John Sciacca Tag

Emma. (2020)

Emma (2020)

And, yes, before you think to ask, the title does include a period after “Emma”. According to Autumn de Wilde, making his big-screen directorial debut here, this is to signify the movie as a “period piece” set in the original era.

 

Emma. was one of the first films Universal decided to release on premium video on demand (along with The Invisible Man and The Hunt) due to the theatrical shutdown, bringing it to the home market as a $19.99 48-hour rental just 10 days after

its theatrical debut. The initial release was limited to just 1080p resolution, causing some to hold off.

 

Emma. is now available for purchase from Kaleidescape for that same $19.99 price, but with a 4K HDR transfer. (The film had a theatrical Dolby Digital sound mix, and it is provided with a DTS-HD Master 5.1-mix for home.)

 

As a movie lover, I’m always up to watch just about anything, but I’ll admit that Emma. was a bit outside the wheelhouse of films I usually take on for review. I didn’t remember anything of the story, and all the I could recall from the previous Emma (1996) was Gwyneth Paltrow holding a bow and arrow. (Spoiler: There is no archery in this version whatsoever!) Fortunately, my wife, Dana, is a huge Jane Austen fan and she was game for reviewing the film portion and offering a bit of perspective from an Austen-loving background:

EMMA AT A GLANCE

While this may look & sound better than the 1996 take on the Jane Austen classic, Gwyneth Paltrow’s earlier portrayal of Emma was far more likable than Anya Taylor-Joy’s performance here. 

 

PICTURE     

Kaleidescape’s 4K download is true to the film’s pastel tones, but the digital intermediate seems soft compared to some recent 4K transfers.

 

SOUND

The DTS-HD Master 5.1 soundtrack does a nice job conveying the dialogue, atmospherics, and evocative classical score.

I discovered Jane Austin at 14. I first read Pride and Prejudice, followed in quick succession by Emma, Mansfield Park, Sense and Sensibility, Northanger Abbey, and Persuasion. Austen’s writing draws you into a world of grand houses, ladies and gentlemen, and the proper manners expected of such people. In spite of the sometimes pretentious and flowery speeches, the wit and humor is easily understood, and the banter between characters is a bit like looking in on a 200-year-old sitcom.

 

Of all Austen’s novels, Emma is actually one of my least favorites. Emma Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy) is a spoiled snob, both self-centered and vacuous. In contrast, Elizabeth Bennett, the heroine from my favorite Austen novel, Pride and Prejudice, is well-read, intelligent, and caring. In Emma, Emma’s neighbor and friend, Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn) berates and corrects her, causing her to pout as if she were a child, whereas in Pride, Miss Bennet and Mr. Darcy banter back and forth, sharing interesting ideas and concepts more as equals.

 

So far, there have been two film versions of Emma, the previous being the 1996 version starring Gwyneth Paltrow. (There have also been at least three TV mini-series versions.)  [JS: And not to mention 1995’s Clueless, which is a very modern retelling of the story.] While the costumes and locations are similar in both films, I found the color scheme of the 1996 version more somber. While I initially thought Taylor-Joy was actually of English descent, it turns out she was born in Miami, Florida, was raised in Argentina until she was six, and then moved to London, where she spent the next eight years. While English was not her first language—she spoke only Spanish until she was six—her English accent here is solidly believable throughout.

 

Many scenes from this retelling have a grander scope, revealing more of the vast countryside views. [JS: While the theatrical resolution is listed as 1.85:1, the home release is actually 16:9, or 1.78:1.] Some of the framing, pacing, and closeups feel a bit Wes Anderson-esque, with title cards occasionally breaking up scenes, or the way some background characters moved in scenes. 

Emma (2020)

As with many of Austen’s works, there are numerous characters and names to keep track of. In the opening scenes, Emma’s governess Miss Taylor (Gemma Whelan) weds a local gentleman, and Emma is convinced she orchestrated their union and that matchmaking is her calling.  When a Miss Harriet Smith “Biddy” (Letty Thomas) enrolls in the local ladies’ school, Emma takes her under her wing and is determined to find a suitable husband for the young lady. Though Miss Smith’s parentage is unknown—meaning she is probably someone’s illegitimate daughter—Emma is convinced Miss Smith is actually the daughter of a gentleman, and thus suitable for a good match. However, in 19th-century England, no respectable gentleman would marry someone with Miss Smith’s unknown background. Yet this doesn’t stop Emma from setting her sights on the local rector Bartholomew (Angus Imrie) as the perfect choice for Miss Smith, even convincing Miss Smith to decline a marriage proposal from someone she is quite fond of.

 

The just-over two-hour film spends most of its time with Emma negotiating and arranging meetings between characters in beautiful settings and gorgeously detailed costumes and hoping to arrange her own chance encounter with Frank Churchhill (Callum Turner). As the most well-off of Austen’s heroines, Emma sees herself as the perfect match for Churchhill as he is set to inherit one of the largest estates and salaries around.

 

As is typical of films, a lot of detail and storytelling from the book are omitted, but this version doesn’t provide as much backstory into Emma’s life or give us any sense of the history she has with the other characters as the ’96 film. For example, we know very little about Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson) or why she is Emma’s chosen frenemy, and just a throwaway line tells you she has not family or fortune. Also, in the novel, Emma’s father, Mr. Woodhouse (Bill Nighy), is an extreme hypochondriac, constantly worried about all manner of things such as what people are eating and if they will get sick, but here, while Nighy superbly supplies most of the comic relief, his fears of catching ill have been reduced to concerns over cold drafts and having a doctor on routine call.

 

Compared to Taylor-Joy’s portrayal, Paltrow played Emma with more compassion, not as if matchmaking is just some game for her amusement, but rather as if she actually cares for the people involved. Also, Paltrow comes across as kinder and less snobbish, where Taylor-Joy seems like she is above others and has the proverbial stick lodged up her corset from the get-go. Also, Mr. Knightley—who is some 17 years Emma’s senior—treats her more like a child or irritating little sister.

 

While this version is beautiful-looking from a cinematography standpoint, and you get to appreciate far more of the well-appointed and -dressed interiors of the fine Woodhouse estate compared to the ’96 film, much of which takes place outdoors, I actually preferred the previous version due to Paltrow’s more likable portrayal.

 

Shot on ArriRaw at 4.5K and taken from a true 4K digital intermediate, you’d expect Emma. to look good, and it does. However, I never felt I was getting that hyper-resolution of some modern true 4K DI’s. Closeups were certainly rich with 

texture and detail, especially on the many finely detailed costumes and delicate lace that Emma wears, and the resolution also helps you to appreciate the fabric, patterns, and detail of the many suits and dresses throughout, but I would have bet that it was taken from a 2K DI. Perhaps I’ve just gotten spoiled by some terrific transfers lately.

 

Many of the interior scenes throughout Woodhouse estate feature rooms painted in a host of pastel colors—powdery blues, mint greens, carnation pinks—that are well represented but not necessarily saturated or pushing the boundaries of the wider color gamut. Where the video quality really shines is during the interior scenes that are lit by an abundance of candles. Here we get rich, warm tones, lighting the room and characters with glowing skin and deep shadows that look very lifelike and true with the use of HDR. Of course, the flickering flames also benefit from the added dynamic range, as do scenes where sunlight is pouring in through open windows, or exterior scenes under what seems to be a perpetually overcast British sky that have some nice punch.

 

Sonically, Emma. doesn’t offer much to write about. As mentioned previously, we are given just a basic 5.1-channel track, and there a just a few moments of atmospheric audio, such as the occasional bird chirps or wind blowing, or the 

Emma (2020)

crunch of carriage wheels and the creaks and groans of a carriage as it moves along. Interior scenes are given the appropriate sense of audio space, being flat when appropriate, or lively and echoey, such as inside the church.

 

The soundtrack is actually quite nice, featuring many classical pieces that are spread well across the front channels and that upmix nicely into the height speakers. There are also a few choral pieces that offer some nice room-fill. Of course, the most important part to a dialogue-driven film like Emma. is being able to clearly understand what characters are saying, and it definitely accomplishes this, even giving them some nice movement across the front channels that tracks on-screen location.

 

Of all the versions of Jane Austen’s Emma available, this one certainly looks the best and is available in the highest quality via Kaleidescape. If you are into period films, or just need a mental palate-cleanser after the recent slate of action films that have been released, Emma. is easy on the eyes and offers a new presentation to a classic tale.

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.

Gladiator

Gladiator

Having not watched the film for years, what I most remembered about Gladiator prior to this viewing was the incredible recreation of the Roman Colosseum filled with tens of thousands of cheering, blood-thirsty fans. I recall marveling at the size and scope of it and how they had been able to resurrect and recreate this 1,900-plus-year-old monument.

 

Those digital effects didn’t hold up quite so convincingly viewed in 4K resolution 20 years later, but that’s OK. While the movie boasted some impressive visual effects for its day, they were always there just to serve the greater purpose of telling the 

story and never just for the sake of, “Look what we can do!” digital wizardry. At its heart, Gladiator remains a thoroughly compelling story featuring powerful acting all around with impressive practical sets and effects and action scenes that remain dynamic and thrilling, keeping this film as entertaining today as it was on its release back in 2000.

 

I had also forgotten just what a powerhouse Gladiator was at the 2001 Academy Awards, snagging a total of 12 nominations and pulling down a total five Oscars including Picture, Actor (Russell Crowe), Costume Design, Sound, and Visual Effects. 

 

Director Ridley Scott wastes no time jumping into the story, quickly introducing us to General Maximus Decimus (Crowe) as he is about to lead his Roman army to victory against a Germanic horde in what will be the final battle of his latest campaign. It’s immediately clear Maximus is an accomplished war fighter, leading from the front, and beloved by his men.

