San Andreas Ultra HD Blu-ray Review
Having previously reviewed San Andreas on 2D Blu-ray I won’t rehash all my comments (which you can read here) about the movie itself, I'll just reiterate how much I enjoy it. It’s a prime slice of B-movie fun which is clichéd up to its eyeballs and is cheesier than Cheesy McCheese’s Emporium of Cheese, so I can see why it’s a turn-off for most folks but as a fan of old-school disaster pictures I think it’s a fabulous example of the genre. Switch off your brain, crank up the volume and enjoy all that glorious cheddar.
The Ultra HD Blu-ray
The new 4K Blu-ray format is upon us, bringing not only a jump in resolution from 1080p to 2160p (which is in fact a 4x increase in pixel density) but also an increased bit depth for finer gradation of colour, a Wide Colour Gamut (WCG) for a more wide-ranging and accurate palette, and High Dynamic Range (HDR) which extends the visible range to include "brilliant brights and deeper darks" versus standard Blu-ray content. Please note: this review has been carried out on a high-contrast Sony KD-55X9005B 4K TV which can display the WCG but not the specific HDR encoding of these 4K UHD discs. It is being viewed via the Panasonic DMP-UB900 player’s adjustable SDR downconversion which still preserves a significant spread of the dynamic range. The screenshots seen here are from the 1080p Blu-ray and are not intended to be indicative of the UHD product.
Warner Bros have brought San Andreas to UHD disc in a 2-disc set which includes the regular 2D 1080p Blu-ray and a UV digital copy. It’s framed in the intended 2.40 widescreen aspect and is encoded with HEVC. As I noted in my prior review of the Blu-ray, the movie was shot anamorphic on Alexa and originally finished in 2K resolution so we must assume that the UHD disc has been upscaled from the 2K original. But unlike some other 2K upscales I’ve seen – such as X-Men: Days of Future Past – there's a definite improvement in spatial detail over the standard Blu-ray, which becomes particularly noticeable in the wider scenes of destruction as more minutiae is revealed. There’s an aerial shot of a light aircraft in which we can see a highway snaking into the distance; on the Blu-ray it’s a monotonous stretch of road clogged with indiscriminate blobs, but on the UHD the difference is remarkable as the buildings and tiny vehicles are more distinct, with the red and blue lights of emergency responders blinking furiously and the various cars are all dotted with their own distinct colour schemes.
That brings me on to the colour itself, with the wider gamut proving to be a major asset. What looked like quite a drab movie on Blu-ray comes alive in UHD, with primary colours benefitting tremendously. It still doesn’t look like a dayglo romp, don’t get me wrong, but the red hue of the rescue helicopter is far more vibrant and reveals variations in the paint job which were invisible on the Blu-ray’s narrower colour gamut. And as mentioned, the flashing lights of emergency vehicles seem to leap off the screen, even in the widest shots of carnage which adds a near-subliminal sense of realism to the CG-generated action. Items of clothing, like the red jacket of Will Yun Lee during the Hoover Dam scene or the orange top Carla Cugino's wearing when we first meet her, are more intense but in a natural kind of way, they don’t look horribly oversaturated. Even something as simple as the sky has a stronger blue tone rather than the paler tinge seen on the Blu-ray. The skin tones also benefit hugely as the wider gamut of UHD brings out so much more nuance. Admittedly I praised the Blu-ray in that regard but now it looks very ‘one note’ in comparison, as skin tones all seem to have the same kind of dull pallor whereas there’s more variation from person to person in UHD.
The biggest difference however is due to the increased dynamic range. When reviewing the 2D Blu-ray nothing stood out as being amiss regarding the brighter highlights because we're so used to the limits of current SDR technology, but there’s such a huge discrepancy between the UHD and the BD it’s often like watching a different film. Skies and bright backgrounds reveal an incredible amount of information that’s mostly blown out on the Blu-ray, like when Carla meets Kylie in the high-rise restaurant. As she sits down, the window behind her shows a fully fledged cityscape with buildings in the foreground, hills in the distance and even a tiny plane flying through, but on the Blu-ray most of that detail is gone, clipped out by a vast expanse of white. I did however previously mention that the blacks on the Blu-ray left something to be desired, looking flat and featureless, but here the lower end is much improved. The dark hair of the leading ladies is often toneless and ill-defined on Blu-ray but their tresses have so much more depth and variation in UHD, and the section with Alexandra Daddario trapped in the underground garage also pulls out more shadow detail. But, crucially, all this doesn’t come at the expense of washed out contrast or black levels, which are still gorgeously rich.
It’s all held together with an HEVC encode that handles those gradations between light and dark impeccably with no sign of banding, and the busiest scenes of dust and debris flying everywhere present no problems either, nor does the constant layer of fine grain. There are zero signs of any untoward sharpening or noise reduction and the digitally-acquired source is spotlessly clean. This may ‘only’ be a launch title but it’s a superb demonstration of how UHD’s trifecta of key improvements – greater spatial resolution, expanded dynamic range and wider colour volume – can come together to create a sizeable upgrade. Take the scenes at the end of the film: as the sun sets on the horizon the the lighting looks beautifully dusky in UHD and there’s a lovely golden tinge which really evokes that ‘end of day’ feeling, but on the Blu-ray it looks much ‘harder’, with starker transitions between light and shadow, anaemic-looking colour and a chronic lack of detail in the darkest parts of the image. Overall, San Andreas on UHD may not be the most eye-popping usage of the expanded dynamic range that people will ever see, but it adds a tangible sense of dimensionality which makes the standard Blu-ray seem dim and uncultured and often downright ugly in comparison.
Warners have included what I presume to be the same Dolby Atmos mix as on the standard Blu-ray, so I’ll quote my comments from that review: ”Audio-wise we're given a lossless Dolby Atmos track, played back in 'mere' 7.1 TrueHD for the purposes of this review. Surround information is plentiful as concrete cracks and clatters around you, broken pipes drip drip drip and glass is sent tinkling in every direction, with bass being ladled on in copious amounts. And it's not just the big set-pieces that impress as there are subtler effects too, like being in the basement of a building in its death throes as it groans and creaks in some far-off corner. Dialogue reproduction is clean and sharp, and is intelligible across the width of the sound stage during even the most hectic scenes. The music occupies the speakers front and back, and although it takes a back seat to the biggest bouts of sonic carnage it comes through well enough during the most emotional beats”.
As is quickly becoming customary for these UHD discs it carries no extras, instead it’s left to the included 2D Blu-ray to cover that so I’ll quote myself again: “The extras might look like they amount to a lot but it's mostly standard promo fluff. Scoring the Quake is a short 6 minute piece about the composition of the music score. Dwayne Johnson to the Rescue spends 9 minutes looking at some of the physical challenges involved with the making of the film. San Andreas: The Real Fault Line is much the same, running for 6 minutes. The Gag Reel is 82 seconds of flubs with the Stunt Reel being a headache-inducing 3-minute edit of the stunt crew's rehearsals. Then there's just under 5 minutes of Deleted Scenes with optional commentary from Peyton where he basically says the same thing over and over again: nice scene, wasn't essential, had to cut it for pace. Peyton's commentary for the main movie is excellent however, as he keeps up a constant pace and reels off plenty of interesting insights”.
San Andreas on UHD is a terrific early example of what the fledgling format can do, with picture quality that improves on the regular Blu-ray in every respect. The film itself is an acquired taste, but this fan is suitably impressed with the UHD upgrade.
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