Reveling in Oblivion on Ultra HD Blu-ray / HDR

I’m a huge fan of the movie Oblivion. But is it a Guilty Pleasure or a Hidden Treasure? It received a mixed critical reception when it hit theaters in 2013, and many sci-fi fans and film critics found it derivative.

But who is really surprised when a film borrows ideas and plot tropes from past films and literature? A post-apocalyptic, barren Earth? Check. An alien invasion? Check. A conflicted hero? Check. Nasty robots (or drones)? Check. Other Greatest Hits from sci-fi’s grab bag of McGuffin’s? Check.

It’s also likely that some of Oblivion’s detractors were put off by its relative lack of smash-mouthed action—at least compared to many of today’s superhero blockbusters. It is punctuated by several well-executed, hyper intense set-pieces, but they’re important to the plot rather simply adding to the film’s running time and CGI budget.

Others object to the story’s soft science. But departures from scientific reality have rarely troubled viewers of most sci-fi films and TV shows. And some of today’s science wonders and accepted “truths” will certainly be tomorrow’s museum pieces. Remember films with no cell phones, or a satellite phone the size of a brick? Science and technology are never “settled.”

The Story and the Cast
But the gold in any film is a good story, and in that Oblivion is more intriguing than most. In the beginning we learn that Earth was invaded decades ago. We won the war and killed most of the aliens, but the conflict so devastated the planet that the remaining population has been evacuated to Titan, one of Saturn moons. We put a huge space station, the Tet, in Earth orbit to assist in that evacuation and monitor the remaining activity on Earth. The latter largely involves harvesting Earth’s seawater. Jack Harper is a repair tech (or as we later learn, one of the repair techs) that maintains the drones protecting the harvesting machines. As the story opens, Jack and his communications tech (and significant other) Victoria (Vicka) are awaiting their imminent evacuation to Titan.

To insure security from surviving bands of aliens—here called “Scavs: (for scavengers), which roam the planet with no apparent goal other than being a nuisance—Jack and Victoria underwent a mandatory memory wipe five years before the story begins. But while Jack is haunted by strange dreams, perhaps of a past he can’t clearly recall, Vicka is blissfully anticipating their upcoming move. In the meantime, as we are constantly reminded during the all too cheery communications with Sally, their handler on the Tet (Melissa Leo, visible only through small video monitor), Jack and Vicka “are an effective team.”

The small cast is superb. Tom Cruise is, as always, Tom Cruise, and while he’s disliked by many fans because of his off-screen oddities, he’s undeniably one of the best actors of his “pretty boy” generation. He has elevated many recent sci-fi and action films, and his acting chops are definitely on display here. Andrea Riseborough is smooth, businesslike, and sexy as Victoria. Olga Kurylenko is a little bland, but effective, in the important role of a mysterious stranger rescued from a wrecked spacecraft. And it’s no surprise that Morgan Freeman elevates the film simply by being in it. Though he’s underused, he makes the most of his limited but vital scenes.

An AV Triumph
I was first introduced to Oblivion on Blu-ray, though I missed it in the theater. The Blu-ray was and is an audio/video triumph. The synth-heavy music is spectacular (and available as an isolated track on the Blu-ray). The sound mix can be played loud (at least on a decent system) without slicing your ears off. A few of those action cues do turn a bit edgy, not uncommon on such material, but the music remains listenable even as it ranges from subtle to explosive and back.

The Blu-ray picture is crisp and clear. It’s a bit cool-looking, perhaps by design, but never disappoints. The film is loaded with demo-worthy scenes, both audio and video. For those who like to show of their system with film music, I recommend the opening scenes, up to and including the dynamic crescendo that accompanies the appearance of the film’s title. The Blu-ray has been recorded at a somewhat lower level than many of the titles in my collection, so if that crescendo doesn’t knock you off your chair you’ve set it too low!

If you like to demonstrate action, and perhaps show off the black levels of that new television, try the scene in the underground library. And for both music and action, you can’t beat the conclusion, beginning right after an attack on a secret (Scav?!) installation. I generally try to avoid demonstrating scenes that include the end of a film—a major spoiler. But if your visitors have “seen” the movie only on TV with their set’s lame audio, they haven’t really experienced it at all.

UHD + HDR + Atmos = Wow
Oblivion was recently released on Ultra HD Blu-ray, in high dynamic range (HDR) and with a new Dolby Atmos, TrueHD soundtrack. While I am as yet unable to comment on what Atmos adds to the film, the sound in general here is every bit as impressive as the DTS-HD Master Audio on the original release (and on the 1080p Blu-ray disc that’s also included in the UHD package—that Blu-ray is still DTS-HD MA).

The 4K/HDR picture is exceptional as well. Though I wasn’t initially too impressed with it, some minor tweaking of the controls on the high-end HDR set I viewed it on brought out its best. It does look distinctly different than the original Blu-ray release—a bit darker on average scenes, slightly warmer and ruddier-looking flesh tones (not necessarily a plus, though I hasten to add here that I have yet to fully calibrate for HDR on the display I used).

Some characteristics clearly stood out in comparison to the vanilla 1080p release: shiny, metallic letters in the opening title, glistening metal on Jack’s “helicopter,” lightening flashes during a thunderstorm, the night rescue of the crashed spaceship, surrounded by fires, the orb of the sun in an establishing shot, the brightness of a distant explosion at dawn, and light and dark highlights inside the Tet. The resolution is also fine, though not obviously better than 1080p on a 65-inch set (to my knowledge, this UHD disc was cut from an upconverted 2K master—common to many of the early UHD Blu-rays).

While I can highly recommend this Ultra HD Blu-ray for those equipped to play it, keep in mind that the original Blu-ray is also an exceptional disc. This highlights one of the issues surrounding Ultra HD Blu-rays of older titles (and not that old in this case). As I write this, you can find the Blu-ray on Amazon Prime for $8.79. Amazon Prime is asking $39 for the UHD Blu-ray—an outrageous difference.

Even though the UHD version is selling for less at Best Buy ($30), that still produces a startling price gap. I don’t expect new UHD titles (or even new UHD releases of older titles) to be street-priced at under $10, but if the studios and retail sales outlets insist on demanding super premium prices for them (as they did with Laserdiscs 20 years ago), the format could be headed for major trouble once the first rush of excitement from early adopters is over.

utopianemo's picture

Thanks for the reminder about Oblivion. I thought the dialogue was poor in places, but it was definitely a reference-level film in terms of Audio and Video. I'm glad you mentioned the score. It was done by a French band called M83, which produces some beautiful synth pop albums. A testament to the quality of the score: The blu ray disc is only movie I've ever seen that allows the viewer to watch the entire film with the dialogue and sound effects off, effectively turning it into a music video for the score. Does the UHD version offer the same feature?

Mike Wick's picture

Great and balanced review. Not a 2001 Space Odyssey, but I admit I watched twice (HBO with good sound system). True, the basic story setup is a meaningless stretch. But, if a sci-fi love story can easily grab your heart, and if you thought as a kid that we would have personal jets by the year 2000, you probably will like this movie.

Thomas J. Norton's picture
The UHD disc lacks the isolated score, but the HD disc in the same package has it. Another recent film with an isolated score is Angry Birds. Don't laugh; it's an excellent score for a so-so animated film.