4K HDR Tag

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, 20tth 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.

Forever

Amazon Prime "Forever"

I’m late to the party on this one, I know. But I have to assume that if I, a massive Fred Armisen fan, somehow just found out about the 2018 Amazon-original series Forever, there must be at least a few of you out there who would love this delightfully weird and wonderful series, if only you knew it existed.

 

Here’s the problem, though: Talking about Forever isn’t easy. Even explaining what the series is about isn’t easy. But to understand its charms, you really have to look no further than its opening five minutes. The show starts with what plays like an homage to the introductory scenes of Pixar’s Up. With nary a line of dialogue, we see the relationship between two awkward lovebirds—embodied delightfully by Armisen and fellow SNL alum Maya Rudolph—grow and mature and become what it eventually becomes.

 

What’s great about this silent-movie sequence is that you understand everything you need to know about these characters before ever hearing them utter a word to one another. Armisen’s Oscar is the sort of chap who was likely nicknamed “Grandpa” before he was twenty. He’s a creature of habit and longs for the stability of til-death-do-us-part. Rudolph’s June is a free spirit who’s stifled by routine and perhaps indeed the very notion of security. Familiarity doesn’t necessarily breed contempt within her, but she is repelled by it. Or perhaps she’s repulsed by her need for it. It’s an important but ambiguous distinction that the show explores but never fully resolves.

As wonderful as these opening moments are, though, Forever doesn’t really come into its own until the banter between Oscar and June takes centerstage. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen any movie or TV show so perfectly capture the almost-secret shared language that develops between mates. At times, watching Forever feels almost like an act of voyeurism, even if the conversation we’re snooping on is as mundane as the perfect beach food or the best position in which to sit.

Amazon Prime "Forever"

And, yes, conversations like that are plentiful throughout the show’s brief eight-episode run. But they aren’t the point. Forever ultimately serves to grapple with the question of what happens when two wholly incompatible weirdos are nonetheless perfect for each other and committed to spending eternity together, when the notion of eternity terrifies one of them and is taken for granted by the other. And what makes it work is that the series explores interpersonal conflict in such a way that there are no good guys or bad guys in the

impasse between commitment and wanderlust, comfort and excitement, routine and spice. Writers Matt Hubbard and Alan Yang have the courage to explore their subject matter with refreshing nuance.

 

If there’s one criticism to be leveled at the show, it’s that after all of that nuance, Forever comes to a tidy (though wacky) conclusion a little too quickly, and in choosing where to end this weird adventure, Hubbard and Yang do put their thumbs on the scales a little. Armisen—much as I love him as a comedian—also struggles to bring the same level of gravity to serious scenes as does Rudolph, whose talent for navigating complex emotional shifts is awe-inspiring throughout.

 

Those are minor criticisms, though. If you love quirky love stories with a heaping helping of metaphor and metaphysics, you owe it to yourself to check this one out.

 

The bigger criticism is that once again, Amazon makes it nearly impossible to find the 4K version of the series via streaming devices. Your best bet is to search for it on your computer and add it to your watchlist. Not that Forever needs to be seen in 4K HDR to be enjoyed, mind you. There’s nothing particularly outstanding about its cinematography or presentation for most of its roughly four-hour runtime. But still, if you’re going to watch it, one assumes you’d like to watch it in the best quality possible.

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.

Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan

Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan

I’ll admit, I’m a bit late to the party with this review of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, the Amazon Prime original show that debuted to much acclaim last August. As I watched friend after friend declare its greatness through social media last summer, I was intrigued. But I was also skeptical. As a big fan of The Office, I was having trouble buying into the idea of John Krasinski (aka Jim Halpert) as Jack Ryan. I wasn’t sure I could get past that, but I did recently decide to give the show a shot.

 

Although I’ve never read one of Tom Clancy’s novels, there’s a fondness in my heart for Jack Ryan, at least as he’s portrayed by Alec Baldwin in 1990’s The Hunt for Red October. That’s one of those films, like The Matrix or A Few Good Men, that I must sit down and watch anytime I come across it on TV. Later portrayals of Jack Ryan by Harrison Ford and Ben Affleck have a bit more of an action-hero vibe to them, but Red October is just a good old-fashioned spy thriller at heart, and Baldwin does a great job portraying Ryan as the fish-out-of-water CIA analyst who finds himself in the middle of a Cold War submarine standoff.

 

Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan reboots the character in today’s climate of terrorist threats, and young Ryan is a Washington DC-based analyst whose job is to sit at a desk and follow the money. He discovers that a whole lotta money seems to be leading to a mysterious figure named Suleiman, and he’s quickly pulled into the effort to catch this target. The problem is, Ryan is an idealist who sees a black-and-white world where there’s a right and wrong way to catch the bad guys, but as he’s pulled deeper into the pursuit of Suleiman, his worldview is challenged by counterterrorism and its messy grey areas.

