"Special" Features

December 20, 2007
A thought by James Berardinelli
When DVDs first arrived in the late 1990s, there were three big selling points: superior audio and video (at least compared to VHS and laserdisc), more compact packaging, and special features. It's the third advantage of DVD that I want to discuss here. Like everyone else, I was gung-ho about the early special features on some discs. One of my favorites was Little Shop of Horrors, which featured a rough cut of the entire 20-minute deleted ending. (This disc was pulled after being on shelves for about four days, but I was one of the lucky customers to get a copy.) There were gems like this on many 1997 and 1998 discs. Somewhere, however, things started to change.

Nowadays, the average "special features" amount to little more than promotional material for a movie. Want to learn about the behind-the-scenes controversies? Don't look to the special features, where the shoot will be presented as the greatest work environment in the history of Hollywood. And, while most discs contain deleted scenes, often the most interesting ones are omitted. DVD special features often include games and quizzes and similar things that appeal to 9-year-olds. This is understandable if it's a Disney disc, but on something that's rated PG-13?

For the most part, I no longer watch special features. Rarely do they reveal anything of interest, so slogging through them becomes an exercise in tedium. When I buy a DVD, I buy it for the movie so, of late, I have taken to buying the cheaper movie-only versions. Unless there's something truly compelling to be found on the second disc of a two-disc set, I'll save the $3-5 that separates the slim version from the fat one.

It is, of course, folly to dismiss all special features. There are worthwhile ones to be found; the trouble is sifting through the dross. Nearly all of the supplemental material on Criterion discs is worthwhile. (Considering the premium price paid for these titles, that had better be the case.) One supplement to look for is a documentary about the making of the movie. I'm not talking about a fluff piece or a made-for-HBO marketing package. Instead, I'm referring to an all-access, warts-and-all look at the planning, creation, and marketing of a movie. Often, such documentaries are as long or longer than the feature itself. One of the best of these, Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse chronicles the nightmarish shoot of Apocalypse Now. However, for reasons known only to a few (greedy) people, this is not a special feature on any of the AN box sets; it has to be purchased separately.

Once in a while, a lot of effort is put into a collector's edition boxed set, making the term more than a mere marketing ploy. Sometimes, it can take over a year assembling the materials. The wait, once it's over, is invariably worth it. For the rest of this column, I'm going to mention some of the best of the best. This is not intended to be a comprehensive list. In fact, I'm only going to discuss four (or nine, depending on how you count) titles. There are others out there, most of which I own. For me, though, these are at the top of my list, not necessarily because they're the best movies but because the most care and attention has been lavished on their complete DVD presentation. (By the way, had Hearts of Darkness been included in the most recent Apocalypse Now Special Edition, it would have been included in this short list. The omission is glaring and unforgivable. It's a slap in the face to have to pay an additional $20 for it.)

Brazil: Brazil is the granddaddy of this kind of special edition, and it's still one of the best. Initially released on laserdisc by Criterion, this migrated to DVD as a 3-disc package filled with goodies, including two radically different versions of the film and tons of supplemental information that details, blow-by-blow, the "Battle for Brazil." One of the most infamous instances of a director losing control of the final product, Brazil stands as an example of how studio interference can change a movie. This set not only provides all the behind-the-scenes details but allows you to view the cut the studio preferred and the one director Terry Gilliam laid claim to. The set is pricey (around $50), but it has been cut in half from what it was on laserdisc. I like it so much that I bought it twice – once on LD and more recently on DVD.

Alien Quadrology: For fans of Alien and its sometimes-brilliant, sometimes-disappointing sequels, this is the set to own. In addition to providing a full documentary about each of the four movies in the series, it offers extended cuts and other assorted goodies. There's virtually nothing about the Alien series that can't be found on the nine-disc package. And the best thing of all: now that a few years have passed since its original release, this set can be had for a paltry $30. That's less than $4 per disc.

The Lord of the Rings: There are three box sets: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King. Each four-disc version provides an extended cut of the film (complete with enhanced audio and video) and a two-disc documentary exploring every phase of the production. They are available separately or as a 12-disc uber-box set of the trilogy. One can debate the merits of the extended cuts versus the theatrical versions. (I would argue that the longer Fellowship and Return are superior, but the shorter Two Towers is better.) Much has been written about the care and effort put into these special editions by director Peter Jackson and it shows. About $65 for the three films combined is still an extraordinarily good deal. (It's also worth noting that these films were mastered so well that they look good upconverted to 1080p. They're among the most impressive standard DVDs I have seen to-date. The mouth waters at the thought of how this might look if available in Blu-Ray or HD-DVD.)

Blade Runner: This is the release that prompted me to write this. For fans of the movie, it's the holy grail. Five discs, five versions of the movie. Plus 45 minutes of deleted scenes and about 9 hours worth of supplemental material. This is one of the most important movies to come out in the last 25 years and this new, meticulously researched box set allows you to savor every aspect of it. Fans have groused for years about the lack of something definitive. This is it. Blade Runner aficionados who get this on the 25th won't emerge from their home theater until New Year's Day. The full five-disc version (without the nifty silver case) is available in Blu-Ray and HD-DVD for under $30. For standard DVD, to get the full thing, you have to buy the silver case (about $55) or you can get the four-disc edition (which contains everything except the "workprint," for $23).

If nothing else, a few readers may have come up with last-minute Christmas gift ideas...