Though some suggest that elder Millennials are breaking the trauma cycles of past generations, there’s always going to be a bit of a struggle between generations as each individual struggles to figure out who they are in the world separate from their parents. Even if changes take hold with some of Generation X, those from before certainly came to blows on several occasions. Before the attempt to instill gentle understanding, Gen Z battled Millennials, there was strife between Millennials and Gen X with Gen X and Baby Boomers duking it out before that. This struggle took the form of yippies and hippies against the clean cut squares of the ‘60s and ‘70s. With each generation, the same complaints rise as always, “the old generation doesn’t get it and the new one is immature.” This is relevant as one looks back on Nicholas Ray’s 1955 film Rebel Without a Cause, a film which centers the conflict on a member of the Silent Generation (1925 – 1945) against The Greatest Generation (1910-1924) as a whole. This film is considered a classic, its themes timeless and executed by short-lived talents such as James Dean and Natalie Wood. Now, for the first time, Warner Bros. Pictures is releasing Rebel on 4K UHD with High Dynamic Range, offering a new edition that may reach a new audience.
Found drunk, young teen Jim Stark (Dean) appears to be kicking off his new start in a new town with the same measure as his old one. Brought in to the police station, he observes fellow ner’do’wells Plato (Sal Mineo) and Judy (Wood) chatting with officers before he’s taken in front of a kind officer, Ray (Edward Platt), when Jim’s parents arrive. Each of the three kids is struggling with something that either they won’t open up about or the adults refuse to listen to, creating more friction than appeasement. The next day, things go from bad to worse when Jim goes to his first day at a new school and ends up on the wrong end of Buzz (Corey Allen), a gang leader in the mood to tussle. This choice and Jim’s inability to avoid it sets these kids on a trajectory that will change their lives forever.
As mentioned in the 4K UHD review of The Maltese Falcon, the legacy of Rebel got to me well before the first opportunity to see the film. In this case, it’s been the various quotes from and homages to the film that hit me before I knew their in-film significance. Jim screaming “you’re tearing me apart” or Buzz’s gang saying “nobody here but us chickens” (itself a reference to both a 1908 joke about a fox in the hen house and a 1946 Louis Jordan tune), though the biggest culprit has to be Paula Abdul’s 1991 music video “Rush Rush” in which the bulk of Rebel plays out with Keanu Reeves (Keanu) in the Jim Stark role and Abdul as Judy. Though these references set expectations for what Rebel could be, they could not prepare me for what Rebel is: an exploration of the struggle each generation faces individually and how the inability to address them in healthy ways spills over to the other. In the case of the three leads — Jim, Judy, and Plato — each one wants a different relationship with their parents and struggles to define themselves without it. Jim is viewed as a trouble kid because he lacks the self-confidence not to lash out when called a chicken; likely as a response to Jim’s own father’s issues with not standing up to Jim’s mother’s abuses and allowing Jim’s grandmother carte blanche as she puts down Jim’s mother. Jim sees what is happening, even calling them all out on it in the post-opening credits scene with Ray and his parents, yet none listen. For Judy, it’s that her father stopped treating her like he did when she was younger, stopped with the doting and affection to the point that she’s acting out with Buzz in order to get attention. Even when Judy confronts her father directly, he still gets violent in his rejection, exemplifying the difference in generations and what they see as valuable. For Plato, it’s that his parents’ strife was so strong that they split up, Plato left mostly in the care of a live-in babysitter as his mother can’t be bothered to spent time with him, even on his birthday. Therefore, Plato is hungry for any form of potential connection, so desperate in fact that the ending of the film feels almost inevitable as none of the children can get what they want because of the refusal of their parents to see them as people with emotional needs. This is the great strength of the film, the part that makes it transcend its release date.