GLADIATOR AT A GLANCE

Twenty years on, aside from some of the digital effects, this sword & toga potboiler holds up surprisingly well in 4K, thanks to its strong acting, excellent production design, and classic action scenes.

 

PICTURE     

The 4K transfer is excellent, and true to the movie’s 35mm roots, with occasional glimpses of grain in the images and an analog softness.

 

SOUND

The DTS-HD Master mix is consistently effective, whether evoking the subtle sounds of casual interaction, the mayhem of battle, or the intense engagement of gladiatorial combat.

Following the battle, aging Caesar Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) tells Maximus of his plans to leave rule to him rather than his debauched son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix). Predictably, Commodus doesn’t take this news well, instead killing his father in private and declaring himself Caesar and then ordering the Praetorian Guard to kill Maximus and his family. When the soldiers fail to kill Maximus, he rides towards his home, arriving just in time to see it burned to the ground and his family slaughtered. Severely wounded, Maximus is taken prisoner and sold as a slave to Proximo (Oliver Reed) and made to fight as a gladiator. Maximus’ motivation throughout remains solely to survive long enough to be able to avenge his family by killing Commodus.

 

If Gladiator were just about fighting, fancy sets, and costumes, it wouldn’t hold up nearly so well. What keeps it great is the acting, primarily by Crowe who earns his Oscar in every scene and seems fully at home in the role of commanding troops and fighting. Maximus is always believable as the general who could come in and organize a band of gladiators to overthrow the people they are forced to fight, leading a rebellion from within. Phoenix brings just the right level of loathsomeness to petulant Commodus, someone solely interested in his own rise to power and willing to do whatever it takes to keep it, along with his lecherous relationship with his sister Lucilla (Connie Nielson).

 

At over two and a half hours, Gladiator is a long film that doesn’t feel long. Rather, Scott takes us on what feels like an epic journey, even though, in reality, the events portrayed in the film would take less than a year to play out. The running time gives us plenty of opportunity to care about Maximus and his journey; to root for his fellow gladiator/slaves Jubu (Djimon Hounsou) and Hagen (Ralf Moeller); to follow the political machinations of Roman Senators Gauis (John Shrapnel) and Gracchus (Derek Jacobi) as they try to keep Commodus in check and do what is right for the Republic. It also allows enough time between matches in the arena to keep the film from feeling like just a string of fights.

 

Filmed in 35mm, Gladiator was given a restoration in 2018 and both the Ultra HD Blu-ray disc and the Kaleidescape download are taken from a new true 4K digital intermediate. The movie looks like it has been born anew. Image quality retains its film-like look, with grain occasionally visible in some of the early-morning sky scenes or through some of the battlefield smoke, but you are drawn closer to the action with the clarity and cleanness of the picture. Native film scanned to 4K doesn’t produce the micro-level of detail seen in modern transfers, but you can still appreciate far better resolution here than in the previous, HD version.

 

Closeups reveal the texture and feel of the fabrics used on the elaborate Academy Award-winning costumes, the nicks and dents in the battle armor or links in chainmail, the cracks and lines in the walls of the city, or the fine stalks of wheat with individually detailed wisps, or the dirt and dust Maximus rubs on his hands before each battle.

 

The added detail also helps you to appreciate the large vistas that give the film its sense of scope and scale. But I did notice that some of the long shots and even the occasional closeup appeared a bit soft. Also, the lengthy shots leaning heavy on CGI, such as the Colosseum and the initial Rome flyover, are softer due to the graphics limitations of the day, and the greater resolution makes the digital crowd feel a bit less real.

 

The added contrast from HDR also helps to improve images. There are a lot of low-lit scenes here, whether in tents or prisons or at night time, and the deep black levels and shadow detail add to the realism. Many interior scenes are lit by numerous torches, and we not only get the nice pop of brightness from the fires, but the warm, natural glow of the firelight, and the deep shadows as actors move around a space. The spectacle of Commodus’ Rome benefits from the wide colors, with bright, gleaming golds and other regal colors looking vivid, along with the bright-red blood spilled in battle and the deep red-orange of fireballs and flames in combat.

While the UltraHD disc receives a new object-based DTS:X soundtrack, the Kaleidescape version gets a DTS-HD Master 7.1-channel mix that’s still exhilarating and exciting, especially when run through an upmixer found on modern AV processors.

 

The opening battle features shouts and chants from the armies along with the din of soldiers, which engulfs you from all around the room, followed by the sounds of arrows whistling past you into the surround channels and fireballs sailing overhead and bursting into treetops. The crowd noise inside the Colosseum is also appropriately huge and room-filling, putting you right in the midst of the action. Bass is deep and authoritative when appropriate, such as chariots crashing in the arena or when the fireballs smash into trees.

 

Equally as impressive as the bombast are the subtler audio moments that help to define and establish the scene and space the characters are in, with nearly every scene or moment featuring little bits of audio that help to set the space of things happening on or off camera. Listen to the carriage ride as Commodus is riding to the front—you hear the sounds of the rocking and creaking of the carriage itself 

Gladiator

along with things jingling inside, as well as the noises of the horses and the wheels turning outside. In another scene, you can hear the delicate, gentle tinkle of Lucilla’s earrings knocking together as she talks. Or in the prison at night, where you hear the sounds of doors opening and closing, crickets chirping in the distance, or echoing footsteps. Throughout, the audio mix is impressive whether in the midst of battle or in quieter moments.

 

Of course, Hans Zimmer’s dynamic Oscar-nominated score sounds wonderful here, giving more room to breathe across the front channels and up into the height speakers.

 

Gladiator holds up remarkably well after 20 years, not just visually and sonically, but also from its involving story and acting, and the new 4K HDR version clocking in at a whopping 95 GB from Kaleidescape represents the best you’ve ever experienced this film!

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.

Live Die Repeat: Edge of Tomorrow

Live Die Repeat

Having already covered Top Gun from the recent spate of HDR releases from the Tom Cruise catalog (which includes War of the Worlds, Vanilla Sky, and The Firm), we thought we would dip back in and take a look at Live Die Repeat, which was released theatrically as Edge of Tomorrow before being rebranded for the home video market. While Repeat was released on Blu-ray several years ago, it never got a higher-resolution release on physical disc. Fortunately, you can now enjoy the movie in its full potential via Kaleidescape, which offers it in a near 60 GB download featuring 4K HDR video with a Dolby TrueHD Atmos immersive audio soundtrack.

I belong to what I can only imagine is a fair-sized group of people that doesn’t really care for Tom Cruise the person but who really respects the choices made by Tom Cruise the actor. Say what you will about the guy’s antics, he gets a first look at some amazing scripts, he makes a lot of really smart choices of roles that work for him, and his decision to perform his own stunts is well documented. (His role as Jack Reacher aside, something I’ll never forgive the casting department for. I mean, Reacher stands 6 feet 5 inches and weighs about 250. Cruise wouldn’t even come up to his armpit! But I digress . . .)

 

My wife and I saw Repeat when it was released theatrically back in the summer of 2014, but it wasn’t our first choice for a movie that night. I recall we had a babysitter lined up that evening, and we went to the theater to see something else (X-Men: Days of Future Past, I think). When X-Men was 

REPEAT AT A GLANCE

One of the earliest takes on the “let’s kill off the  lead character repeatedly” trope, the film is hugely entertaining, because of—and despite—the presence of Tom Cruise in the starring role.

 

PICTURE     

Not the last word in razor-sharp detail, but the clean and clear Kaleidescape download is a big step up from the Blu-ray release.

 

SOUND

An aggressive and fun Atmos mix will keep all your speakers active, with lots of room-rattling seismic subwoofer action for the bass-head crowd.

sold out, we turned to whatever was playing at a similar time and bought tickets to Repeat.

 

I don’t recall knowing much of anything about the film as we went into the theater, but I clearly remember turning to my wife about halfway in and saying, “Man! I am really loving this movie!” Boasting Rotten Tomatoes critics and audience scores of 90%, I’m really surprised Repeat wasn’t a bigger success than it was. Perhaps it was the title, thus the rebranding for home release. Whatever the case, Repeat is a really entertaining and clever sci-fi film based on the Japanese short novel All You Need Is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka.

 

Imagine Groundhog Day meets War of the Worlds and you’ll have a rough idea what Repeat is about.

 

Against his will, Major William Cage (Cruise) is stripped of his rank and sent to Heathrow Airport to join a misfit bunch of soldiers in J-Squad who are preparing to head to the front lines as part of a major invasion force to combat an army of aliens known as “Mimics.” Cage has just enough time to piss off everyone in his new squad before suiting up in a mechanized armored suit and being loaded on a dropship into the heart of combat. Just moments after hitting the beach, he manages to kill a rare alien known as an “Alpha”—but in the process of doing so, manages to get himself killed as well.

 

Moments later, Cage jolts awake exactly 24 hours prior, back at Heathrow ready to join J-Squad and prepare for the fight.

 

He lives the same day over and over (and over . . .), retaining knowledge of each prior day before being jolted awake in the same instant. Each time he learns a bit more about the fighting pattern and habits of the Mimics (and of the people around him), and we watch his character and story slowly continue and develop. What keeps it from being dull and repetitive are some great turns by supporting actors Brendan Gleeson as the general ordering the assault, Bill Paxton as Cage’s new J-Squad master sergeant, and Noah Taylor as Mimic expert Dr. Carter.

 

Even better is the relationship between Cage and war hero Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt). Vrataski uniquely understands Cage’s predicament as she too once had the power to reset the clock, using it to defeat the Mimics in the battle of Verdun . . . before losing it.

