UHD Blu-ray is finally here! Boasting 2160p resolution at 128Mbps with the very best lossless audio, such as Dolby Atmos and DTS:X, the new format's most promising feature — what actually makes it a significant step up over standard Blu-ray — is content in high-dynamic range with a 10-bit video depth (HDR10) and a wide color gamut up to BT.2020 (WCG). And there's also the promise of Dolby Vision in the near future, which is set to push picture quality to 12-bit video depth and theoretically in 10,000 nits peak brightness.
It's worth noting this is a brand new format, and for the moment, the content is fairly limited. Then, there is also the fact that calibrating displays for enjoying the best picture quality possible is somewhat tricky since material in HDR10/WCG is not readily available. With that in mind, I must admit I did the best I could on my display, which is the Sony Bravia XBR75X940C, to calibrate using Spears & Munsil and SpectraCal CalMAN C3, which I plan to upgrade to the C6-HDR very soon, in a DCI-P3 color space. Thus, in reviewing the current slate of content — titles offered a couple weeks in advance via Best Buy — our readers will please forgive these initial impressions and expect some trial and error as we continue to fine-tune our picture quality assessments and methodology.
In spite of that, my colleagues and I have come to the general consensus that we should hold the UDH format to a higher standard and be much more conservative with our video scores. Essentially, what would normally qualify as 5-star presentation in standard Blu-ray could hypothetically be thought of as a 3-star video on UDH BD. It is still a significant improvement and will be a better viewing experience, but with this new format, we are looking for more than just sharpness and resolution. Now, we must also take into consideration how the transfer benefits from the HDR/WCG upgrade, which complicates matters since not all movies are produced in native 4K or mastered with 4K digital intermediates (DI). What this all amounts too is our attempt and promise to provide our readers with the most honest and accurate assessments as possible as we enter this new format.
Breaking free of the concrete-fortified glades, 'Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials' picks up immediately after the events of the first movie with an explosive action sequence that leaves little time to breathe and catch one's bearings. Once the dust settles, the volatile opening finds Thomas (Dylan O'Brien) and his posse of resourceful survivors walled inside a concrete-fortified building with even more tests and trials to perform before stumbling their way to another false sense of security and freedom. The maze, which served as both a place of fearsome mystery and a treacherous path for discovering the truth of their imprisonment, has been swapped for the more terrifying and perfidious labyrinth of human secrets and Machiavellian machinations. This makes for an effective follow-up to its surprisingly satisfying predecessor, weaving a larger web of complexity and intrigue that challenges its intended young adult audience -- though the end result still falls short. The second adaptation to the James Dashner sci-fi books largely feels like two movies trapped and overstuffed into one.
The first half is arguably the production's strongest aspect and sees Thomas, once again, tasked as leader of the pack whether by unfortunate necessity or through an unwarranted self-assertiveness that panics others to follow him on blind faith alone. His inability to explain or provide reasons for why the group (Kaya Scodelario, Ki Hong Lee, Dexter Darden, Alexander Flores and Jacob Lofland) should follow causes a bit of contention between Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sanger) and the determined but equally self-doubting Thomas. The couple instances of mild quarreling are of little consequence and frankly, pointless, except to drum up some unneeded drama. Nonetheless, his continuously skeptical personality uncovers the true intentions of the military controlled medical facility run by Janson (Aidan Gillen which has the 'Game of Thrones' star bringing his usual seemingly compassionate but suspicious air). Their much too easy escape has the kids trekking through a desert-covered, apocalyptic wasteland in search of the mysterious resistance militia, The Right Arm.
It's here where the plot works best because their journey turns out to be the toughest trial for the group, particularly on the leadership skills of Thomas after losing one of the kids to the Flare virus, which turns the infected into zombies called Cranks, and endlessly endangering the lives of the rest. The more welcomed drama allows O'Brien the opportunity to flex his acting chops even if director Wes Ball doesn't quite yet have the skill for selling the story's emotional periods. However, Ball fares better when exploring the virus's devastation upon humanity and the kids discovering pockets of societies trying to survive, joining forces with Brenda (Rosa Salazar) and Jorge (Giancarlo Esposito) in their quest for a safe haven. Sadly, the sightseeing is also somewhat short lived once the group finally meets with the resistance and the plot shifts gears into discussions about discovering a cure and the best methods for achieving that goal. It posits an interesting moral dilemma of utilitarian concerns, a bit of complexity that nicely sets this YA franchise apart from the rest.
Unfortunately, the filmmakers don't allow audiences enough to time ponder on the issue or become familiar with the new characters introduced, which included performances by Barry Pepper, Lili Taylor and Patricia Clarkson. Instead, the question and introductions are quickly glazed over in favor of an action-packed finale and a not-so-surprising scene of betrayal that lacks the emotional punch Ball clearly was aiming for. Even when clocking in at 130 minutes, 'Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials' feels as though aspiring to do more than is possible in the allotted time, touching on some intriguing ideas that are not justly explored. Nevertheless, the film reveals a level of intelligence and elaborateness not seen in other productions of a similar vein. With enough action and visuals to entertain adults and teens in equal measure, this second installment in a planned trilogy is a strong complement to its predecessor, expanding on an imagined dystopic world where uninfected teens hold the key to humanity's survival and concludes on a footnote that nicely sets up a final showdown.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment brings 'Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials' to 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray as a two-disc combo pack with a flyer for a Digital HD Copy. At the moment, we are unable to verify if the correct size of the content, or if the disc is dual-layered or tripled-layered. The new UHD disc sits comfortably opposite a Region A locked, BD50 disc inside a black, eco-cutout case. At startup, the disc goes straight to the main menu with full-motion clips and music.
