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The Bridge on the River Kwai

The Bridge on the River Kwai has never been a great-looking film. I mean, at least not in my lifetime. Whether via VHS, widescreen VHS, LaserDisc, DVD, or even high-definition Blu-ray, it has long been plagued by an overly contrasty, crushed, murky look that didn’t quash its emotional impact but nonetheless seemed like a missed opportunity, especially given the film’s lush setting.

 

Since the biggest problem marring the look of the film has been blacks that are too black and highlights that are too bright, an HDR release may seem somewhat pointless—or even perhaps detrimental. But if anything, The Bridge on the River Kwai’s 4K HDR release via Kaleidescape does a wonderful job of conveying the difference between “contrast” and “dynamic range.” Yes, the new HDR grade darkens the darks a little, and brightens the highlights spectacularly. But the most important thing it does is to introduce more steps between those two extremes, breathing subtlety and richness into the shadows and bringing the image to life in ways I never would have imagined possible. In short, it delivers the nuances inherent to the original film that have never survived before now in the transition to home video.

 

That’s not to say that the film now looks perfect, mind you. Kwai was shot with cobbled-together CinemaScope cameras, without the benefit of zoom lenses. As such, the very first scene we see, of a soaring and circling hawk, was quite obviously blown up extensively, resulting in an overly grainy, noisy mess.

 

Thankfully, such scenes are rare. A more common occurrence, though, is the optical fade transition between scenes. These have always looked rough, but here they look even rougher, if only by comparison to the gorgeous presentation of the rest of the film. To my eyes, it appears that these fade transitions weren’t sourced from the original negative that served as the basis

The Bridge on the River Kwai

for the bulk of the restoration. They look at least a generation removed, and my guess is that in restoring the film, they had to pull the fades from a print. So, as one scene transitions into the next, you’ll go from a vibrant, gorgeously textured scene into an overly contrasty, noisier fade, then right into another lovely scene.

 

Until you get used to this, scene transitions can be a little more jarring in the 4K HDR presentation than they are in the Blu-ray-quality download also included with this release. So, you’re left with a choice: Do you watch the film in truly lovely quality with the occasional, fleeting downgrade to a second-generation source, or do you opt for a sort of bleh-but-acceptable presentation that’s more consistent from beginning to end?

 

Personally, I’ll opt for the former any day, secure in the knowledge that this is absolutely the best The Bridge on the River Kwai will ever look. I’m guessing that the original negatives for those fade transitions were damaged beyond repair in post-production, and as such there’s no good source for additional restoration. But once you accept the fact that a second or two here and there will look a little less than stunning, the HDR download of the film—released here in its proper 2.55:1 aspect ratio, not 2.40:1 as the tech specs would indicate—is an absolute revelation.

 

The Kaleidescape download is also supported by a 5.1 surround soundtrack that seems to be identical to the 2010 Blu-ray release (which itself was based on the restored and enhanced audio track I believe I first remember hearing on the 1994 LaserDisc release). There are some additional ambient sound effects I don’t remember hearing on the VHS releases, which I 

The Bridge on the River Kwai

no longer have the ability to play. The good news is, this isn’t one of those ham-fisted surround remixes that attempt to make the film sound more modern. Everything in the mix evokes the original (which I think was a four-track magnetic soundtrack).

 

I almost completely skipped the Atmos soundtrack included with this release, since I’m not fond of that format for movies to begin with, much less 60-year-old classics. But I’m glad I gave it a listen on a whim. It sounds like the Atmos mix was mostly based on the 2010 remix, which itself was based on the 1993 reconstruction of the original audio elements, but there are a few key differences. Dialogue that was obviously overdubbed sounds less obviously overdubbed, and the height channels open up the sound field and expand the film’s ambience in a truly subtle but effective way. If you’re looking for a soundtrack that pushes your ceiling speakers to their extremes, keep on looking. But if you’re looking for an audio experience that’s true to the original, just with some extra breathing room, give this one a listen. Even if 

you generally like Atmos less than I do.

 

As for extras, you’ll have to download the Blu-ray-quality version of the film from Kaleidescape to check them out, but it’s worth the extra effort. In addition to a trio of period promotional materials and a short documentary about film criticism made for USC film students, there’s a really fantastic retrospective documentary by Laurent Bouzereau made for the two-disc collector’s edition DVD release from 2000. While somewhat glossing over the film’s historical inaccuracies, the doc is a bit more forthright than most retrospectives, and is certainly worth a look.

 

Even if you don’t care about supplemental material, though, The Bridge on the River Kwai is a film that belongs in any good film collection. This isn’t one you want to wait for TCM to air, since it rewards repeated viewings. Consider, for example, how its complex themes evolve as you shift attention from William Holden, Alec Guinness, and even Sessue Hayakawa, and focus on one above the others as the story’s main driving force. It isn’t really until you watch it again, placing all three on equal footing, that you can get to the heart of what the film is about: The consequences of ideology crashing into principles, when neither completely comports with reality.

And unless you’re still buying discs, Kaleidescape is just about the only way to own this 4K HDR presentation, since for whatever reason Vudu, Amazon, and many other digital providers are limited to the HD release.

 

Again, due to the way it was shot and edited, and the ravages of time, The Bridge on the River Kwai isn’t a technically perfect film. But Kaleidescape’s presentation so far exceeded my expectations that all of the above nitpicking feels like pedantry. For the first time, the film lives in a form that’s worthy of the best display in your home. And if for whatever reason you’ve never seen it, I must admit, I’m a little jealous that this is how you’ll get to experience for the first time.

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of 
Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound 
American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

How Much Would You Pay for Day & Date? Pt. 2

In Part 1 of this post, I referenced comments from users of the Kaleidescape Owners Forum who answered my question, “How much would you be willing to pay for Day and Date?” I expected these luxury system owners to have no problem with paying a substantial amount for the ability to see a movie at home the day it opens in theaters. But even among this group, not a single person was willing to pay even the minimum amount—$500—Prima Cinema charged and Red Carpet Home Cinema expects to charge for day & date viewing.

 

Casting the net to a wider audience, I ran a poll on the Sound & Vision website, which caters to enthusiasts of all income levels, where I again asked what they would be willing to pay for day & date. After nearly 350 responses, it’s clear that the

How Much Would You Pay for Day & Date, Pt. 2

Table 1

How Much Would You Pay for Day & Date?, Pt. 2

Table 2

How Much Would You Pay for Day &was Date, Pt. 2

Table 3

How Much Would You Pay for Day & Date?, Pt. 2

Table 4

click on the tables to enlarge them

vast majority of people aren’t willing to pay a very high premium at all.

 

In fact, the enthusiast responses from Sound & Vision far more support the likely pricing for movies available at home a week or two after they premiere in theaters than the $500 low end of the current day & date pricing schemes (see Table 1).