 

Instead of the usual cocksure, toughest/smartest-guy-in-the-room character Cruise typically portrays, here he starts way out of his element, and it is Blunt who takes on the alpha role. With no warfighting experience—Cage was part of the Army’s media relations following a failed career in advertising—Cage relies heavily on Vrataski for combat training, and she is merciless, repeatedly killing him over and over (and over . . .) at any sign of a wound. The results are humorous and keep the film interesting as Cage and Vrataski work together to figure out strategies to continue advancing their day and problem solving.

 

Originally shot on 35mm film, this 4K HDR transfer is taken from a 2K digital intermediate. Images are not bristling with micro detail, but the transfer is just incredibly clean and clear. I really wasn’t impressed with the image quality until I went back and compared it with my Blu-ray version, and that is when the fine layers of detail and benefit of higher contrast really come through.

 

Comparing closeups, the 4K transfer is considerably sharper, producing more fine detail like pores, whiskers, and lines in the actors’ faces. During one shot, you can see the fine weave on Cage’s collared shirt, and one tight closeup on him would enable a dermatologist to conduct a full exam. In another lengthy shot, you can clearly make out the individual strands of razor wire on a fence in the 4K version; they were small blob-dots on the Blu-ray.

 

While the movie retains its film-like image quality, what really impressed me throughout was just the clean, clear, noise-free quality.

 

Much of the film is on a dirty, drab battlefield under grey French skies, so there isn’t a lot of room to push the color gamut here. However, HDR does a nice job of keeping blacks deep and dark and clean, while still allowing for bright highlights—nothing that really pushes the boundary, but that just results in very natural-looking images. There are some scenes where 

HDR is used to boost the brightness, such as in fluorescent lights in the barracks, or lights inside the dropships, some bright red fires burning in the dark of night, or the bright blue-white glow of an alien underwater.

 

Even more entertaining was the Dolby TrueHD Atmos soundtrack, which makes full use of all the speakers in your system. There is a lot of combat in this film, and the sound mix does a great job of placing you in the midst of the mayhem. We get helicopter blades and turbine fans blowing, jets streaking past overhead, troopers falling out of dropships swinging past you, along with all matter of ordnance blasting around the room. The area where Vrataski trains Cage has these spinning metal blades that slice and dice around the large space, clearly traveling 360 degrees around the listening position. There are also some nice, subtler audio moments— just the rattles and hum that put you aboard the dropship, hearing Mimics climbing and crawling on metal structures up over your head, or the drips of water and echoes of cavernous spaces with Mimics moving all around the room.

 

Also, be warned that this soundtrack features some serious low-frequency information. Bass heads will love it, as the many explosions definitely hit you in the chest and rattle your couch. And for no apparent reason, the very opening 

Live Die Repeat

scene has some of the most seismically huge deep-bass notes you will hear outside of a test tone. That ultrasonic bass will energize every air molecule in your room and possibly damage your subwoofer if it isn’t up to the task, so set your volume knob—and alert your neighbors!—accordingly.

 

Live Die Repeat is just a really fun movie that retains its entertainment value. If you’ve never seen it, it is definitely worth a viewing. If you avoided it because you’re not a Tom Cruise fan, I assure you watching him get killed over and over (and over . . .) is highly entertaining. And if you haven’t seen it with the Dolby Atmos audio soundtrack, then you will definitely enjoy giving it another viewing. They are rumored to be working on a sequel—Live Die Repeat and Repeat—so now is a perfect time to (re)watch the original.

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.

Inside a Film Connoisseur’s No-Compromise Home Theater

Michael Kobb isn’t just a casual film fan but a true connoisseur who both loves movies and savors the whole movie-watching experience. So it’s not too surprising that he’s the principal engineer of user experience for the premium movie-download service Kaleidescape, nor that he has a reference-quality theater in his Silicon Valley-area home.

 

What really sets him apart from most film lovers, though, is how deeply he became involved in the process of researching, planning, and executing his theater—a process he recently recounted for Cineluxe’ John Sciacca.

ed.

Inside a Film Connoisseur's No-Compromise Home Theater

Michael Kobb

Most people have a story about how they got involved in home theater. For me, I saw Speed on LaserDisc at a friend’s house, and that was it. What is your story?

My dad took me to visit a friend of his who had a home theater. He had a CRT projector with a ridiculously ahead-of-its-time control system called Frox with an onscreen display to control all of the components. The system looked and sounded great for the day, but ironically the thing that really stuck with me was that he had his equipment in a bookshelf on the back wall with a closet you could walk in to access the back of the gear. When I built my theater, I put the equipment in a separate room for sound reasons but I made sure to incorporate access to the back of the racks.

 

How has your theater system evolved over the years?

My first system was just a big rear-projection TV with a LaserDisc player and VCR. After that, I moved to a front projector. Then I bought my own house and planned on 

converting an existing room into a theater, but the dimensions were really wrong, making it hard to arrange seating. We basically had to restructure the house to accommodate my current theater.

 

Your space isn’t really a traditional man cave or reference movie theater, but more of a hybrid. How did that design come about?

It was really an interesting process. I hired general contractor Bob Byrne with the intention of converting that existing room, but as I was explaining the project to him, he realized that if we took out a wet bar and relocated a bathroom and a 

mechanical room, we could gain a lot of space. It went from a 13 x 19 room to 19 x 24, which was a crucial change. It required taking out a load-bearing wall, pouring a couple of footings, and putting in a steel I-beam. A lot of work, but incredibly worth it.

 

I also brought in theater designer Keith Yates, who gave me two proposals for having two rows of seats [shown at right]. One had a riser, and the other required cutting the concrete slab and excavating down a foot to lower the front row, which I never would have thought of, but was the way to go for a host of reasons.

 

I wanted a big bookcase in the room, both because I needed someplace for my books and also to make it feel more like a study than a scaled-down commercial theater. Bob designed the aesthetics of the bookcase and Keith’s team did the engineering to incorporate the center speaker and two subwoofers, air returns for the HVAC system, and acoustic treatments behind all the books. We also have acoustically transparent motorized shades that mask the outer shelves when the screen is down, to eliminate visual distractions.

A Film Connoisseur's No-Compromise Home Theater
Inside a Film Connoisseur's No-Compromise Home Theater

I requested the curved stage, having seen a similar design in a magazine. I picked tanoak flooring for it, which is a really pretty wood with a little red tone in it that fits in well with the sapele mahogany used for the bookshelves and the other woodwork, and with the rosewood on the floorstanding speakers. Originally, the boards were going to just run front to back, but Bob proposed tapering them to follow the curve, and that totally took it to a new level. If you follow the convergence point the tapers make, the really cool thing is that the focus of those boards is the front-row center seat, which is my seat.

Inside a Film Connoisseur's No-Compromise Home Theater
Inside a Film Connoisseur's No-Compromise Home Theater

A clamping system was used to hold the curved boards for the stage in place
while the glue dried so there would be no visible nail holes

Tell us about your current theater system.

Unsurprisingly, the primary content source is the Kaleidescape—a combination of the Premiere components for disc-based media and our Strato family for downloaded media and 4K content joined through a software and hardware solution called Co-Star that makes it all act like a single system. I have about a thousand movies in my collection. I also have a TiVo and a streaming player to be able to watch other stuff.

 

It wasn’t possible to have a booth or hush box for the projector, so I needed a model that was quiet. I’ve had a series of Sony projectors, culminating with a Sony 995ES. With its laser light engine and ARC-F lens, it produces fantastic bright and vivid images while still being reasonably quiet.

 

Video processing is handled by a Lumagen Radiance Pro, which works with the motorized screen-masking system from Screen Research and also provides the HDR tone mapping. The screen is 96 inches wide, or 110 inches diagonal in a 16:9 aspect ratio, but masks down to 104 inches diagonal for 2.4 aspect-ratio films. I went with a motorized screen because I

Inside a Film Connoisseur's No-Compromise Home Theater

Trinnov MC processor was used during construction to create two
separate calibrations for the theater—one for group viewing and one
optimized for solo listening from the center seat

wanted this room to be multipurpose, with the screen out of the way of the big bookshelf up front when I’m not watching movies.

 

The front speakers are Aerial Acoustics, and the subwoofers are a mix of three Seaton SubMersive HP subs and four Velodyne SC-IWDVR in-wall models, three of which are in the ceiling. I’m currently upgrading my audio processing from the Trinnov MCwhich handles the system’s room EQ and speaker correction, to the Trinnov Altitude 16.

A Control4 system operates everything, including automated screen masking and lighting scenes, triggered by the Kaleidescape system. I have to laugh because the thing that really floors new visitors to my theater is that the lights come up by themselves when the end credits start.

 

How about acoustic treatments?

The acoustics were designed by Keith Yates and his company. All the walls and the ceiling are covered with fabric that conceals the acoustic treatments and the surround speakers.

 

I spent lots of time auditioning fabrics because the material had to be aesthetically appealing, meet certain acoustical characteristics, and not reflect light coming off the projection screen. I bought extra fabric and have it squirreled away in case it’s ever damaged or we have to take fabric down for a repair or upgrade.

 

Keith’s team also designed ultra-quiet HVAC for the room, and sound isolation. The theater achieves an NC-14 noise rating with the HVAC and the projector running, which is comparable to many recording studios. Even the lighting transformers are remote-mounted to eliminate hum. Bob also took great care to ensure that there would be no rattles or vibrations. All the construction is glued and screwed rather than nailed, and even the speaker wiring is glued to the walls. We also did an extensive vibration/rattle test before installing the fabric.