 

My skepticism of Krasinski proved unfounded. He’s wonderful in the role, absolutely believable as a former marine who can handle himself just fine when it comes to hand-to-hand combat but is still very much a fish out of water in those grey places. The rest of the cast is also fantastic—particularly Ali Suliman, who lends heart and complexity to a Suleiman character who could easily have devolved into a one-dimensional caricature.

 

Amazon presents the show in 4K HDR, with a Dolby Atmos soundtrack. Not surprisingly, the look of the show is natural and realistic, so the HDR is quite subdued, but the overall picture quality is good. I streamed the series through an Apple TV and saw excellent detail in facial closeups and the many colorful landscapes, from DC to Paris to Syria to Vegas. I find Amazon to be somewhat more aggressive in its compression than Netflix, so I did see some banding and compression artifacts in the opening credits and solid-colored backgrounds.

 

The Atmos soundtrack is dialogue-driven, with the surround stage used primarily for music and ambient sounds. A lively firefight in Episode One does flesh out the soundfield and provide good demo material.

 

Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan is a tense, smart thriller that grabs a firm hold in Episode One and doesn’t ease its grip until the conclusion in Episode Eight. It’s best to set aside a chunk of time for this one—even if you don’t plan to binge-watch it, you probably won’t be able to help yourself.

—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.

UHD TVs Hit New Heights in 2019

Vizio P Series Quantum LED UHD TV

Vizio’s P-Series Quantum LED UHD TVs

We’ve been talking a lot about video displays lately. I described a few luxury TV designs shown at the recent Consumer Electronics Show, and John Sciacca discussed the choice of front projection versus direct-view, highlighting the pros and cons of each.

 

If you’ve settled on a direct-view TV as your display method of choice for an upcoming home theater or media room, you’re now faced with the daunting task of choosing which one to buy. With prices that run the gamut from dirt cheap to “You want me to spend how much?!”, you might be asking yourself, is it worth it to pay more? What actually distinguishes a high-performance TV these days?

 

The truth is, even a budget LED/LCD TV can look really good for everyday TV watching and streaming. You can get great detail, solid image brightness, and relatively accurate color. Most budget TVs now have a 4K resolution and even claim to support High Dynamic Range—but there’s the rub. Budget TVs seldom have a high enough contrast ratio to really do HDR justice, and many of them can’t deliver the expanded color gamut that’s available in Ultra HD content. So when we’re talking about building a high-performance media system that brings out the best in your UHD source content—be it movies, games, or streaming—there’s a clear advantage in moving up the price chain.

UHD TVs Hit New Heights in 2019

LG’s Signature W8 “wallpaper” OLED UHD TV

Top-shelf TVs like Samsung’s QLED lineup, Sony’s Master Series of OLED and LED/LCD TVs, Vizio’s PQ Series, and LG’s OLED TVs don’t just support the input of an HDR signal. They actually have the contrast ratio to deliver a fantastic HDR viewing experience, and that begins with the ability to produce a deep black level.

 

OLED technology is the current standard when it comes to producing truly deep, dark blacks, but LED-based displays that use full-array backlighting with good local dimming can give OLED a run for its money. Most budget LED/LCD TVs don’t use local dimming at all, or the local dimming consists of so few dimmable zones that it’s ineffective.

 

High-performance TVs are also capable of much higher peak brightness, which is essential for reproducing bright highlights in HDR content. When we say an HDR TV can crank out 1,500 to 2,000 nits, we don’t mean that it’s doing so constantly with

every type of content—that would be painful to watch. But the beauty of HDR content is that the highlights in a scene—like the sun, the moon, or the burst of fire in an explosion—can be very bright, more akin to what our eyes can see in the real world. LED/LCD TVs still trump OLED in their brightness capabilities, but with OLED, the black level is so dark that the perceived brightness of HDR highlights is still fantastic. Budget TVs (and, frankly, front projectors) just don’t have the brightness capabilities to bring out the best in HDR.

 

One performance element that often gets overlooked is the quality of the TV screen’s anti-reflective filter. Especially in today’s multi-purpose media rooms, people don’t always watch movies in the dark, and a good anti-reflective filter is essential for rejecting the ambient light coming from lamps and windows to cut down on screen glare and preserve image contrast. High-performance models are usually better in this respect, too.

 

The final piece of the high-performance puzzle is the ability to produce the expanded color gamut in UHD content. A wide color gamut can be achieved in various ways. Quantum dot technology is used in many top-shelf LCD displays (it’s the Q in Samsung’s QLED and Vizio’s PQ) because of its ability to accurately and efficiently deliver the wide color gamut at the very bright levels required in HDR content.