 

As you can see, out of 348 answers, only 43 people (roughly 12.6%) were willing to pay $100 or more. But when you go down to the $50 to $99 range, the group jumps to over 32%. This is a pretty large crowd, and a price that might be realistic three to four weeks after a movie hits the cinema. When you get to $25 to $49, more than half the responders would bite.

 

Is this an unrealistic price? Perhaps. But consider this: The current state of the art for home video viewing is 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray discs, most of which sell for around $20 to $35. Since this is what you now pay to own a movie and watch it as many times as you’d like, would it be so unreasonable that the movie studios would let you watch it once for $49 at some point later in the movie’s theatrical window? Maybe not . . .

 

A common theme among the Kaleidescape owners was that they want this premium rental to also come with the right to own/download the movie when it goes into mass release on home video. When asked if they’d be willing to pay more for this right, the responders were almost split in thirds (see Table 2).

 

Almost 39% said they would actually pay more. So, maybe at $125 to $150, you would get to watch the movie once while it’s still in the theater and would then be able to download it as soon as it’s in wide release. That seems like a pretty palatable choice that also wouldn’t erode the studios’ profits from traditional home releases.

 

Finally, I asked how often they would actually rent a movie if it were priced at just $50 (see Table 3). I was surprised to find that most enthusiast owners wouldn’t do it very often.

 

Slightly more than 5% would do it once a week, with about half saying they would rent a $50 movie once or more per month. Shockingly, more than 45% said they’d only do it a few times per year. And remember, these are audio/video enthusiasts responding to a hypothetical day & date price of just $50.

 

As for the necessary hardware, with Prima at $35,000, Red Carpet at $15,00, and Kaleidescape starting at $4,500, the systems required to play these movies aren’t cheap, which was another huge barrier for entry for many.

 

When asked how much they would pay for the hardware needed for day & date playback (see Table 4), more than 50% said they would only pay less than $500. Again, that seems highly unrealistic, especially when you consider the security measures that need to be employed, but it does bode well for Xcinex, which says its Venue will come to market for less than $30.

Also, these prices address the per-viewing model, which means it’s the same cost whether there are 1 or 50 people watching. The other option is the same per-viewer or per-ticket model theaters use, which is how Xcinex plans to operate. Other than the potential issues and privacy concerns with a sensor monitoring and counting viewers, it again seems difficult to believe Xcinex could come to market and offer day & date viewing at literally fractions of what the other companies are charging. But the company says it’s firmly committed to launching by the end of this year, and that it will have content and deals in place, so time will tell.

 

What impact will day & date have on your movie watching habits? And how much would you be willing to pay for the privilege?

John Sciacca

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as
 Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

How Much Would You Pay for Day & Date? Pt. 1

How Much Would You Pay for Day & Date?, Pt. 1

Wrapping up my recent series of posts on day & date, I thought I’d cut right to the heart of it: How much is day & date worth? In other words, how much would you pay for the privilege of watching a first-run film in the comfort of your own home, either on opening night or some short time later?

 

As I wrote in “Why Kaleidescape Could Own Day & Date, Pt. 2,” at the moment it appears Red Carpet Home Cinema has set the benchmark for what it will cost, at somewhere between $500 and $3,000. This is up from Prima Cinema’s $500 for each 

viewing. It could be that the Prima folks were better negotiators than Red Carpet, or that Hollywood has decided day & date is worth more now that it was a few years ago. We won’t know for sure until we see if Prima is able to return to operation.

 

But the simple truth is that, as much as we might want to be able to watch movies at home instead of going to the theater, most of us can’t afford these prices.

 

This is where I see a sliding scale coming into play. If you want to watch the movie on opening night, you’re gonna have to pay the ultra-premium price Red Carpet is demanding. But, if you’re willing to wait a week . . . or two
. . . or four, as theater audiences have slacked off to nearly nothing, the studios might allow for more affordable pricing.

 

This is why some kind of premium window for early theatrical release might be a more realistic hope for luxury home viewing than actual day & date. At least at first.

 

That conclusion was echoed by several commenters on the Kaleidescape Owners Forum when I posed the question:

 

“How much would you be willing to pay for Day and Date?” Here were some of the responses:

 

• I would like to see a sliding scale based on timing:

Week 1: $300

Week 2 to 4: $150

Week 5 to 8: $75

• I for one would also be willing to pay a premium for the privilege of watching movies at home
while they’re still out in the theater. That would be an awesome feature if it could be incorporated
into existing hardware.

 

• As for how much, it would depend upon the movie. [Star Wars]—maybe $300, other blockbusters,
maybe $150, comedies and “chick flicks” $75-100.

 

• I would pay maximum $75-$100 to watch with just my wife or kids, and maybe $200 once or twice
a year and invite friends over.

 

• With 4-8 $25 seats and a $100 fee for download etc then $200-300 on day one, week one is a
good no loss to the studio price point.

 

• I’ve said it before, I will say it again–I would pay $500 to watch any theatrical movie in my home
on opening day, even without the ability to stop/pause/rewind or be given a digital copy. Watching
Star Wars opening night on my couch is cooler than a sports car IMO.

 

• $500 for one viewing at midnight the release date. Watching [Star Wars] in my living room would
be incredible.

 

Remember, these answers all came from people who already own luxury entertainment systems, and have shown their willingness to invest in premium-price hardware like a Kaleidescape. (An entry-level Strato system—the unit most likely to support day & date—currently costs $4,500.) And none of them said they’d be willing to pay more than $500. That is why

I wonder if Red Carpet’s exorbitant pricing will be able to find traction even among the ultra-wealthy.

 

I first started thinking about what I’d be willing to pay for this experience six years ago, when I had the chance to live with the Prima Cinema system.

 

When I see a movie, it’s almost always with my wife and frequently with my 12-year-old as well. So, figure we’re in for around $30 in movie tickets. (I realize this is at the low end of the market, with many parts of the country paying upwards of twice that.) Then factor in popcorn, drinks, and snacks for another $20 to $30. Since we have a 3-year-old, figure another $20 to $30 for a babysitter. I don’t have to deal with parking (or hiring a car service), but for many this is another cost of movie-going. So, for me, a $100 movie purchase is something I would consider for many films.

 

And after my recent lackluster experience seeing Avengers: Endgame at my local cinema—where I didn’t eat or drink anything for 8 hours prior to showtime to ensure I could make it through without a bathroom break—with all of

the popcorn rustling, drink slurping, side conversations, an infant watching YouTube videos on an iPad (not kidding), and a very noticeably blown subwoofer that totally took me out of every bass-heavy moment, being able to watch at my own home almost sounds worth any price.

 

In Pt. 2, I’ll give you the surprising results of an extensive survey I conducted to find out how much home theater enthusiasts would be willing to pay for day & date.

