Dune Redux, On Ultra HD Blu-Ray

When I wrote about the new film version of Dune some months back my reaction was positive. I saw it in a movie theater—my first visit to one in two years. There was plenty of social distancing during my visit; with a dozen or so other attendees at a midweek, midafternoon showing I could have swung a cat on a 10 foot rope without hitting anyone (with apologies to cat people). I enjoyed the film, but as I noted in that October 2021 blog, I was disappointed by the quality of much of the cinematography. This was surprising, since it was the Dolby Cinema in my local AMC-plex. Dolby Cinema is by far my favorite way to see a movie in a commercial theater. It wasn't the sort of disappointment the average viewer would feel, and even I could set my concerns aside once I got into the film. But I know Dolby Cinema can do better and the film deserved it.

I doubted that the problem was in the film itself. Perhaps something had gone wrong, such as the theater's management cutting back on maintenance in a still financially difficult theater market. Or possibly it was an issue at the source; the digital files used in Dolby Cinema theaters are specifically graded to suit the format's peak white level of 30 foot-lamberts, and if that grading is in error the results could be skewed in any number of ways. I haven't been back to that theater since then to see if the situation has improved; no subsequent film that tickled my interest has played there, at least not when I had the time. But with summer coming that might change.

There's an IMAX installation in the same local multiplex, but I prefer to avoid it. The last few times I went there (prior to the Dolby Cinema installation when IMAX was the only quality theater choice available locally) the audio balance was weird. From a mid-theater seat, virtually all of the sound (apart from the dialogue) appeared to be coming from the surrounds! That was unacceptable to someone who's often closely attuned to a film's score. When Dunkirk was playing in theaters I actually drove 60 miles to the next nearest IMAX to see it (this was when it was still a 4-hour round-trip drive the closest Dolby Cinema).

Dune was also available for streaming when it opened in my local Dolby Cinema, but after years of crowd-consciousness due to Covid I chose the theater route. Overall, I didn't regret it; I wanted more than just bandwidth-limited streaming.

But now we have Dune Part 1 on Ultra HD Blu-ray. Brandon A. DuHamel reviewed it on this site last month, and my observations closely echo his. The sound is spectacular, as it was in the theater, but with even more impressive low frequency extension. The challenge for theatrical bass is filling an immense space without overdriving even the huge and multiple subs that the best theaters employ. At home, with the right subwoofers and a smaller space to fill, the challenge is both easier and harder. Assuming your subs are properly set up and EQ'd (you do have two of them of course, or at least plan to eventually!), the opening riffs of Hans Zimmer's superb score (a character in itself) will paste you to the nearest wall. I also found that the best level setting on my AVR was nearly 10db lower than I use for the typically underwhelming levels in recent Disney films such as Encanto (now that would make for an...um...interesting double feature!). If the last film you watched on your system was from Disney, and required a high level-control setting, be sure to proceed with caution before firing up Dune!

On disc the video was far better than I experienced in that Dolby Cinema presentation. As viewed on a JVC 2K to 4K (via pixel- shifting) projector, the results were beyond impressive, capturing the film's crisp detail and Arrakis' eye-searing, daytime sunlight reflecting from its endless deserts. The film's colors are subdued, but that's totally appropriate to the story and its environment.

Dune's cinematography was impressive enough to win an Oscar for 2021, along with five others (Visual Effects, Original Score, Production Design, Editing, and Sound). Some of the dozens of viewers who watched the Academy Awards/Cage-Match event this past week (not me) probably hoped for something more for Dune than just technical awards, as important as they are. But a total if six trophies isn't bad given that most Academy voters lean more toward meaning and "relevance" in their choices than well-done fantasy or science fiction. Or maybe they're just saving their ballots for the expected Dune Part 2. Or perhaps even for a Part 3. Can the filmmakers actually squeeze all of this epic story into just two films? The Lord of the Rings took three, and Game of Thrones took eight TV seasons. And even that wasn't enough; it should have had nine for a better paced and genuinely satisfying conclusion.