 

Of course, performance isn’t the only thing people look for when designing a nice media room. Top-shelf TVs also tend to have nicer aesthetics, so you don’t mind looking at them 

when the screen is off. They may be thinner and lighter, with more interesting bezel and stand designs. They may house the electronics/input panel in a separate box that’s more easily hidden away in a cabinet. They may integrate more easily with advanced wholehouse control systems. And they may have intelligent voice control and other user-friendly features built in.

 

Hey, a flagship TV is certainly not right for everyone. Most home entertainment enthusiasts will probably settle on something in between the low and high ends, and that’s OK. But for anyone looking to create the ultimate cinematic experience at home, there are plenty of reference-quality TV options to choose from this year.

—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.

Basic Choices: Projector or TV? Pt. 2

Basic Choices: Projector or TV? Pt. 2

In Part One of this post, I detailed the various pros and cons associated with going with a front projector and screen as the video display in your media room/theater. Here, we’ll dissect direct-view TVs to help you determine whether they’re the right technology choice for your room.

 

Pros

 

A Complete Solution
Unlike a projector, which is just a display device requiring amplification, speakers, and sources in order to perform, a direct-view TV can function entirely on its own. It has a built-in ATSC tuner for cable or off-air tuning, Wi-Fi access to the Internet or streaming Ultra HD content like Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu, and speakers to deliver audio. (Granted, the

speakers on most TVs are abysmal, and any luxury cinema would include a separate surround audio system.) But, for those wanting the simplest option, a direct-view TV might be the right call.

 

Better Performance at Smaller Screen Sizes
Sometimes bigger isn’t better, and a 65-, 75-, or 85-inch direct-view screen might be the perfect size for your room. While you could get a projection screen that small, the performance tradeoffs of going with a projector versus a direct-view set just wouldn’t make sense. If you’re looking for a screen size under 100 inches, direct-view is probably the right call.

 

Flagship Performance at an Affordable Price
Projectors in the luxury market can easily cost $30,000 to $100,000. But a truly state-of-the-art direct-view LED or OLED set can be had for a fraction of that.

 

Easier to Install
Since the electronics in many entertainment spaces are located right below where the TV will be installed, with power nearby, installation is straightforward. But since projectors are typically ceiling mounted on the other side of the room, they can be far more difficult to get power and wire to in a retrofit situation. Obviously, if you’re building or remodeling a room, this will be less of a factor. 

 

Unaffected by Ambient Light
While even a single lightbulb can wash out a projector’s image, direct-view sets can happily exist in rooms with virtually any amount of light. If it isn’t practical to fully darken your space at all times of day, or you prefer doing your movie/TV watching or gaming with some lights on, direct-view sets will give you a lot more flexibility. Granted, TVs can have issues with reflections, but these are often far easier to address than too much light on a projection screen.

 

Can Accommodate HDR/Dolby Vision
To bear the Ultra HD Alliance’s “Premium” logo, a TV’s HDR (high dynamic range) technology must be able to simultaneously produce both exceedingly deep blacks and bright whites. While many new projectors can display HDR content, they offer only a fraction of the performance that direct-view TVs can achieve. And no current home projector can handle the increasingly popular Dolby Vision HDR standard, which uses metadata to adjust the dynamic range settings of a movie scene by scene. While projectors continue to get better at handling HDR content, they’ll likely always lag behind direct-view sets, which can produce a far brighter and punchier image.

 

Can Produce 32 Million Pixels
As ridiculous as it sounds—especially since many people are just now considering the move to 4K sets—8K was the video talk of the recent CES. Never mind that most broadcast content providers still can’t even deliver 1080p, let alone any quantity of 4K content, and that there’s no solution even in the pipeline to 

actually deliver an 8K image. Put all that aside. 8K is not only coming, it’s here, with Samsung models already available. Now, I’ll be honest—the 85-inch 8K Samsung TV I saw at this past CEDIA was nothing short of flat-out stunning. Whether that was due to the oodles of extra pixels on screen, or the fantastic video processing and 4,000 nits of brightness, I can’t say. But the likely scenario is the next generation of flagship direct-view TVs will be 8K (7680 x 4320), and early indications are they will produce spectacular images from native-4K content.