Inside a Film Connoisseur's No-Compromise Home Theater

An interactive 3D tour of the theater

People don’t generally consider seating essential theater equipment, but I know you spent a lot of time researching your chairs.

I had previously sat in various dedicated theater seating that I found uncomfortable so I wanted seating comfortable enough for the length of the movie. I happened across these chairs made by a Norwegian company called Ekornes that lift your head slightly as you recline, which seemed perfect for movie theater seating, and there were many models to choose from. I went to the local dealer, told them I was building a theater room, and asked if I could come by from time to time and sit in a chair and read a book for a couple of hours, and that’s what I did until I found the right ones. You can sit in these chairs for hours and hours.

 

Do you have any upgrades planned?

My system is 7.1 right now, but I will be able to use my new Altitude 16 processor to add ceiling speakers to do a 7.1.4 Dolby Atmos system. Once we do that upgrade, the room correction processing will move from the MC to the Altitude, and the MC will be retired.

 

With a room like mine, some upgrades are easier than others. Changing the projector is comparatively easy, and we were smart enough to run conduit for any cabling changes. But the speakers behind the fabric are not easy to change. Adding new Atmos speakers will likely mean redoing the entire ceiling. Fortunately, I do have extra fabric. Also, the ceiling is acoustically treated, so I’ll work with Keith to identify where those speakers will go and if anything else will need to be changed acoustically; and of course Keith will update the calibration.

 

Do you plan to upgrade to 8K as well?

On my screen, a 4K pixel is less than 1/32nd of an inch. Obviously, those pixels would be bigger on a larger screen, but I would also want to be sitting farther away from a larger screen. So, do I need my pixels to be smaller than 1/32nd of an inch when viewed from 12 feet away? I don’t think so. It’s already hard enough to get a 4K image in sharp focus—just imagine what an 8K lens will cost!

 

The exception might be something like IMAX. But, in my opinion, IMAX-size screens are only appropriate for content that is shot for an IMAX-style presentation. When you take content shot for cinematic presentation and blow it up to IMAX size, it’s 

too big for my comfort. It doesn’t become more immersive for me, it just becomes too big. If I were watching IMAX nature features at home on a screen double the size of mine, but from the same seating distance, then sure, 8K would be dandy.

 

Has spending time sheltering at home caused you to rethink the space? Are you finding you are using it more for non-movie viewing like TV, concerts, or gaming?

I have definitely been using the space more! I usually watch a movie a week with friends, but since that is not 

Inside a Film Connoisseur's No-Compromise Home Theater

feasible at the moment, it’s freed me up to watch a movie any time I feel like it, without the pressure to save the good ones for when people come over. So I’m really enjoying that!

 

There have also been some very enjoyable series streaming recently—Watchmen, Westworld, The Mandalorian—though you see the shortcomings of streaming video pretty readily on a big screen, which can be distracting. But The Mandalorian was 2.35:1 aspect, which made it feel more cinematic.

 

I love music and concerts, and I have a bunch of concerts on the Kaleidescape system I watch when I’m in the mood. There are a few I go back to again and again because they look and sound so darned good! Cream: Live at the Royal Albert Hall is one of the best mixed concerts I’ve ever heard.

 

Any closing thoughts?

I can’t emphasize enough the importance of hiring great people. Bob was the perfect contractor for this complex and detail-oriented project, and he brought in numerous craftsmen whose skills all contributed to its success, especially Steve Kent, the cabinetmaker and finish carpenter. Keith and his team did a fantastic job with the acoustical and technical requirements of the theater and making it all work within the existing framework of the house. Every time I go into my theater, I’m grateful to everyone who built it.

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.

Jaws

Jaws

Widely regarded as one of Steven Spielberg’s best films, residing well within the AFI Top 100 list, and holding the honor as the first-ever true summer blockbuster film are all fine reasons to pick up the new 45th Anniversary 4K HDR transfer of Jaws, but none of them are why the film still resonates with me to this day. 

 

Nope.

 

I was five when Jaws came out in the summer of 1975, and for some reason my dad thought it would be a good idea to take 

our family to see it at a drive-in theater. So, I remember Jaws for absolutely ruining night swimming for me for my entire life, and for giving me a fairly unhealthy fear of the water that persists.

 

I don’t remember a lot about my childhood from age five, but I do remember seeing Jaws. (Well, all of it except the very opening, where my dad made me cover my eyes as Chrissie [Susan Backlinie] runs naked out into the ocean for what turns out to be a very unfortunate evening swim. So, yeah, watching a Great White shark brutalize and eat people was somehow OK for a five-year-old, but catching a brief glimpse of Chrissie’s shadowed side-boob, not so much. Go figure.)

 

I remember drawing pictures of a lone stick floating on top of the water inspired by Pippet, the black lab that played fetch with a stick. I also recall recoiling at Quint’s (Robert Shaw) strangled, bloody screams at the end at he is slowly eaten whole alive. But the real doozy for me was when old 

JAWS AT A GLANCE

The first summer blockbuster ever, and the film that launched Spielberg’s career, gets a restrained but effective makeover in this 45th-anniversary edition.

 

PICTURE     

The restoration respects the looks of the original 35mm film stock, sticking to freshening it up a bit and showing a light touch with the HDR enhancements.

 

SOUND

The new Dolby Atmos mix doesn’t venture far from the original mono track, but does add some nice atmospheric effects and effectively places John Williams’ score among the surround channels.

Ben Gardner’s (Craig Kingsbury) head pops out of the bottom of his boat punctuated by a sudden intense burst of music, likely the first jump-scream in my life.

 

For the rest of that summer, I kept expecting that head to come popping out of anywhere there was water. The toilet, the bathtub, you name it. I can also thank Jaws for the fear that the tile mermaid at the bottom of my grandparents’ black-bottomed pool would somehow come to life and drag me under whenever I went swimming.

 

So, yeah. Jaws has been a part of my life for just about as long as I remember.

 

And you know what? The film still totally holds up. The acting, the dialogue, the chemistry, the editing . . . it’s all still great and all still works. The best parts of the film are aboard the Orca with Quint, Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), and Sheriff Brody (Roy Scheider) interacting. The dynamic between the three of them is fantastic, and Quint’s monologue about surviving the USS Indianapolis is still powerful and compelling (despite the fact that he was apparently black-out drunk when filming that scene initially).

 

Of course, John Williams’ Academy Award-winning score retains all the tension and drama to enhance each scene, but even the shark scenes and effects remain believable and frightening after 45 years. Sure, there are scarier, more brutal, and bloodier shark films out there today, but Jaws sets the standard for scary things in the water, and the bar remains high.

 

There are actually some close-to-home parallels between Mayor Vaughn (Murray Hamilton) arguing to keep the beaches open for all of the 4th of July festivities and our current economy and states deciding on what and when to reopen. With tourists set to pour into the town, bringing needed lifeblood to the little beach town’s economy in light of a giant alpha predator turning the shallow waters into a smorgasbord, the Mayor argues that closing the beaches shouldn’t be an option.

 

About the only things that really date the film are Mayor Vaughn’s suits and the variety of clearly out-of-fashion swimwear seen on the beaches of Amity.

Jaws

One thing I really noticed on this viewing was just how little we actually get to see that 25-foot Great White shark. In fact, it isn’t until an hour in that you finally get your first brief glimpse. But this turns out to be one of Spielberg’s master strokes in creating suspense and unease, wondering every time someone enters the water if there will be an attack or sudden reveal. In fact, Jaws is an example of a film that succeeded because of its technical challenges, rather than in spite of them. The shark model, “Bruce,” was notoriously buggy during production, frequently causing Spielberg to shoot around it, but instead of hampering the film, it makes it work that much better.

 

Another thing that struck me on this viewing of Jaws was the dearth of end credits. Compared to modern films, where it isn’t unusual to have eight or more minutes of credits, with the screen packed with hundreds of names at a time, usually of those serving on a variety of visual effects teams, here they run just over a minute and most of the screens feature just a couple of names. This really showed the stark contrast in production back in the ‘70s, relying entirely on practical effects, and how much Spielberg was able to accomplish with just a relative handful of help compared to modern blockbusters.

 

For its 45th Anniversary release, Universal Studios has given Jaws a full 4K HDR restoration, and this transfer is taken from a new 4K digital intermediate. Originally shot on 35mm film, this new transfer retains the look of its photochemical origins, with grain visible in the pale blue and low-lit evening or sunsetting skies, but it is as if layers of age have been wiped away in the restoration to produce images that are just clean and new-looking.

 

This isn’t a movie with lots of sharp, detailed edges—though it appears to look sharper and more detailed later in the film aboard the Orca—or one that has micro-details leaping off the screen, but rather a transfer that retains the best of both its film and digital look to present something that looks both new and correct for its period.

 

Closeups occasionally reveal plenty of detail, with one shot of the Mayor’s anchor-festooned suit revealing fine, sharp blue single-line pinstriping detail that i is horizontal on the lapel and diagonal on the breast and arms; and foreground objects have nice defined edges. But this transfer is more about the overall pristine look than moments of single-strands-of-hair pixel resolution. Some shots look a bit soft and defocused, but this appears to be more an issue with the original focal point during filming than a lack of resolution in the transfer.

 

They took a pretty delicate touch with the HDR grading here, with occasional bright highlights such as the opening flames of the beach fires, or bright lights aboard ships, but the added dynamic range lends itself to more natural and realistic-looking images as light levels get low, and we retain deep blacks but still plenty of shadow details. There are several underwater scenes with a variety of lighting, or with bright lights probing through smoke and mist on top of the water that could cause banding issues, but images remain clean and distortion-free.

