Naked Lunch, On the End Of Every 4k

I've been waiting for this.  Naked Lunch is one of David Cronenberg's absolute best, meeting perfectly in the middle between his classic early horrors and his more ambitiously mainstreams later work: the best of both worlds.  And Criterion's blu-ray has served me well.  But this film has been crying out for a while now to get a taste of the 4k world, and hopefully some fresh special features.  Arrow heard.  I pre-ordered their limited edition the day they announced it, so now let's see what they were able to do.
I generally prefer Cronenberg's original works to his adaptations, but that's another way this film manages to be the best of two worlds.  Naked Lunch is a fascinating exercise, as it adapts little of William Burroughs' book (although, yes, "the talking asshole" is present), taking large swaths of content from Burroughs' other writings, his personal life and Cronenberg's own imagination, resulting in a wholly original work that keeps the spirit of the original work but also does its own thing.  Peter Weller (Buckaroo Banzai, Robocop) is surprisingly effective as Burroughs' alter ego, Bill Lee, and he manages to keep the amazing supporting cast from running away with the show.  There's Judy Davis, Ian Holm, Julian Sands, Cronenberg all-star Robert Silverman and Roy Scheider as Burroughs' recurring villain Dr. Benway.  The sets are exotic and the special effects are as seductively real as they are grotesque.  Howard Shore composes a dark, almost sinister score offset with period jazz performed by Ornette Coleman
You had to import Naked Lunch on DVD until 2003, when Criterion gave it its US debut as a 2-disc special edition.  Ten years later, they released the blu-ray edition, with all the same content fit onto a single, dual layer BD disc.  Another ten years now and it's the UHD era.  The baton has been passed to Arrow, who've restored the film in conjunction with Turbine (who are releasing their own UHD concurrently in Germany) in 4k from the original camera negative with a whole new batch of special features in a fancy, limited release (with a standard edition sure to follow).
1) 2003 Criterion DVD; 2) 2013 Criterion BD; 3) 2023 Arrow UHD.
Criterion's master, which seems to be the same in 2003 and 2013, is taken from the 35mm interpositive and framed at 1.78:1.  Arrow's looks surprisingly close to the Criterions considering it's 20 years later, in higher resolution and taken from a better source.  Don't get me wrong, it's an upgrade; just not the eye opening revelation I was expecting, which I believe says more about the quality work Criterion did the first time around than any kind of knock on Arrow's.  Arrow have matted the film to 1.85:1, also drawing in additional slivers on the left- and right-hand edges (notice we get a bit more of the "A" in "BENWAY" in the window of the first set of shots), and the screenshots naturally appear darker here as their edition has Dolby Vision/ HDR10.  The UHD's higher resolution certainly preserves rounded edges that turn into pixelated blocks on Criterion's BD when you zoom in, and the colors look more naturalistic and draw you further into Cronenberg's mysterious tones - the reds are particularly strong.  I was a little surprised by the softness of the grain, but otherwise, it's a consistently moody and attractive image.

All three editions feature the original stereo mix, in DTS-HD on the blu-ray and LPCM on the UHD.  Arrow has also added a 5.1 mix in DTS-HD to their disc.  And all three include optional English subtitles.
Both Criterion releases contain exactly the same special features, which are rather excellent.  First, there's a terrific audio commentary by Cronenberg and Weller, recorded separately but edited together.  This works out well, each filling in each other's dead space and complimenting what the other is talking about.  Cronenberg naturally has more to say and gets more airtime, but supplementing that with Weller's own thoughts fills the length of the picture perfectly.  There's also a vintage television documentary called Naked Making Lunch that manages to get more in-depth than your average DVD supplement is able to, covering a lot of Burroughs as well as the filmmaking.  The original EPK featurette is here, too, as well as a couple minutes of bonus on-set B-roll footage.  There's over an hour of Burroughs reading from his book, a whopping ten stills galleries (broken down by subject), the trailer and two TV spots.  There's also a 32-page booklet with essays by three critics and one by Burroughs himself.

Arrow basically throws all of that away (perhaps Criterion are planning their own UHD... at any rate they rarely tend to license to Arrow) and starts from scratch.