Basic Choices: Projector or TV? Pt. 2

Direct-view TVs perform much better than front-projection systems in brightly lit rooms

Cons

 

More Expensive for Larger Screens
While an 85-inch screen size is nothing to sneeze at, if you want to go larger than that, it could cost you. A lot. While you can get a 85-inch set for under $5,000 (or snag the 8K Samsung mentioned above for under $15,000), prices go up exponentially above that size. For example, while the flagship Sony 75-inch Z9F set costs around $6,000, the 100-inch Z9D will run you $60,000! LG unveiled the world’s largest OLED TV at 88 inches during this past CES with no price announced yet, but expect it to be . . . high. And if you think Samsung’s 219-inch modular-design The Wall is right for you, plan on spending well over six figures when it actually becomes available for order.

 

Room Dominating
We’re a luxury website, so perhaps the prospect of dropping a ton of cash on a flagship direct-view set isn’t a deal killer. I mean, Ferrari is selling $300,000 488 GTBs faster than it can produce them, so clearly the luxury buyer is alive, well, and spending. But, one thing you’ll have a tough time doing with your massive direct-view set is hiding it or decorating around it.

 

Hinders Speaker Placement
The ideal speaker layout places the front left, center, and right speakers on the same horizontal plane as the center of the screen image, ensuring that sounds perfectly track the on-screen action. With an acoustically transparent projection screen, this isn’t a problem, but with a massive direct-view set, placing the center channel speaker becomes more problematic. Generally, the solution is to install it below the screen, and while this often does an OK job of marrying the dialogue to the screen, results can vary depending on how large your TV is, how low the speaker is installed, and how far the seats are from the screen.

 

Poor Off-angle Viewing
LED TVs can exhibit a real shift in image brightness and picture quality as you move off-center. If your media room is wide, with seats at extreme angles from the screen, those seats may have a compromised experience. Also, glare and reflections can become an issue when sitting well off-center.

 

Since choosing the right display technology is one of the biggest decisions you’ll make when creating a media or theater room, being armed with all the information necessary to choose—along with finding a competent installer—will definitely help your system turn out to be the best it can!

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.

Hunter Killer

Hunter Killer

Don’t feel bad if you have never heard of Hunter Killer. It went in and out of theaters nearly as quickly as the first explosions occur in the film. HK belongs to that increasing group of films that have a huge divide between critics and moviegoers, with the film generally panned by critics with a 37% approval rating and average score of 4.7/10, but with CinemaScore audiences giving it a far more generous average grade of A-.

 

I originally stumbled across HK while scrolling through the trailers of upcoming films on my Apple TV, and I was sold. I’m a nut for submarine movies—Das Boot, Hunt for Red October, U-571, Crimson Tide . . . I’ve seen ‘em all. It’s been far too long since we’ve had a good sub film, and none showcasing the latest technologies of the newest real-world boats, and the trailer for HK was action packed. So, when HK arrived on the Kaleidescape Movie Store in 4K HDR with a Dolby Atmos soundtrack a full two weeks before being available on disc, it was a no-brainer for me.

 

There are essentially two types of submarines in the modern Navy, often referred to as Boomers and Hunter Killers. Boomers—technically Ohio-class ballistic- and guided-missile submarines—lurk around the world’s oceans as silently as possible, lying in wait and ready to unleash a maelstrom of ballistic missiles on an unsuspecting enemy should the launch order come. (That was the USS Alabama in Crimson Tide.) Hunter Killers—Virginia-class fast-attack submarines, of which there are currently 16 in active service—spend their time looking for and then tracking enemy subs and other ships, constantly prepared to destroy them before they can launch their payload should war break out.

Hunter Killer

Hunter Killer follows the USS Arkansas, a Virginia-class attack submarine, and its crew captained by the very non-traditional and unorthodox (“He didn’t go to Annapolis”) newly appointed captain, Joe Glass (Gerard Butler), as they sail off to investigate the disappearance of a US submarine feared lost in the Arctic. Concurrently, a four-man team of Navy SEALs infiltrates a Russian naval base and discovers a coup underway. After witnessing the Russian President taken prisoner and seeing the defense minister’s moves to goad the US into war, the SEALs are tasked with the mission of “rescuing” the Russian President and whisking him away to safety. These two plotlines ultimately converge in the film’s climax. In between is lots of gunfire, rocket launches, and sub-on-sub torpedo action.

 

The picture quality is pretty terrific, with loads of detail, especially in the brightly lit outdoor scenes. HDR is used to good effect in the dimly lit submarine, with its myriad of screens and displays. My one nit is that the 4K transfer is so good that some of the underwater sub-chase scenes ended up looking fake.

Hunter Killer

The interior sets of the USS Arkansas, however, look amazingly real and authentic. Apparently, the US Navy was involved with the film’s production and design team in developing the look of the sub, and it really shows. Every scene inside the sub looks and feels real, which goes a long way towards giving a sub movie credibility. Butler also spent several days aboard an actual Virginia-class sub while underway to get a feel for daily submarine life and operations.