John Sciacca

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as
 Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

The Karate Kid

The Karate Kid

This must be the anniversary 4K HDR re-release film season, since, after doing recent reviews of the 30-year-anniversary release of Field of Dreams, followed by the 40-year-anniversary release of Alien, this review finds us right in the middle with a 35-year-anniversary release of The Karate Kid. While a classic film, one has to wonder if KK benefitted from the recent Cobra Kai series on You Tube Red, introducing a whole new generation to Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio), Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka), and the “Strike first, strike hard, no mercy” Cobra Kai dojo?

 

Either way, we benefit from The Karate Kid looking its best in a 4K HDR release from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, which has a proven track record of doing some terrific restorations and re-releases (The Fifth Element, Leon: The Professional, Bram Stoker’s Dracula). The film has been fully restored from the original 35mm camera negative. As is common on many recent re-issues, KK also includes a newly mixed Dolby Atmos audio track.

 

I was 14 when KK was released, and can remember seeing it in the theater. Being close to Daniel’s age (well, at least thinking I was close in age; Ralph Macchio was actually an incredibly baby-faced 23 at the time of playing the high-school senior), it was easy to identify with and root for this underdog who discovers an unlikely mentor in building handyman, Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita), who slyly teaches Daniel karate in order to confront the gang of Cobra Kai bullies led by Johnny and evil Sensei Kreese (Martin Kove). 

 

I didn’t realize until writing this review that KK’s director, John Avildsen, also directed another famous underdog-battles-the-odds movie, Rocky, but there are actually many similarities between the stories and styles. Also, the fighters were all trained by Pat. E Johnson, a 9th-degree black belt, who also choreographed the fight scenes, and whose actual knowledge and love of karate and tournament fighting definitely added some legitimacy and authenticity to the fighting styles and techniques.

 

Where karate films prior to KK mostly focused on fighting, and featured accomplished real-life fighters like Chuck Norris or Bruce Lee taking on hordes of attackers with nothing but fists and feet flying, KK was different in that it positioned karate as a tool to avoid fighting, and examined the spiritual aspect. This was possible only because of Norita’s fantastic portrayal of Miyagi, in a role that earned him a well-deserved Best Supporting Actor nomination. (He lost to Haing S. Ngor in The Killing Fields.) His performance—and timeless wisdom—definitely hold up, and the relationship between Miyagi and Daniel is the heart and soul of this film. And watching Miyagi, you believe that you could learn to defend yourself by a little waxing, sanding, and painting.

 

Of course, the reality is likely far different, as lampooned in a recent Modern Family episode.

 

“This Daniel dude is about to get his ass kicked. He’s had no real training. You gotta do push-ups, cardio . . . Waxing a car? That’s how we haze the probies at the firehouse. The old dude has no idea what he’s talking about.”

 

“Yeah, why is the kid still listening to that crazy old man? It seems like he’s just using him to do chores.”

 

Time has not been as kind to Macchio’s Daniel, who often comes across as whiny—a bit like how we choose to forget how Luke acted with Uncle Owen on the moisture farm in Star Wars . . . Also, it’s tough to imagine a seasoned karate champion like Cobra Kai Sensei Kreese openly threatening to attack a young boy and old man, but this film uses no grey strokes when painting its villains.

The Karate Kid

Visually, The Karate Kid is a bit of a mixed bag. Many scenes look terrific, but other scenes exhibit a fairly significant amount of grain and noise. As the movie opens with Daniel and his mom driving from New Jersey to California, there is so much grain in the daytime sky scenes, I stopped the film and checked to ensure I was actually watching the 4K version. The grain was also noticeable in other outdoor day scenes, such as when Miyagi is practicing the Crane technique at the ocean.

The Karate Kid

The night scenes generally looked far less noisy, exhibiting clean, dark blacks. The scene with Daniel and Ali (Elizabeth Shue) at the mini-golf course looked especially good, with the HDR highlights used to good effect. HDR is also used effectively in the scene where Daniel is practicing balance on a boat on the water, with the bright

sunlight highlights contrasting nicely with the black shadows. The tournament fight scenes also benefit here, along with colors that are rich and vibrant, especially the canary yellow Chevy convertible that Miyagi gives Daniel.

 

Fine detail is revealed in closeups. There were a few scenes of Ali’s sweaters where you could see individual threads; same with Miyagi’s bonsai trees, where single needles are visible. This level of detail reveals just a bit too much during the scene where Miyagi and Daniel try to catch a fly with chopsticks, and the wire used to move the fly is clearly visible.

 

Sonically, the new Dolby Atmos soundtrack is used sparingly but effectively. Many scenes, such as at the school, tournament, and arcade, benefit from increased spaciousness and ambience. There are some effective hard-pans, such as when we first enter the Cobra Kai dojo and hear Sensei barking orders well off to the side, or when they’re harassing Daniel on motorbikes. Bill Conti’s score is also mixed wide and high, letting the music stand out nicely in key scenes. Don’t expect a lot of low bass here, but dialogue is clear and intelligible throughout.

 

The Karate Kid is one of those films you can revisit and share with new viewers. I watched it with my 12-year-old, and am pleased to say she enjoyed it as much as I did. And the scene where all of Miyagi’s training finally clicks with Daniel is still as great and powerful today as it was 35 years ago. At just $17.99 from the Kaleidescape Movie Store, this is an easy recommendation for any collection.

John Sciacca

The Karate Kid

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as
 Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

What Makes a Good Control System?

What Makes a Good Control System?

A good control system is the backbone of any high-end home entertainment system, whether that system resides in a dedicated home theater space or in a multipurpose media room. No matter how great the picture quality, how immersive the audio, how effective the lighting control, the experience falls apart if the control system falls short. If people don’t enjoy operating the system, they won’t enjoy using the system.

 

But what makes a good control system? I pondered this question recently as I reviewed a pair of universal remote controls sold directly through retail channels. Both remotes shared a common goal: Simplicity. There was simplicity in the design of the remotes themselves. Both had a minimalist layout, stripping out a lot of the buttons found on your typical universal remote to produce a clean, unintimidating look. And there was simplicity in the setup process, making it as easy and clear as possible for the average consumer to program the remote to switch between activities and control a variety of components.

 

Simplicity seems like a good goal, but in the world of system control, it’s definitely possible to make something too simple. While I found both remotes easy to set up and pleasant to use, neither could perform all of the advanced functions or accommodate all the use cases I needed. They were great for controlling my basic living-room system, which consists of a 

TV, streaming media player, gaming console, and soundbar. But when asked to handle my more advanced home theater setup, built around an AV receiver and usually including some lighting control, they were just too simplistic to get the whole job done.

 

The trick in system control is finding the sweet spot between simplicity and functionality. You need a system robust enough to handle anything and everything you might want to do, but also simple enough that anyone and everyone in the house can use it. And that sweet spot is different for each person, which is exactly why universal remotes have an inherent disadvantage compared with control platforms like Control4 or Crestron. A universal remote locks you in to someone else’s idea of what’s

What Makes a Good Control System?