 

When I heard Jaws had been given a Dolby TrueHD Atmos audio makeover I was . . . curious. I mean, what could an immersive sound mix do with a 45-year-old mono master short of possibly being used to gimmicky effect that spoiled a classic? Well, much like the video, the new audio track takes the best of the Jaws soundtrack and uses modern technology to expand and improve it. This is most noticeable in John Williams’ fantastic score, which is now lifted above the front channels and mixed into an enveloping canopy overhead, filling the room and surrounding you in the iconic music.

Beyond that, they have used audio cues to subtly enhance other moments throughout the film. There are bird chirps, ocean waves crashing or lapping against things, wind sounds, or creaks and groans of the boat rolling in the water that all pull you into the scenes. On the beach, we get a nice mix of radios playing, and a helicopter flyover as it patrols the waters for sharks.

 

Dialogue is mostly clear and understandable throughout—especially with Williams’ score given room up in the height speakers—except for a few moments where many people are talking/shouting at once in some of the crowded exterior scenes. Also, don’t expect much from your subwoofer, though it does get a little room to show off during the finale.

 

The best word I can use to describe this 45th Anniversary release is “restraint.” They used technology where available to improve the experience while being careful not to do anything that would be detrimental to the Jaws so many of us remember.

 

While the Kaleidescape download doesn’t include any of the fairly extensive extras that accompany the 4K Blu-ray disc—which include two near feature-length documentaries, The Making of Jaws and The Shark is Still Working: The Impact &

Jaws

Legacy of Jaws—these are the same extras included with the 2012 Blu-ray release, so if you have that, you aren’t missing out on anything new. On the plus side, the 4K HDR version is available from Kaleidescape for an incredibly reasonable $15.99—or just $11.99 if you are upgrading from the Blu-ray version—which helps offset this, and makes it an absolute must buy.

 

Jaws is one of my favorite films and this newly restored version illustrates why it remains a classic that belongs in every collection.

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.

Top Gun (1986)

Top Gun (1986)

The United States Navy could scarcely have crafted a better or more effective recruiting film for promoting naval aviation than if they had actually written, produced, and directed Top Gun. (The Navy was involved in the production, providing access to jets and pilots, allowing filming on an active carrier, and suggesting some script rewrites.)

 

Tony Scott’s fast-paced film introduced viewers to a world most have never heard of—a school where the top 1% of fighter pilots went to hone their craft—and does everything possible to glamorize the fast-paced, life-on-the-edge, alpha-male lifestyle that is being the best-of-the-best: A member of the Navy’s elite carrier-based fighter squadron. Beyond its huge 

success at the box office—and launching a bomber-jacket craze across the country—the movie actually led to a huge recruiting increase for the Navy, to the point where recruiters actually set up stations at some theaters showing the film!

 

Beyond establishing his bona fides as a big-budget action director, Top Gun was Scott’s first collaboration with the dynamic production duo of Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson. The film also features a host of young rising stars, including Tom Cruise in the lead role of something-to-prove renegade, Maverick; Val Kilmer as the mechanical, precise, and aloof Iceman; Anthony Edwards as Maverick’s RIO (Radio Intercept Officer, aka “back seater”) and wingman, Goose; and the too-cute Meg Griffin as Goose’s wife, Carole. (Also, keep an eye out for an incredibly young-looking Tim Robbins as Merlin on the carrier at the end when he removes his flight helmet.)

 

Released in 1986, Top Gun holds up remarkably well. (Except for the technology shown in the post-flight briefs, 

TOP GUN AT A GLANCE

The Tom Cruise mega-hit celebration of alpha-male fighter pilots gets a 4K HDR/Atmos upgrade that enhances its impact while staying faithful to its mid-’80s shot-on-film roots.

 

PICTURE     

Don’t expect the laser sharpness of contemporary digital photography, but do expect to see lots of detail, faithfully rendered colors, and punchy highlights.

 

SOUND

Atmos not only enhances the sense of being on the carrier deck and aboard the fighter planes but turns the climactic skirmish with the MiGs into a solid home theater demo.

which looks like a worn-out VHS tape badly in need of some head tracking!) Sure, some of the banter is cheesy, and there’s that random shirtless volleyball scene, but overall the film remains very entertaining, with enough of a plot and character development to keep you involved and caring about the characters until the next aerial dogfight. The numerous air-combat scenes feature actual planes opposed to the “let’s do it in CGI” world most effects films now live in. And the camera angles and pacing remain dynamic and exciting and offer a sense of what it is like to sit in the cockpit as you pull high-G maneuvers and go head-to-head against another jet with closing speeds exceeding 1,000 miles per hour. And the soundtrack is still every bit as catchy—and now better sounding!—as you remember.

 

Top Gun was filmed in Super 35 format (apparently because the anamorphic lenses were too large to fit inside the F-14 Tomcat’s cockpit) and comes to the home market with a new scan of the film taken from a true 4K digital intermediate. This release was likely designed to coincide with—and build excitement for—the upcoming sequel, Top Gun: Maverick, originally scheduled for theatrical release on June 24, now pushed to December 23.

 

As good as the film looks—which, without question, is the best it has ever looked—it isn’t realistic to expect it to have the same razor-sharp edges and micro detail of modern films shot digitally. The opening shots of the jets sitting on the carrier deck with the early morning light and smoke billowing around reveal a fair bit of grain and noise—as do some of the flying scenes taken in low-lighting conditions—but this is rarely distracting, and stays true to the film’s look instead of taking too heavy a hand with the digital noise reduction.

Top Gun (1986)

Edges are sharp and defined throughout, and closeups reveal tons of detail. For example, every star is clearly visible on the shoulder flag patches worn on uniforms, and you see the scratches, scuffs, and even seams in the detail tape used to decorate the pilots’ flight helmets. Tight shots on actors faces reveal every pore and whisker (including one distracting whisker Viper [Tom Skerrit] obviously missed while shaving near the end), along with Cruise’s unibrow, which has various stages throughout.

 

Something both my wife and I commented on was just how sweaty the actors are. Like, a lot. Faces are almost always covered, nay drenched in beads of sweat, even when there is apparently no reason for it. I mean, I’ve no doubt the US Navy Fighter Weapons School is an intense program, but actors frequently look like they have just finished a lengthy Bikram Yoga class. But these are the kinds of details the 4K transfer makes you aware of.

 

Colors are natural and lifelike throughout, with that orange-pink-purple color of West Coast evening sunsets looking very accurate and free of noise and banding—something difficult for a streaming service to do on a highly compressed delivery. The HDR gives some nice punch to the gleaming white T-shits, adds some nice brightness boosts to the Tomcat engines on full afterburners, and provides images with more overall depth and dimension.

 

The audio mix has been given a full Dolby TrueHD Atmos makeover, and while not as dynamic as a modern mix, it does a fantastic job of breathing new sonic life into this near-35-year-old film. Right from the start, Harold Faltermeyer’s “Top Gun 

Anthem” is given more space and room, then come the sounds of the mechanical noises aboard the carrier deck—the whipping winds, the ratcheting of gears and retracting chains, the roar as jet engines spool up for launch, and the steam from the catapult launch.

 

Once in the air, you can appreciate the increased dynamics of the high-powered jet engines, with jets streaking and roaring past overhead or ripping back along the side walls. Beyond the throaty roar of the engines, the missile impacts and explosions have a ton of bass output that will energize your room. The final scene, as Maverick and Ice hold off the Russian MiGs, sounds fantastic, and will likely become part of your home theater demo reel.

 

The soundtrack also does a nice job of delivering subtle (and not so subtle) atmospheric effects. For example, there is a completely different sonic quality when the camera is inside the cockpit, with the sounds of wind outside and breathing through the oxygen mask, compared to outside the jet. And when in the classroom, you’ll hear a variety of appropriate background sounds in the distance, including a variety of planes and helicopters, as well as a jet periodically ripping past overhead.

Top Gun

Top Gun is a classic for a reason, and it remains as much fun to watch now as the first time I saw it at a matinee back in the summer of 1986. Paramount did a wonderful job restoring the film, and this new 4K HDR version with Dolby Atmos audio is guaranteed to make your home theater feel the need . . . the need for speed!

 

(I was fortunate enough to do an overnight stay aboard a US aircraft carrier on deployment, and got to stand on the “foul line” and watch them launch and recover F-18s—a sound that feels like it is going to shred your ears and shake your body to bits! Click here to read more about my real-life adventure.)

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 Hunger Games” and “Catching Fire”

The Hunger Games

Never mind that they’re categorized as YA (Young Adult) fiction, Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy—The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay—was a must-read between 2008 and 2010. Now, nearly 10 years after the last book in the trilogy, Collins is bringing readers back to Panem with a prequel novel titled The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, which takes place about 50 years before heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is born and will follow Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland) long before he rises to power as President.

Several weeks ago, Dennis Burger wrote about his and his wife’s annual tradition of watching The Lord of the Rings trilogy, returning to the films much like comfort food. The Hunger Games has a similar quality for me and my wife. When browsing through the onscreen cover-art display on our Kaleidescape system, one of the four titles in the tetralogy is bound to pop up, prompting us to say, “Oh! The Hunger Games. I’d totally be up for watching that again!”

 

I can’t say just what it is I love so much about these movies. Perhaps it’s because the films—particularly The Hunger Games—do such a wonderful job of staying true to the fantastic source material. Perhaps it’s because even though the first film revolves around an almost entirely teenage cast, it never treats it as a kid’s story. Perhaps it’s because with all the films clocking in at over two hours—with the first two just shy of two and a half—it’s because they have plenty of time to develop, giving you an opportunity to actually care about these characters and their life-and-death struggle. Perhaps it’s the fantastic acting, including the role

GAMES AND FIRE AT A GLANCE

With a Hunger Games prequel novel about to hit stores, now is an ideal time to revisit the film adaptations of the original book series. The first two movies—The Hunger Games and Catching Firehaving been shot on film, especially benefit from the 4K/HDR treatment.

