Eye on UHD: 14 Ultra HD Blu-ray Movies Reviewed

No format launch would be complete without movies to play, and UHD Blu-ray Disc boosters got more than they could have hoped for, with more than two-dozen titles from Sony, Warner Brothers, 20th Century Fox, and Lionsgate available concurrent with the debut of the Samsung UBD-K8500 player and all mastered with HDR10 high dynamic range. We asked our movie reviewers Tom Norton and David Vaughn for their top-line observations on 14 titles in the first batch to help you separate the demo-worthy from the duds. Below are excerpts from their reports (with the author identified for each blurb). Tom restricts his comments to picture quality, while David also shared his soundtrack impressions as heard on his 7.2.4-channel Atmos theater system. Titles are listed in alphabetical order.

Tom’s observations are based on the player attached to Samsung’s 65-inch JS9500 LED-driven Ultra HD LCD display, with both wide color gamut and HDR capabilities, the latter boosted by full-array local dimming. David did his viewing on his JVC DLA-X750R projector. This projector is also wide gamut- and HDR10-compliant, though it’s a native 1080p projector that accepts UHD signals and displays them using the projector’s e-shift pixel-shifting technology. However, as David points out, “when comparing apples to apples (1080P Blu-ray to 4K UHD Blu-ray using e-shift on both signals), the UHD Blu-rays do have more detail—depending on the resolution quality of the UHD Blu-ray.” He noted further that projectors by nature produce lower peak light output for HDR than a flat panel, though his relatively small screen, an 88-inch Stewart Firehawk with 1.3 gain, will more effectively show HDR than a 120-inch screen with a 1.0 unity gain.

Notably, apparent resolution/picture detail from these discs seems as or more dependent on the quality of the digital intermediate (DI) used to master the disc than on the display they’re viewed on. Only a few of the titles mentioned here started with 4K digital cinema masters; the others were upconverted from 2K DIs. As we’ve been reporting since our coverage of the very first Sony 4K consumer projector in February of 2012, scanning or shooting any content in 4K or higher resolution results in the capture of additional detail that will be visible even when downconverting to 1080p Blu-ray for play on a 1080p display. Tom commented that the difference in detail between 2K and 4K DIs was barely observable on his 65-inch display, while David was more able to see those differences on his larger screen.—Rob Sabin

Sony Pictures (2015); DI: 4K, Dolby Atmos/TrueHD
This odd film doesn’t really work dramatically, but it’s one of the best UHD HDR discs in the group, with both bright and sometimes very dark sequences that are a treat in HDR. The color is also excellent, though sparingly used in the film’s many seedy and grimy settings. —Thomas J. Norton

A native 4K DI from Sony, this one falls just short of perfection in both audio and video. There are a number of very dark scenes with bright highlights, such as the gang’s poorly lit lair broken by sunshine bursting through various openings. Text on Chappie’s armor is much more legible versus the Blu-ray, highlighting the added resolution. The Atmos soundtrack has some great demo-worthy moments featuring helicopter flyovers, gunshots, and explosions.—David Vaughn

Ender’s Game
Lionsgate (2015); DI: 2K, Dolby Atmos/TrueHD
The main shortcoming in this release—and it may have been by design—is slightly sepia-toned color in the opening scenes on Earth. Early in the film, I found fleshtones a bit distracting, and overall nothing really stood out for me. But the images improved considerably as the action moved to outer space. The battle simulations, in particular, were as impressive a demonstration of HDR as you might hope for. And like many of the films here, this one screams out for a screen bigger than 65 inches. (On the Samsung display, this disc also had an elevated black level at settings that looked fine on the other UHD discs. This required a considerable reduction of the Brightness control to eliminate overly gray black bars and a slightly flat, washed-out picture.)—TJN

Upconverted to 4K from the 2K DI, resolution improvement is minimal. What really sets this disc apart is the HDR treatment along with the expanded color palette, especially yellows and blues. The last “simulation” as our hero’s ship attacks the planet features deep blacks that are punctuated by streaks of light as they try to open a hole in the planet’s defenses—pure eye candy. Throw in a reference-quality Dolby Atmos experience, and you end up with a surefire winner on UHD Blu-ray.—DV