Sonically, the Atmos mix does exactly what it should, and sounds mostly fantastic in a home theater. From the opening scenes, you are plunged underwater with sounds of the ocean rolling and bubbling overhead. The Arkansas is also filled with tons of little ambient sounds that place you right in the midst of the boat. There is plenty of low-frequency info to give your subwoofer a workout, specifically the deep, steady thrum of the sub’s turbine. Dialogue is mostly intelligible, but there were several scenes where it was buried in the midst of background sounds, making it difficult to understand.

 

Is HK a good movie? Meh. Let’s just say I doubt “cerebral” would be anyone’s adjective of choice to describe it. It also has its share of head-scratching moments, as well as scenes that stretch your suspension of disbelief (submarines don’t follow other boats just feet off the stern, or race around the ocean floor, zig-zagging through impossibly narrow channels with the agility of a Ferrari navigating Nurburgring). And Butler seems hellbent on being angry, defying all established protocol, and arguing with his XO in nearly every scene.

 

A far better question is, “Is HK an entertaining movie?” and if you’re a fan of the action or military genre, the answer is a definite yes. A good metric might be whether or not you enjoyed Gerard Butler in Olympus Has Fallen or its sequel, London Has Fallen, as Hunter Killer is similar in pacing and style but (obviously) set on a sub. The movie’s two-plus-hour run time zips by, and there is constantly something happening to keep you engaged and entertained. If you’re looking for a movie where you can sit back and just enjoy the action unfolding onscreen and the dynamic Atmos audio mix, HK is the perfect Friday-night popcorn flick.

John Sciacca

Hunter Killer

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.

Demo Scenes: Deepwater Horizon

This is the third in our series featuring great demo scenes for putting a showroom system through its paces, making sure your new entertainment space makes the grade, or showing friends what your system can do. Deepwater Horizon joins Baby Driver and Ready Player One as a go-to title for showcasing a luxury Atmos system (see “Why You Have to Have Dolby Atmos”). It’s available on Ultra HD Blu-ray, for download from the Kaleidescape Movie Storeand from streaming services like iTunes.

—ed.

 

Deepwater Horizon is part of a trilogy of films (including Lone Survivor and Patriots Day) that pair director Peter Berg and actor Mark Wahlberg recreating actual events for the big screen. (The duo also combined on a fourth film, Mile 22, that is decidedly not based on actual events.) The movie focuses on the events leading up to the uncontrollable blowout of the BP deep-sea oil exploration platform in 2010, which created the largest manmade disaster in US history.

 

The film is packed with action, and features vibrant colors that leap off the screen in 4K HDR. But the real standout star is the reference-grade Dolby Atmos soundtrack. This audio mix delivers from every square inch of your listening space, including wall-flexing bass and a massive amount of overhead information that will make viewers reach for their hardhats to avoid the falling debris. As the pull quote on the 4K Blu-ray box art says, Deepwater Horizon is “Shock-and-awe spectacle!”

 

Here are three scenes that tell a great story while showing off the film’s audio highlights.

Demos to Die For: "Deepwater Horizon"
Scene 1: “That was a bird strike!”
(12:30-15:00)

 

This scene leads you into the film easily—you don’t want to just jump straight to fire and explosions and mayhem, and this follows the crew as they head out to the DH. It begins in a lobby at the airfield, filling your listening space with background office noises, but as soon as they step out to walk toward the helicopter, the room sonically transforms into a helipad. Note the shift of helicopter blades from overhead to the upper left corner of the room as the onscreen PoV changes. While the crew is flying, the dialogue has a very “headphone” quality to it, but the room is filled with the steady whine of the engines and whump-whump of the blades. At about 14:50, the helicopter hits a bird that slams into the room high up on the wall, left of center, and then wings back through the room. It’s sudden and jarring, and a great use of audio to capture the intense moment. And I bet you’ll get more than one person to jump if you play it near reference volume.

Demos to Die For: "Deepwater Horizon"
Scene 2: “Biggest damn kick I ever seen!”
(51:00–58:10)

 

This scene just builds and builds in intensity and destruction, setting the stage for the final scene. The crew starts pulling back the drill and pumping out the mud when everything goes sideways. There’s deep rumbling as the mud starts flowing back up the drill line and explodes in a geyser that sprays mud, rock, and water all over the room. The water rushes and splashes around, a steady geyser jetting up the front wall and splashing down overhead.

 

In between the mayhem, notice the vibrant reds of the worker’s uniforms, especially contrasted with the mud-covered employees out on the deck. At 53:50, you pan outside and up the rig and travel to the ocean’s floor, the rumblings and waves swirling and rocking around the room. Bass explosions are powerful and deep, and a well-calibrated system should have you feeling the effects in your seat. At 56:30, glass starts shattering all around the control room, letting you clearly pinpoint each window’s location. After the mud-covered seagulls fly around in the confined space, the film cuts back into the pumping room, and you can hear sounds surrounding every inch of the 360-degree space around your listening position.