 

PICTURE     

HDR adds depth and dimension to the shots, and punch to brighter elements like flames, fireballs, and Caesar’s smile.

 

SOUND

The Atmos mixes feature tons of immersive atmospheric effects, hard-directional cues, and generous use of the height channels.

that turned Lawrence into a superstar and Woody Harrelson’s perfect take on former Games winner now mentor Haymitch Abernathy.

 

For those not familiar with the story, I’d urge you to first visit the novels, as they do help to flesh out some bits that will increase your appreciation for the series. If reading isn’t in your future, then I’ll offer a spoiler-free summary.

 

In a dystopian future, the nation of Panem is divided into 12 districts. Rebellion nearly tore the nation apart, and as the opening titles inform, “In penance for their uprising, each district shall offer up a male and female between the ages of 12 and 18 at a public ‘Reaping.’ These Tributes shall be delivered to the custody of The Capital. And then transferred to a public arena where they will Fight to the Death, until a lone victor remains.”

 

Hailing from District 12—one of the poorest in Panem—Katniss volunteers as Tribute after her younger sister’s name is initially selected for participation in the 74th annual Hunger Games. Katniss and fellow District 12 Tribute Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) are then whisked away to the Capital, where they are given makeovers along with time to train and to hone their skills, both in order to survive the Games and to hopefully impress viewers in an effort to curry favor with wealthy sponsors who can potentially save a Tribute’s life by sending gifts into the Games.

 

If you like to draw parallels between films and our country’s current political situation, there are elements here between the charged climate in Panem and our national divide, should you want to look for them. Panem is pretty clearly divided between the haves of Districts 1 and 2 and the have-nots of everyone else, which can be a nod to the 1%-ers. There are also those who support and love the Capital and those who want to start a rebellion against it. The tenuous role of Gamekeeper—kept alive and in position at the whim of President Snow—could also be compared to the current administration’s revolving Chief of Staff position.

The Hunger Games

Of the four films—the final installment of the book trilogy, Mockingjay, being split into two parts—The Hunger Games is my favorite. Getting to know Katniss, Peeta, Gale (Liam Hemsworth), Haymitch, Effie (Elizabeth Banks), and over-the-top host Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) establishes and draws you into the series.

 

Taking place almost a year 

after the events of The Hunger Games, the second film, Catching Fire, uses the Quarter Quell to turn victors’ lives upside down—“What we game makers like to call ‘a wrinkle.’” It also tells you far more about life in the Capital and sets the spark of the rebellion that occurs in the final two films, both of which take place almost immediately after the second film ends.

 

With 24 teens fighting in The Hunger Games until a “lone victor remains,” you’d expect a lot of death, and the filmmakers handle this in a PG-13 manner without shying away from it or glorifying it. By far, the most action happens at the Cornucopia at the very start of the games, but this is filmed in a frantic, handheld style with quick cutaways and edits that give you the sense of what is happening—and who is dying—while sparing you the gore.

 

All four films are available in both UHD Blu-ray and via Kaleidescape in full 4K HDR. The first two were filmed in 35mm and were taken from a 2K digital intermediate for home release, while the final two were shot on ArriRaw at 2.8K and taken from a true 4K DI.

 

The filmmakers frequently push in tight on actors, often with a face almost filling the screen, and you can appreciate the terrific detail here. Every pore, scar, and stray hair—even Effie’s pancake makeup—is clearly on display. You can also see all the texture and detail in clothing, with the jackets worn by Katniss and Rue (Amandla Stenberg) having fine single-line detail on the shoulders that is sharp and clear. The only artifacting I noticed was some jaggies in the shadows of fallen spears at the 42 minute mark in the first movie.

 

Longer shots in The Hunger Games are softer, however, with the leaves and trees in the forest not having razor-sharp edges. Also, there is a large tree in Catching Fire that is pretty obviously CGI that looks soft in the 4K transfer.

 

Night plays a key role in the first two films—it’s the best time to move around undetected when you’re being hunted or to hunker down and sleep—and while blacks were deep with nice low-level detail, there is a bit of noise in parts of the first film I didn’t notice in the second. Also, there’s a tad of grain in some of the shots in the first film, but it’s not distracting.

 

HDR’s enhanced contrast adds depth and dimension to the images, and gives additional punch to things like roaring flames, fireballs, or even Caesar’s enhanced smile. It also creates a wonderfully natural image in the second film when some characters are talking next to a fire with their faces lit with a warm glow from the flames. You can appreciate the wider color gamut and HDR in Catching Fire, where you see the elaborate costumes at the Capital party, the glowing lights on Caesar’s 

set, or Katniss’ “girl on fire” dress with colors that burn off the screen.

 

All four films feature Dolby TrueHD Atmos soundtracks, and while the mixes for the first two aren’t overly aggressive, they certainly do a great job of putting you in the action, with tons of immersive atmospheric sounds, hard-directional cues, and generous use of the height speakers when appropriate.

 

During the many outdoor scenes, the room fills with the sounds of insects buzzing, leaves rustling, and birds chirping. The room also fills with the sounds of Caesar’s roaring crowds, or the buzz and hum of machinery and lighting inside the Game room. There are also a couple of moments where 

The Hunger Games
Catching Fire

you’re alerted to someone behind you by the snap of a twig from the rear or the angry bzzzzz of a tracker-jacker nest. PA announcements are mixed into the height speakers to good effect, making it sound like the voice is booming into the arena.

 

The couple of moments in Catching Fire that feature gunfire are loud, sharp, and dynamic, and when there is a moment that calls for deep bass—fireballs crashing into trees, trees crackling and splintering, the cannon boom announcing the death of a Tribute—the soundtrack delivers.

 

Dialogue remains well presented and clear no matter the action, making sure you never miss an important exchange between characters.

 

The Hunger Games series has great replay value. It’s entertaining from start to finish, whether you’re watching it for the first time or the tenth. (Seeing the first two movies for the first time even inspired my 13-year-old daughter to go read the books.) If you haven’t watched it presented in full 4K HDR with the Atmos soundtrack, now is the perfect time to get ready for your return to Panem when Collins’ new book arrives on May 19.

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 Invisible Man (2020)

The Invisible Man (2020)

As I begin this review, I’m chuckling to myself over something I wrote in my Underwater review almost a month ago: “Somewhere along the line (perhaps in 2004 with the introduction of the first film in the Saw franchise), Hollywood started turning the horror genre into something . . . distasteful. Filmmakers went from trying to simply scare people to trying to outdo each other by shocking and brutalizing viewers with horribly graphic depictions of torture and mutilation.”

 

The Invisible Man is categorized as “horror” and happens to be written and directed by Leigh Whannell, the gentleman who wrote the first three films in the Saw franchise as well as four installments of the grisly Insidious series. But don’t let 

Whannell’s connection with those films deter you from seeing Man, as it is far more a psychological thriller with a few jump scares thrown in than a traditional horror film, and it certainly shares little of the grisly attention to the macabre with Saw.

 

Following a string of films over the years based loosely on H. G. Wells’ 1897 book of the same name, Man updates the story for the 21st century, using modern technology along with some timely feminist issues to craft a tale that is both suspenseful and engaging. It was also one of the films that received an incredibly short theatrical run—just four weeks—before NBC Universal made the decision to make it available as a premium-video-on-demand rental for $19.99 and then for purchase in full 4K HDR video quality with a Dolby TrueHD Atmos soundtrack.

 

The film begins with Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss) escaping a beautiful oceanfront home in the dead of night. We’re given no reason for her escape, but her terrified demeanor and elaborate plans, which include drugging her husband

INVISIBLE AT A GLANCE

More psychological thriller than horror film, The Invisible Man relies on film-like visuals and a carefully crafted surround mix to create an appropriately creepy atmosphere and deliver the scares.

 

PICTURE     

HDR helps bring needed accents of light to the film’s many dark scenes.

 

SOUND

The Atmos mix heightens the sense of horror by continually immersing you in the action, whether through subtle sounds like the creaking of tree limbs or the loud crashing of waves against a rocky shore.

with Diazepam and turning off all the security cameras, make it clear the marriage to wealthy optics pioneer Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) has not been a loving one.

 

Cecilia describes years of dominating control and psychological and physical abuse at the hands of Adrian, and hides out with policer-officer friend James Lanier (Aldis Hodge) and his teenage daughter Sydney (Storm Reid), terrified to even step foot outside the house for fear her husband will track her down. When her sister Emily (Harriet Dyer) brings news that Adrian was found dead of apparent suicide, Cecilia feels her life might finally be hers again. But she is then summoned to the law office of her husband’s brother, Tom (Michael Dorman), who informs her that Adrian left her $5 million.

 

Which is when the weirdness starts happening.

 

Cecilia can’t shake the feeling she is being watched or there is another presence in the room with her. Blankets get pulled off her in the middle of the night, doors open and lights flicker, then the bottle of Diazepam she used to drug Adrian appears on her bathroom counter.

 

Of course, when Cecilia suggests that her husband faked his own death, found a way to make himself invisible, and is harassing her, no one believes her, thinking this is just PTSD from the years of abuse. Even when she tells them, “He said that wherever I went, he would find me, walk right up to me, and I wouldn’t be able to see him,” the thought of an invisible person tormenting her is too much for people to believe.

