Release Date(s)2015 (March 1, 2016)
Studio(s)Village Roadshow (Warner Bros.)
- Film/Program Grade: A+
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: A+
- Extras Grade: C+
[Editor’s Note: This is our second 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.]
It’s the future, year unknown. The world’s gas has run out, the environment has collapsed, and the nuclear apocalypse has come and gone. In the middle of this desert hellscape, we find Max (a laconic Tom Hardy, replacing Mel Gibson in the title role). Almost the moment we realize it’s Max, standing beside his supercharged black Pursuit Special, he’s hunted down and captured by a raiding party from The Citadel, a rare oasis of green, water, and life ruled by the maniacal Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). Max has no more value to Joe than a “blood bag” for transfusing one of his dying War Boys, a simple but fervent youngster named Nux (Nicholas Hoult). But when one of Joe’s best Imperators, Furiosa (played with fatalistic determination by Charlize Theron), hijacks a War Wagon and escapes with his prized Breeders (read: pretty wives undamaged by radiation and mutation), Joe mobilizes his entire army in a ferociously kinetic off-road chase to bring them back or die trying. Leading this insane charge, of course, is Nux. And leading Nux’s vehicle as a shackled hood ornament… is Max.
Now, a bit of personal background: I’ve been involved in the film industry for nearly twenty years. I’ve seen many thousands of movies, studied them, broken them down to see what makes them tick. I’ve written about them here on The Bits and elsewhere, reviewed them, even met their directors in some cases. I’ve written numerous screenplays of my own – a necessary activity, I would argue, in order to truly understand film and story structure on a fundamental level. What all of that means is that it’s rare that a film like this genuinely surprises me, much less completely knocks me off my feet. Yet that’s exactly what George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road has done. Despite the fact that it’s a sequel of sorts, the film manages to seem original and to create a unique, fully-realized world. Its story feels honest, its victories well earned. While its characters aren’t exactly deep, they’re compelling. Hardy’s Max becomes almost a passenger in his own film, riding shotgun to Theron’s Furiosa, but that’s okay because it’s not what you expect – it gives the film a fresh edge. Best of all, Miller and his team have fully grounded that edge in a strange and wonderful kind of reality. After a decade and a half of bloated CG genre epics, films like Fury Road (and the forthcoming Star Wars: The Force Awakens) represent a countermovement; a shift back to the use of fully practical stunts and effects as the core element of nearly every shot. CG is used to enhance, not create. This is good but what’s so surprising is that, in doing so, Miller has not only managed to top the most outlandish of those digital epics, he makes you believe it. There are set piece action beats in this film so ingeniously crafted and visually outrageous, they leave you speechless.
I first saw this film with a group of friends, jaded industry professionals all, at an opening night IMAX Laser 3D screening at the Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. We were, all of us, blown away. I’m not ashamed to admit that I may very well have squealed the first time the camera panned over The Doof Wagon, past its crew of frenzied drummers, to reveal The Doof Warrior himself, blazing away on his flame-throwing thrash metal axe guitar. I mean, seriously. Isn’t that the appropriate reaction? When you see something like that for the first time, your brain’s frontal lobe just goes “WTF?!” and shuts down. And the film’s high-speed “Pole Cat” attack on Furiosa’s War Wagon? Pure genius. Or madness! Maybe it’s both at the same time. I don’t know, but I’ll tell you this much: Never did I suspect that you could cross a demolition derby with the Cirque du Soleil, choreograph it into a kind of exquisite cinematic ballet, add gas bomb explosions, and then elevate the result to an almost operatic level of pure action film perfection. Never, in my wildest dreams, did I think that was possible. But it is. Michael Bay wept.
Warner’s Ultra HD Blu-ray presentation of Mad Max: Fury Road offers the film in 4K (2160p) at the proper 2.40:1 aspect ratio. Veteran cinematographer John Seale (an Academy Award winner for The English Patient – he also lensed Witness, Rain Man, and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone) came out of retirement for this film, which was shot in ARRI Raw format (2.8K resolution – 1620p) using ARRI Alexa cameras (with Canon EOS-5Ds used to capture certain stunt footage). Visual effects and post was done at 2K resolution and the final film was mastered to a 2K DI (Digital Intermediate) for its theatrical release. For this Ultra HD release, the DI was upconverted to 4K and then HDR color grading for UHD was done in the 4K space.
