Produced by The Stephen Low Company, ROCKY MOUNTAIN EXPRESS is the passionate undertaking of award-winning filmmaker Stephen Low, director of more than fifteen projects for the giant screen, including TITANICA, SUPER SPEEDWAY and ULTIMATE WAVE TAHITI. Kindled in childhood, Low’s love of high-fidelity cinema and his fascination with the steam locomotive have come together in this captivating cinematic experience that brings alive the magic and drama of the steam age for audiences of all ages. Exhibited in IMAX and other giant screen theaters, the award-winning film has developed an unprecedented and devoted world-wide following. ROCKY MOUNTAIN EXPRESS propels audiences on a steam train journey through the breathtaking vistas of the Canadian Rockies and highlights the adventure of building a nearly impossible transcontinental railway in the age of steam. The film weaves together spectacular IMAX aerial cinematography, archival photographs and maps, and the potent energy and rhythms of a live steam locomotive to immerse audiences in this remarkable story.
'Rocky Mountain Express' tells the story of the building of Canadian Pacific Railway's route across southern Canada in the 1880s and all the trials and tribulations that took place during the construction of that railroad. The short film (which was shot on IMAX cameras for presentation in IMAX theaters) not only details events through old black and white photos, computer-generated maps, and voice-over narration (by Michael Hanrahan), but by having a train take the route that is being talked about. The Canadian Pacific Railway had one of their old steam-engine trains restored and, given the number 2816, it guides viewers on a trip on the very rail lines that are being discussed in the movie.
The film introduces us to William Cornelius Van Horne, who became general manager of the Canadian Pacific Railway and was involved in a deal with the Canadian government to build the long east/west rail line that would span across the country. As we learn in this movie, there were two plans for the line, a 'safer' one that would be further north and a more risky one that was further south. Thanks to some poor surveying work (detailed in the film), Van Horne goes with the southern route and it's a choice that borders on the disastrous – costing him time, money (the company nearly goes bankrupt) and, sadly, a whole lot of human life.
To its credit, 'Rocky Mountain Express' doesn't focus on Van Horne and the business side of things nearly as much as it focuses on the men who built the actual railroad. Sadly, virtually all of them have names and backgrounds which have been lost to history, but we do know what they did as a group and – unfortunately – we also know that not all of them got to live to see the railroad completed. But even without knowing their names, the movie does a nice job of honoring their memory.
Of course, the biggest appeal of 'Rocky Mountain Express' is the visuals provided by seeing the 2816 steam-engine train make its journey across Canada. There are some gloriously beautiful shots (some of them aerial) of the landscape, and even if you aren't a particular fan of either trains or historical documentaries, I think visually speaking there's still a lot of appeal to the presentation.
Is 'Rocky Mountain Express' all it could be? Well, despite being generally praised at the time of its release (2011) and even capturing a few filmmaking awards, the movie really only scratches the surface of the story that could be told here. Also an issue is the fact that all of the information is provided via the narrator's voice-over. Granted, there are no people involved in this story that are still alive, but how about some interview footage with known historians on the matter? I was also kind of upset that we never got to meet (and, in fact, only catch brief glimpses of) the crew that restored and runs the 2816 train featured in this film.
Because so much of 'Rocky Mountain Express' is a visual experience, for me, it limits how many times one will really want to re-visit the movie. Sure, it's a great title to have to show off the video and audio capabilities of your home theater system, but even if you're a huge fan of trains and/or history, I can't imagine many would want to watch this more than once or twice. For that reason, it's worth a look...but not a purchase (at least until it hits bargain-bin pricing).
The Blu-Ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Rocky Mountain Express' leaves the station in this 4K Ultra HD/Blu-ray/Digital HD combo pack. The 4K and single-layer Blu-ray are housed inside a black Elite keepcase, which also includes an insert with a code for a digital download (but apparently not a streaming version) of the movie. A slipcover with artwork matching that of the keepcase slides overtop. There are no front-loaded trailers on either the 4K or Blu-ray disc, and the main menu is identical on both versions: a computer-animated map design with a montage of slightly muted scenes from the presentation playing in the background. Menu selections are located in the bottom right corner of the screen.