 

When this specter starts actively ruining Cecilia’s life—sabotaging a job interview, sending hateful emails, hitting Sydney, and more  . .and worse—Cecilia decides she has to get proactive.

 

Filmed on the paltry budget of just $7 million, Man is not an effects-laden film, but is propelled by Moss’s terrific acting and some interesting camerawork. Often, the lens will slowly travel to an unoccupied part of a room and just . . . linger there. “Is something there?” “Are we supposed to be seeing something?” “Is something going to happen?” This adds to the tension of many scenes, as you are left hanging with this will it?/won’t it? stress that keeps you engaged.

 

With many “horror” films, you are shown the subject of the nightmare fairly early. Take Pennywise the Clown from It. From the very beginning, we know what he looks like (at least in his preferred form), and seeing him/It takes away some of that fear because it is now a known. Once we see the boogie man, we can process it and deal with it. But when you don’t, or in this case can’t, see the thing that is haunting you, it becomes all the more terrifying. Is it there, right next to me? Is it waiting just in the other room? The sense that it can pop out literally at any moment from anywhere heightens the suspense and adds to the jump-scare factor.

 

One of the classic tropes of films involving invisible men is the classic shower scene—unseen man sneaks into the shower and creepily watches young girl(s) showering. I’m happy to say that Whannell avoids that, and the film is certainly better for not stooping to that level.

 

Shot on Arriraw at 4.5 K resolution, Man is sourced from a true 4K digital intermediate. While images are clean and detailed throughout, I found them to be of the “softer” variety, looking more film-like rather than digital. Long shots didn’t have that razor-sharp quality of some transfers. Closeups certainly retain a ton of detail, with the tight shots on Moss revealing every ounce of emotion and every subtle inflection in her gaze, along with every pore, line, hair, and blotch. We can also appreciate fine fabric detail, such as the weave texture on Cecilia’s pillowcase.

 

The color palette is often on the dreary side with exterior shots, with even an early shot of the Golden Gate Bridge appearing in a blue-grey misty morning pan. Interiors often have a slick-modern silvery blue-grey look as well.

 

There are many dark scenes in the film, and HDR is used nicely to give extra pop to bright lighting throughout, whether the lights in the darkened house Cecilia escapes at the beginning, the gleaming overhead fluorescents of Adrian’s work space, or piercing flashlight beams. Beyond just the added brightness, images look incredibly natural with lots of depth and black-level

detail.

 

When watching It, I discovered just how much a creative audio mix can heighten a horror movie, adding to the tension and awareness of what is happening by having subtle little audio cues emanate from a full 360-degree soundfield. The Dolby Atmos soundtrack here does a great job of immersing you in the onscreen action. From the opening moments, where massive waves roll in overhead to powerfully crash on rocks against the front wall, you are in the action, and audio is used in sudden jarringly loud and dynamic moments to keep you on edge.

 

As you move about throughout quiet scenes, there are the subtle sounds of wind howling outside, the buzz of fluorescent lights, the sounds of air blowing through a gently rattling HVAC register, or the creaking and swaying of tree limbs and branches. Inside, you hear audio cues of doors creaking open, footsteps treading on wooden floors, or the buzz of a silenced cellphone over your head. There is also a pouring rainstorm that pelts water into your room, with the sound of heavy droplets splashing overhead.

 

The musical score by Benjamin Wallfisch Chamber is also appropriately tense. It features Christopher Egan conducting the Orchestra of London, and there are

The Invisible Man (2020)

several moments, such as the opening “Escape” or the song “Attack,” that have an ominous, almost alien-sounding quality as they blare loud electronic bass-heavy notes from all around.

 

When I can’t take my eyes off the screen long enough to jot down a viewing note, I know the film is intense and engaging. The Invisible Man might be treading through mostly familiar territory, but it does it with first-rate acting and a quality audio mix. And there aren’t too many horror films that can garner Rotten Tomatoes critics’ ratings of 91 and Audience Scores of 88. If you’re looking for a movie that offers a bit of edge along with a couple of good scares, The Invisible Man makes for a fun night in your home theater.

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.

Cineluxe Talks to Kaleidescape’s Cheena Srinivasan

Cineluxe Talks to Kaleidescape's Cheena Srinivasan

Last week, I had the opportunity to chat with Kaleidescape’s CEO Cheena Srinivasan about the current state of the movie industry and home entertainment. Among other things, with theater chains around the world being closed due to the pandemic, movies are being released in the home market far earlier than usual, and the studios have held the release of some major films and delayed production on others. Cheena shared his insights on Kaleidescape’s movie sales, the quality of streaming versus downloading, and day-and-date film releases.

—John Sciacca

We are in uncharted waters when it comes to traditional film distribution, with some studios releasing movies to the home market right after they were in theaters for only a short time. Are you seeing customers exploring catalog or older titles or are they primarily going for new releases?

Kaleidescape is interesting in that we cater to a movie-loving audience that has invested in a high-quality media room or home theater experience. These people are generally affluent and also tend to be very busy, so they are looking for great content to watch in the time they have. But when it comes to great content, it’s hard for the latest releases to make up for what a hundred years of movie-making has already contributed to people who love cinema, so there’s always good stuff to catch up on. Kaleidescape has a deep library of more than 11,000 titles, and historically we’ve always seen a 65/35 split between customers purchasing great catalog library titles and new releases.

 

We have agreements with 44 movie studios now, giving us a complete content offering. In general, the number of movie downloads increases each year, and for March we saw a 70% growth. New titles being released early certainly helped these 

numbers, and we also had a nice injection from the recent 4K James Bond releases.

 

Besides movies, we also have a large selection of concerts, TV series, documentaries, and even operas. If you want to enjoy a nature series, there is nothing better than the rendition of Blue Planet II available in 4K HDR from BBC. No one else offers that with the level of 

quality we do. Ditto with some of the Disney 4K HDR titles with full Dolby Atmos audio. We are very proud to have the kind of offerings we do for the cinema connoisseur, people who really care about that experience—because that’s what it’s all about, the experience.

 

We also offer a movie pre-download service enabling dealers to provide a turnkey solution for their clients. Clients can choose from the finest curated content that is important to them, which is then purchased and downloaded at the factory onto their new Kaleidescape system. When the system is configured in the client’s home cinema, all of their pre-purchased fantastic content is available to watch immediately.

 

Most other internet services rely on streaming for content delivery, but Kaleidescape employs a download-only model. Why is that?

To ensure that predictable, always-great experience we’re known for, content must be downloaded instead of streamed. This is something we have taken as an anchor for our brand. With Kaleidescape, you can schedule downloads to happen when everyone is asleep, and once downloaded, the content resides on a server in your home and you aren’t reliant on the

internet or delivery speeds to dictate the highest fidelity picture and sound playback.

 

With recent improvements to our system and a gigabit internet connection to your home, we’re able to deliver a full 4K movie with lossless audio soundtrack in 15 minutes or less. We can’t provide instant streaming playback without sacrificing what the brand stands for, which is the finest quality experience every time.

 

Increasingly, studios aren’t releasing 4K versions of movies on Blu-ray but instead sending them directly to the download and streaming services. The recent Kristen Stewart film, Underwater, is one example, as are the older, non-Daniel Craig James Bond films. Is this the next step in the demise of physical media?

Disc-based products have declined rapidly in the past couple of years, which makes total sense to me because there is more complexity with anything physical. You have to forecast how many quantities are needed for different markets, then edit, review, test, approve, and manufacture the discs. This is followed by working with retailers on the logistics of stocking the right amount, and, finally, working with the retailers to dispose of unsold inventory at a discount or loss. This is too much work, and you have none of this complexity or uncertainty with digital. Internet entertainment will be the way consumers will watch Hollywood’s greatest movies for years to come.

 

Universal tried something unprecedented with the release of the Trolls sequel as a $19.99 premium video-on-demand rental the same day it was scheduled to be released in theaters. Do you think we will see any long-term changes to traditional theatrical release windows after things open back up, and will this help ease the move to more widespread day & date releases at home?

We have not seen other studios following NBC Universal’s lead. Most studios, especially with big, blockbuster titles, have opted to push them out until later when theaters reopen. That’s because it’s very risky to release movies early. It all depends on how much money you put into producing the movie and what kind of confidence you have in terms of monetizing that content over a period of time to break even on the investment. There’s no proven model for doing early releases, and I think studios will embrace the age-old belief system: If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it. And if you’re going to fix it, you better have very high confidence it’s going to work. What is clear is that more mid-range and low-budget films will be hitting the home entertainment window, skipping theatrical releases.

 

If consumers get used to the in-home convenience of enjoying movies, especially as they come closer after the 

theatrical release, they might decide to just wait and not go to the theater. But there is a case to be made that blockbusters and tentpole films are mutually beneficial for both content owners and theater chains. The big question no one can really answer is, “What can we expect in the future?” It doesn’t make sense to have a tentpole and require people to sit six feet apart from each other, because tentpoles are as much a social driver as the movie itself. And what if customers get frustrated that tickets are sold out because the theaters are operating at 50% capacity? This is why I think many studios have decided to push new releases out many months to when theater operation returns to normal.

 

Now that people are aware that they can find themselves at home for long periods, do you think they will start improving their entertainment systems and we will perhaps see a boom in media room installations?

The resurgence of interest in home theater and media rooms suggests that people are looking at it and saying, “It may not be a bad idea. We could enjoy it for many years to come.” And once they do that, that’s a psychological, mental preference change. But I think no matter what, content owners always win. It’s a mere matter of figuring out the economics, and the market will adapt and evolve.