However, the beats themselves are odd and difficult to stay connected with. There’s zero issue relating to Jim. Dean (The Grapes of Wrath) makes him relatable, conveying the sensitivity Jim possesses as well as intelligence. He clearly does mean well, attempting as often as he can to sincerely engage people. You can see this when he first talks with Judy, when he tries to ask Buzz and his crew for directions, and when he is stopped by a fellow student for stepping on the school’s insignia: he doesn’t raise his voice or get angry, he tries to talk and work things out. We even understand the internal struggle Jim faces when Buzz confronts him after the class trip to the planetarium as he recognizes that this crew won’t let him walk since they’ve targeted him but he also wants to have a fresh start. Dean makes the internal external, conveying Jim’s desperation not to get poked with a blade while trying to reduce escalation of the conflict. Heck, when he does get the upper hand, Dean deftly demonstrates the burning rage inside Jim and his ability to realize when things have gone too far. That the resultant drag race toward a cliff ends in tragedy is made extra terrible by the fact that moments before it, Buzz and Jim seem to have made peace and are just out to have some teenage fun. This is where the film loses some of its heat and power. A child has died roughly halfway through the film and another literal minutes before it wraps, yet the characters of Jim, Judy, and Jim’s parents somehow seem fine? This isn’t an issue of emotional distancing or unresolved trauma, Plato’s just been shot by police in front of them and that’s when Jim tells his parents that Judy is his girl, much to Jim’s father’s visible relief. It’s a strangely executed moment that sweeps everything before it under the rug with little recognition for what’s occurred, as if the film forgets all the emotional weight that went into building toward the climax as the interpersonal relationships between Jim, Judy, and Plato come to a most tragic head. Certainly the music from Leonard Rosenman (RoboCop 2) conveys the emotional significance, but the characters do not as they just get into their cars and go home. From this view, all the build-up toward something just feels like a long road to nothing.
Before digging into the restoration/remaster properly, here’s your heads up that there’s no information available either within the press release announcement or with the retail copy provided for review by Warner Bros. Home Entertainment that offers any sense of what materials were used to create the restoration, who oversaw the restoration, or who approved it. This is particularly important to know as we did into the pluses and minuses of the 4K UHD release.
Of the restorations I’ve reviewed, the worst of them is likely another WB release 300 and that’s primarily because the source material included such a large amount of digital effects that it didn’t translate as well into higher resolution. Though shot on film, the digital enhancements the film negative went through in order to get the specific aesthetic director Zach Snyder (Army of the Dead) was looking for to match the comic book source material results include a great deal of digital artifacting. The Blu-ray (and even my preferred HD-DVD edition) is far superior in quality to the 4K UHD edition, providing a prime example of a 4K restoration that perhaps isn’t the best version of a home release. This seems to be the case here, though not because the material was digitized by the director during filmmaking for a specific purpose. In fact, as there is no information on the restoration process, I can offer no explanation as to why much of Rebel looks just slightly out of focus, including a few moments where it’s as though the colors are bleeding into each other like a comic book printed with Ben-Day dots. The sound is good with the dialogue and score coming through clearly, but the picture is much to be desired. Granted, the colors are more natural in tone (specifically skin tone), the red of Jim’s famous jacket and Judy’s lipstick are vibrant, and the evening sequences possess a cool nighttime look, but there’s still something off about the majority of the 4K UHD edition. For comparison, the Blu-ray included with the 4K home release has more heighten colors (absent the HDR of the 4K) and is a little fuzzy (as films of the period tended to be), but lacks much of the distortion noticeable in the 4K edition. The 4K of The Shawshank Redemption possessed such dramatic shifts in the visual presentation that it actually changed the emotional tone of several scenes compared to the Blu-ray or prior releases, but that’s not the case here. It’s far more distracting and certainly odd for a restoration coming from (a) WB and (b) for a film of this historical caliber.
In terms of the special features, everything included with this two-disc collection is previously available on prior offerings. If you do opt for the 4K disc, only a commentary track from The Making of “Rebel Without a Cause” novelist Douglas L. Rathgeb is included. In order to watch the 1974 TV special honoring Dean, the two featurettes, the screen and wardrobe tests, and deleted scenes, you must put in the Blu-ray.
Between the lack of new bonus materials and the quality of the 4K UHD restoration, this is not a home release I would recommend. There are plenty of films which benefit from a 2K, 4K, or 4K UHD restoration and every now and then there’s one where it misses the mark. Especially with this being my first-time watching Rebel Without a Cause, it’s a bummer that the look of it didn’t match its reputation.
Rebel Without a Cause Special Features:
4K UHD Disc
- Commentary Douglas L. Rathgeb
- Commentary Douglas L. Rathgeb
- “James Dean Remembered” (1974 TV special)
- “Rebel Without a Cause: Defiant Innocents” (featurette)
- “Dennis Hopper: Memories from the Warner Lot” (featurette)
- Screen Tests
- Wardrobe Tests
- Deleted Scenes
Available on 4K UHD Blu-ray Combo and digital April 18th, 2023.
For more information, head to the official Warner Bros. Pictures Rebel Without a Cause webpage.