Demos to Die For: "Deepwater Horizon"
Scene 3: “We’ve got to get to the boats!”
(1:18:42–1:27:40)

 

This scene runs a bit long, but it has plenty of excitement to hold your attention. With the DH engulfed in flames, the crew is looking for last-ditch ways to save the rig while racing to abandon. As they rush around the rig, fireballs and jets of flames burst into the room, and explosions send shrapnel ripping into the space, fully immersing you in the conflagration. When power is lost, note how clean and noise-free the blacks are, with no banding or other distracting artifacts. The fire looks especially intense in HDR, delivering ultra-realistic shades of orange-red. Note all the subtle sounds of straining and groaning metal as the rig breaks apart. When Wahlberg enters the water at the scene’s finale, you get some great “submerged audio,” as water bubbles up and laps up and over the ceiling, and falling debris pelts the water around him.

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.

Demo Scenes: Baby Driver

Demos to Die For: "Baby Driver"

The demo scenes featured in this series of posts are perfect for putting a showroom system through its paces, making sure your new entertainment space makes the grade, or showing friends what your system is made of. Baby Driver is a go-to title for showcasing a luxury Atmos system (see “Why You Have to Have Dolby Atmos”). It’s available on Ultra HD Blu-ray, for download from the Kaleidescape Movie Storeand from streaming services like Vudu and iTunes.

—ed.

 

Using R-rated content for demo material is a very slippery slope since it can easily be off-putting to many viewers and obviously isn’t suitable for families. And the most demo-worthy scenes from R-rated films usually contain gratuitous violence, profanity-laced dialogue, and nudity that can quickly turn showing off your system into a turnoff. But these two scenes from Baby Driver are terrific exceptions you can show to any audience without fear of offending.

 

Both scenes show off the strengths of Dolby Atmos object placement and tracking capabilities—so make sure you have the HDR or UHD version of the film so you can enjoy the Atmos audio.

 

Scene 1: “The Bellbottoms Bank Job”
(0:50–6:25)

 

This scene is an absolute grand slam, checking off nearly every box for “What makes a great demo?” It’s literally the opening of the film, so you not only don’t spoil anything for people who haven’t seen it before, you’ll likely hook them to want to see more. It’s a complete story in itself, with a clear beginning, middle, and finale. And, it’s action packed, with some of the best driving you’ll see on screen, with a fantastic accompanying audio track.

 

One of the brilliant and innovative things about Baby Driver is how director Edgar Wright used music to propel and choreograph each scene. This opening plays loud and proud from the overhead speakers, with vocals that swirl around the room, and features a sub-heavy bass line that drives the tempo.

 

Notice how Jon Hamm’s shotgun blasts fire in time with the music. A potent and well-calibrated sub will have you feeling the Suburu’s engine revs in your chest as Baby pushes the WRX to its limits. As he drifts around the city, you’ll clearly hear tires squealing and protesting the physics-defying maneuvers, with the audio tracking every siren, horn honk, and car that whizzes by. While video isn’t the focus of this demo, notice the stoplight colors, with vibrant yellows and reds that push the color-space boundaries.

Demos to Die For: "Baby Driver"
Scene 2: Opening Credits/“Harlem Shuffle”
(6:25–9:09)

 

This scene couldn’t be easier to find since it begins right after the first demo scene ends.While the first scene is all about excitement and bombast, this one is just Baby walking to grab some coffee before heading to meet his crew. Notice how amazingly the audio tracks the off-camera action. You’ll hear an infant cry far off camera left, and then see a mother with a stroller pass Baby. Throughout, the audio swirls relative to Baby’s perspective and position, with the sounds of traffic, conversations, and jack hammers announcing their arrival long before they appear on screen, and long after they’re no longer in view.

 

Also notice how the audio changes when Baby walks into the coffeeshop. When he pulls out an earbud to hear the barista, the music volume drops and the sounds of the coffeeshop fill the room, with the music taking over as he replaces the earbud. This entire scene displays how a terrific audio mix along with properly placed speakers can transform a media room into an entirely different environment.

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.

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch

Between passively sitting back and watching a movie and actively being involved in every action and decision while playing a videogame lies a relatively uncommon bit of media called an interactive film. Kind of like the old “Choose Your Own Adventure” book series those of us who grew up during the ‘70s and ‘80s will remember, interactive films feature a story that unfolds differently depending on the choices you make at several moments throughout, resulting in a variety of possible conclusions.