Logitech Harmony Elite universal remote, with hub and app

intuitive, both in the setup process (which has to be simple and scaled down enough that anyone can do it) and in the remote design. Sure, you can reassign buttons here and there, maybe choose some specific functions to show on the small touchscreen at the top of some remotes, but for the most part you have to work within a one-size-fits-all grid.

 

The Harmony remote brand revolutionized the direct-to-consumer universal remote by making it so much easier for the average person to program complex macros and present them as simple activities anyone would understand. But how many times have you programmed a Harmony remote to work exactly the way you want it to, sat back all pleased with yourself, and then watched a family member pick up the remote and stare at it blankly, uncertain what to do next? It has happened to me a lot.

 

And that’s just AV control. If you want to add elements like complex lighting scenes, shade adjustment, and temperature control, a universal remote simply isn’t built to handle that load.

What Makes a Good Control System?

In the world of luxury home cinema, you don’t need universal control. You need personalized control. That’s really what you’re paying for when you choose to step up to Crestron or Savant or Control4. You’re getting a team that’s been trained to perform all that complex, behind-the-scenes programming so you don’t have to, and you’re getting a system that’s flexible enough to accommodate your idea of what’s intuitive.

 

You can get the handheld remote with a preset button layout, but you can also get the touchscreen controller, 

with fully customizable screens in which the page layouts and button names make sense to you. You can add customized in-wall keypads to quick-launch lighting/room scenes right when you walk in the door. It’s all about putting the right control options in the right place for you and your household—and you should absolutely include the whole family in the discussions with your custom installer.

 

Of course, just like in the world of DIY control, an advanced control system is only as good as the people who set it up, so don’t treat this step like an afterthought. Do some research on your local installers and what control systems they’re trained to program. Check references. Ask questions. Be involved. After all, what’s the point in paying more for personalized control if you don’t take the time to truly personalize it?

  —Adrienne Maxwell

Adrienne Maxwell has been writing about the home theater industry for longer than she’s
willing to admit. She is currently the 
AV editor at Wirecutter (but her opinions here do not
represent those of Wirecutter or its parent company, The New York Times). Adrienne lives in
Colorado, where she spends far too much time looking at the Rockies and not nearly enough
time being in them.

The Avengers & Avengers: Age of Ultron

Avengers & Age of Ultron

Like millions of others around the world, my family and I went to see Avengers: Endgame last week when it was released. Rest assured, this will not reveal anything about that film, short of it further cementing my feelings that I would way rather watch movies in the comfort and seclusion of my own home, and that I’m an alpha candidate for day-and-date viewing. (Someone actually brought a toddler, who sat and watched an iPad during the entire movie! Fortunately, the Pad was out of my eyeline or I think I would have flipped out!)

 

After watching Endgame, we decided we should really go back and watch some of the other 21 films that had led us to this, many of which we haven’t seen in years. Since my 12-year-old had never seen The Avengers or the followup, Avengers: Age of Ultron, those seemed like two good choices to start our re-watch journey.

 

Fortuitously, both of these films have been recently re-released with new 4K HDR transfers with Dolby Atmos soundtracks, so that made another terrific reason to revisit. After downloading from the Kaleidescape store, we watched The Avengers on Monday and Ultron on Tuesday.

 

The Avengers is part of Phase One of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), which includes the six films released between 2008 and 2012, and comes after each of the principal characters—Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, Loki, and Captain America—have been introduced in their own films. (Clint Barton/Hawkeye [Jeremy Renner] had been introduced via a small cameo in Thor, and Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow [Scarlett Johansson] was introduced in Iron Man 2.)

 

After teasing us with the Tesseract in a post-credits scene in Thor, and then making it a major part of Cap’s focus in Captain America: The First Avenger, the Tesseract (which holds the Space Infinity Stone) has a starring role here in The Avengers. While the previous films had been hinting and playing at cross-pollinating the MCU’s heroes, here they bring all the heroes together, which makes for a far more entertaining experience. I was impressed with how Joss Whedon—who both wrote and directed—was able to build a story by slowly and organically bringing all the characters together, and then giving them near-equal screen time, which allowed them to interact with each other, and play to their strengths and personalities.

 

Avengers definitely lays the groundwork for the various relationships between the characters that continues to play out over the next films. We see the ties between Hawkeye and Black Widow, the roots of animosity between Tony Stark (Robert 

Avengers & Age of Ultron

Downey, Jr.) and Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), which culminates in Captain America: Civil War (which should really have been titled Avengers 3), and the developing frenemy-ship between Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), which plays out in Thor: Ragnarok. Also, the mid-credits scene reveals ultimate baddy, Thanos,though his skin here looks far more purple than blue.

 

The 4K HDR image looks fantastic, with tons of detail and HDR used effectively throughout, bringing

added pop and detail to images. The terrific detail in the costume design is revealed, letting you see the weave in Cap’s suit, and all the scrapes and damage to Iron Man. During one scene between Romanoff and Barton, you see the wear and pores in Barton’s face starkly contrasted with the smooth foundation makeup that makes Romanoff’s skin glow. The added resolution really does a wonderful job revealing those micro-details and texture throughout.

 

HDR is apparent from the outset, illuminating the Tesseract in S.H.I.E.L.D.’s secure fortress as well as the multiple explosions. Tony Stark’s Arc Reactor, boot jets, and energy blasts also benefit nicely from the brightness boost, as does Loki’s glowing scepter and Thor’s lightning blasts. Color throughout is rich and vivid, and wonderfully saturated. Visually, the film looks fantastic, and you’d be hard pressed to tell it is seven years old.

Sonically, The Avengers follows in Disney’s frustrating habit of recording at significantly lower levels and being inconsistent with the depth and impact of bass performance. Fortunately, the first issue is solved by just playing the film back at a higher level than you’d normally use. In my case, we went about 6 dB louder on my Marantz preamp than normal movie-watching levels. With this adjustment, Avengers delivers a pretty engaging Dolby 

Avengers & Age of Ultron

Atmos mix, with a lot of surround and height channel information, specifically in the opening sequence with Loki stealing the Tesseract, the big battle scene aboard the flying aircraft carrier, and the final battle scene in New York.

 

Other scenes benefit from added sonic spaciousness that really opens up both the scenes and your listening room. Bass performance is fairly uneven, providing nice thuds and low-end during some scenes, but is missing or non-existent in others. Overall, though, the Atmos mix here does a good job of immersing you in the swirl of action happening on screen, and dialogue is well recorded and easily understandable throughout.

