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.
As enjoyable and entertaining as 'Wild' is for what it is – a competent and heartfelt adaptation of Cheryl Strayed's nonfiction account of walking 1,100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail by herself – the film is more impressive for what it is not. For starters, despite all appearances to the contrary, it is not a tearjerker, or an edifying story about overcoming adversity. Though they may learn something, the film isn't out to teach the audience anything, nor is it out to moralize. And that's a refreshing approach to material that could otherwise so easily have come at the audience simply by preaching to the choir.
Instead, the film, directed by Jean-March Vallée ('Dallas Buyer's Club ') with a screenplay by novelist Nick Hornby ('High Fidelity,' 'About a Boy '), takes seriously the notion of its narrative being one woman's personal journey, one that may well be an uplifting inspiration to others, but doesn't necessarily seek to be. This is a richer film, one that is interested in building an audience, rather than appealing to a built-in one of self-help, and spiritual die-hards eager to pin the PCT as the next soul-cleansing ritual everyone with a modicum of personal strife must undertake to become whole again.
And that is a tough hill to climb, considering the story at hand. Strayed's journey began in June of 1995. It came after an extended period of grief and self-destructive behavior, following the death of her mother Bobbi. In the film, Bobbi is played by Laura Dern, who is seen through a series of sepia-tinged flashbacks – the familiar convention intended to artsy up an equally familiar but necessary narrative device used to peek into Strayed's mind, in order to better understand the depths of her grief.
Dern is magnificent in her portrayal of a woman whose life was unfairly cut short by illness, and who spent too much of it in the midst of an abusive alcoholic husband. And much to Hornby's credit, he could have worked the mother-daughter connection in far more emotionally manipulative ways. But he chose to paint the memories as just that: a child's gilded memories of a lost loved one that demonstrates not only the bond but also the anguish in subtle, effective ways. Anything more, and the film would be guilty of over explaining a relationship that is easily understood in short, but successful interactions that underling the meaning behind Cheryl's journey, giving it a purpose beyond the whim of a woman lost in mourning.
That's not to say the film doesn't overcommit to certain narrative aspects like, say, its symbolism; it does. If anything, 'Wild' is laden with too many symbols or metaphors, when one (or two) will do just fine. And in that, there is a sense of unnecessary handholding in Hornby's script. It is uneven. Certain key moments are communicated artfully, without dialogue or soaring musical cues intended to stir the audience's emotional response. In these moments the film comes very close to becoming great, to elevating itself beyond the trappings of a manipulative tearjerker.
Cheryl's journey is the film's major metaphor, but that is layered by the presence of her overstuffed backpack – one that is so heavy she physically cannot lift it, and struggles to move while it is on her back. As the film goes on, and Cheryl reaches the middle of her ninety-four day journey, she deliberately makes the pack lighter, thereby lessening her burden. It's a simple, but effective metaphor that works harmoniously with the themes being explored in the straightforward narrative as well as through flashback. The film's metaphorical cup runs over during sequences wherein Cheryl is confronted by a fox, clearly intended to symbolize her mother.
It makes sense that 'Wild' would go all in on such symbolism. It was likely included as a way to combat the fear that Cheryl was a character trapped inside a vacuum. As a result, the film is overloaded with things for the main character to encounter, who although she does have several encounters with folks along the way, like a friendly, but disapproving farmer, a fellow hiker, two sexually aggressive bow hunters, and a sexist park ranger, as a way of giving her something to interact with, rather than simply alone with her thoughts. This is a challenge in adapting first person narratives – especially of the nonfiction variety – but it's one that isn't enough of a problem here to warrant the overuse of symbolic devices.
Thankfully, the film is not only held together but elevated by Witherspoon's outstanding performance as Strayed, a complex woman of multitudes, one who is an intriguing contradiction at times, a mixture of hidden inner strength and exposed weaknesses. And to her credit, Witherspoon excels at demonstrating it all with simple, subtle gestures and actions, saving the large moments for when the count, for when they will have the most impact. Witherspoon's performance is more raw and compelling than she's been as of late. Her determined depiction of Cheryl Strayed harks back to her Academy Award-winning performance as June Carter in 'Walk the Line ' – where she also excelled at playing a complex, real-life woman – but here her performance feels more crafted by her as an individual performer, and less reliant on preexisting knowledge. And because of that, Cheryl is allowed to become a more rounded character through Witherspoon's performance, rather that what the audience already knows.
If anything, certain unnecessary symbolic gestures aside, 'Wild' should be commended for its willingness to engage with its audience through the story of a single woman that is just that. This isn't intended to be a universal truth boiled down into a single 115-minute film. It is something more personal and unique. It is Strayed's own journey compressed into an engaging and entertaining piece of work. Some may find inspiration in its telling, but the audiences' enjoyment of the film isn't contingent on some prescribed spiritual awakening.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment brings 'Wild' 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 Free, 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 'Wild' 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. Unfortunately, after doing several A & B comparisons and switching between the other TV modes, I have to say the movie looks terrible on UHD BD, barely looking any better than its Blu-ray counterpart in the "Cinema Pro" settings and noticeably worse in the proper expected mode, making this the shoddiest presentation released thus far.