Despite the source footage being only 2K, there is still more detail visible in this image than you see on the regular Blu-ray edition. Textures are more refined, subtle details are a bit tighter and more nuanced looking. It’s not a big difference, mind you, but it’s there and it is noticeable. It gives the 4K image just a bit more depth, if you will. Because of the upconversion, however, there’s also more noise visible in the image. What appeared as moderate film grain on the regular Blu-ray now looks more coarse and noisy. The first time you notice it is in the whitish clouds right above Max’s Interceptor as he drives off about 2 minutes into the film. You see something similar at about 10:45 into the film, as Furiosa’s convoy makes its way down the Fury Road to Gas Town – there’s just a bit of light grain in the sky on the Blu-ray that, on the Ultra HD Blu-ray version, becomes more noticeable noise and flutter. These are things that were no doubt deliberately dialed into the 2K DI to add a film-like texture. But when upconverted, it simply becomes noisier and it’s visible here and there throughout the film.
Nevertheless, the Ultra HD marks a significant improvement over the Blu-ray image and, as expected, it’s the High Dynamic Range and greatly-expanded color palette that make all the difference. This is evident from the film’s opening shot, featuring Max standing next to his Interceptor overlooking a barren valley. There’s an extraordinary range of colors in the sky from the far left side of the frame to the far right – blues, greens, teals, grays, whites. The chrome plating on the various junkyard-bashed vehicles now has a bright metallic zing, the clouds have a textured and specular backlight glow, the dust storm sequence burns with deep reds punctuated by brilliant flashes of hot white lightning and the vibrant red-yellow-orange fireballs of explosions. You want a single frame that exemplifies the difference between the Blu-ray and the Ultra HD Blu-ray? Try any shot of the steering wheel in Furiosa’s War Rig. Watch as the sunlight caresses the thumbprint-like pattern on its skull design, while every bit of rust, wear, and dust can be seen on the dashboard behind it, and the light gleams off the chrome rings on the various instruments and gauges, each of which has slightly different degrees of scratching from age and use. Or there’s the sequence, later in the film, where Furiosa walks across the desert and kneels – she’s a dark but detailed shadow backlit by the bright sky, as fine powdery sand wisps off the edges of the dunes. All the key benefits of Ultra HD’s added detail, color, and dynamic range are visible right there. The difference between Blu-ray’s 8-bit color palette and the 10-bit color of Ultra HD Blu-ray (with HDR) is the difference between being able to display 16.7 million possible colors and 1 billion possible colors. It’s not a small thing – there is a tremendous visual impact, especially with this film. So much so that it’s almost hard to go back to the regular Blu-ray after watching this – and the Blu-ray was itself terrific as 1080p presentations go. The image is just much more compelling and immersive looking here. “Witness!!” indeed.
The film’s audio is available in a fantastic English Dolby Atmos mix that’s 7.1 Dolby TrueHD compatible. This is the very same mix that was included on the previous Blu-ray edition, and it’s one of the most immersive surround mixes I’ve experienced in recent memory, both in the theater and at home on Blu-ray. The soundfield is big, wide, and deep, with smooth, active panning, and head-turning directional effects. The dynamic range is tremendous, from the quietist whispers, to growling V8s, to gut-punch explosions, all of it interwoven with Junkie XL’s pounding score. There’s also English Descriptive Audio, as well as 5.1 Dolby Digital audio options in French, German, Spanish, and Portuguese. Subtitles are included in English for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, French, German (für Hörgeschädigte, which means for the hearing impaired), Spanish, and Portuguese.
There are no special features on this Ultra HD Blu-ray, however the packaging includes a copy of the current Blu-ray edition (see our review here). That disc offers 6 behind-the-scenes featurettes adding up to about 92 minutes worth of documentary material. These include Maximum Fury: Filming Fury Road (28:38), Mad Max: Fury on Four Wheels (22:37), The Road Warriors: Max and Furiosa (11:18), The Tools of the Wasteland (14:26), The Five Wives: So Shiny, So Chrome (11:11), and Fury Road: Crash & Smash (4:02), plus a trio of deleted scenes (I Am a Milker – 00:32, Turn Every Grain of Sand! – 01:49, and Let’s Do It – 00:59). The Ultra HD packaging also includes a Digital Copy code. It does not include the Blu-ray 3D version of the film.
A quick note: According to director George Miller in recent interviews, Warner Home Video intends to release his B&W version of Mad Max: Fury Road on at least regular Blu-ray later in 2016.
[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.]
Mad Max: Fury Road represents a mic drop moment in the history of action cinema. George Miller, at age 70, has just schooled every other director working today in the fine art of practical-effects action filmmaking. Fury Road can quite justly lay claim to the title Best Action Film Ever Made and it damn well might be the best film of 2015. It’s weird, wonderful, completely over-the-top… and absolutely not to be missed. Warner’s new Ultra HD Blu-ray edition, while certainly not perfect, is hands down the best way to experience it outside of a theater.
- Bill Hunt