Release Date(s)2015 (February 14, 2016)
Studio(s)Scott Free/Kinberg Genre (20th Century Fox Home Entertainment)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: B-
[Editor’s Note: This is our first Ultra HD Blu-ray review here at The Bits. As UHD BD is a brand new format, much is still to be settled in terms of establishing a proper display calibration baseline for evaluating 4K UHD content. So what follows will be our best attempt to offer specific impressions on the format’s A/V quality improvements given those constraints. Note that the display used for this review is Samsung’s UN65JS9500, which is compliant with the full HDR10/Rec.2020 “Ultra HD Premium” specification, driven by Samsung’s UBD-K8500 Ultra HD Blu-ray player.]
Based on the best-selling novel by Andy Weir, The Martian opens on the surface of the Red Planet in the midst of NASA’s near-future Ares III space mission. Six astronauts are busy exploring the terrain, gathering samples, and doing scientific research, when an unexpectedly strong dust storm overtakes their landing site. Forced to abort the mission, they’re struggling through worsening conditions to reach their MAV (Mars Ascent Vehicle) when one of them, botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon), is struck by flying debris and falls out of contact. Believing him dead, the rest of the crew escapes into orbit and begins the journey back to Earth. But, unknown to them, Mark is still alive. With a great deal of luck, ingenuity, and scientific knowledge, he’s determined to stay that way until he can be rescued. When NASA discovers this, they rally their best minds together – as only NASA can and with the whole world behind them – determined to bring Mark home.
The original Weir novel is almost the perfect template for a Hollywood film. What it lacked in prose, it more than made up for in genuine and honestly rendered humor, heart, and a keen effort towards scientific accuracy. The genius of the novel is that Weir puts us inside Watney’s head, offering us a window on his running monologue of thoughts in situations good, bad, and absurd. The genius of Drew Goddard’s script, is that he has Watney recording many of those same thoughts on screen via a kind of GoPro-inspired video log for the team back at NASA. Not every beloved scene in the novel carries over to the screen (notably an incident in which Watney rolls his rover), but this is true of any such adaptation. And of course, no filmmaker is more uniquely capable and experienced in building epic and cinematic science fiction worlds than Ridley Scott. One almost can’t imagine a novel, and a script, more well suited to Scott’s talents than this. It’s almost fool-proof.
The film’s casting is spot-on. Matt Damon is exactly the right actor to play Watney. He’s believable as both an everyman in an extraordinary situation and a highly capable NASA scientist. The rest of the Ares III cast delivers too, including Jessica Chastain as the mission’s no-nonsense commander. Back on Earth, the unlikely ensemble of Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sean Bean, and others absolutely shines as space agency administrators, engineers, directors, and mission controllers fighting to save Watney’s life. Really, the only other way this project could have gone wrong would have been if all the little nuances of spaceflight – the accuracy to real NASA engineering concepts and scientific details – had been Hollywood-fudged. Fortunately, NASA consulted with the filmmakers wholeheartedly, so almost every aspect of the production – from the spacecraft, to the suits, gear, and even the surface of Mars itself – rings true, or at least true enough. (The lack of concern for radiation in space is an issue, as is the fact that dust storms could never actually get that strong on Mars, and that the Hermes is roomier than you’d ever see on a real spacecraft, but these are all nitpicks.) And really, why wouldn’t NASA want to participate? The Martian is to the space agency what Top Gun was to the U.S. Navy back in the 1980s. In the end, the result is this: Ridley Scott’s The Martian rightly takes its place alongside Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Philip Kauffman’s The Right Stuff, and Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 (and to a lesser extent Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity) as one of the best and most realistic films about manned spaceflight ever made.
Fox’s new Ultra HD Blu-ray edition of The Martian includes 4K video (2160p) presented at a 2.40:1 aspect ratio. As confirmed with the studio, the film’s live action imagery was shot by cinematographer Dariusz Wolski in 5K resolution using RED Dragon cameras (mixed with 4K GoPro HERO4 footage and other sources). This was downconverted to 2K, combined with 2K visual effects, and then the film was graded and finished to a 2K digital intermediate for its theatrical release. For this UHD presentation, that 2K DI was upconverted to 4K again and then the studio went back to the original 5K raw camera assets for the live action footage. The final HDR color grading for UHD was done in the 4K space with the film’s original colorist, and was approved by the filmmakers. So while this does represent a little bit of a compromise on native image resolution, the overall improvement in image detail from the regular 1080p Blu-ray edition is not insignificant.
The difference is visible almost immediately in the subtle textures of mountains, craters, and cliff faces in the rugged Martian landscape, as well as in the fine Martian sands around the HAB site. Just looking at the Ares III crew’s spacesuits alone, you’re struck by how each material in the suit – metal, plastic, and fabric – has a visibly different texture. There’s a bit of dust on Watney’s helmet visor, for example, and some of those dusty areas have a different level of grit than, say, the bit right next to it. Each of these areas, in turn, reflects the light slightly differently. The more you watch the film, the more you notice subtle new details that you’d missed completely in previous viewings, even in the theater – a wispy river of high-altitude clouds streaming between mountain peaks in the background, the threading on a mission patch, a bit of lettering on a piece of equipment that you can now read clearly, etc.