But back to the point, using the "HDR Video" setting in the Rec.709 color space, the emotional bio-drama dares to trek through the desert landscape of Ultra HD Blu-ray with an unfortunately unfit and ill-equipped HEVC H.265 encode in HDR10. One major area of concern was how well the source would translate to the higher resolution since the film 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, but according to IMDb, it was captured at 2.8K and later mastered in a 2K DI. It's unknown if Fox went back to the original elements for this new release or simply upscaled from the DI since the color grade appears to be the same as the Blu-ray. The latter is probably more likely, and it shows here because the results are frankly terrible, looking exactly how one would expect a cheaply-done upconvert would like.
The presentation arrives with an unmistakably digital and unnatural appearance that's very distracting, and the artificial grain is much more prominent here, sometimes looking like mosquito noise in several sequences, especially during most daylight scenes with bright blue skies. Rarely does it ever appear natural or even resemble anything close to film. Contrast often runs much too hot, creating a heavy amount of blooming in almost nearly every scene, while at other times, the picture can be passable at best. Whites are too bright and tend to ruin the finer details. The video is also plagued by posterization for a majority of the runtime, making ugly digital, nearly macroblocking looking gradations in the faces of actors, the dark shadows of rocky hills during poorly-lit interiors. Brightness levels, thankfully deliver, full-bodied blacks with excellent differentiation between various shades and with strong shadow delineation, yet there are many times when those shadows reach the point of annoying crush. Colors also fail to impress, lacking the sort of expected pop anticipated of the format. In fact, the palette doesn't really look much better than standard HD, which isn't bad since primaries still appear accurate and cleanly-rendered.
Presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, the only area where the picture quality shows any improvement over its Blu-ray counterpart is clarity and definition. Daylight sequences, of course, offer the best-looking moments, revealing the most minute detail in the surrounding foliage, the blades of grass and the leaves of trees. Speaking of which, viewers can clearly make out the bark and blemishes of trees even from a short distance or in medium to wide shots. Distinct, fine lines on the various rock formations and the dirt trails are razor-sharp most of the time, exposing the tiniest wrinkle in clothes and individual pebbles on the ground. Nighttime scenes are often the best with outstanding clarity of objects in the distance. Yet, in spite of these minor positives, the movie makes its debut on Ultra HD Blu-ray as one of the weakest and most disappointing 4k presentations so far.
This Ultra HD Blu-ray carries over an identical 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio sound mix from the original Blu-ray releases, which is already pretty good as Kevin Yeoman already pointed out his review. Listening on my system, I agree wholeheartedly with his assessment, so I'll simply repeat what he originally wrote. Only thing I wish to add is that the lossless mix also comes with an excellent low-end that adds a good deal of depth the design, particularly the bass heavy moment at around the 1:09:00 mark when music suddenly plays during Strayed's flashback of her drug-induced past.
Here's what Kevin Yeoman originally wrote on the subject:
Though sturdy and workmanlike, the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is not as thrilling as the picture. For all the atmosphere and sense of place the film strives to convey in practically every shot, the audio, for the most part, only delivers a modicum of that atmosphere. There are ambient noises sprinkled throughout, but too rarely to any of them come through the rear channels to create a sense of immersion. There are a few instances, sure, like during an unexpected thunderstorm, where the crack of thunder and sudden precipitation are heard brilliantly. But for all the walking Cheryl does, all the moving about in nature, the lack of a wholly immersive and atmospheric sound feels like an opportunity lost.
Still, the audio does deliver strong dialogue throughout that is crisp and easily heard. It is also balanced nicely with the use of musical cues and the film's own score, as well as sound effects. Directionality – around the front speakers, anyway – is quite good, as it showcases the mix's ability to reference what is on screen and the camera's attempts to capture it dynamically.
Though it would have been nice to listen to a more layered audio mix, this is strong enough to please most listeners.
'Wild' is certainly one of (if not the) best films of Witherspoon's career. Filled with passionate performances that strive to tell a story without moralizing, the film is smart in many key storytelling elements. Although it could have cut back a bit on the symbolism in some cases, those missteps don't derail what is an enjoyable and entertaining film about one woman's personal journey through loss.
Unfortunately, the movie arrives on Ultra HD Blu-ray with one of the weakest and most disappointing 4K video presentations yet, plagued with several compression artifacts and lacking the sort of pop we'd expected from the new format, the likely result of cheaply-done upconvert. On the plus side, it arrives with the same audio presentation as the Blu-ray, along with the same healthy collection of supplements. Still, the overall package because our first good flick, bad disc on UDH BD for early adopters.
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.