Despite having the Region A code on the back box cover as well as the disc itself, the Blu-ray in this release is actually region-free. 4K Ultra HD discs have no region coding (at least not yet), so no worries there.
'Rocky Mountain Express' was filmed for IMAX in glorious 70mm and is presented here in 4K at the 1.78:1 aspect ratio. I was unable to find any information about how the 4K version of this title was rendered, but I'm going off the assumption that a 4K digital intermediate was created from the original IMAX source. This is what was done for Shout Factory's prior release of Journey to Space, so I'm taking it for granted that was once again the case here (if I discover differently, this review will be updated).
Also like the 'Journey to Space' release, viewers are provided with the option of both HDR (high dynamic range) and SDR (standard dynamic range) 4K versions of the film. Assuming one's TV is HDR compatible, that's the only way to travel the 'Rocky Mountain Express'. While both the HDR and SDR versions are stunningly sharp, the added colors and contrast of the HDR option gives an almost lifelike look to the image. The SDR option is a great way to show my family and friends what HDR adds to the picture quality, but it's never had the same 'wow' factor with me – especially for a title like this where one wants to see and enjoy the lushness of the Canadian countryside.
Skin tones don't come into play much in 'Rocky Mountain Express', as there's only a few shots of the train's workers and conductors, and most of them are in wide angles, so you can barely see them. Black levels don't come much into play either, but you can see how excellent they are in one scene that has the train sitting idle at nighttime.
There is some slight judder to the picture at some points, although much of this seems to have to do with the actual shaking that a train makes as it's traveling...not exactly a completely smooth journey moving along the train tracks. That said, some of the aerial shots across mountains and landscapes have a slight jerkiness to them on occasion as well.
Finally, the depth of the image is quite wonderful. My favorite moments in 'Rocky Mountain Express' are the big, expansive looks at the mountains and landscapes, even more so than some of the imagery of the train itself. If you've never thought of Canada as one of the most beautiful countries on Earth, your mind may change after viewing this title.
Choo! Choo! 'Rocky Mountain Express' gets rolling with an English Dolby Atmos track, which downmixes to a core 7.1 Dolby TrueHD track for those of us without an Atmos set-up or capability. What I liked about this presentation is that the movie teases us with sound early on – giving us a little hint of what the train is going to sound like by powering it up to get underway. Then, once it gets moving and up to full speed, we really hear what the audio has to provide: an immersive, impressive, rumbling and loud (but with numerous sounds that are still distinct and clear) rendition of the steam-engine 2816 moving down the tracks that may – just may – have your neighbors looking out their windows wondering when a railroad got built in the area.
While the train sounds are quite impressive and engaging, there's not a whole lot else going on in the movie in terms of making an impression. There are a couple instances where the details of avalanches are talked about, allowing the audio to engage in some nice LFE use. And, of course, the musical soundtrack sounds pleasant enough – particularly the haunting Peter, Paul and Mary song '500 Miles'. However, despite all this, there's really not a whole lot more the film offers, and because narrator Michael Hanrahan's low-toned voice sounds even lower thanks to the fact that it's only coming from the center speaker, it often comes across as a little muddier than it should.
But the bottom line here is that this track does what it should – it makes the big train feel massive and powerful by providing a wall of sound during one's viewing that makes the viewer/listener feel like he or she is right there in the train along for the ride (or, depending on the visual, about to get run over by it!).
Other audio options on the 4K Ultra HD disc consist of DTS-HD tracks in both Spanish and French. Subtitles are available in English SDH.
If you love trains...or just lush cinematography, you should enjoy the ride through the Canadian countryside that makes up much of 'Rocky Mountain Express'. My only gripe with the movie is that because it's little more than those lush images, some black and white photos, and a voice narration, the re-watchability factor here isn't particularly high. But it's a great-looking/great-sounding release that will certainly show off one's 4K set-up. For those reasons alone, it's worth a look.