Zero Dark Thirty, one of the best films of 2012 and a reference quality Blu-ray when it was released in March of 2013, gets the 4K Ultra HD upgrade. Is it worth it? The movie is unflinchingly intense and still holds up five years later. While the upscaled image offers an appreciable uptick in clarity, its the judicial application of HDR10 with impressive bold colors and improved contrast and black levels that offer the most notable difference in picture quality. The new Dolby Atmos audio mix is a stellar example of what the format has to offer with an engaging immersive quality. However, is slightly improved picture quality and a new audio mix enough to warrant a double dip? If you didn't already purchase the film, this UHD is well worth picking up. If its already in your collection, it's still recommended, but for seriously devoted Ultra HD Blu-ray fans.
"100% he's there. Ok, 95%, 'cause I know certainty freaks you guys out, but it's 100."
Truth be told, I don't have a whole hell of a lot to add to the already terrific review our own Aaron Peck wrote up in 2013 about Zero Dark Thirty. I bought that Blu-ray sight-unseen, as I'd missed the film in theaters, watched it once, thought it was great, and then for the last five years it sat on my shelf. It's a tough and unflinching film and covers a lot of ground in recent American history and politicking that was tough to deal with in the moment let alone relive on a theater screen. So it's from this position of not having seen the film in five years that I'll be tackling my take.
Given the expanse of time, place, and the state of the world we live in today, I wasn't quite sure how well Zero Dark Thirty would hold up. In a number of ways, this film is an exposé of American foreign policy at its best and absolute worst. At its best, it's a look at the extensive and exhaustive international effort to find Osama bin Laden. At its worst, it unflinchingly depicts excessive torture techniques that were likely used in the early days after 9/11 to get any scrap of information - no matter how useful - about the location of bin Laden or another attack. The debate about the usefulness of this information is probably unresolvable, but within the film, it provides a context for the angle of approach during these early days.
While Zero Dark Thirty is far from being an easy watch, I have to tip my hat to director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal for keeping politics almost completely out of the film. It's just the mission to find Osama bin Laden. Personal motivations as to why Jessica Chastain's Maya is committed to the cause aren't explored in any way - and they almost don't need to be to make her a compelling character. Similar to how The Hurt Locker played closer to a Serial Killer Thriller in structure, Zero Dark Thirty plays in tune with a traditional Police Procedural. It's the slow burn of gathering any and all evidence, finding the little useful scraps of information and the journey down the rabbit hole. I don't take this film as wrote fact, as there are numerous characters who are clearly amalgams of many individuals, but the film offers an impressive review of events. The stand out is the climatic midnight Seal Team 6 raid on bin Laden's compound in Pakistan. It's a tight and tense action sequence that brilliantly plays with light and dark, and sound to keep you on the edge of your seat. Sure, you know the outcome, but it's thrilling none the less.
As Aaron mentioned in his review, 2012 was packed with politically-focused dramas. Argo, Lincoln, and Zero Dark Thirty. While Argo may have taken home the Oscar and Lincoln was a fine film with a brilliant lead performance, it's easy to argue Zero Dark Thirty was the better of the three. Perhaps it may have suffered from being too recent for some people, but five years later, it's the clear winner in my book. I enjoyed Argo and Lincoln is one of the better later-career Spielberg films, but neither film is the first grab when I need to watch something nor do I see myself needing to revisit them again anytime soon. After watching Zero Dark Thirty again, I'm actually looking forward to watching it again in the same way that I regularly pull out films like All The President's Men. I may already know the outcome, but the film is engrossing, tense, and keeps my attention focused entirely on the screen in front of me.
Vital Disc Stats: The Ultra HD Blu-ray
Zero Dark Thirty arrives on UHD courtesy of Sony Pictures in a two-disc set with Digital HD. Pressed onto a BD-100 disc, the UHD and standard Blu-ray are housed in a two-disc snapper case with identical slipcover. The UHD disc loads directly to Sony's typical static image main menu structure. All of the film's bonus features are found on the standard Blu-ray disc. The included digital slip can be redeemed through Movies Anywhere. This disc was previously a Best Buy exclusive.
