We've seen it in Dolby Cinema, rumbled through the 4DX experience, waded into an oddly written press release announcing Disney's first 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray, previewed 15-minutes OF that 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray, and today we're taking a look at Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 in 4K via the VUDU UHD streaming platform, which includes Dolby Vision HDR as well as Dolby Atmos hemispherical surround sound (via Dolby Digital Plus).
UPDATE: we have now reviewed the --
Please be on the look out for our forthcoming review of the Blu-ray 3D (available ONLY in the Best Buy SteelBook here in the states) shortly after the 8/22 street date because Disney doesn't send screeners of retailer exclusives.
With the original Guardians of the Galaxy -- heretofore known as Vol. 1 -- director/co-writer James Gunn and his creative collaborators put a fresh spin on the comic book and space opera genres. Fusing together meta-comedy, a band of rogues, '70s rock music, a neon color palette, and a unique tonal balance, the filmmakers arguably produced one of Marvel's best pictures in its growing canon.
In Vol. 2, we find the Guardians struggling to maintain their friendships while on the run from an angry civilization Rocket robbed while dealing with their own inter-group and personal issues. Peter Quill (aka Star Lord), who grew up under the care of cut-throat Ravager, Yondu, finally meets his father, a man named Ego (the ever badass Kurt Russell) who has big plans for the family reunion. Gamora has captured her estranged sister to return Nebula to the Nova Corps and the two must figure out whether they want to kill each other or bury their grudges. Drax is contemplating the loss of his family while making a new friend and laughing the whole time (mostly). And Rocket is trying to figure out whether or not he's a loaner or a team player while caring for Baby Groot and getting to know Yondu.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is a rare comedy sequel that stands shoulder to shoulder with its predecessor, feeling as fresh as the original while simultaneously giving you a heaping serving of the elements that worked so well the first trip 'round the galaxy. Much of this is due to the way Gunn and team give the story time to breathe. In place of a bloated, overly plotted "turn off your brain" blockbuster, Vol. 2 focus on its characters and thematics, pairing people (and aliens) off to deal with their fears and flaws... all while making the audience laugh themselves silly and -- somehow -- feel a genuine connection to the main, CGI, and secondary characters alike. (#BabyGroot4Ever)
The set-pieces are grand, the visuals are grander, and -- for '80s kids in particularly -- the whole adventure is non-stop fun. In other words, if you enjoyed Vol. 1, get your Walkman ready because Vol. 2 is gonna be on repeat for a long time.
Vital Streaming Stats: VUDU UHD
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is available digitally now in HD -- two weeks ahead of the physical media releases -- on VUDU, Amazon, iTunes, FandangoNOW, Microsoft, GooglePlay, Sony Store, and Fios by Verizon, but as far as I could tell searching those individual services earlier today, VUDU is the only one currently offering 4K Ultra HD with any type of HDR. (This may change.)
This VUDU UHD digital purchase currently costs $24.99 -- five dollars cheaper than the 4K Blu-ray combo pack and $10 cheaper than the 4K/3D Best Buy Exclusive StealBook edition -- and includes exclusive bonus materials (see below) not found on physical the releases (but, obviously, does not include any actual discs).
At this time, per Disney's PR agency, it does NOT appear as though the Digital redemption code included with the 4K Blu-ray combo packs will redeem for this VUDU UHD version -- I checked a Disney-provided code and it only unlocked the HDX resolution (1080p + 5.1 audio) -- but we'll check again when our 4K Blu-ray screener arrives.
ALSO PLEASE NOTE: at this time, when you're on VUDU.com, the website fails to include the Dolby Atmos logo on the Guardians Vol. 2 UHD Overview tab, and lists the UHD audio format as "Dolby Digital Plus" on the More Info tab, which is true, but incomplete. In other words, don't panic -- when you playback this VUDU UHD with the appropriate gear, it plays in glorious Dolby Atmos.
UPDATE: Looks like the VUDU.com Atmos-typos are in the process of getting fixed (now only if I could fix my own!).
The Guardians return to save the galaxy for the second time with a wonderful, demonstration-worthy 4K UHD + Dolby Vision transfer that is among, if not the, best streaming titles available today.
Along those lines, Guardians Vol. 2 is the type of material that screams watch me -- it has an exceptionally aggressive color palette sprinkled with neon cityscapes, pastel-drenched planets, rainbow-fire spitting inter-dimensional monsters, gold and green-skinned characters, and so much more. It also features numerous high contrast situations like space battles and underground caves juxtaposed with vivid, bright exotic exterior (CGI) locations. All of these colors and sets are rendered with an exceptional sense of detail and depth that adds to the transfer's immersive qualities. In short, this has everything you need to sell Dolby Vision enabled TVs because, quite honestly, it's gobsmackingly pretty and you can't help but wonder at the craft of it all.
In terms of the HDR grading, this Dolby Vision iteration offers up perfect black levels with absolutely no crushing in the shadows along with fantastic improvements in highlight details. Fire, laser blasts, stars, chandeliers, and other hotspot objects are much more defined and, therefore realistic. Further, while some HDR transfers ruin special effects by removing the sense of weight in characters and objects, Guardians Vol. 2's HDR-infused visual effects remain well textured, shadowed, and rendered, making them as photoreal as is currently possible (I'm sure they'll seem old in a year or two, but such is life).
Comparing this VUDU UHD Dolby Vision version directly to its Standard Dynamic Range counterparts reveals just how fantastic this movie looks and what you're missing when you're not watching HDR with a wider color gamut. In short, the VUDU UHD SDR version (which you can see on devices like Roku Ultra or Premiere + because they ONLY support HDR10) has the same level of DETAIL as the Dolby Vision version, but you lose inky black levels, brighter objects are blown out, and Rec.709 colors are drab by comparison. Take one step further down to 1080p HDX and you take all the SDR flaws above and add in hazier imagery, a lot more noise during heavy action, and a lackluster sense of detail and texture. It's good enough for phones, tablets, or smaller TVs, mind you, but weak-sauce compared to the Dolby Vision version.
