“Dunkirk” and “Interstellar” make the jump to 4K
4K ULTRA HD REVIEW
4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, Digital copy; 2017; PG-13 for intense war imagery and some profanity; streaming via Amazon Video, FandangoNOW, Google Play, iTunes, YouTube
Best extra: “Creation” four-part mini-documentary
CHRISTOPHER NOLAN’S love affair with 18K resolution IMAX started in the summer of 2006.
Prepping “The Dark Knight” (2008) with cinematographer Wally Pfister, he felt it was time to incorporate immersive IMAX sequences into key moments between Batman (Christian Bale) and the Joker (Heath Ledger). All aerial photography and the enormous bank heist opener filmed in Chicago’s grand old post office also got the 18K treatment.
They first tested the massive, 215-pound camera in Nolan’s backyard. They took it out for a spin in the back of a pickup truck, filming night shots along Hollywood’s Sunset Boulevard. The results were good, and after a screening for Warner Brothers’ executives, the IMAX upgrade was approved even though the cost increased to four times the amount of traditional 35mm. Nolan planned to shoot between 15-20 percent of “The Dark Knight” with IMAX, with the remainder on 35mm to handle all of the dialogue scenes. The IMAX camera was too noisy to record the actors’ lines.
The aspect ratio bounced between a squarish shape for IMAX scenes (1.43:1 theatrical and 1.78:1 home viewing) and super-wide screen (2.39:1 aspect ratio theater/home) for the 35mm footage.
Four years later, Nolan and Pfister upped the IMAX ante to 72-minutes of footage for “The Dark Knight Rises” (2012). His sci-fi opus “Interstellar” (2014), with cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, pushed the IMAX experience to 50-percent.
BUT his outstanding World War II film “Dunkirk” “demanded an enormous canvas,” Nolan says in the 16-part making-of documentary included on Warner Brothers’ home theater release discs. He envisioned IMAX would handle 70-percent of the footage, with the rest on 65mm, substantially larger than standard 35mm. The $150 million epic ended up grossing $525 million worldwide and should be nominated for a number of Oscars next month including Best Director for Nolan.
The narrative follows three storylines from a subjective point of view, putting the audience into the mind of a soldier, a pilot and a British civilian with a sailboat.
In the spring of 1940, 400,000 British, French, Belgian and Dutch soldiers were trapped on a beach in Northern France. With their backs to the sea and German forces closing in all around them, “It [was] only a matter of time before they faced surrender or annihilation,” Nolan says in the bonus features.
“This entire army of men should have been wiped out,” actor James D’Arcy confirms. “And somehow, really against all the odds, they managed to survive.” Historical consultant Joshua Levine considers Dunkirk the epicenter of WWII – especially if the British forces had been killed or taken prisoner. “The U.K. would’ve become a satellite state of Germany,” he explains. Some 700 civilian boats called the “Little Ships” of Dunkirk crossed the English Channel and rescued over 300,000 men. Churchill called it “a miracle of deliverance.”
The film has an all-star cast including Oscar winner Mark Rylance as a British yachtsman, Tom Hardy as an RAF Spitfire pilot, Fionn Whitehead as a young British soldier, and Kenneth Branagh as a Naval officer orchestrating the evacuation from Dunkirk’s concrete breakwater, “the mole.”
No matter which HD format selected – 4K or Blu-ray – “Dunkirk” is a visual stunner.
I first saw the film projected onto a 90- by 65-foot IMAX screen from a 70mm print, with a sellout crowd of 580 in Southern California. Nothing compares to that experience.
The next best option is clearly Warner Brothers’ 4K Ultra HD disc (1.78:1 and 2.20:1 aspect ratios). Sourced from a 4K master, just as Nolan planned, clarity is exceptional for a home watch. Every single footprint on the Dunkirk beach is reproduced, even in wide shots, as are the silhouettes of thousands of soldiers. These breathtaking images and others are as clear as if seen through a picture window. Film grain is controlled and kept to a minimum.
HDR toning is balanced, providing deep blacks and brilliant whites for striking contrast levels. Color is natural and rich from landscapes to the all-important, realistic skin tones.
Nolan is a traditionalist, filming exclusively on old-school film stock, and producing special effects on-camera if possible. He spent $5 million on a vintage German Luftwaffe plane just to crash it. The picture resolution of aerial battles between Spitfires and Luftwaffe planes is spectacular – a ballet in the sky. What an engineering feat, mounting IMAX cameras onto the planes.
