It finally happened.
Last Friday evening, after I put the kids to bed and was preparing for a movie night in front of the fireplace, my trusty plasma TV died. Beyond being miffed at its sudden demise, I was more distraught knowing I would not find another plasma to replace it—plasma manufacturing was discontinued in 2014 and my previous attempt to purchase a used model arrived on my doorstep as a box of shattered glass. I took solace in the thought that my plasma TV’s life expectancy of three-to-five years had managed to extend to a full eight years.
After some hasty research, I went out and upgraded to a 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray player and TV.
I have seen many 4K demos, and my reluctance to finally upgrade to a 4K TV had less to do with once-ludicrous price points than with the practical fact that movies in 4K just never seemed to look as good as they did on my plasma: despite the obvious upgrade in 4K resolution and the vastly improved range of contrast, there’s a motion blur issue that only the most expensive sets can fully compensate for, and I don’t feel the black values are dark enough (they render a milky charcoal instead of pitch black). Nit-picky, I know, but for a serious cinema and home video geek like myself, these are important considerations.
Frustratingly, no matter where I would see a 4K demo, nobody ever seemed to be able to turn off the artificial anti-motion blur “enhancement” that makes movies shot on film look like a soap opera taped with video cameras. When I plugged in my new 4K set, this was my first mission: to make my movies look like film. Turns out, the distracting motion control “enhancement” is a combination of several different adjustments that can be tweaked in the set-up menu, and after a few minutes of trial and error, I got rid of the unwanted enhancement.
Satisfied that my favorite movies look like movies and not sporting events or soap operas, and duly impressed with the upscaling of my 1080p Blu-ray discs to approximate a 4K presentation, I set to making my wish list of movies I absolutely must see in 4K. If the following list is heavy on sci-fi, fantasy, and action, this is no mistake: 4K Ultra HD is ideal for visually and sonically dense movies. Modern-day dramas and romantic comedies just don’t cry out for the heightened capabilities of 4K, and when I see 4K versions of them in stores I consider it to be a waste of good shelf space, especially accounting for the many classic and contemporary favorites that are not yet available in the Ultra HD format.
Blade Runner (1982) & Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
These two sci-fi masterpieces are at the top of my list because I already own them: I pre-emptively purchased the 4K issues in preparations for my eventual upgrade to 4K (and, crucially, because the 4K discs come packaged with regular Blu-ray discs that I was able to view in the meantime). I could not sit down with them for a proper viewing before this column, but I scanned through both discs. Denis Villeneuve’s 2017 sleek sequel looks astonishing—no surprise because it was captured digitally and everything about its production is state-of-the-art. Clarity is amazing: the tiny text identifying the Wallace Corporation is now legible, and you can see every drop of rain and every flake of snow during the cityscape flyover bits. I was more ecstatic to witness how well the scrappier production design, the glowing neon lighting, and the textured grain of film throughout Ridley Scott’s 1982 original movie lends itself to the 4K mastering, even though the 36-year-old film could not possibly look as flawless as the new movie. It’s perfectly fine that the overall image is a bit rougher around the edges as it enhances the vintage aspect of the picture—plus, I have always admired Blade Runner warts and all.
The Original Star Wars Trilogy (1977/1980/1983)
I fully expect George Lucas’ “Special Edition” versions will eventually see the light of day on 4K Ultra HD disc, but if Disney/Lucasfilm wants to curry favor with serious fans, they’d be wise to issue the classic trilogy episodes in their original unmolested forms as shown during their premiere theatrical engagements. Since Disney acquired Lucasfilm in 2012 there have been numerous recurring tales of a massive Star Wars restoration project that would finally add back the bits Lucas removed and, more vitally, excise the wrongheaded additions he inserted. Though nothing has been officially mentioned by Lucasfilm, such a future release would finally put to rest the fan-made reconstructions of varying quality that are floating around out there in the ether.
The Dark Knight Trilogy (2005/2008/2012)
Christopher Nolan and his trusty cinematographer Wally Pfister truly put the “dark” in their Dark Knight saga, and I’m eager to witness how these three films, with their muted color schemes and velvety shadows, take advantage of 4K’s higher dynamic range. Several sequences of The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises were filmed with IMAX cameras, and whenever these images appear, the black borders above and below the 2.35:1 widescreen image dissolve and the picture pops out to fill the entire frame. Even when viewing these films on a regular 1080p Blu-ray the spatial effect of the aspect ratio shift is powerful, so I’m hoping the 4K upgrade will pack even more of a visual punch.