 

Released in 2015, Avengers: Age of Ultron has Whedon reprising his role as writer and director, and is part of Phase Two of the MCU, which includes six films released between 2013 and 2015. Taking place approximately three years after the events of Avengers, Ultron sees our heroes called on once again to band together to retrieve Loki’s staff, stolen by Hydra. The staff is then used to create Ultron (voiced by James Spader), which was intended to be a Stark global defense program to protect the earth from further alien attack, but which becomes a sentient being intent on wiping out humanity to save the earth. Ultron brings in James Rhodes/War Machine (Don Cheadle) to the action, and also introduces us to twins Pietro Maximoff/Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), as well as Jarvis-brought-to-life, Vision (Paul Bettany), making for a fuller character ensemble than the first film.

 

Something about James Spader voicing Ultron just takes me out of this movie. Maybe it’s his smug attitude, or maybe it’s from watching him as Robert California on the The Office or as Raymond Reddington on Blacklist. But for whatever reason, this voice casting didn’t work for me, and kept Ultron from being as intimidating as he could.

 

While some of Ultron feels a bit like “let’s build another Death Star” in that you have our band of heroes battling a huge horde of enemies—the Chitauri in Avengers, Ultron’s robot army here—relentlessly attacking a city—New York in Avengers, Sokovia here—Ultron still offers a lot to enjoy. The developing comradery and interactions between our heroes offers some funny moments (the group trying to pick up Thor’s hammer for one) and continues the MCU storyline that eventually brings us to Endgame. The biggest contribution to the story is that the gem inside of Loki’s scepter is actually the Mind Stone, which ends up being implanted in Vision, and revealing just how powerful Scarlet Witch is. The mid-credits scene also shows us Thanos with the Infinity Gauntlet saying, “Fine, I’ll do it myself.” (Cue ominous music . . .)

Avengers & Age of Ultron

Visually, Ultron is a treat, with tons of detail in every scene. As with Avengers, HDR is used effectively throughout to enhance bright objects like lightning blasts, explosions, and the glowing blue trim on Black Widow’s suit. Perhaps one of the best examples of how HDR improves the image is when you see the visualization of Jarvis as an orange glowing sphere of light along with Ultron as a blue light sphere inside the Avenger Tower. This scene just glows off the screen in this version, and has far better color depth.

 

Sonically, the levels here are once again low, requiring a liberal adjustment of your normal listening level. Other than that, the audio is really inconsistent and anemic in the low-bass frequencies. For example, the Hulkbuster versus Hulk scene has plenty of moments that should be pounding you in the chest and making your sub flex its muscles, but there is virtually nothing in the low end until the building destruction at the end of the scene.

 

Same with the conclusion. There is some really low-end info when Sokovia is lifting off the ground, but very little in the remainder of the battle. For a big action film, this is definitely disappointing. The rest of the Atmos mix is enjoyable, though I didn’t find it as aggressive as Avengers, and the lack of deep-bass engagement keeps this from being as demo-worthy as it could be.

 

For Marvel fans, these films connect the dots to get us to where Endgame finishes this cycle of the MCU, and now in a 4K HDR presentation, they look as good as you’ve ever seen.

John Sciacca

Avengers & Age of Ultron
Avengers & Age of Ultron
Avengers & Age of Ultron

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as
 Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

Why Kaleidescape Could Own Day & Date, Pt. 2

How Kaleidescape Could Own Day & Date, Pt. 2

In Part 1, I gave some of the technical reasons why I think Kaleidescape is better positioned than companies like Prima Cinema and Red Carpet Home Cinema to make day & date—the ability to watch movies at home the day they debut in movie theaters—a success. Here, I’ll focus more on the logistical and strategic reasons for why I think it has the potential to be the most viable day & date provider.

 

6) CONTROLLED ROLLOUT

Sure, there are bigger companies than Kaleidescape out there—like, say, Apple or Vudu—that have a lot of studio agreements in place and are set up to handle secure transactions, but day & date isn’t going to be rolled out wide to a mass-market audience.

 

The movie studios want to release this in a very controlled manner so if there’s a problem, they can shove the genie back into the bottle as easily as possible. That just wouldn’t be possible with a $149 mass-market device like an Apple TV.

 

Even if Kaleidescape made day & date available to every one of its customers worldwide on Day One, we’re still talking thousands of systems, or a very small percentage of the movie-watching population. But day & date will probably begin in the US, which would cut the number down considerably. And, it probably wouldn’t be rolled out as a firmware update for all 

Kaleidescape users, but would likely be offered to a very select beta of 50 to 100 power users, whose systems would be updated with new firmware and then monitored during the beta period.

 

Another possibility would be for Kaleidescape to approach existing Bel Air Circuit members to become system owners (or be loaned beta-enabled systems). What group to better give day & date access to than one that already has it?

 

And, while the company won’t publicly comment on system owners, it’s pretty well known that Kaleidescape systems are already owned by many Hollywood A-listers. This 

would be another avenue for a controlled rollout, targeting a select group of influencers who could experience the system in action and become more comfortable with supporting day & date releases.

 

7) ALREADY OWNED BY MANY CINEPHILES

You know who’s going to be the most interested in buying day & date content for viewing at home at premium pricing? Luxury cinema owners who love movies. And you know what system many luxury cinema owners and movie lovers already own? Yup. Kaleidescape.

Why Kaleidescape Could Own Day & Date, Pt. 2

And for those who currently aren’t system owners but who love the idea of enjoying first-run content at home, the price of entry is far more obtainable with Kaleidescape than with Prima or Red Carpet. For under $4,500, someone could buy a Strato S 4K Ultra HD movie player (shown above) with 6 Terabytes of storage, enough to hold about 90 4K Ultra HD movies. This would be affordable for far more people than the .1% targeted by Prima and Red Carpet, and not an unreasonable amount to spend in a luxury media room costing $25,000 or more.

 

8) INTEGRATION PARTNER CHANNEL

End users aren’t going to be able to just stroll into a Best Buy, pick up a day & date system, take it home, and install and activate it themselves. Something this sophisticated and bulletproof requires professional integration and handholding.

 

While I’ve no doubt Red Carpet will be able to find a dealer base—though Prima might have a harder row to hoe should they return to operation—Kaleidescape already has an established and reputable dealer network.

 

Since its inception, Kaleidescape has worked hand-in-hand with the custom installation channel, having some of the best CEDIA and HTA-certified members in its ranks, ensuring that its hardware is properly installed and configured. Realizing that its systems are only as good and stable as their installation, Kaleidescape only sells through a network of custom installers that can handle complete installation and system integration. This also ensures that the system works with the customer’s control system and is calibrated with their video and audio system, and that the network is configured for a stable experience.

 

9) PROVEN LUXURY TECHNOLOGY

When Kaleidescape hit the market in the early 2000s, the first system sold for more than $30,000, which obviously meant only a small subset of home theater owners could afford it. Almost 20 years later, the luxury market remains Kaleidescape’s core demographic.