 

With its latest installment in the Black Mirror anthology, Netflix is going interactive with the new film Bandersnatch. According to Netflix, “Bandersnatch is an interactive film that reacts to your choices. You’ll be able play on newer smart TVs, most 

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch

streaming media players, game consoles and web browsers, and iOS and Android devices running the latest version of the Netflix app. If your device is compatible, you’ll see the interactivity badge on the film below [in the upper right-hand corner of the image].”

 

Unfortunately, not everyone will be able to enjoy Bandersnatch. Of 

the multiple Netflix-capable streaming devices in my home, several weren’t compatible, including a new Apple 4K TV, Dish Hopper 3, and Samsung UBD-K8500. Those who use Google Chromecast are also left out of the fun.

 

What did work was the Netflix app in my Sony XBR65X930D TV (two generations old at this point) and my Xbox One S. (PlayStation4 is also said to work though I wasn’t able to test.)  I could also enjoy the interactive experience using the Netflix 

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch

app on my iPhone 7—but watching a movie on a phone is a fairly soulless experience and certainly not recommended. Also, it wouldn’t work when I used the Netflix App from the Microsoft Store on my PC, but would work on the same PC when I just went to Netflix.com.

 

When you try and play Bandersnatch on a non-supported device, you’ll be taken to a two-minute trailer featuring scenes from previous Black Mirror episodes with multiple characters saying, “I’m sorry . . .” and then the primary Netflix account receives the email shown at the left.

 

Bandersnatch’s running time is listed at 1 hour 30 minutes, but your actual adventure could last quite a bit less depending on your choices. Fortunately, if you end up making a “wrong” decision, the film will give you a chance to go back and re-choose. A brilliant touch is that if you decide to make a different decision, you’re greeted with a quick fast forward kind of recap of the decisions you’ve made to get you to where you are. It’s bit like a customized series recap, and I found it pretty cool instead of just throwing you back to where you were. 

 

The first choices are pretty benign and come just a few moments into the film, where you pick which breakfast cereal you’d like to start the day with, followed by what 

music you’ll listen to on your ride into work. As the story progresses, the decisions start becoming weightier and have more impact on the story: Will you drop acid? What will you do with a dead body?

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch

Selection is a simple left, right, and enter, and the branching between storylines is truly seamless in that there are absolutely no breaks, hiccups, or interruptions whatsoever in the action or audio as your choice is carried out. You’ll also start to notice subtle things like in-movie ads that are based on prior choices you made. From a technical standpoint, Bandersnatch is masterfully executed and was fun to watch, err, play.

 

Without spoiling the fun, Bandersnatch takes place in 1984 and revolves around Stefan Butler (Fionn Whitehead, Dunkirk), who is working to turn a famous Choose Your Own Adventure book, Bandersnatch, into an interactive video game. The film also includes Colin Ritman (Will Poulter, The Maze Runner) as prodigy video-game designer and somewhat mentor to Butler.

 

The story becomes very meta when Butler starts having a psychotic breakdown because of the workload and stresses of immersing himself in creating the game. He begins questioning reality and starts to feel he is no longer in charge of his own life—like there is someone else out there deciding things for him; what breakfast cereal he’ll eat, what music he’ll listen to . . .

 

The seeming “free will” and open ended-ness of the bulk of the story is a bit limited in actuality, and the film ultimately guides you to toward the end, which will have wildly different conclusions depending on choices you make late in the film. But how you get there—and how many times you’ll need to go back and make a different decision—and what sub-stories you see along the way varies based on your choices.

 

Most of the endings are a bit dark, twisted, and macabre, fitting in with what Black Mirror viewers have come to expect from the series. But I found them all varied and interesting enough that I enjoyed going back and re-choosing decisions over a period of 2.5 hours until I felt I had seen all the possible outcomes.

 

Bandersnatch is presented in 4K HDR and looks good, especially the many night and dark scenes in Butler’s room. The Dolby Atmos soundtrack also does an admirable job of keeping dialogue intelligible while adding some nice atmospheric effect.

 

Black Mirror is an episodic show that has been described as a modern version of The Twilight Zone revolving around technology. IMDB describes it as “An anthology series exploring a twisted, high-tech world where humanity’s greatest innovations and darkest instincts collide.”

 

For those who are fans of the series, or just looking to expand their viewing options for an evening, Bandersnatch is unlike anything you’ve watched before and definitely makes for an interesting experience.

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.

Venom

Venom

I’ll freely admit that I’m a superhero-movie fan. Ever since seeing the original, Christopher Reeve Superman: The Movie as an 8-year-old, I’ve loved watching these heroes battle to save the planet up on the big screen, and now in the comfort of my own home.

