Six Degrees of Separation

One or two of you may have recognized that “The Demo Scene” was born from the ashes of my regular column at another—nowdefunct— publication.
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Connecting Four Demo Scenes in Ways That Will Surprise You

One or two of you may have recognized that “The Demo Scene” was born from the ashes of my regular column at another—nowdefunct— publication. Its “home” is different now, but the concept is the same: cook up a theme and share a handful of great demo discs that center on said theme. In the old days, though, no theme garnered nearly as much reader feedback as my riff on the old concept of Six Degrees of Separation (or Kevin Bacon, as it were). The notion was that any two people (or actors, or films) can be connected by a crooked line in no more than six steps. So I thought I’d dust it off and revive it here, because, let’s face it, we’re all looking for creative ways to make it in today’s market.

Limbo (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3; Best Demo Scene: Every second of it!)

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The bottomless black levels and punctuating pearly highlights of the video game Limbo seem tailor made for the particular strengths of plasma TVs.

This beautiful little 15-dollar side-scrolling game by Arnt Jensen manages to awe me in a way few video games ever have. Its ridiculously unfussy controls and game play hearken back to the old Super Mario Bros. days of the original Nintendo Entertainment System, but with an aesthetic that only modern consoles could hope to pull off. Not that the game is packed with eye-popping 3D visuals or what have you. In fact, its graphics are utter simplicity at its best–sooty flat shadows and stygian silhouettes that nonetheless spring to life thanks to some of the most captivating animation you’ve ever seen on any screen. Speaking of screens, I’m struggling to think of any display on which Limbo would look anything less than delicious, but the game’s bottomless black levels and punctuating pearly highlights seem tailor made for the particular strengths of plasma TVs. Of course, connecting what’s basically a little one-man project like this to the entertainment universe at large seems like no easy task, but Limbo does feature artwork by Morten Bramsen, who provided animation for Quest for Camelot, which features the voice acting talents of Cary Elwes. The Dread Pirate Roberts himself co-starred in The Cradle Will Rock with Susan Sarandon, who appeared in The Lovely Bones with Saoirse Ronan. And Miss Ronan positively lights up the screen as...

Hanna (Blu-ray; Best Demo Scene: Chapter 1)

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Without thwacking you over the head, the audio mix of Hanna builds an incredibly penetrating reality out of the sounds of ice floating in a semi-frozen pond, the cool enveloping hiss of a gentle wind, and the subtle crunching of snow.

What I love most about this smart-but-simple little action flick is its subtlety. Look no further than the opening scene to see what I mean. Without thwacking you over the head, the audio mix builds an incredibly penetrating reality out of the sounds of ice floating in a semi-frozen pond, the cool enveloping hiss of a gentle wind, and the subtle crunching of snow. The aural impact of our little titular hard-ass heroine’s arrow whooshing through the delicate mix from back to front is the sort of audio demo you lie awake at night dreaming about. And even when the action gets raucous–and raucous it gets, have no fear–it does so with such dynamic finesse that it never overwhelms those subtler elements that make the world so believable. Listen to the background murmur of melting Arctic ice, the hushed breaths, and the ethereal pitter-patter of snowflakes flittering effortlessly to the ground. Audiovisuals aside, there’s no denying that Hanna wouldn’t work nearly as well as a film without Cate Blanchett’s deliciously uncharacteristically villainous performance. It’s a far cry from her angelic presence in Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring, which featured an unforgettable score by Howard Shore. No less forgettable is Shore’s score for Silence of the Lambs, which features nice guy Ted Levine in the equally uncharacteristically freako role of Buffalo Bill. Levine also appeared in The Fast and the Furious, which gives him a pretty direct connection to most of the cast of...

Fast Five (Blu-ray; Best Demo Scene: Chapter 2)

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This stupid sequence from Fast Five is redeemed by its gorgeous high-contrast cinematography, and a pulsepounding soundtrack.

Think of this one as the anti-Hanna. It isn’t smart. It isn’t dynamic. It’s dumb. It’s loud. And never is it dumber or louder than the train heist near the beginning of the movie. This stupid sequence, which is thankfully light on dialogue, is redeemed by its gorgeous high-contrast cinematography, and a pulse-pounding soundtrack that’ll leave you picking up speaker grills in the aftermath. It permeates the room with grinding metal, screeching metal, exploding metal, and engines that roar with the ferocity of a pissed-off dragon breathing down the back of your neck. Dirt flies as all-terrain monster trucks rip across the audio landscape and gleaming silver classic Corvettes plummet to a watery doom. Throw this scene at lesser speakers, and surely their cones will clack like a set of burnt valves. Crank it in a system that can handle it though–and better yet, a setup with a tactile bass system in place–and breathtaking, adrenalinepumping, gear-head audiovisual bliss just doesn’t get much better than this. And although I wish the divide were a little deeper, rapper/action-moviestar Ludacris, aka Chris Bridges... ahem... bridges the gap between this silly action romp and one of the most cherished films of all time. He appeared in Fred Claus with Rusty Goffe, who portrayed Frosty the Barman in that film, and a number of droids, Jawas, and other little alien creatures in...

Star Wars (Blu-ray; Best Demo Scene: Chapter 1)

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The subtle imperfections of Vader’s handmade helmet positively leap off the screen in the Blu-ray version of the original Star Wars.

And I know what you’re thinking: seriously, at this point who hasn’t seen the Star Wars Blu-rays? But have they seen them on your showroom system yet? I know Star Wars is an obvious choice for demo material, but perhaps less obvious is which scene from which film to cue up. It’s easy enough to gravitate toward Episode III, given that it’s the most modern and objectively the most pristine of the six. But forget objectivity. Picking a good demo scene is as much about emotional impact as it is pixel-perfect video analysis. And for your target demographic, I doubt there’s anything with more emotional impact than the opening scenes of the original–well, mostly original–Star Wars. Without a bit of the new digital trickery that litters latter parts of the film, the opening sequence looks unbelievably modern on this new Blu-ray. The subtle imperfections of Vader’s handmade helmet positively leap off the screen. Check out the sequence in which the Stormtroopers hunt through the hallways for a hiding Princess Leia, and tell me it’s possible for the upcoming 3D conversion of the saga to look any more dimensional and engrossing than this. I double-dog dare the film to look any better than it does here.

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