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.
Given the current slate of biblically-inspired films in the last couple decades (there's an amazingly good number of them), 'Exodus: Gods and Kings' is really not all that terrible. Of course, this production, like Darren Aronofsky's 'Noah' and Mel Gibson's 'The Passion of the Christ,' had the budget and backing from a major Hollywood studio in order to create the kind of grand spectacle demanded of such pre-history mythology, unlike 'Son of God' and Catherine Hardwicke's 'The Nativity Story' — although both did relatively well at the box office. Indeed, Ridley Scott's epic drama is a visually dazzling and stunning adaptation of Moses, played with grim seriousness by Christian Bale, saving the Hebrew people from 400 years of enslavement to an oppressive Egyptian monarchy. If for nothing else, it is a gorgeous and detailed production, as photographed by Dariusz Wolski (the 'Pirates of the Caribbean' franchise, 'Prometheus') and designed by Arthur Max ('Gladiator,' 'Kingdom of Heaven'), but once the dust settles, the end result is a somewhat soulless and ultimately forgettable endeavor.
Although not one to quickly jump on the compare and contrast bandwagon, meaning how this holds up against other adaptations, especially well-known, and celebrated classics, in the case of Scott's action-adventure imagining — or rather, a reimagining as we're swift to discern a few minutes in — it would seem warranted so as to better appreciate and grasp where the British filmmaker of beloved favorites 'Alien' and 'Blade Runner' went wrong. The most obvious, if not also the most convenient, comparison would be to Cecil B. DeMille's 1956 Technicolor marvel 'The Ten Commandments,' a remake of his own 1923 spectacle starring Charlton Heston as the fallen Prince of Egypt. What makes this production a unique telling is the way in which the story unfolds, taking its time on the characters and the brotherly relationship between Moses and Ramesses as it strains under the weight of jealousy and distrust. Whatever the viewer's faith or lack thereof, this aspect of the plot remains central to its enjoyment and praise — sibling rivalry drives the drama to its conclusion.
Sadly, Scott's modern take on ancient texts, from a screenplay that required four writers to complete, fails to establish a similar emotional core, even with a 150-minute runtime at his disposal. In spite of its impressively lavish production and ambitiously grandiose lens of the Egyptian period, the narrative rushes through any indication that cousins Moses (Bale) and Ramesses (thickly eye-lined but unconvincing Joel Edgerton) harbored any ill will, save for a brief moment during a battle with the Hittites where the Prince contemplates spearing Moses. For the most part, any hostilities between the two are essentially presumed from the start, culminating in an intense but nonetheless bizarre scene where an almost-unrecognizable Sigourney Weaver practically demands the death of Moses. The request comes after another hurried conversation where Ben Kingsley as Nun — who once donned the Moses title in a 1995 made-for-TV movie — reveals to Bale the truth of his origins and a prophecy yet to be fulfilled.
And surprisingly, in the face of this glaringly missing element of the plot — characterization and engaging audiences on a basic emotional level — Scott somehow manages to razzle-dazzle his viewers just enough to keep them from simply pressing stop and walking away. 'Exodus: Gods and Kings' is quite the sight to behold, demonstrating the director's skill behind the camera to beautifully frame some magnificent moments. And this being a Scott enterprise, the production is not without a great deal of creative license, allowing Scott imaginative freedom that carries a notable amount of secular undertones. Moses's journey from atheist to believer comes as the result of a head injury, leaving us to question his sanity, especially when his visions of God are conversations with an ambivalent, petulant kid with the logic to match. The plagues are given likely scientific explanations while the infamous parting of the Red Sea is due to receding waters indicating a destructive tidal wave. It's a curious twist to a well-worn tale that unfortunately is not enough to save the wrathful, near plague-like reproaches of cinephiles expecting far better from the British director.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment brings 'Exodus: Gods and Kings' 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 the 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 'Exodus' 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. Interestingly, I favored this setting over the others when watching the movie, as opposed to my reaction of 'Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials.' However, it's worth noting the video looks much better in the DCI color gamut whereas BT.2020 seems too dark while harshly exaggerating reds to the point of being distracting and unnatural. Nevertheless, I believe the setting will greatly improve when calibrated and tweaked once I have the CalMAN C6-HDR colorimeter in hand.
