When “Fellowship of the Ring,” was first released on DVD and VHS (no seriously, VHS!) back in 2001, it changed the way many people watched movies at home. It was one of the films that convinced legions to finally jump into the digital age and buy a first DVD player. It was a converting tool to the masses who didn’t previously care enough about fidelity of sound and picture on the small screen to make the financial commitment to change.

And just a decade later, with VHS dead, the entire “Lord of the Rings” trilogy is about to hit the market Tuesday in the Blu-Ray format. Will it similarly convince its still-potent LOTR fanbase of consumers to upgrade their home-viewing experiences and leave DVD players behind? There are lots of converts already preaching the Blu-Ray gospel, but what about those content with technology and who just want to watch movies? Will Peter Jackson’s trilogy similarly change the landscape of how the masses watch movies?

I set up a test on a Panasonic 50” plasma screen with both a DVD player and Blu-Ray player, remotes in hand to compare the two versions of the films as carefully as possible. This way I could watch a few seconds in one format and then watch a few seconds in the other on the same screen in the same room with the same lighting and the same distance. Are these movies really that much better than they are on DVD? Sure the technology is better but would it matter to these film? Would the difference be enough to make a real difference to a non-converted consumer? After all, I own several versions of these films already (most were gifts, as a rule I do not buy the same film twice).

So how long did it take to notice the difference?


And then:


Well, those letters seemed more vivid but that isn’t really the film is it? And who wants to rush to judgement? To be transparent, my sympathies are with consumers who already have bought this film, maybe twice, maybe three times.

Galadriel’s voice then speaks (in pretty famous lines now) from the blackness and then up comes the title:

The Lord of the Rings

I was sold.
It was hit-me-over-the-head obvious that Blu-Ray LOTR isn’t a step up in quality, it is a pole vault forward.

You remember the gold “The Lord of the Rings” lettering looking like forged metal right? With Blu-Ray it seems you can walk up to your screen and pluck the letters off of your moniter and put them in your pocket. They take on a whole new depth and richness. Understanding how absurd it sounds to rave about titles, I forged ahead with more comparisons – just to make sure.

These are of course the theatrical editions of the films and not the extended editions and that will be a critical point to many fans. But lets put the content aside for a minute and get to the quality of what was delivered first.

On Blu-Ray Cate Blanchette’s Galadriel is more etherial. The armies of the Last Alliance of Elves and Men retains its autumn palette but the gold is richer and the details more vivid. Elijah Wood’s eyes are more empathetic. The Mines of Moria are a revelation with deeper blacks and brighter highlights. When the leaves of Lothlorien fall they feel crisper. The plunge of Gandalf and the Balrog reveals more textures and rocky complexity in the dark. The Battle of the Hornburg is more heroic the lighting of the beacons – sigh- well I could go on an on. The sensation of comparing the two versions and seeing Blu-ray LOTR for the first time is akin to removing filthy, smeared sunglasses that you didn’t realize were dirty.

By comparison the DVD image is flat, lacking in contrast and clairty, which I couldn’t imagine as it was those exact extended editions I was using that I formerly used to show off my home theater system. I almost wish I didn’t know better.

I had some concerns that some of the CGI in the films might be more problematic when exposed to greater detail. I wondered if Legolas hopping on a cave troll’s head would seem more awkward. Nope. I almost wonder if Weta Digital hasn’t tinkered just a tad with that scene in fact, even though I know better.

The trilogy packaging delivers two plastic cases in an embossed slipcase. One case holds six discs, one for each of the three films and one disc with extras for each film. The extras are almost the same as the original release of these films except that the previewed video games have changed to the forthcoming “Aragorn’s Quest,” (which honestly looks woeful) and “The War In The North” (which looks promising).

The second case holds a digital copy of each of the three films that can be used to view the films on either PCs or on Macs which actually helps with overall value and brings the total to nine discs. I confess I haven’t used them yet, but I like the idea and it would make me feel better about the purchase.

I had a very difficult time getting the cases out of the slipcase box while trying not to damage it but overall the packaging is efficient and attractive. The three films are all presented in 1080p in the original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. In non technical terms, it means the high definition of the presentation in the original theatrical dimensions makes regular DVD definition look poor.

Like you, I read the Web and have read a few reviews complaining that the films aren’t top-notch. I can detect slightly less contrast and brilliance in FOTR when I looked for it and looked hard but I say with conviction: the video quality is very good. I wonder in fact if “Fellowship” didn’t look as good as the other two films in the finishing process because New Line was trying to save a buck when the whole crazy LOTR project wasn’t yet a known money maker.

I don’t claim the same level of technical expertise as some reviewers and I have read raves about the Blu-ray and also harsh criticism after trying things out for myself first. I am siding with the raves.

The audio is also crazy good. It comes in DTS-HD MA 6.1. That means Dolby Theater System High Definition Master Audio in 6.1 channels (six surround speakers and a subwoofer). Why not 7.1? I don’t know but the sound upgrade is on par with the visuals. As all the kids are saying these days, the sound is sick!

I made some (re)discoveries while watching these films for the first time in several years:

These are some really good films. I think people forget what was accomplished here and how engaging they are.
The DVD set that features both TE and EE are bad visually. Ick.
I want the Extended Editions on Blu-Ray.

So now we come to it. Duel layered Blu-ray discs can hold at least 10 times more data than a DVD – 4.7 GB vs. 50 GB and up. Technically, I believe, it was entirely possible that both editions could have been released here on the same discs.

As it stands now, fans of the films, who have already spent a lot of money on these them, are being offered the privledge of buying it again and then later buying it yet again to get the EE on Blu-Ray. I know many fans agree that it seems greedy and that consumers are being fleeced or double (or quad or more) dipped. (And 3D is down the road too for that matter.) Of course we vote with our wallets and I bet pre-sales and over-the-counter sales on Tuesday will be excellent. Why would a studio sell this twice? Because we buy it twice. Frankly, I was determined not to, but the difference in quality is so monumental that it is really challenging not to want the best LOTR film audio and video experience available.

As I type this I am watching Theoden confront the Witch King and it is absolutely eye popping. Each consumer will need to weigh the possible feeling of being taken advantage of against the satisfaction of seeing the most brilliant presentation of a brilliant film. The studio should have made both versions available either separately or together, giving consumers a choice instead of leaving them feeling trapped.

However, there is no denying the quality of the product.

Lord Of The Rings Trilogy (2-Disc Blu-ray + Digital copy)