Kaleidescape systems also have a phenomenal reputation for bulletproof operation. Every system includes dealer tools like remote system health monitoring and automatic notifications should a system have an issue such as loss of network connectivity, overheating, or hard disc trouble. This allows dealers to address problems proactively before there’s a loss of operation.

 

Unlike other companies, which are outsourcing their hardware or software, Kaleidescape has end-to-end control over every aspect of its system. It runs its own Movie Store and handles all movie encodes (see “How Kaleidescape Makes Movies Look Amazing”), and has 

dedicated engineering and tech support teams. In short, if there’s ever a problem with any aspect of a Kaleidescape system, there’s one clear route to getting it resolved.   

 

10) COULD CO-EXIST WITH OTHER PREMIUM OFFERINGS

In my conversation with Red Carpet’s Fred Rosen, he said they asked the studios, “What will it take to make this happen? You set the price and terms.” So presumably the studios feel day & date content is worth somewhere in the $500 to $3,000 range.

 

Frankly, these prices seem untenable for most Kaleidescape customers, and I question how many among even the ultra-wealthy are willing to buy a movie for viewing at such a massive premium. Or how often they would choose to do so beyond a once- or twice-a-year novelty. (Honestly, for $3,000, you could just call up a theater, buy every seat, and have your own private screening.)

 

But, for the sake of argument, let’s assume Red Carpet—and even Prima, upon return—establishes this as the price for day & date viewing. Kaleidescape could then decide to establish itself as a premium video-on-demand solution for early theatrical release, offering movies just after that first week or two when most films bring in about 90% of their box-office take.

Let Red Carpet and Prima charge $500 to $3,000 for the privilege of being able to see a movie at home on opening day. Kaleidescape could then make it available after the first week for, say, $300, then maybe $200 after the second week, dropping to $100 after the first month. At these tiered prices, Kaleidescape owners could regularly consume premium theatrical content without having a significant impact of the theater owners’ bottom line.

 

Think of this as being akin to air travel. You have the money-no-object group of private jet owners who think nothing of dropping millions on the plane itself and then thousands in operational costs for each flight. That is the Bel Air Circuit crowd. Then you have those who prefer fractional jet ownership via companies like NetJets. While by no means inexpensive, this has far lower buy-in and pay-by-hour operation costs. This would be the Red Carpet and Prima customer. Then there are people who still want a luxury travel experience but don’t care to shell out the ultra-premium costs for private travel, opting to fly First Class instead. This would be the Kaleidescape customer.

 

 

When I asked Kaleidescape about possible day & date plans, the company’s official response was, “We won’t comment on any speculation or rumors.” But it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to connect the dots and realize that the company would be keenly interested in pursuing this potentially game-changing feature. In fact, one need only read the comments CEO Cheena Srinivasan gave in an interview a couple of years ago. When asked about Kaleidescape’s possible involvement with day & date, he said:

 

I believe in the concept of offering new-release movies still playing in the neighborhood theaters to luxury home cinema customers. It will become a reality.

 

According to a recent survey by MGM Resorts, watching movies in a movie theater was cited as the most popular way to be entertained, followed closely by watching movies at home. People who own a luxury home cinema have little need to go to a theater. They would rather wait until the movie is released for home viewing.

 

Since theater owners lose no revenue from people in this category, a premium-priced rental for this audience during the theatrical window won’t cannibalize the exhibitors’ revenues. For the content owners, monetizing content from this audience makes good business sense. We’re well positioned to offer such a service—it is not a technological barrier, as Kaleidescape is already regarded as a respected supplier of both products and content designed with the highest content-protection safeguards available in the market today.

 

Again, all of my comments here are just speculation and conjecture, but movies are being made available at home sooner and sooner after they’re in theaters, and premium day & date services already exist. So the big question isn’t whether day & date is going to happen, but who’s in the best position to offer it securely and reliably over the long run.

John Sciacca

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as
 Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

Why Kaleidescape Could Own Day & Date, Pt. 1

Why Kaleidescape Could Own Day & Date, Pt. 1

After my last two posts—”Day & Date Finally Get Real, Pt. 1” and “Pt. 2“—where I explored the current and proposed options for viewing movies at home on the day and date they’re released in theaters, I thought I’d offer a bit of speculation on why I think the best approach to this might already exist with Kaleidescape.

 

When you consider the various boxes that need to be checked to make day & date a success—something I’ll do here by comparing Kaleidescape with the existing options—it can be argued that they already have enough of the pieces in place to be the strongest contender.

As a Kaleidescape owner, reviewer, and dealer, I feel I’m in a pretty strong position to make this claim. I’ve been following the company virtually since its inception, with my first review published in Sound & Vision magazine back in 2003. Since that time, I’ve lived with or reviewed virtually every product the company has produced, been involved in beta testing, and currently own a Strato 4K HDR player along with a Premiere system with players in two locations and with two disc storage vaults managing my collection of approximately 500 movies. 

 

So here are ten reasons why I feel Kaleidescape could own the day & date market.

 

1)  STUDIO AGREEMENTS

One of Prima Cinema’s biggest initial drawbacks was the lack of studio agreements—something that could hinder Red Carpet Home Cinema as well. The number of studios on board determines the movies you can watch. In short, no studios, no movies.

 

Prima launched with only three major studios. Red Carpet is coming to market with four majors and one minor, Annapurna Pictures. (The company lists 20th Century Fox as a licensee, but it currently offers no films from them. When I asked CEO Fred Rosen if the recent Disney acquisition of Fox would affect this relationship, he coyly responded, “Only the Shadow knows . . .”) This means there is often a real shortage of content to watch. For example, you won’t be watching the blockbuster Avengers: Endgame in any Prima or Red Carpet cinema.

 

Kaleidescape, on the other hand, has agreements with 38 studios. This includes all of the majors except MGM, as well as a host of minor, independent, and foreign companies. And, yes, it includes Disney and all its properties: Pixar, Marvel, Lucasfilm, and Disney Animation.

 

These existing relationships put Kaleidescape in a strong position to negotiate for day & date terms, and to have an unmatched amount of content on hand for viewing.

2)  ROBUST COPY PROTECTION

Hollywood is (rightfully) very paranoid about protecting its content. I mean, if you invested $100-million-plus in something with a potential $1 billion return, you probably would be too. So any technology that will let you watch this precious content in the privacy of your home is going to require some pretty hefty safeguards to prevent piracy.

 

When it comes to security protocols, I don’t believe any consumer electronics device in history is more locked down than Prima. Since I described those protocols in detail in “Day & Date Finally Gets Real, Pt. 1,” I won’t recount them again here. 

But Prima does do everything imaginable to ensure that no piracy takes place on its watch. 

 

They also require every installed location to have a static IP address that’s registered and white-listed with them. (Red Carpet has the same requirement.) This ensures that the system is only being used at your home. While Kaleidescape doesn’t currently require this level of security, its system doesn’t have any hardware and technology limitations that would prevent it from being implemented if the studios required it.