The Matrix (1999)
Forget the pair of ill-thought sequels, I’ll take the Wachowskis’ original post-apocalyptic/dystopian/cyberpunk/manga/kung-fu mash-up, with its trend-setting time-compressed editorial motifs, its out-of-this-world visual effects, and its eerie jade color scheme.
Superman: The Movie (1978)
Finally coming this month to 4K, Richard Donner’s beloved classic will no doubt be bursting with colors and, hopefully, it will look like grainy film. Perhaps its higher resolution will inevitably make some of the dodgier visual effects shots appear that much more dated, but what I will be specifically looking for is the diffused glow of light reflecting off the costumes during the opening Krypton sequence. If the 4K scan gets this part right, fans raised on muddy VHS editions or inadequate DVD masters of the movie will surely be blown away by the heightened clarity and wider range of contrast possible with Ultra HD.
Die Hard (1988)
The Blu-ray edition of John McTiernan’s skyscraper-under-siege classic is pretty darned good, but no matter how large the TV screen and how muscular the home theater surround sound system, plain ol’ high definition has never quite done justice to the visual intensity or sonic thunder of the movie’s premiere 70MM theatrical presentations. If anything, I’m hoping the 4K upgrade will put me right back in that humongous auditorium to be willingly blown away through the back wall of the theater.
I’m jazzed to see this earlier McT classic because its narrower aspect ratio will illuminate more of the pixels on the screen (the aspect ratio nearly matches the shape of HD screens, with only tiny slivers of black above and below the picture). The movie’s dense jungle scenery and abundant nighttime sequences will surely put 4K to the test, as will the fact that the film—shot on 35MM celluloid and deliciously grainy—is more than 30 years old and couldn’t possibly look as good as a current-day production.
The Godfather (1972) & The Godfather, Part II (1974)
When these two classics eventually arrive on 4K, I’ll wager Paramount bundles 1990’s much-derided Godfather III with its two Oscar-winning predecessors. Even so, the shadows and textures of Dean Tavoularis’ exquisite production design and Gordon Willis’ indelible cinematography throughout all three movies ought to be nicely served by the improved resolution of 4K.
Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
Sony has already issued David Lean’s 1957 WWII adventure The Bridge on the River Kwai on 4K, but fans are awaiting the eventual 4K release of Lean’s 1962 desert classic. When it finally arrives in Ultra HD format, I fully expect to be able to make out individual grains of sand and notice the tiny hairs on the camels’ hides from beyond the dunes.
The Third Man (1949)
There don’t seem to be many black and white movies available on 4K (the monochromatic version of Logan is the only title I can come up with on the top of my head) so I’m curious to see what a vintage or modern-day B&W picture looks like in the format. Carol Reed’s post-war mystery/thriller is in a class by itself and is one of the most visually striking movies ever put to film, with its incessantly canted camera angles and starkly lit Vienna exteriors (the cityscape still bombed out from the war).
The Fifth Element (1997)
Many of the CGI visuals in Luc Besson’s pop space opera will surely look as plastic and cartoonish as intended, but the production’s wild color palette along with its balance of digital effects with old-school practical models and sets ought to benefit from the higher resolution of 4K.
Though not yet available on Ultra HD disc, Oliver Stone’s seminal conspiracy drama is waiting to take advantage of the higher resolution of 4K. Other than Stone’s later films Natural Born Killers and Nixon, I cannot think of another modern-day epic that was filmed utilizing so many different types of film stock—8MM, 16MM, different grades of color and black-and-white 35MM film—plus some video capture footage. The movie is constantly shifting its visual style, aspect ratio, and color palette—sometimes multiple times within a single sequence—and the overall visual effect is sensational.
The Lord of the Rings (2001/2002/2003)
No, it’s not available on 4K Ultra HD yet, but the granddaddy of all fantasy epics is going to make for one hell of a 4K package when it eventually arrives, no matter if the release offers only the theatrical editions, the padded “extended” versions, or both. The trilogy’s deft blend of CGI wizardry with practical animatronics and life-size sets has rarely been equaled—for proof, see the latest three Jurassic Park movies, with their CG/practical balance completely out of whack.