Using the "HDR Video" setting in the DCI-P3 color space, Ridley Scott's action-adventure epic charges to Ultra HD Blu-ray with an excellent HEVC H.265 encode in HDR10. One area of concern was how well this movie would transfer to the 4K resolution since it was originally shot in native 5K thanks to the Red Epic Dragon camera system, which according to manufactures is capable of 6K while shooting natively in DCI-P3. However, the raw information was later mastered in a 2K digital intermediate, and I suspect, based on my viewing experience, that this transfer is likely an upconvert from the DI with new color grading, not a wholly new remaster from the original source. There are several instances of aliasing and some minor stair-stepping around the edges and tops of Egyptian buildings. Thankfully, I didn't detect any hints of banding or other egregious artifacts that could distract from the presentation's enjoyment.
For the most part, the 2.40:1 image displays razor-sharp details, showing a clear improvement over its Blur-ray counterpart. Fine lines are distinct and resolute for a majority of the runtime, exposing the tiniest flaw and imperfection in the stone walls and pillars of the Egyptian structures while individual threads in the costumes are made plainly visible and exact. Some of the more impressive aspects are viewers now being able to read (not literally) the carvings and hieroglyphics along those same walls, which are much more discrete and well-defined. The intricate gold jewelry worn by Edgerton and Turturro are incredibly meticulous and unmistakable, and every little feature can be plainly seen. The same goes for Moses's sword where the sophisticated gold lining over the ivory handle is definite and clear-cut. Extreme wide shots of the desert landscapes are equally astounding, as every crevice, natural mark and speck in the rocky terrains is amazingly detailed. Unfortunately, this isn't always the case, specifically during nighttime sequences and dimly-lit interiors. Shadows often appear so strong that background information is either barely visible or completely obscured. It's not always a problem, but it's bad enough that it's worth mentioning.
Aside from that, however, the overall 4K presentation showcases incredibly deep, penetrating blacks, with appreciable gradations and clear differences between the various shades. Moses's dark leather outfit is plainly of a dissimilar shade from the belt holding his sword and the surrounding shadows. The video also looks amazing, with the added boost in contrast, creating some really marvelous moments where the smallest object in the far distance is easily intelligible and recognizable. Whites are squeaky-clean and exceedingly brilliant. Look at the scene with the burning bush where the blue flames richly glow with radiance at their center. Regrettably, this same boost also creates some unwanted and distracting moments of visible ringing around buildings and people during many daylight scenes. Colors definitely show the greatest improvement with primaries looking radiant and lifelike, such as the deep blue skies and crimson reds. The orange-yellow glow of fire invigorates the screen while the Pharaoh's gold ornaments sparkles in the light with realism. In the end, and in spite of a few visible drawbacks, the sword-and-sandal epic arrives on UHD Blu-ray with a great 4K picture quality that offers a step up over its Blu-ray counterpart.
'Exodus' migrates to Blu-ray with an explosive, reference-quality DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack that'll viewers engaged from start to finish. From the opening moments, the design generates a terrifically enveloping soundscape, employing the surrounds for a variety of activities. When inside the grand, vast halls of the Egyptian palace, voices convincingly echo throughout while the flames of torches snap and crack all around, and during more the intimate conversations, the Hebrew homes maintain this acoustical realism with hanging lanterns and the sounds of people in other rooms. In outdoor scenes, the wind blowing through trees and the insects playing their nightly tunes are discretely heard all around while battle sequences ignite the room with the various cries, howls and mayhem of war, creating an awesomely immersive 360° soundfield.
The excitement and thrills continue in the fronts, delivering an amazingly spacious and engrossing soundstage. Those same battle sequences come with rich, detailed clarity thanks to an extensive dynamic range. Swords clang and ring with stunning realism, arrows swoosh across the screen with distinctive movement, and the massive, climatic tidal wave roars and crashes with superb definition in the upper frequencies. The music of Alberto Iglesias also benefits with striking separation in the orchestration while also extending into the rears to envelope viewers. The low-end is quite powerful and robust, energizing the room with bass that occasionally shakes the walls and seats with a few ultra-low moments (bass chart). Dialogue is precise with excellent intonation in the various voices, making this an exceptional lossless mix.
Given the slate of biblically-inspired films in the last couple of decades, 'Exodus: Gods and Kings' isn't all that terrible. However, in spite of Ridley Scott's skills behind the camera, the film fails to engage on an emotional level that warrants the beautifully stunning visuals. On the plus side, this Ultra HD Blu-ray arrives with a strong 4K video presentation. 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. Still, 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.