 

Prima and Red Carpet also employ digital watermarking, which means every presentation is uniquely tagged and can be identified back to a specific viewing session if it’s illegally recorded and released. Kaleidescape is also ready to do this, having signed a deal with Nagra to implement its NexGuard technology, called “the world’s leading forensic watermarking technology.”

 

Of course, 100% piracy prevention is impossible, as shown by the fact that Avengers: Endgame was released to Chinese Torrent sites within hours of the film’s premiere in China. But Kaleidescape has been fanatical about protecting content, securely storing movies on its servers 

for years without a single report of the system being hacked or exploited, so its proprietary hardware and software should pass Hollywood muster.

 

3)  NOT A ONE-TRICK PONY

Perhaps the biggest differentiator between Kaleidescape and systems like Prima and Red Carpet is that the latter exist solely to provide day & date content while, with Kaleidescape, day & date would just be icing on an already fully-featured and delicious cake.

 

When Prima went dark back in 2016, system owners were left with a $35,000 paperweight. Movies stopped downloading, and the system effectively ceased to function. (The company expects to make an announcement in July following a round of funding in June, so hopefully this will bring existing systems back to operational status.) Should Red Carpet fail, or the studios decide to cease support, one would assume that its $15,000 hardware would also become just another expensive conversation piece.

 

But Kaleidescape has nearly 20 years of proven service. Even if studios decided that day & date was a horrible mistake (unlikely), Kaleidescape owners would still have a system that functions 100% the way it does today, and any movies already bought and downloaded would continue to play. And instead of being limited to a single (expensive) viewing of a film or a brief viewing window, Kaleidescape owners can accumulate a library of content they can watch at any time.

 

4) EXISTING INTERFACE FOR SECURE TRANSACTIONS

While Prima’s biometric fingerprint reader for authenticating purchases might seem extreme, it does prevent your 10-year-old from firing up the theater and ordering a bunch of movies at $500 a pop. But it also means nobody else in the family can use 

the system if the enrolled fingerprint member is away.

 

Red Carpet doesn’t need fingerprint authentication for purchases, but does require customers to have a credit card on file with a limit of “at least $50,000.”

 

Kaleidescape’s Movie Store already provides a secure way to handle 

Why Kaleidescape Could Own Day & Date, Pt. 1

transactions. Customers have been buying movies online and downloading them from the Store for years, so a system for shopping, billing, and delivery is already up and running, and works.

 

With its recently introduced iOS app, Kaleidescape customers can make purchases using an iPhone or iPad that can be authenticated by a fingerprint or Face ID. This system is fast, secure, and effective. Buying movies via the onscreen interface requires just a PIN code to complete the transaction.

 

If Hollywood required customers to have a registered fingerprint reader for added security, Kaleidescape could probably easily add this feature. Every Strato player has a currently unused USB connection. With a firmware update and a sub-$100 USB fingerprint scanner, this feature—like whitelisting an IP address—should be something that could be added.

 

5)  SUPPORTS HIGHEST-QUALITY AUDIO & VIDEO

While Prima’s video was considered stellar at the time the system was introduced, delivering better-than-Blu-ray quality 10-bit 4:2:2 images, it was limited to 1080p resolution, which trails behind the premium experience available on today’s 4K Blu-ray discs. The company had plans to release updated hardware (reportedly selling for $50,000, or a $15,000 upgrade to existing owners) that would support 4K HDR video and lossless audio formats like Dolby Atmos and DTS:X, but that has yet to come to fruition.

 

Red Carpet will presumably be delivering films in 4K HDR with lossless audio via Vubiquity, a premium content distributor that supports this level of delivery.

 

Meanwhile, the Kaleidescape Movie Store features hundreds of titles in 4K HDR resolution, many with lossless Dolby Atmos soundtracks. And unlike streaming content, which requires heavy compression to get through a narrow network pipe, Kaleidescape’s content is 100% downloaded to a local server, similar to how both Prima and Red Carpet operate. This already exceeds the presentation found in most commercial cinemas, and also exceeds the very best experience offered by 4K Ultra HD Blu-rays—without the storage limitations of a physical disc—and would likely be the quality provided for day & date releases.

 

 

In Part 2, I’ll talk about how, unlike services like Red Carpet and Prima, Kaleidescape already has a significant customer base with both the hardware and the financial means to support day & date in a big way right out of the gate.

John Sciacca

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as
 Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

Why “Game of Thrones” Looked Like Crap

Why "Game of Thrones" Looked Like Crap

If you spent any amount of time on social media this past Sunday night or Monday morning, you were probably inundated with tweets, grams, and posts about Game of Thrones. The episode, “The Long Night,” has been a long time coming. White Walkers and the people of Westeros met at Winterfell in a battle of epic proportions. After two episodes of everyone coming together to protect humanity, the viewing public was aching for a fight. But most of the online feedback wasn’t about the content of the episode. Sure, there was some bickering about who killed who—and for good reason. But the real issue was this:

 

It looked terrible.

 

Many lamented that the episode was too dark, and it was hard to see what was going on. It was a night battle that lasted 82 minutes, notoriously shot over 55 consecutive night shoots. The episode’s director of photography, Fabian Wagner, discussed his approach for the episode with the Vanity Fair podcast “Still Watching,” and that the series in general is shot using a lot of 

natural light. The idea was to be able to “evolve the lighting” and have the “storytelling of the lighting evolve with the storytelling of the characters.” Unfortunately, it led to an incredibly dark presentation that was difficult to follow. (If you remember, there were similar complaints when Solo was released, a dark film shot with natural light that looked awful when shown at improperly-calibrated theaters.)

 

In a way, the experience was heavily dependent on the quality of your display and calibration. If your display crushes black at all, you’re losing detail. If your display has a high black level, you’re also losing detail. And any ambient light in the room at all can make it hard to see.

 

But the most egregious issue of all didn’t have anything to do with the filmmaking. It was due to how the episode was delivered by HBO. Every single shot had banding artifacts caused by the compression. No one was safe from it. Not Jon Snow, or Daenerys Targaryen, not even the White Walkers. It consumed the entire episode.

 

Some articles point to the fact that everyone was streaming it at the same time, causing the system to overload. So far, I’ve watched the episode in three ways: A recorded version from DirecTV, a stream from the HBO Go app on an Xbox One X, and a stream from the HBO Go app on a Sony X950G. All three exhibited the banding and blocky blacks, although the stream from the app on the Sony looked the best.

 

There wasn’t one particular problem that led to the poor presentation of this long-awaited episode, but rather a snowball of issues. The way it was shot was already going to challenge displays—especially those with black-level 

issues (hello LCD!). That HBO didn’t seem to take that into account and used the same compression they use on everything only made it worse. Finally, most home displays aren’t calibrated (or have the aforementioned black-level problems) and had no chance.

