U-571 (2000)
Universal Home Video
Extras: Commentary Track, ’Making Of’ Featurette, 4 Additional Featurettes, ’Capturing the U-505’ Archival Footage, Theatrical Trailer and more

Not since Wolfgang Petersen’s intense TV production "Das Boot" almost 20 years ago have we seen a truly impressive movie that took viewers into the steel bowels of a World War II submarine, allowing us to take the perspective of those men locked up inside the cigar shaped boat. Universal Pictures’ "U-571" is a film that manages to capture some of the dank moments that made the 6-hour mini-series "Das Boot" such a landmark production. Now that Universal Home Video is making "U-571" available on DVD in a Collector’s Edition filled with extras, it was time for me to crank up the volume and take a dive.

The German U-Boat U-571 is disabled by a depth charge attack from an Allied destroyer but does not sink. The submarine escapes the attack and surfaces in high waters, sending off radio messages for help to the German headquarters. This is one of those rare moments the Allieds had been waiting for, and in disguise as a German U-Boat, an American submarine is sent to the location to rendezvous with the disabled German ship. The orders are clear and simple, kill everyone alive, get Enigma, a top secret coding device on board, and send the German ship to the bottom of the sea before help arrives.

Everything goes according to plan and the U.S. mariners are ready to blow up the U-571 when their own mothership is suddenly torpedoed and sunk with most of the crew drowning in front of their eyes. The real supply submarine has arrived on the scene, and took action without further warning. The remaining American soldiers now have to do with an almost unarmed and mostly disabled foreign submarine to save their lives and their mission. An underwater dogfight ensues and the U-571 manages to sink the opposing U-Boat. Surfacing, the crew plans to take the captured submarine and Enigma to safety, but unexpectedly they run into a German destroyer. Unable to disguise their origins any longer, the U-571 disables the destroyer’s radio tower and then takes flight… with the destroyer hard on its heels.

Comparisons of "U-571" to "Das Boot" are obviously tempting given the subject matter, but I think it is important to realize that the films are very dissimilar in nature and hence do not really lend themselves to such comparisons. "Das Boot" was a dramatic exploration of human behavior in extreme situations, especially in its original 6-hour cut, while "U-571" is a rather typical Hollywood action vehicle. The only thing both films really have in common is the fact that both play mostly inside a German U-Boat, with climactic bombardment from above.

"U-571" is bombastic in all aspects, ranging from the great and authentic set pieces to the massive underwater explosions and the display of brute force from the German destroyer showering the submarine with depth charges. Excitingly told and full of thrills, "U-571" is a high-energy thrill ride for the senses. The story develops very quickly and beginning with the opening scene, the film never lets go. The characters are constantly on edge – a byproduct of the claustrophobic environment – and the suspenseful arc of the film will keep you on the edge of your seat until the final – though somewhat inconclusive – moments. A good cast helps to make the atmosphere more palpable and Matthew MacConaughey, Bill Paxton, and Harvey Keitel are only some of the well known names driving this story.

On this Collector’s Edition DVD from Universal Home Video we get to see "U-571" in a <$16x9,16x9 enhanced> <$PS,widescreen> transfer in the film’s original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The presentation has a very high definition and reveals even most subtle details in the imagery. The print is free of any defects and also shows no significant signs of noise, creating a stark image. Given the dark nature of the film, this is not an easy task, but a perfectly adjusted black level and good contrast, give the image the whole gamut of shades and gradients to work with. Colors are generally strong and well reproduced, although the minimalist lighting inside the submarine coats many of the colors in muted tones. Only when the ship surfaces and the daylight pours in, we get to see the full power of the colors – although in those scenes occasional edge-enhancement is visible. This does not mean that the film is color- or lifeless however. The beautiful photography is arranged to accommodate this interior color scheme and contrasts it nicely with vivid underwater hues for exterior shots. The digital compression of dark material the like of which is making up almost the entirety of "U-571" is not a trivial undertaking. With that in mind I was expecting to find some artifacting in selected scenes, only to find none. The film is beautifully presented on this DVD nicely maintaining all the details in the transfer. Gradual color fall-offs, which are especially common in the underwater exterior shots, are nicely reproduced without banding or noticeable <$pixelation,pixelation>.