 

It’s also very clear that the home entertainment experience is improving, and people are becoming more cognizant. Just look at the millions of soundbars and millions of 4K TVs, or even general consumer awareness of technologies like Dolby Atmos. The more that large-TV big-screen viewing happens, the more people will decide, “Hey, I’m going to find out if I could have somebody come and put a media room together!” We have always diverged from the general market in that our audience

tends to be pickier about how and with whom they spend their time—the emphasis is as much social, big-screen home cinema experience with the people you love. This is about quality entertainment time.

 

It’s been interesting to see the vibrancy of home entertainment in a very big way, and I’ve been happy 

Cineluxe Talks to Kaleidescape's Cheena Srinivasan

about recent reports discussing the shifting of content viewing and streaming services away from portable, mobile devices over to TVs. Kaleidescape has never offered any kind of mobile viewing experience because we don’t deem that to be cinematic. Anything cinematic is deserving of watching with family and friends, and we’re fortunate to be the purveyor of the highest fidelity content for home cinema owners.

 

I think there are going to be some major changes over the next couple of years that will make us look back and say, “You know, I’m glad I was on the side of internet home entertainment because this is a horse that’s destined to win!” Home entertainment has a lot of tailwind and that’s going to help it in the foreseeable future.

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.

Star Wars: A New Hope

Star Wars: A New Hope

As I mentioned in my review of The Empire Strikes Back, this year’s May the Fourth celebration (or Revenge of the Fifth, should you prefer the Dark Side) will be particularly festive, thanks to the recent release of the entire Star Wars franchise in 4K HDR with Dolby Atmos soundtracks. Along with the impressive “The Skywalker Saga” box set ($250), which includes all nine films across 27 discs along with hours of bonus materials, the films are also available for sale individually from digital retailers. Even better, internet services are currently discounting the titles, with each movie available for download on Kaleidescape for $13.99.

Along with Empire, Cineluxe has featured reviews of the two latest films in the Star Wars canon, The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker. But we thought it would be worth taking a look at the film that started it all: Star Wars. Or, as it is known now, New Hope.

 

While the modern usage of “blockbuster” started in 1975 with Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, A New Hope took that to the next level in 1977. In our modern era where movies are in and out of the theater in a little over a month, A New Hope enjoyed a theatrical run that lasted over a year, including one theater in Beaverton, Oregon that ran it for 76 weeks! Images of lines wrapping around the block waiting to get a seat were commonplace.

 

I was seven when the film came out, and I can clearly recall seeing A New Hope for the first time. My family was visiting Carmel, California, and my parents dropped me and my 

NEW HOPE AT A GLANCE

The 4K HDR/Dolby Atmos treatment benefits A New Hope as much as it did The Empire Strikes Back, making the 43-year-old initial entry in the Star Wars saga feel surprisingly contemporary.

 

PICTURE     

HDR is used judiciously, but adds plenty of pop to lightsabers, laser blasts, engine thrusters, and the Star Destroyer’s cannons.

 

SOUND

Atmos really opens up the Oscar-winning soundtrack, making Tatooine, the Cantina, the Death Star, and even the garbage compactor feel more convincing.

cousin off at the theater while they went shopping. I can’t recall having any anticipation about seeing the movie, or even hearing anything about it prior to walking into the theater, but my world changed when the lights dropped and that opening fanfare blared from the speakers. When that Star Destroyer flew overhead for the first time, I remember thinking this was like nothing I’d ever seen before, and how was this even possible?!?

 

For two hours, my cousin and I sat engrossed, taking it all in. When it ended, we ran out to the lobby, told my parents that we had just seen the most incredibly movie of all time! and then turned around and went back inside to watch it again! We then spent the rest of the vacation lightsaber fighting each other with anything we could grab that could be imagined into a sword.

 

I was also fortunate enough to see A New Hope at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood—which also showed the film for a staggering 57 weeks!—where my biggest memories are of the giant auditoriums and eating an entire box of Red Vines that

I also used as straws to drink a large Coke.

 

Today, there are basically three different generations of Star Wars fans: Those who grew up with the original trilogy, those raised on the prequel trilogies, and those who have come in recently with the sequel trilogies. And, with no disrespect to these “newer” fans, it is difficult to fully appreciate just how important Star Wars is to someone who didn’t grow up with it. From 1977 to 1983, it played a massive role in our lives. It was what we played, what we talked about, what we imagined, what we dreamed.

 

With Star Wars, George Lucas created a universe so real and so unlike anything that had come before that it transcended just being a movie. And to have this come about at an age when you were old enough to understand just how special and different it was, and then grow up with it over the next six years . . . well, it’s not an exaggeration to say it shaped many people’s lives.

 

If you grew up during that time, you fantasized about making that trench run in your X-wing and using the Force to fire those proton torpedoes; or waving your hand and changing someone’s mind; or snapping open your lightsaber and standing down Vader; or playing space chess (technically “Dejarik”) with Chewie aboard the Falcon; or having a Princess place a medal around your neck while the galaxy cheers.

 

And, to think, it was nearly not to be.

 

Multiple studios passed on the film early on, and the first

edits were said to be nearly unwatchable. The film was basically “saved” in post production as the incredible models and special effects came together (it won an Oscar for Best Editing), and it was finally bolstered by one of the greatest soundtracks ever thanks to John Williams. (If you haven’t watched the fascinating and fantastic two-and-a-half-hour documentary Empire of Dreams—The Story of the Star Wars Trilogy, I assure you it is worth the price of a month’s subscription to Disney+ for that alone!)

 

Taken from a new 4K scan, this transfer is sourced from a true 4K digital intermediate, and images throughout are incredibly clean and detailed, with little film grain, but also little damaging effects or softening from heavy-handed use of DNR (digital noise reduction). It is difficult to believe you are watching a film that is 43 years old, especially when you get to the finale, which has visual effects that still impress. (Granted they’ve been digitally helped over the years, but still . . .)

 

Closeups reveal incredible detail, such as the scratches and textures in the metal of R2-D2’s dome, or the streaks of white paint on his body. You can see the fray in Obi-Wan’s (Sir Alec Guinness) robe along with every line in his face, and practically feel the velvet texture of Vader’s cape. In one scene on the Death Star, I was able to clearly read the text “THX-1138” on one of the monitor screens in the background, a homage to Lucas’ first film. You could also see that the masks of the Stormtroopers influenced by Obi-Wan were a bit sloppily finished, with paint that isn’t perfect.

 

Colors look terrific and natural throughout, with laser blasts and lightsabers appropriately bright, as well as the bright blue of the Falcon’s engine, the red of the X-wings’ thrusters, and the bright green of the Star Destroyer’s cannons. (I’m also happy they fixed the saber “fizzle” during Obi-Wan and Darth’s battle.) You can see the crags, cracks, and textures in the rocks near Obi-Wan’s cave, and all of the fine little details put into the interior of the Falcon to make it look like a ship that has logged a lot of miles, errr, parsecs, traveling the galaxy.

 

Black levels are deep, and space looks appropriately inky, but not at the expense of crushing shadow detail. This really gives nice pop to all of the spaceships, as they stand out in stark contrast to the blackness of space around them. Notice the early scenes aboard the Tantive IV as Leia and the droids move around darkened corridors and passageways, or the prisoner detention bay on the Death Star with its deep-black walls, but you can still make out detail in the guards’ black uniforms.

 

HDR brightness is used sparingly—the Falcon’s glowing engines, big explosions—however, the overall depth of contrast added by the extra dynamic range provides enhanced images throughout, adding depth and dimension.

Sonically, A New Hope was game-changing when it came out, winning an Academy Award for Best Sound and a Special Achievement Award for Ben Burtt’s sound effects. And they have definitely done an admirable job of amping up the sound mix for the 21st century while retaining the classic elements that made it so memorable. From the opening, the Star Destroyer flies overhead, an iconic moment now expanded with overhead explosions as it bombards Leia’s ship. And when the tractor beam grabs it, you hear and feel the ship being pulled overhead. When the Falcon escapes the Death Star, TIE fighters fly over and around in pursuit, but the biggest sonic moment is held for the end, during the attack on the Death Star, with trench guns blasting all around, TIE’s screaming past and roaring overhead.

 

Every scene is brought to life with its own sonic space. You get the winds blowing overhead in the Tatooine desert, the background hum of life and little mechanical noises aboard the Death Star, the sounds rattling around in the Cantina, the appliance sounds in Owen and Beru’s kitchen, or the squeaks and groans of metal twisting and crushing in the garbage compactor.

 

Blaster fire is nice and dynamic, and bass is deep and engaging when called on, 

Star Wars: A New Hope

such as the deep thrum of the Falcon’s sub-light engines, the Death Star priming its main weapon, or the buzz of lightsabers. Deeper bass comes from the Falcon jumping to hyperspace and the massive explosion of Alderaan, with the Death Star’s spectacular destruction sounding particularly good, featuring a concussive bass wave that ripples and travels back through the left side of the room.

 

Yes, you can bemoan that this isn’t the original theatrical cut we grew up with. And that Lucas has tinkered yet again with the (now) infamous “who shot first?” Cantina scene. (Just Google “Maclunkey,” if you aren’t aware.) Or that the CGI creatures outside Mos Eisley that were added for the 1997 Special Edition bring nothing to the film—and now look even more jarringly out of place given the quality and look of the rest of the film. And that the added Jabba scene just steals the greatness of his reveal later in Return of the Jedi. I’ll grant you all of that. But to that, I’m still going all-in with this: This 4K HDR version of A New Hope is hands-down the definitive, best the movie has ever looked and sounded, and if you don’t watch it, you are punishing only yourself.

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.