 

The last remaining hope for “The Long Night” is that HBO will address this issue when it releases it on (hopefully) 4K Blu-ray. But at the rate they’re releasing the seasons on UHD, we might have a better chance of seeing George R.R. Martin actually finish writing the series.

 

John Higgins

John Higgins lives a life surrounded by audio. When he’s not writing for Cineluxe, IGN,
or 
Wirecutter, he’s a professional musician and sound editor for TV/film. During his down
time, he’s watching Star Wars or learning from his toddler son, Neil.

Review: Alien

Alien (1979)

Forty years. That’s how old the seminal sci-fi, suspense, horror film Alien turns this year. And to celebrate the milestone, 20th Century Fox has given the film a complete 4K HDR restoration, supervised by director Ridley Scott, with the transfer taken from a 4K Digital Intermediate.

 

At this point, what can be said about Alien that hasn’t been said in hundreds of other reviews, columns, blogs, and forums? Released in 1979, the movie has a different look, feel, and style than anything else that had come before it. And like throwing a boulder into a pond, it caused a ripple-effect through the filmmaking world that influenced the style and storytelling of virtually every sci-fi film that followed—principally Scott’s own Blade Runner, which came two years later. Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley—looking incredibly young and fresh-faced here—launched the idea of the female action hero, and Scott’s gritty, decaying Nostromo showed that the future didn’t need to be shiny and new.

 

I remember the first time I saw Alien. It was on a free Showtime weekend right after we had just moved to a new home in Bakersfield, California. I was in fifth grade, had the flu, and was couch-ridden and under-supervised. This was way pre-

onscreen guide days, so you basically just flipped around at the top of the hour hoping you would catch something good. 

 

When I saw that Alien was coming on—and that my parents were busy elsewhere—I settled in. All I really knew about the movie was the tagline, “In space, no one can hear you scream.” The original trailer had an incredibly 

slow build, almost a full-minute of a slow pan down to an egg, followed by a lot of dark scenes with people running and panicking. And not a single spoken word. Not. One.

 

Of course, as an 11-year-old, the infamous chest-burster scene was shocking, but not actually the nightmare fuel one might think. No, what lingered in my brain was nightmares of running through a darkened ship, klaxons blaring, strobes flashing, being chased by a monster, as a countdown timer steadily wound down towards destruction. Fun times.

 

Unfortunately, Alien has never really lived up to its potential on the home screen. DVD and LaserDisc versions were overly grainy and noisy, and the previous remastered Blu-ray version couldn’t do the shadow and black-level detail the justice it deserved. Rest assured, all of that is made right with this new 4K HDR version, which looks fantastic. Fortunately, the restoration is not overly heavy-handed, getting rid of the bad bits of noise and deterioration while keeping Scott’s look and stylistic feel solidly intact.

 

The film begins with the unrestored 20th Century Fox logo showing you just how grainy and noisy the source material was, but once we jump into the movie, the image is clean, clear, and beautifully solid. The blackness of space is deep, inky, and clean, with the stars as bright pinpoints of light. They definitely took a mild touch with HDR here, not overdriving the film but enhancing key scenes, punching up the appropriate highlights like the ship’s drive engines, spotlights, flames, and strobes. Much—and I mean much—of the film takes place in the dark, with many things hidden in shadows, and it is here where the cleaned-up transfer and HDR have the greatest impact.

Alien (1979)

Occasionally, there are scenes where the boosted brightness of a spotlight will highlight a bit of extra noise in the image, but these scenes are few and unobjectionable. There is a brutal video torture test at 24:30 into the film, where the crew is exploring LV-426, the moon that is the source of the spurious radio signal. Here we have myriad shades of grey illuminated by various lighting sources and swirling smoke that could be an absolute banding nightmare, but the image holds up wonderfully.

 

While Alien will never be accused of being a colorful film, 4K’s wider color gamut is used modestly to enhance the bright reds and oranges of the many indicator lights located around the Nostromo.

 

Alien isn’t your typical sci-fi, horror, space-exploration film, rather being an amalgam. It’s been years since I’ve watched the film, and I couldn’t entirely recall the storyline, so it was nice to go into it semi-fresh. What I really appreciated was the total lack of exposition. You’re thrown into the Nostromo with the crew as they’re awakened out of hyper-sleep, and you have to figure out things along with them. Several minutes pass in the film before a word is spoken. During that time, we’re treated to a slow, wandering journey through the empty Nostromo, and the depth of image is almost 3D. HDR is used nicely here, allowing us to see more shadow detail than ever before, letting you appreciate the lengths taken with the practical sets. The same can be said for The Derelict, the spacecraft the crew discovers on LV-426. Here you can marvel at H.R. Giger’s design style and really appreciate the look of the Space Jockey and leathery texture of the eggs in the egg farm. 

 

The film’s first act really plays more like a documentary of the life of space miners, hearing the crew grouse about bonuses, and wanting to get home. The film is equally slow about revealing Ripley as the hero, keeping you guessing as to who will and won’t die. And whether by design or technical limitation, the glimpses of the Xenomorph are kept few, and are often just snatches or in shadows. This reminded me of Jaws, where Spielberg keeps the huge great white a visual mystery for much of the film, proving that the dangers we can’t see are often the most terrifying.

For a film that’s celebrating 40 years, I was amazed how well the story and effects held up. The only things that really date the film’s look are the ancient displays and computer tech located around the Nostromo. Some of the graphics on these screens look a bit of a mess, while others—namely the text on Mother’s (MU-TH-UR 6000) screen—are razor-sharp. The alien looks just as terrifying as ever, with the inner-workings of its glistening, goo-filled inner jaws clearly visible.

 

Part of the danger of making a 40-year-old film look so good and visible are that some things best left unseen are revealed. There were a couple of moments where it was too obvious that the alien’s movements were a tad too human-in-a-costume or that we were looking at models instead of full-sized crafts. Fortunately, these were minor, and certainly didn’t detract from enjoying the film. (One thing my wife and I both commented on was the bizarre choice for Ripley to be wearing underwear during the finale that appears to be about five sizes too small for her. Perhaps that was the style of the day—or will be the trend in 2122 . . .)

 

One thing not changed from the previous Blu-ray release was the audio, with the 5.1-channel DTS-HD Master Audio being retained here. Would I have loved a new Dolby Atmos or DTS:X mix? Absolutely. There are many scenes where an immersive track could have been used to great effect, but this mix plays well in a luxury cinema, and my processor’s upmixer did a great job of putting blaring alarm klaxons up into the overheads.

 

Both the 4K disc and the Kaleidescape download include the original theatrical cut and the director’s cut (which actually plays a minute shorter) along with two commentary tracks and two isolated soundtrack scores.

 

Alien is a must-have for any movie fan, and I dare say it will never look better than what we have here.

John Sciacca

Alien (1979)

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as
 Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.