Before Criterion brought Naked Lunch to the US, I used to have a Japanese DVD, which had an audio commentary by Cronenberg himself.  It was rather good, though it was prone to gaps of dead air.  But then, two thirds of the way through or so, he goes silent for a long time.  Like really long, until he's not saying anything else until the end of the film.  He basically stops talking at the 1hr 8 min mark, comes back for a few sentences literally 20 minutes later, until he's never heard from again.  I have a very faded memory of someone who worked on that DVD jumping onto a DVD forum (maybe mhvf or dvdmaniacs) and explaining that one of the tapes they recorded Cronenberg on got lost or damaged, so there was more commentary, but it's lost to the world.

Well, tuning into this Arrow UHD, I believe I've been reunited with that commentary.  It's good with bouts of silence, and then it arbitrarily ends with a long way still to go.  Somebody at Arrow really could've done us the courtesy of adding a little beep or clue that the commentary is over, and not just in another one of Cronenberg's lengthy silences, so we're not left sitting there watching the movie in dumb, abject silence, waiting for content that's never coming back.  But, still, the first half of the commentary is good, with Cronenberg explaining his thoughts and experiences adapting Burroughs, so it's better to have it than nothing, but it isn't a patch on Criterion's commentary, which is 100% the go-to Naked Lunch commentary.
Anyway, it's not an option because we say goodbye to the Criterion commentary, as well as Burroughs reading from his novel, the featurette, the B-roll, the TV spots and the many galleries.  But in addition to the old commentary, Arrow has come up with a lot more to take their place.  For starters, there's another audio commentary, this time by two experts, which is a little informal for my tastes, but they do bring in some good information about Burroughs' writings, and what is/ isn't the same in the film.  And there are excellent, all new on-camera interviews with producer Jeremy Thomas, Peter Weller (who's very invested in Burroughs and talks for over an hour!), DP Peter Suschitzky, effects artist Chris Walas and Howard Shore.  There's a critical visual essay (which has some fun insights into the connections between this and the nearly Cronenberg-directed Total Recall), an interview with an expert on Burroughs' life and a fascinating talk with a musical expert who analyzes Shore's score... though he starts by rather confidently and I daresay incorrectly analyzing the film itself.  Like that Room 237 documentary taught us, there are always people with alternate interpretations of our favorite movies, I suppose.  But once he gets into the score, which is the bulk of the talk, he's incredibly knowledgeable; I learned a lot.
1) 2013 Criterion BD; 2) 2023 Arrow UHD.
Arrow also has the trailer, a couple of their own stills galleries and yes, Naked Making Lunch is back.  But they didn't just port it over, they restored it in HD and put back the opening that Criterion's version turns out to have been missing.  The booklet's 'About the Transfer' page doesn't get into the special features, but this is clearly a fresh scan, which corrects Criterion's interlacing and really cleans up the picture.  The aspect ratio is 1.33:1 on both, but Arrow's pulls out to reveal more picture (i.e. we can now see David's microphone on the left).  Both versions still have lossy audio and no subs, but it's a serious improvement in terms of PQ.  And on the Arrow, its director even gets to do an audio commentary.

And besides all that, as you can see pictured higher up the page, Arrow's limited edition is packed out with swag.  It comes in a hard box (and, if you ordered direct from Arrow, there's a variant "Original Artwork" slipcase) with reversible artwork in the amary case.  And there's a double-sided poster, an 80-page full-color bound booklet, six postcards, replicas of two business cards and a boarding pass.  Plus there's Arrow's usual film card for an upcoming release - mine was 1963's Horror, a.k.a. The Blancheville Monster, which will apparently be coming out later this year.
So, Arrow's is obviously now the definitive edition.  You might want to hang onto your Criterion for the exclusive features, but, as superior as their commentary is, and nice to have the other odds and ends, by the time you've worked your way through all the Arrow extras, I don't think you're really missing out on any anecdotes or insights.  All of these extras repeat the same stuff a lot.  Criterion's commentary is a more pleasing listen, but at the end of the day, Arrow gives us all we need and more.


  1. The Blancheville Monster is already out, included in Arrow's excellent Gothic Fantastico box set.

  2. I very much hope I'm able to get (at least) the stuff from the 2nd disc of the arrow set at some point as 4k discs (though I have a few) are completely worthless to me. I guess the criterion set will have to do in the meantime. great write-up as always.

    1. Arrow has also released a 2-blu-ray version of this set, so you can get it all without the UHD.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. i see that it won't play on u.s. players so, unfortunately, the predicament persists. I've been wanting to get a region free player for years, another push isn't a bad thing i guess.

    1. The UHD will if you have a 4k player.

    2. "hope I'm able to get (at least) the stuff from the 2nd disc of the arrow set at some point as 4k discs (though I have a few) are completely worthless to me."