The previously-noted image downconversion and upconversion steps do have one negative impact on the overall quality here, which is that there’s a little bit more noise visible in the background of the image. You can see this in particular in scenes meant to be recorded by the HAB, Rover, and helmet cams in the film. This is, however, a very minor issue compared to the much greater gains in detail.
The visual benefits of the disc’s High Dynamic Range are even more obvious. The brightest areas of the picture now have a kind of real-word glare that your eyes actually react to naturally. A strobe light, a camera flash, a blast of lighting – your irises respond just as they would in life, particularly when you’re watching in a properly darkened viewing environment, and this lends a unprecedented authenticity and immediacy to the image. Yet even the brightest areas of the screen retain far more detail than you’d expect to see in regular HD. For example, bright as they are, the crew’s helmet lights (during the dust storm sequence) still show a bit of detail around the edges of the lens element and you can see a bit of the actual LED lamps themselves. On the regular Blu-ray image, they’re just hot white blobs. Yet right next to these bright areas of the picture there are equally dark areas that also offer unexpected detailing.
And the color! It’s almost shocking at times how many more subtle variations of color there are in this presentation over the regular Blu-ray. The Martian landscape offers seemingly infinite shadings of orange, rust, ochre, green, brown, red, tan. As light reflects off one of the HAB solar panels, you’re treated to rich metallic golds and bronzes, shot through with the deepest blacks. In the MAV cockpit, the backlit “launch” button is a lustrous turquoise color, that’s simultaneously shinny and translucent, and yet you can actually see some details of the lamp beneath. The general atmospherics of the image benefit too – light reflects differently off of different surfaces, the glows of distant Rover lights against the nighttime Martian landscape have a softness that takes into account the distance and the amount of dust in the atmosphere, and the like.
Audio-wise, the film’s original English audio is presented in the very same 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix that was included on the previous Blu-ray edition (at 48kHz/24-bit resolution) – there’s no Dolby Atmos or DTS-X option. But that’s fine, as the DTS-HD MA mix is big, wide, incredibly dynamic, and highly immersive. There’s also 5.1 English Descriptive Audio, French, German and Italian DTS 5.1, and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1. Optional subtitles are available in English SDH, Spanish, French, German, Italian, Danish, Dutch, Norwegian, Finnish, and Swedish.
There are no special features on the Ultra HD Blu-ray, however the packaging also includes a copy of the current Blu-ray edition (see our review here). That disc offers: 7 documentary featurettes (Signal Acquired: Writing and Direction, Occupy Mars: Casting and Costumes, Ares III: Refocused, Ares III: Farewell, The Right Stuff, Ares: Our Greatest Adventure, and Bring Him Home), a Gag Reel, the Leave Your Mark Under Armor promo, a Production Art Gallery, and the film’s Theatrical Trailer. The Ultra HD packaging also includes a Digital Copy code. It does not include the Blu-ray 3D version of the film.
It’s also worth noting here that Fox Home Entertainment is currently working on a much more elaborate The Martian: Extended Cut for release on Blu-ray later in 2016. It’s set to include much more significant special edition content, but is not currently planned for UHD release.
[Editor’s Note: Given that nearly all 4K releases are multi-disc sets, with the extras often included on separate BD discs, our extras grades for these 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray reviews will reflect the bonus content across all discs in the set.]
The Martian is arguably Ridley Scott’s best work in a decade, since perhaps his director’s cut of Kingdom of Heaven. It’s not a perfect beat-for-beat adaptation of the Weir novel, but it is the perfect Ridley Scott cinematic version of it. From its script, to its cast, the production design, cinematography, and editing, there’s really not a false note here. The Martian is refreshingly straightforward, eschewing ridiculous plot twists, hidden conspiracies, and evil character agendas. Instead, we watch a group of smart, highly capable human beings embarking upon the grandest of adventures, using every bit of their abilities to achieve a noble goal. It’s a film about NASA, and humanity at large, achieving its very best while remembering what’s truly important. And it’s thrilling.
While this new Ultra HD Blu-ray version of the film might not entirely be full 4K resolution, the cumulative impact of all of its image quality improvements, both subtle and shocking, is still impressive as hell. As expected, I think the real boon of the UHD BD format to film enthusiasts is High Dynamic Range and full 10-bit color. Trust me, the more you watch, the better these things seem to get. I haven’t been able to stop watching The Martian on UHD for the past two days now, and I’ve no doubt I’m going to keep returning to it in the days and weeks ahead. I wouldn’t quite say that this Ultra HD Blu-ray is must-have but, when you do finally make the upgrade, I doubt very much that you’ll regret it.
- Bill Hunt