Exodus: Gods and Kings
20th Century Fox (2014); DI: 2K, DTS-HD MA
Not as bad a movie as critics had claimed but not as good as it should have been, this filming of the Moses story wasn’t as much of a thrill in HDR as I had hoped it would be. As noted in my review of the Samsung UBD-K8500 player, the blacks looked crushed—possibly due to a problem with the disc transfer—which unfortunately couldn’t be overcome with the TV’s controls without degrading the image in other, equally unacceptable ways.—TJN


Sony Pictures (2008), DI: 4K, Dolby Atmos/TrueHD
I’m not sure why Sony chose this movie to be part of the opening slate of UHD Blu-ray titles other than the fact that it sports a 4K DI. The principal photography is extremely grainy, and neither the Blu-ray nor the UHD Blu-ray would be the first disc I’d choose to highlight either format. Contrast is improved in UHD, but it does amplify the grain in the picture. The Atmos soundtrack is somewhat disappointing—bass response doesn’t go very deep, and the discrete effects during the action scenes aren’t as well placed as top-tier titles.—DV

Kingsman: The Secret Service
20th Century Fox (2015); DI: 2K, DTS-HD MA
A wildly entertaining spy movie that’s another upconvert from a 2K DI that translates well to 4K. Fabric in clothing teems with detail, colors are vivid and deep, and the heightened contrast of the HDR treatment makes this disc shine. Sadly, another opportunity missed by excluding the theatrical Dolby Atmos mix, but the DTS-HD MA 7.1 track shines for the various action scenes and strong score.—DV


Mad Max: Fury Road
Warner Brothers (2015); DI: 2K, Dolby Atmos/TrueHD
While post-apocalyptic fare isn’t normally my cup of hot chocolate, particularly when populated by so many repulsive characters, this actioner is hard to beat for nearly nonstop thrills. It also gave me nothing to complain about in the UHD and HDR departments, including some interesting black-and-white sequences. But the flame throwers in the film looked as CGI-fake here as they did when I first saw a demo of the relevant scenes in a Dolby Vision demo last fall. You can’t blame the transfer for this, however. (I also can’t resist mentioning that this disc had, by far, the most dynamic soundtrack of the group—and I didn’t even listen to it in Dolby Atmos! But go easy on the volume; the audio here was mastered at least 5 dB higher than most of the others.)—TJN

In the opening scene, you’ll be blown away by the 4K picture, but as the movie progresses it loses a lot of its luster from the upconverted 2K DI. First off, the CGI sticks out like a sore thumb and on many occasions looks like a video game. Furthermore, there’s plenty of noise in the picture that may be due to the contrast being a tad hot, especially during the daytime sequences. One area that didn’t disappoint is the Dolby Atmos audio, which is demo worthy from start to finish.—DV

The Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials
20th Century Fox (2015); DI: 2K, DTS-HD MA
Despite the descent of its story into zombieland, the transfer here offers excellent HDR, though not in the expected ways. Its handling of dim, low- brightness scenes, which are plentiful, puts it near the top of the group. The resolution is also crisp, and the subdued color is always appropriate to the scene.—TJN

Sourced from a 2K DI, the upconverted 4K offers a very slight improvement in resolution over the Blu-ray, but those with smaller screens probably won’t notice much of a difference. Shadow detail and bright highlights benefit from the HDR treatment, although there is some banding in a few skyline shots. Sadly, Fox only offers a DTS-HD MA 7.1 soundtrack, which is extremely detailed and lively, but the film was released theatrically with Dolby Atmos.—DV

San Andreas
Warner Brothers (2015), DI: 2K, Dolby Atmos/TrueHD
Digitally shot at 3.4K and released theatrically with a 2K DI, this UHD Blu-ray release is not native 4K, and the improvement in resolution versus the 1080p Blu-ray is minimal. Colors are slightly deeper and richer, especially green. There are a few cases where HDR shows vast improvement, notably during the San Francisco sequences with glaring sunlight filtering into dark spaces. The Dolby Atmos track is a demo showpiece in regard to discrete effects, and while the overhead sounds are limited, the bed channels feature so much precise action, you won’t be disappointed.—DV

Lionsgate (2015); DI: 2K, Dolby Atmos/TrueHD
This gripping but ultimately depressing movie nonetheless offers one of the best HDR UHD transfers of the group. The HDR and subdued color rarely jumps out at you, but it’s used appropriately and effective where it needs to be. The resolution is superb.—TJN