When Zero Dark Thirty arrived on Blu-ray five years ago, it was an impressive reference quality release. With an upscaled 1.85:1 2160p image from a 2K DI, I wouldn't go so far as to say that this Ultra HD Blu-ray is reference quality, but it is damn impressive, offering an appreciable uptick in clarity and fine details. You're probably not going to see something missed on the previous release or anything like that, but after spending some time swapping discs and reviewing specific sequences, the difference in detail levels becomes clearer.
The big star of this transfer is the restrained application of HDR10. As HDR10 doesn't use dynamic metadata like Dolby Vision, HDR10 can have a set-it-and-forget-it feel that looks garish on some displays. Thankfully Zero Dark Thirty doesn't fall into that trouble spot. Primaries get plenty of attention and offer a rich pop to the image. Daylight sequences, in particular, are a stand out as the image pushes the yellow-brown hues of the various desert locations. Most sequences offer up some terrific light/dark shadow separation with improved contrast levels allowing night sequences to really shine. The climactic night raid is a bit of an anomaly of sorts. It looks great, but it has more of a solid grey/black thing going without much shadow gradience. This does help the viewer see what is going on - in ways, I think better than the previous SDR Blu-ray - but I felt like the image could lose its sense of depth and flatten. Once they're in the compound and there is some more light, that effect goes away. It's the briefest of trivialities that don't affect the score but is worth noting just the same.
This new Dolby Atmos audio mix is where audiences are really going to notice the differences. While the previous DTS-HD MA 5.1 mix still holds up well, this Atmos mix gives a lot more directional nuance. The nighttime raid is a particular highlight as the scene pulls back Alexander Desplat's score and just lets the scene play around in the near-silence. The rotors of the helicopters and the punches of explosions and silenced gunfire give a terrific sense of vertical and surround activity. The rest of the mix is pitch perfect as well. Dialogue is clean and clear throughout - the sense of echo in some of the cavernous interrogation rooms gives these scenes and even more unsettling quality to them. Scoring by the always-awesome Desplat gives the mix an ominous punch as it frequently drifts into LFE territory giving those lower registers a workout.
Sound effects offer up plenty of rich surround activity, and the frequent movement of aircraft ensures those vertically directed channels stay active. Even when the film manages to find the time for quiet conversation in hallways or briefing rooms, there is always a great sense of space and atmosphere. The scene where Maya and a colleague are out to dinner when an explosion hits is a major highlight for the mix as there is an excellent sense of background activity with diners and waiters scuttling about and then punched with a shocking explosion. It's a hell of a scene, and this Atmos mix kicks some life into it. I knew going in what was going to happen in the scene, and the explosion made me jump! Levels are spot on, but with any good flick I suggest you play it loud; neighbors be damned.
Zero Dark Thirty debuted on Blu-ray with an anemic assortment of bonus features that didn't really offer much depth to the film beyond the traditional EPK talking head stuff. Sadly no new bonus features have been assembled for this release and they're only available on the included standard Blu-ray disc. Check out our review of the Blu-ray HERE for a full breakdown of these bonus features.
Zero Dark Thirty is a hell of a film. It's a challenging, unflinching look at the extent various agencies went hunting down the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. By planting itself as a Police Procedural, the film eschews politics and focuses on the process of gathering evidence and following the trail to its final destination. It's a tough film but it was easily one of the best of 2012 and remains so. Sony Pictures has delivered a rock-solid Ultra HD Blu-ray release featuring a strong upscaled 4K transfer with smart use of HDR10 to punch up details, colors, and contrast. The new Atmos mix is robust and puts you in the thick of the action. Unfortunately, no new bonus features were assembled for this release. If you already have this on Blu-ray, a double dip may be a bit of a tough sell unless you're a diehard fan. However, if you never bought the previous Blu-ray, this 4K Ultra HD release is recommended over its standard Blu-ray counterpart.