As for how this VUDU UHD Dolby Vision version compares to the 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray with HDR10, I can't make a full or honest comparison because (when this review was originally published) we'd only seen 15 minutes of said 4K Blu-ray AND that was five days prior AND with a different display. It wouldn't be fair, really.
Caveat established, my best guess is that most of you will be happier with the 4K Blu-ray because of its increased bitrate capabilities (approximately 15-25Mbps streaming vs up-to 100Mbps physical). The biggest issues with this VUDU UHD version, by very brief comparison, is that there are a couple scenes (like the Berhert forest crash landing) where the encode breaks down during chaotic panning and tracking in dense environments. It's similar to how, when the original Planet Earth first broadcast in the states, every time a flock of birds took flight, you'd get macro-blocking. This HEVC VUDU UHD encode never looks as bad as those MPEG-2 flaws, and you have to be pixel peeping to see the issue (most of the time, this encode handles big action sequences flawlessly), but it's an issue I didn't see during the 4K Blu-ray demo. Also, as I've experienced in comparing streaming vs physical iterations of titles like Pacific Rim, 4K Blu-rays tends to have just a little more weight to the fine details.
To recap, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is a demonstration-worthy VUDU UHD streaming title that's one of the best Dolby Vision releases ever, shows dramatic real world improvements over the standard dynamic range versions (both UHD & HD), and in all but the most chaotic scenes, will likely keep up with the 4K Blu-ray. I hate to use the term Good Enough, but VUDU UHD is a high-quality service that often bests HD Blu-rays and almost keeps up with a format that has anywhere from double to quadruple the bandwidth (and to be clear, High-Def Digest makes ZERO money form saying this -- we have no affiliate deal with VUDU -- I'm literally just impressed with the quality). That said, for those with large screens or projectors, for our most critical viewers, or for those with crappy broadband, the 4K Blu-ray will be for you.
Guardians Vol. 2 roars, explodes, and rocks its way to VUDU UHD with an excellent Dolby Atmos mix that defaults to 5.1 Dolby Digital Plus if you're not equipped for Atmos and recreates the theatrical experience wonderfully.
That said, I have NOT demoed the 4K Blu-ray Atmos track, which uses the lossless Dolby TrueHD codec as its core, so I can't yet compare the two in terms of fidelity, dynamic range, and so on. That said, in the past, I've found the lossy DD+ Atmos that streams with VUDU UHD titles to do a remarkably good job at maintaining big, bold sound without any sense of digital artifacting.
And I would know because we just got the new 2017 KEF Q-Series speakers in for review (two Q950s, one Q650C, two Q350s, and two Q150s PLUS my four Ci200RR THX In-Ceiling Speakers) and when you listen to bad streaming music or watch low-fi YouTube videos on these new Qs, you can hear all the noise and hiss and crap that goes with poorly compressed audio.
In the case of Vol. 2 (and other Dolby Atmos equipped VUDU UHD titles), it sounds virtually lossless to my ears and matches my thoughts on the theatrical mix where I said the following:
While Guardians Vol. 2 doesn't define Dolby Atmos in the same way Mad Mad Fury Road or Gravity did, the latest Marvel adventure uses the object-based surround format in consistently engaging ways, proving filmmakers are thinking about sound mixes as Atmos-first rather than multichannel affairs that get an Atmos upgrade.
Vol. 2 in Dolby Atmos offers an ultra dynamic and immersive aural experience that surround geeks will be drooling over. Dialog is spectacularly clear, even when characters are off screen -- there's a terrific demo moment where Chris Pratt is trying to find tape, his voice bouncing around up and down and behind the audience's left ear. LFE levels are also on point, providing heart-pounding heft to gunfire, explosions, and crashing ships. The classic rock tracks have never sounded this clear. And the effects themselves range from whole room immersion down to, as mentioned above, smaller little Atmos moments.
Overall, this is a very technical track and often quite amazing, but just-shy of being among the format's best, in my humblest opinion.
Disney has elected not to include any bonus materials on the DVD release of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, so everything is technically an HD Exclusive. See below.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is a fun and fantastic example of how modern blockbusters can be clever and dramatic and laugh-out-loud funny all while delivering compelling character arcs and thrilling action set-pieces. In other words, you need not turn off your brain to enjoy this one, but you'll probably want to check out Vol. 1 to get the most out of Vol. 2.
Even if the movie wasn't enough to warrant a recommendation all on its own, Vol. 2 in 4K on VUDU UHD features one of the most jaw-droppingly beautiful Dolby Vision HDR wide color gamut gradings I've ever seen -- right up there with Pacific Rim and The Great Gatsby -- but one, based on an early demo, that likely won't best the extra bitrate capabilities available on the 4K Blu-ray (it's very close though). The Dolby Atmos mix is also brimming with immersive spectacle and quieter moments making use of pinpoint precision.
If you're into 4K, own a Dolby Vision enabled display, have access to good broadband, and/or said goodbye to physical media, you're going to ADORE Guardians Vol. 2 on VUDU UHD -- it might be the best streaming title yet. Highly Recommended.
However, if you don't have peppy broadband or a Dolby Vision enabled display, or if you prefer the added bandwidth of physical media, then get yourself the 4K Blu-ray. Honestly, the best value is probably that Best Buy SteelBook because you get the 4K Blu-ray, 3D Blu-ray, HD Blu-ray, and a digital HD code. Heck, if THAT packaging included access to VUDU UHD, it would be perfect.
Cheers and thanks for reading.