For the majority of the film, this native 4K release has nearly flawless video. Unfortunately, the third act has some CGI that’s borderline cartoonish when the Special Forces employ their night vision goggles. Regardless, this will be one of my go-to evaluation discs for shadow detail, contrast, and HDR content—in that regard it’s perfect. Furthermore, the Dolby Atmos track is superb, with pinpoint imaging, reference-quality bass, and plenty of overhead effects that will have you ducking for cover.—DV

The Amazing Spider-Man 2
Sony Pictures (2014); DI: 4K, Dolby Atmos/TrueHD
This is a much better entry in the Spider-Man franchise than it’s been given credit for. But finding the correct color setting to prevent Spidey’s suit from turning day-glo crimson proved tricky. (But then, it is based on a cartoon!) Once set correctly, however, the colors popped convincingly where needed but were never less than natural elsewhere. The resolution was particularly impressive in the quieter, live action scenes (that 4K DI, perhaps?) but effective everywhere else as well. The HDR is…um…dynamic, particularly in the big Times Square night action scene (chapter 7). —TJN

Sourced from a native 4K DI, this one is near reference quality, and the added resolution shows up in the detail on Spider-Man’s costume. Furthermore, the colors are much richer, especially blues and reds. Chapter 14 will be used for demo purposes because it shows off the rich shadow detail, blasts of lightning highlighting what HDR can bring to the table, and a Dolby Atmos audio track that is to die for.—DV

The Last Witchhunter
Lionsgate (2015), DI: 4K, DTS:X
Shot with Arri Alexa cameras, this native 4K presentation is outstanding and teems with detail. Other than some slight aliasing, there’s really nothing to complain about. The opening scene features bottomless black levels highlighted by some flaming torches that really show off the HDR encoding. The DTS:X soundtrack is definitely a keeper with robust LFE, a plethora of discrete effects, and crystal-clear dialogue.—DV


The Martian
20th Century Fox (2015); DI: 2K, DTS-HD MA
The best movie, as a movie, of the group delivers UHD on all fronts with outstanding color, excellent resolution, and effective HDR. One could argue that the scenes in the Mars habitat and on Earth are the least HDR-ish, but when viewed next to the standard release, the HDR’s highlights are all there.—TJN

Of all the initial UHD Blu-ray releases, this is the best movie of the bunch from an entertainment perspective. It was shot using a RED Epic Dragon 5K camera and finished with a 2K DI then upconverted to 4K. The resolution improvement over the Blu-ray is apparent in text on the various sets and props. HDR really comes into play on the Martian surface when the sun shines off the spacesuit’s glass visors and when rockets blast off from the planet. Sadly, the theatrical Dolby Atmos isn’t included, but the DTS-HD MA 7.1 track is no slouch on its own.—DV

The Smurfs 2
Sony Pictures (2013); DI: 4K, Dolby Atmos/TrueHD
If I hear La-La-LaLaLa-La again, I’ll lose what’s left of my mind. And unlike many early reports, I can’t quite declare this release, created from a 4K DI as were all of the first Sony titles, the best of the first batch of HDR UHD films, though it’s close. The fleshtones were sometimes a bit orange, particularly the scenes in Patrick and Grace’s apartment. The color overall, however, was bright and punchy, and the CGI Smurfs themselves were always a rich, Smurfy blue. The brief long shots of the New York and Paris skylines did look a bit soft when viewed from close up, though they were fine at a 10-foot distance. And the resolution elsewhere was impressive. The generally bright picture keeps the HDR impact modest at best, but evident in the night scenes highlighted by Gargamel’s wand-induced lightning.—TJN

This is the reference video disc for the UHD Blu-ray titles. Its 4K DI comes to life with the added resolution and looks damn near 3D—be sure to check out the waterfall scene in chapter 2. The vivid color palette definitely benefits from the expanded range of colors, as the blue in the Smurfs is deeper and richer. HDR shows its prowess during the magic show as lightning shoots from the magician’s wand in a darkened theater, which will definitely have you squinting from the sudden outburst. The Dolby Atmos track is superb, too, with plenty of discrete effects and expanded ambience.—DV

X-Men: Days of Future Past
20th Century Fox (2014); DI: 2K, DTS-HD MA
With the most intriguing (though overly ambitious) story line and easily the best cast and overall performances of all the films here, this is an effective HDR UHD disc. It’s brought down a bit only because a few of the scenes (ironically, some of those with the least obvious use of CGI—particularly in Professor Xavier’s house) look a little soft compared with the best of the rest.—TJN