duh. Xander, as lacking in smarts as he is, would not have wasted an opportunity to make the obvious allusion to The Last Starfighter as when Eli challenges Dr. Rush and Jack O'Neil about the plausibility of imbedding a math/physics test into a video game in an effort to find a person who could help save the universe. What kind of nerd doesn't know his own cultural references! On the other hand, Eli's moves on ChloŽ (Elyse Levesque) even after he knows she and Lt. Scott are already couple, offer some of the show's most poignant moments.

Like Battlestar Gallactica, Stargate Universe is photographed in dark, but relatively grainless, tones on board the Destiny where a good deal of the action takes place. Many Earth scenes, for some reason that escapes me, are peculiarly desaturated. It's as if Stargate Universe is self-conscious of its derivative nature, and tries to distance it self with the occasional technical device.

The comparison to Lost is perhaps more compelling than to either of the two previous live action Stargate series, but there is one significant difference for the audience, besides the obvious. That difference being that after only an episode or two of Lost, we have found characters to identify with, to feel deeply about and to give a damn about what happens to them. This is because one show is written and cast for exactly that kind of discrimination and the other isn't. Eli certainly sticks out from the crowd, but that's as much a liability as it is an advantage. And Rush, for all his anti-heroic qualities, becomes increasingly predictable and tedious in his righteousness. It is hoped and likely that the lack of differentiation and the contrived situations that grow out of it in the opening episodes of SGU is deliberate, so that as it unfolds its characters will be not only fleshed out, but dramatized, in the best sense. I'm just not sure if I want to stick around long enough for that to happen.

 


 

Image: 7/8   NOTE: The below Blu-ray captures were taken directly from the Blu-ray disc.
The first number indicates a relative level of excellence compared to other Blu-ray video discs on a ten-point scale. The second number places this image along the full range of DVD and Blu-ray discs.

Despite its being fairly dark on board the Destiny most of the time, there is nary a trace of noise. The camera doesn't often hold still long enough or close enough to get a handle on resolution. I think it's just fairly good, but not exceptional. As expected, the kino video footage is manipulated to be gauzier than everything else. (You gotta ask why a culture that can design a faster than the speed of light craft that is still operational after thousands of years can't make a video device that generates images better than our present high definition, not worse.) Scenes on Earth are less good. Scenes photographed on Earth as stand-ins for another planet look are better. The brightness of the desert planet, for example, doesn't blow itself out, so detail is preserved. CG is good, a little better than on previous Stargates, but unremarkable. As expected, no I found no blemishes, artifacts or enhancements.

 

CLICK EACH BLU-RAY CAPTURE TO SEE ALL IMAGES IN FULL 1920X1080 RESOLUTION

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Audio & Music: 7/6
I expected a more gut-grabbing audio track, but still, for a television series more dramatic and less effects-driven it is better than passable: dialogue is clear while spaceship sounds on board and from outside (I guess we have come to expect that outer space is only a vacuum if you go out without your spacesuit) and attacks have some bite , whoosh and snap. Bass has some richness, surrounds struck me as less interestingly nuanced, except for the necessary locational cues, which are well-managed.

 

Operations: 4
Beginning with the cover, we see that there is nothing that tells us how many episodes this "1.0" covers, nor which ones they are. Well, there are ten, counting the 3-part pilot episode as three.

I like that the episode menu, though requiring advancing through each episode until you find what you're looking for, offers a brief description of the story and the choice to play it with or without the commentary. However, we don't learn who the commentators are until they identify themselves on the track unless you attack this from the Special features list, in which case the commentators are specified for each episode. On the menu, each episode is given its own notch on the time line (good) but only as it applies to the episodes on that disc, not to all the episodes in the series (bad). It's also a little tiresome to have Daniel Jackson (Michael Shanks) re-introduce himself with each 1 –2 minute clip in "Stargate 101" even in "Play All" mode. Finally, can anyone explain to me the marketing sense of advertising DVD titles on high definition video?

 

 

\Extras: 7
The Extended Pilot is only eight or nine minutes longer than the three episodes that aired in October last; still, I feel those extra minutes help – definitely to be preferred. We get a chance to somewhat better understand what is going on, why and to whom. A little.

The Bonus Features are spread over the two discs: commentaries by various cast and crew for each episode, and the many subsets of "Destiny 101" are split across both discs. I checked into a few of the commentaries and found those by the actors to be sillier than informative. The Kino Video Diaries, hosted by our resident nerd Eli (David Blue) appears on Disc 2. Though I imagine some folks in the audience will find his sense of humor appealing, I quickly tired of his patently contrived monologue.

The big bonus item is the strangely laid out interactive experience titled "Destiny 101" which contains all the behind the scenes production material you could want, however briefly, including setting up the concept for the new series, director's notes, information about set design, special effects (with a brief bit about designing the "kawoosh" – the bubbly goo that extends from the stargate when activated), location shooting, cast interviews about their characters (typically about two minutes). Included here also is Daniel Jackson's (Michael Shanks) excellent summary overview of the Stargate story and terminology in "Stargate 101." His sense of humor is, thankfully, drier than Eli's. All the extra features are presented in high quality 16x9 standard definition.

 

 

Bottom line: 6
Regardless of how Stargate Universe stacks up against its previous series in the franchise, or how much its themes and architecture are manifestly derivative, I feel the new series has little to recommend it on its own terms – its main difficulty being that its characters have so little soul, so little for me to find special and interesting about them. A description of each character has about as much appeal for me as how they materialize on screen. The new series does not really depend on knowledge of the previous shows: some will find that to be a blessing, others a liability. But just because I didn't warm to the series, doesn't mean that there is anything about the transfer to high def that should deter those of you who did. The Blu-ray is better than acceptable in terms of image and sound. The extra features are extensive, if oddly laid out.

Leonard Norwitz
February 16th, 2010

 

 

 

 


 

About the Reviewer: I first noticed that some movies were actually "films" back around 1960 when I saw Seven Samurai (in the then popular truncated version), La Strada and The Third Man for the first time. American classics were a later and happy discovery.

My earliest teacher in Aesthetics was Alexander Sesonske, who encouraged the comparison of unlike objects. He opened my mind to the study of art in a broader sense, rather than of technique or the gratification of instantaneous events. My take on video, or audio for that matter – about which I feel more competent – is not particularly technical. Rather it is aesthetic, perceptual, psychological and strongly influenced by temporal considerations in much the same way as music. I hope you will find my musings entertaining and informative, fun, interactive and very much a work in progress.


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