 

No franchise has done more to raise the bar of the superhero genre than Marvel, which, for the past 10 years, has been crafting a spectacular, epic tale that has gradually been drawing an entire universe of characters together in a battle for half the galaxy that began in Avengers: Infinity War and will culminate in the upcoming Avengers: Endgame. (Not part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe [MCU], but still spectacular superhero viewing includes Wonder Woman and Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, especially The Dark Knight, which transcends the superhero genre into the realm of simply spectacular cinema.)

 

I bring this up because as much as I enjoy superhero films, I knew virtually nothing about Venom prior to watching. In fact, my only previous knowledge of the character was his appearance in the 2007 Spider-Man 3. From that film, I learned that Venom was an alien entity that bonded with Peter Parker (Spider-Man) and kind of became like a bad version of the character, wearing a black version of Spidey’s costume.

 

With this latest reboot of the character, I expected Venom to continue the MCU trend of bringing multiple characters together, or would at the very least include Tom Holland, who has taken over Spidey’s mantle starting in Captain America: Civil War and continuing in Spider-Man: Homecoming and Infinity War.

 

Well, umm, no.

 

While it was made in association with Marvel Studios, Venom is a standalone Sony Pictures release bearing no obvious connection to the MCU or even to Spider-Man. This is part of a complicated legal and licensing agreement between Sony and Marvel that you can read more about here.

 

So, unless you’re a hardcore Venom fan, you can scrap everything you think you might know about Venom and just go into this cold. In fact, knowing nothing might actually be the best way to approach this, since you won’t be burdened by any required geek-cred knowledge of backstories, interwoven plot lines, or fear of missing any fanboy Easter eggs.

 

This is an origin story, attempting to introduce and launch a new expanded universe of Spider-Man characters. But the film has a big shortcoming in the casting of (or maybe it’s the direction or the dialogue given to) Tom Hardy, who plays both Edie Brock and Venom. Brock is supposed to be this killer investigative journalist, but, honestly, Hardy comes across as just too slow, clunky, and dim-witted to be even close to believable in this role, and the early scenes with him as a journalist were the hardest for me to just sit back and enjoy.

 

Fortunately, your suspension of disbelief over Hardy’s journalistic prowess doesn’t need to last long, as he soon bonds with the alien symbiote Venom, who was brought back from a space exploration mission and kept locked in a lab looking for a compatible host. Once Hardy absorbs Venom, the rest of the film has him coming to terms with his new amorphous, shape-

shifting, and head-chomping alter-ego as the movie transitions from one action piece to another as the duo looks to take down the techno-billionaire bad guy. Actually, I found Hardy more believable post-infection since his body adapting to the “parasite” offers an explanation for his semi out-of-it behavior.

 

One thing Sony knows how to do is release fantastic-looking 4K HDR films,

and Venom is no exception. Detail and color are first-rate throughout, but especially during the multiple night scenes in San Francisco, where the city looks stunning. These shots take full advantage of HDR to produce bright lights and vibrant colors while retaining deep and solid black levels.

 

Venom has no shortage of big action scenes and visual effects, which all look terrific. One of the best scenes is a chase through downtown San Francisco (happening around the 54-minute mark) that highlights the best of what Venom is: Pure balls-out mayhem, with a liberal dose of SFX thrown in for good measure. Just don’t count how many times The Rialto theater appears in the background. Rather, sit back and enjoy the cars smashing and Brock/Venom racing manically through the crowded streets on a motorcycle.

 

The Dolby Atmos soundtrack is equally impressive, offering a very dynamic mix that will definitely give your system a workout. There are tons of moments where the height channels are called into action, whether it’s drones or helicopters flying overhead, gun mayhem, or just the ambience representing the acoustic space on screen. Bass is particularly impressive, having a ton of weight and impact, with explosions you’ll feel in your chair. Venom’s voice is also recorded with a very cool effect, booming from all around and sounding like it’s coming from inside your head. 

 

The Kaleidescape download includes five pre-marked scenes, along with several bonus features, including multiple making-of docs, deleted scenes, and a special “Venom mode” that engages “informative pop-ups throughout the film to provide insight on the movie’s relationship to the comics, and to reveal hidden references that even a seasoned Venom-fan may have missed!”

 

Venom belongs to that increasing group of films that sees a real divide between critics and fans. While scoring a meager 28% on Rotten Tomatoes, it managed an 85% audience score. In short, I’d say Venom is a classic big summer popcorn action film where it pays to check your brain at the door and just sit back and marvel (no pun intended) at the terrific visual effects and pummeling Dolby Atmos audio track. If you’re looking for some home theater eye and ear candy, Venom won’t disappoint.

John Sciacca

Venom

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.