For this review, I'm watching 'The Scorch Trials' on a Sony Bravia XBR75X940C connected to the new Samsung UBD-K8500 Ultra HD Blu-ray player. When calibrated, I was instantly impressed by the results, achieving 98% of the DCI-P3, and the picture quality is astounding when the Full Array Local Dimming (FALD) feature is activated. Worth noting is the fact that this particular display automatically switches to a setting called "HDR Video" when such content is detected. However, I personally didn't care for how that setting made the movie look, so I opted not to use it until I'm able to calibrate and tweak the setting with the CalMAN C6-HDR colorimeter.
As for the picture quality, using the "Cinema Pro" setting in BT.2020 color space, the sci-fi sequel escapes the wicked clutches of mediocrity with a beautiful HEVC H.265 encode in HDR10. Like its Blu-ray counterpart, the video is often astonishing, revealing the most minute detail, whether the kids are trekking through the desert wasteland or under threat inside Jorge's dark offices. During those daylights sequences, we can make the distinct, fine lines on the various rock formations and along the abandoned, collapsed buildings of a former metropolis. In many areas, one can really see and appreciate the difference from the Blu-ray, which back and forth comparisons definitely make very clear. However, a large portion of the presentation doesn't quite impress, meaning it doesn't quite look as sharply defined as one would expect from the jump to 4K resolution. In fact, there were several times when I couldn't really tell if I was watching regular HD or UHD. Either way, the picture is highly detailed. It just doesn't offer a massive difference from the Blu-ray.
One area of concern was how well this movie would transfer over to the higher resolution since it was not originally shot in native 4K. The filmmakers used the Arri Alexa XT Plus, which according to manufactures shoots natively at 3.2K at Rec.709, and mastered into a 2K DI. It's unknown if Fox went back to the original elements for this new release or simply upscaled from the DI and whether they performed a new color grade. The latter is probably the more likely answer, and it would seem that it shows here. On occasion, the 2.40:1 image comes with hints of very light aliasing around the sharpest lines, particularly where fluorescent ceiling fixtures are involved. Thankfully, this doesn't happen very often, but it's enough to be worth noting and taken into consideration when scoring. Sadly, I also detected some instances of very mild banding in the night sky, and just as with the aliasing, it doesn't happen often or could be easily ignored. For one of the most egregious moments, check out the moment when WCKED helicopters fly overhead to bomb the Right Hand stronghold at the 1:48:28 mark.
The overall picture is significantly brighter thanks to the boost in contrast levels, offering greater visibility into the distance and exposing far more detail than ever before. Whites, in particular, are incredibly bright and vivid without the slightest hint of blooming. Blacks are much deeper and opaque, oozing off the screen with incredible inky richness. Although shadows and the darkest portions of the screen benefit the most from the jump to UHD, many of the finer details are sadly engulfed by the levels of blackness, and we don't really see a great deal of variation between the various shades until Thomas and Brenda enter Marcus's dimly-lit den of sinful behavior. Colors are a bit brighter here than the Blu-ray, but not by very much. In fact, secondary hues appear about the same although flesh tones definitely are far more realistic here. On the other hand, primaries, especially the reds and the bright blue sky, are often very intense and pulsating, reminding viewers they are watching a brand new format. All in all, this is a great UHD presentation, offering a step up over its Blu-ray counterpart, but it's not quite the wow factor we'd expect from the new format.
The same lossless audio soundtrack has been carried over for this Ultra HD Blu-ray version, so with that in mind, I will simply repeat what I previously wrote.
The YA dystopian actioner scurries, races and hurries to safety with a demo worthy DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack that splendidly generates a scorchingly thrilling and intensely effective environment that's consistent from start to finish. The rears are continuously active with a variety of atmospherics and subtle ambient effects, from the voices of characters echoing through open, empty spaces and debris falling in different areas to the thunderous clashes of an oncoming storm and helicopters flying overhead. Directionality creates a convincing, immersive soundfield as various panning effects flawlessly move from the front of the screen to the back and from one side of the room to the other.
The front soundstage is welcoming and expansive with more activity and movement between all three marvelously balanced channels. With outstanding fidelity and brightness, the mid-range displays precise clarity and definition, exhibiting superb separation between the mids and highs, delivering clean, detailed action sequences without falter or the slightest hint of distortion. Dialogue is clear and distinct in the center, even during the loudest segments. The low-end is powerful and accurately responsive with a few authoritative moments that provide the story some commanding weight and presence, making this an effectively exhilarating lossless mix.
'Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials' picks up immediately after the events of the first movie, making for a strong follow-up to its predecessor, weaving a larger web of complexity and intrigue that challenges its intended young adult audience. However, clocking in at just over two hours, the second installment in a planned trilogy also feels like two movies trapped and overstuffed into one as it leads up to a final showdown.
This Ultra HD Blu-ray arrives with a strong 4K video presentation, but unfortunately, it also appears to be plagued with a couple of noticeable artifacts and doesn't quite have the pop we'd expected from the new format, bringing it down a couple notches. On the plus side, the same reference quality audio presentation is ported over, along with the same collection of supplements, making the overall package worth checking out for fans and early adopters enthusiastic about the new format.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.