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Stealth: Special Edition

It's the dream of every president and politician who must consider putting young men and women in harm's way — warfare waged entirely by machines. And it's more of a reality today that some might suspect. With technology ranging from Nazi Germany's V-2 rockets to the Reagan administration's ambitious SDI initiative, and now unmanned Predator drones patrolling the skies over enemy territory, the tools of combat are progressively leaving their operators far behind. Sophisticated drone technologies will engage military planners and budgeters over the next several decades and beyond, and they'll become more interesting to the general public as they continue to emerge. Simultaneously, Rob Cohen's Stealth (2005) will appear increasingly silly to later generations — and it's pretty silly right now. Presented as a story of the very near future, Josh Lucas, Jessica Biel, and Jamie Foxx star as U.S. Navy aviators Lt. Ben Gannon, Lt. Kara Wade, and Lt. Henry Purcell — the best flyers in the service, and thus privileged to helm the Talon strike-fighters, aircraft so advanced there are only a mere three in service. The Talons pass muster in their training exercises, but before long they're diverted to an aircraft carrier, where they'll be joined by a mysterious fourth wingman. Each one of the three aviators opposes adding a fourth jet to their unit (for various reasons), but they can't begin to suspect who their new wingman actually is: 'EDI,' an Extreme Deep Invader technology that mates a VTOL jet fighter with an experimental artificial intelligence that's about the size of a basketball. EDI (called "Eddie" in casual parlance, and nicknamed "Tin Man" by Lt. Gannon) proves an able support aircraft during an impromptu raid on a terrorist cell. But after it's struck by lightning, it diverts from its next mission, opening up a wargame on Russia, which it plans to execute. The emergency pits program operator Capt. George Cummings (Sam Shepard) against the carrier's Capt. Marshfield (Joe Morton), while EDI's inventor Dr. Keith Orbit (Richard Roxburgh) is at a loss to explain what's happening, save for the fact that his creation is programmed to learn, and thus evolve. It's only after Wade and Purcell are placed in harm's way that Gannon strikes out on his own, hoping to destroy EDI — but eventually learning that the AI unit may be his only ally against a shadowy conspiracy.

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Stealth was intended to be Sony's tentpole title during the summer of 2005 — it became a talking point instead. With a reported $130 million budget and a domestic gross of less than $32 million, the movie (along with DreamWorks' equally disastrous The Island) caused not merely studio bean-counters, but the general public as well, to wonder if the era of the big-budget blockbuster was over. Perhaps not. Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds was a $200 million smash, while raunch-coms Wedding Crashers and The 40-Year Old Virgin brought in big numbers. Perhaps the best lesson then to be taken from Stealth is that blockbusters can't be bought — they must be earned. And that's best done by tapping into a certain zeitgeist within the moviegoing public's awareness. In 1975, Jaws was just as much about social anxiety and the lack of faith in government institutions as it was about shark-hunting. In 1985, Back to the Future appealed to '50s nostalgia and the universal sentiment of missed opportunities. Even Rob Cohen's The Fast and the Furious found a peg for its hat within American street-racing subculture. Stealth can be faulted for being extraordinary implausible, but so can the titles mentioned above. Put simply, the movie has no blockbuster hook — it's a somewhat routine action film set in the rarefied world of military pilots and AI technology. And that means it's perfectly entertaining, but not worth its $130 million price-tag. In fact, it's very likely the title will crest on the emerging wave of movies that do better on DVD at home than in big-screen venues. Far too often it invokes its cinematic forebears, in particular 2001 and WarGames (EDI "eavesdropping" on people, just like HAL 9000, is a shameless Kubrickian touch). The cast is far more talented that the project requires, especially Sam Shepard as a two-dimensional demagogue. And while first-act digressions into romantic entanglements and philosophical debates offer a few welcome tone-shifts, the second and third acts offer nothing in the way of nuance, firing on afterburners until a conclusion that aims for sentimentality and trips over a couple of very low steps. Those looking for a Friday night flick might give Stealth a spin — truth be told, it's no worse than the average Bruckheimer movie, best enjoyed at home with adult beverages and low expectations. Even so, one can't help but recall Lt. Gannon's defense of flesh-and-blood pilots. "I just don't think war should be a video game," he insists to Capt. Cummings. The same might be said for $130 million film investments.

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Sony's two-disc Stealth: Special Edition offers a solid anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with both DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 audio tracks, which deliver a broad, often loud sonic range. Along with the film, supplements on Disc One include the featurette "The Music of Stealth" (23 min.), a music video by Incubus, and previews for other Sony titles. Disc Two contains the bulk of the extras, including the behind-the-scenes documentary "Harnessing Speed: The Making of Stealth" (75 min.), which chronicles some of the very expensive technology behind the in-flight action sequences. Also on hand is "Detailed and Declassified," a "scene deconstruction with MX technology" feature that includes two sequences, "Kara's Fall" (23 min.) and "The Big Suck" (26 min.), while "MX Multichannel" includes two additional scenes. Dual-DVD keep-case.

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