Nolan decided to use a theatrical DTS-HD soundtrack, no Atmos or DTS:X. It’s extremely engaging, especially when Hans Zimmer’s (“Interstellar,” “Gladiator” and “The Thin Red Line”) score is blended with dialogue and effects. A ticking clock effect drives tension and emotional response. “The score is integral ….and when you get to the end it feels like you’ve run a marathon,” Nolan’s wife and producer Emma Thomas says.
Year’s earlier Nolan and Thomas crossed the Channel on a small yacht, landing in Dunkirk. “It was a very, very rocky crossing,” she says. “It was truly a defining moment for Chris and I. What really stuck with me was just how extraordinary the notion was of civilians taking small boats across these very difficult waters, knowing they’re heading into a war zone.”
Nolan’s “Dunkirk” is the perfect excuse to consider a complete 4K upgrade. “You’ll get a very visceral tactile sense of being there as things unfold,” he says.
To celebrate Nolan’s commitment to cinematic excellence, three studios (Warner, Disney and Paramount) have released six other Nolan classics on 4K – (“The Dark Knight Trilogy,” which will be reviewed soon; “Inception,” “Interstellar” and “Prestige”), which are sold separately or in a complete Nolan 4K Collection.
4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, Digital copy; 2014; PG-13 for some intense perilous action and brief strong profanity; streaming via
Best extra: “Inside Interstellar,” a14-part documentary
“INTERSTELLAR,” the sci-fi Oscar winner for Best Visual effects is Paramount’s 4K contribution.
Nolan and his brother Jonathan, who co-wrote the 2014 hit, relied on real science as the foundation of their space adventure. They recruited astrophysicist and Nobel laureate Kip Thorne of the California Institute of Technology, who was also executive producer, for assistance.
The plot shows mankind on the edge of losing the planet; Earth is turning into an apocalyptical dustbowl. The military has disbanded and the government space program scrapped. This is the world’s last generation.
An underground NASA program led by Professor Brand (Michael Caine) might save humanity. A secret mission to find a home in deep space has been privately commissioned, with former NASA pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), to lead it. Now a reluctant farmer, Cooper is a single father with a teenage son already pegged by the system to follow in his footsteps working the soil. It’s Murph (Mackenzie Foy), his young, head-in-the-clouds daughter, who has visions beyond the cornfields. She insists there’s a ghost in her bedroom leaving mysterious messages. The father-daughter relationship is the heart of the film.
Cooper pilots the Endurance, a large, ring-shaped craft similar to Kubrick’s space station in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” The crew also includes Brand’s daughter (Anne Hathaway). They must travel through a wormhole, a shortcut near Saturn, in hopes of reaching the manned probes sent to colonialize future homes. Cooper and crew face obstacles, including Einstein’s daunting “gravitational time dilation” property; i.e. time on Earth moves faster than life on a spacecraft. An hour on a distant planet equals seven years on Earth. Murph is heartbroken when her dad tells her they might be the same age when he returns.
Visuals are impressive, with 50-percent of “Interstellar” filmed in IMAX and mastered in 4K. Dialogue scenes are 35mm, so the resolution disparity is more apparent and lacks the clarity found on the IMAX frames. While film grain is more evident on the 35mm scenes, which is a good thing, there are no signs of Digital Noise Reduction (DNR) used to smooth out the grain. Surprisingly, it shows its plastic-looking head on several recent 4K discs including “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.”
HDR toning has a slightly warm palette, while contrast levels are deeper and brighter, creating a powerful viewing experience. Just like “Dunkirk,” the aspect ratio changes from moment to moment (1.78:1 to 2.40:1).
The HD documentary “Inside Interstellar” is a comprehensive look into the production. It includes plotting the journey; filming in the Canadian Rockies for the Cooper farm; creating a dust storm and then cleaning it up; developing the TARS robots; Hans Zimmer’s haunting score, which uses a large-scale church organ; space suits based on NASA gear; Endurance’s design and artificial gravity; filming in Iceland, the home for two distant planets; designing the mini-spaceships, using miniatures just as in “Star Wars” and “2001”; simulating zero-gravity; creating a realistic wormhole; designing the Tesseract – a three-dimensional shadow of a four-dimensional hypercube, and final thoughts from the Nolan brothers.
A standing ovation is in order, for two of Nolan’s 4K Ultra HD presentations.
- Bill Kelley III, High-Def Watch producer