What an audio track… I have seen and heard a great many DVDs as you all know, but I have to admit that I was very impressed with the audio presentation "U-571" delivered on this DVD. Containing a <$5.1,5.1 channel> <$DD,Dolby Digital> mix as well as a <$DTS,DTS> audio track, this DVD rocks in the truest sense of the word. Your audio equipment will get a workout like it may never have before. With incredible dynamics and a very wide frequency response, this sound track contains a bass extension that is simply mind boggling. The bass extension is used for the majority of the film and is absolutely clean and free of distortion. What is even more impressive – after all, an exaggerated bass extension is the simplest thing to achieve – is the directionality and spatial integration of the track. You are constantly bombarded with a barrage of noises from all directions. Debris flying overhead, torpedoes passing to the left, rivets exploding from all directions under pressure, sonar pings that fill the entire room and seem to stand there for a second, this audio track has it all. Especially in the DTS version the spatial location of sound sources can be exactly pinpointed, adding some additional transparency to the track.

All the while, the dialogues are well integrated in the movie and always understandable. Given the wealth of ambient effects I was very pleasantly surprised how well-balanced the track came across and for once in a big budget Hollywood movie, we get to hear and see real Germans without fake accents. The fact that this film has been co-produced with a European studio may have helped.
"U-571" also contains an absorbing orchestral score by Richard Marvin. Heavily used throughout the film together with the sound effects, the score is also highly directional and creates a very wide sound stage that constantly extends to the surround channels. With a great bass extension, music has a beautiful richness that adds even more to the overall presentation of this film, and once again the DTS track delivers an increased spatial integration with some added clarity. In a word, this is a reference audio track and one of the most impressive I have heard on any DVD.

There are a great number of supplements on this disc, and director Jonathan Mostow has obviously been vital in the preparation of these supplements, as he personally hosts the majority of them. He has also contributed an audio <$commentary,commentary track> that is informative and engaging. Offering a lot of insight in the production as well as a lot of historical background, his discussion is highly informative, although a bit monotonous and hence hard to follow at times. However, ever so often, Mostow breaks out of the dry elaboration and begins to become more animated in his excursions, especially as the film progresses. Overall I found it to be a very informative, albeit not very entertaining, <$commentary,commentary track> – which is not necessarily a bad thing. On a side note I would like to remark that the <$commentary,commentary track> is recorded at a very low level, requiring you to turn up the volume a good notch.

The DVD also contains a 13-minute "Spotlight On Location" featurette that is filled to the brim with valuable information. Without promotional snippets, this featurette offers wall-to-wall interviews with cast and crew members. It’s not necessarily production related, but offers additional insight into submarine life during World War II, giving you a better understanding for the events depicted in the film.

A series of other featurettes cover aspects like the building of the submarine sets on which the movie was shot. With a good behind-the-scenes look and many interviews, this segment is educational as it is informative. From there it’s becoming even more exciting as one featurette covers "Enigma," the central element of the film’s story. Engima was a device that was used by the Nazis to encode their radio messages. It was highly sophisticated and almost indecypherable. Most of the damage German destroyers caused in the Atlantic has to be attributed to Enigma and the Allied’s inability to listen in on the enemy’s radio messages. The featurette on this disc explains how it worked, why it was so important to obtain and how in real live events such as the ones depicted in "U-571" have taken place.

"Britain Captures The U-110" is a featurette that then takes a close look at one such incident in which an Enigma machine was captured from a German U-Boat. Lt. Commander David Balme, the man, who captured the U-110 during the war, tells in vivid pictures what happened in those days, adding to the impression the film itself may have left on you. In yet another featurette, Vice Admiral Patrick Hannifin talks to director Jonathan Mostow about what it was like to be a submariner during World War II. Hannifin who also served as an advisor on the film explains the hardship of the men on board and the importance of their missions, adding further credibility to the events depicted in the film.

To me one of the undisputed highlights is a small segment called "Capturing the U-505." It is made up of original archival footage, showing how a German U-Boat has been captured during the war. Presented like a news reel, the most striking thing about it is that these images are so similar to the ones in the movie, showing just how well the filmmakers have recreated the experience. Together with the energetic voice over, this is an invaluable time document that has found its way onto this DVD.
A Theatrical trailer, production notes and cast biographies are also part of the release, of course, as well as weblinks and some DVD-ROM features.

"U-571" is modern live wire entertainment, highly energetic and filled with blasting action. At the same time the film is very authentic, masterfully recreating the gloomy World War II scenario on the raging seas. The film is not as dramatic a study as you may expect but it is a gripping popcorn movie at its best. The Collector’s Edition DVD that Universal Home Video has prepared here is filled with valuable and exciting extras, making this a sure-fire hit. Make sure to get your copy and take the dive!