Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 - 4K Ultra HD Review
Marvel’s quest for world cinematic domination continued apace this past summer with their ongoing Phase 3 slate, starting with the release of their threeboot of Spider-Man and the keenly-awaited sequel to 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy. Simply subtitled “Vol. 2”, in-keeping with the names of the mixtapes so treasured by main character Peter Quill a.k.a. Star-Lord, writer/director James Gunn returned to deliver a follow-up that’s as personal a picture as anything yet seen in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Opening just as the first film did with a flashback, we see Quill’s daddy quite literally sow his seed on planet Earth back in 1980, and then jump forward some 34 years to the newly-formed Guardians fighting off a giant interdimensional tentacle monster on behalf of snooty genetically-engineered race The Sovereign. Even though Quill, Gamora, Drax, Rocket Raccoon and Groot the Younger slay the beast they are soon chased out of Sovereign space thanks to Rocket’s light fingers (stealing some precious Sovereign materials) and are stranded on a random planet. Coming to their aid is Ego, a galactic deity along the lines of “God with a small ‘g’”, who reveals that he is Peter’s father and he wants his son to continue in the family business – only that business isn’t quite as altruistic as it first seems…
Upon rewatching the first film (rechristened as Vol. 1 by James Gunn) recently I found it to be more ramshackle than I initially thought, with a narrative that awkwardly lurches from place to place in its hurry to establish the whys and wherefores of this galactic offshoot of the MCU. It’s still got some fantastic laughs and sweeping action but in retrospect I was much too generous with my score of 9/10, having been swept up in the euphoria of it all: https://www.thedigitalfix.com/film/content/78002/guardians-of-the-galaxy-3d/. Why am I mentioning this now? Because all that hustle and bustle in Vol. 1 is what allows Vol. 2 to be the film that it is; the groundwork has been laid and the pieces put into place so we can now explore the characters at a more leisurely clip. As with Joss Whedon’s Avengers: Age of Ultron Guardians Vol. 2 delves deeper into the psyches of practically all the major players, from Peter’s daddy issues to Gamora & Nebula’s sibling rivalry to Rocket’s rootless existence, informing not only this new film but adding layers to the previous one as well. Take it away, Baby Groot!
Gunn was adamant that this was not simply going to be a rehash of the first movie, and he didn’t want to do the film unless it would take the Guardians places that weren’t necessarily the most fun or the most light-hearted. In that vein the reception of the movie was a tad less enthusiastic from both fans and critics, citing the 'oil and water' approach of the writing which combined the irreverence of the first film with a more emotional story, and relayed at a more languid pace to boot. While I can certainly appreciate where those complaints stem from I fail to see how anyone who truly cares for these characters could be disappointed with it. It’s a more rounded film, one to luxuriate in rather than a throwaway popcorn muncher for people with the attention span of a goldfish and not only that, it pays very little attention to the overarching MCU master plan with Thanos and the Infinity Stones. That Mad Titan and those shiny objects are indeed mentioned but only insomuch as how they directly relate to these characters and their immediate circumstances, with Thanos being the adoptive father of Gamora & Nebula, and Ego having been alerted to Quill’s latent power after he held an Infinity Stone and lived to tell the tale at the climax of Vol. 1. These threads will no doubt tie into Avengers: Infinity War eventually but for now this relative isolation is a brave move at this point in the cycle of the MCU sausage factory, and yet even though we didn’t get Generic Marvel Movie #15 we didn’t get Guardians of the Galaxy 2: Guardians Harder either, and perhaps that third way wasn’t anticipated by most people.
The writing is ably served by the cast, in terms of both the returning alumni and the new recruits. Chris Pratt is of course Quill/Star-Lord, his now-cemented status as a leading man paying dividends once again as he proves equally capable of both the offhand snark and the more intense emotions that are asked of him. That goes for almost the entire ensemble as they’re constantly tasked with balancing the humour with pathos, Michael Rooker’s ornery Yondu opening up as to why he really raised young Quill in violation of the Ravager code, Karen Gillan’s bitter Nebula coming to terms with her feelings towards Gamora, and Gamora herself keeping Quill guessing regarding their “unspoken” relationship. Drax the Destroyer, ably incorporated by professional man-mountain Dave Bautista, is still there mostly for comic relief but even he softens a little. The two CG creations of Groot and Rocket (voiced by Vin Diesel and Bradley Cooper respectively) are as endearing as ever in their own ways, with Baby Groot’s cutesy doe-eyed design offset by his rather irascible nature and Rocket’s punk-rock attitude finally getting pierced to show the vulnerability within. James Gunn’s brother Sean gets more screen time as Kraglin too, alongside his usual on-set duties performing as the stand-in for Rocket.
The newcomers make their mark, first with Elizabeth Debicki as Ayesha, the ornately-adorned leader of The Sovereign, her willowy frame a fine choice for this perfectly engineered race of “golden morons”. French native Pom Klementieff is the empathic Mantis, raised in isolation and capable of feeling the emotions of others via touch, and her wide-eyed (literally, thanks to the unnerving use of giant black contact lenses) innocence at the ways of others makes even Drax seem like a master of irony which I guess was the point, and the two share a certain sweet connection in the film. It would be remiss of me not to mention Ego, big daddy himself, a living planet millions of years old who’s been searching the cosmos for his progeny. Kurt Russell plays the human form of Ego with his customary charisma and an added air of deific detachment from the concerns of mere mortals. Without wanting to get too spoilery, he ranks as a decent addition to a particular area where the MCU is usually considered slightly deficient, and his connection to Quill rather than just being a random [redacted] of the week gives it a much more personal edge, as well as being a personification of the very thing that could drive the Guardians apart: ego (with a small ‘e’). Oh, and Sylvester Stallone gets a cameo as the head of the Ravager factions.
While I make it sound like Gunn has junked all the Guardians hallmarks the jukebox soundtrack is still very much a major part of the story in Vol. 2. But where Vol.1 used a much peppier, poppier roster of tunes the sequel opts for lesser-known songs and artists, more for their emotional content than their toe-tapping qualities, plus others which you may well be familiar with but wouldn’t generally associate with a comic book movie aimed at tweens. Gunn’s ambition with his music choices was to reflect that it was designed for kids who are getting more mature, as per the ‘Awesome Mix Vol. 2’ that was supposed to have been bestowed upon young Quill as a birthday present from his mother (the presentation of a third volume of music here will no doubt take us to other places in future instalments). Even Baby Groot isn't there just to be cute as a button, he/she/it represents something which the Guardians now have to be responsible for. The movie's got a slightly darker tone overall as evinced by the huge bodycount, even saltier language and the visit to a robo-brothel early on in the film, and the ending is even more beautifully bittersweet than that of fellow comic-book tearjerker Logan. But while it is indeed more emotionally dense than Vol. 1 it doesn’t forget to bring the laughs, from the usual ad-libbed asides to several running gags, and I don't regard the chuckles as being diametrically opposed to the more serious tone of the film, they're more of a counterpoint with each one heightened by the presence of the other.
Even I’ll concede that the movie has maybe one moment too many of “let’s sit down and discuss backstory” during the middle section but it doesn’t sag for too long, and the construction of the film has a nice line in set-ups & pay-offs. Gunn’s assurance with the eye-popping visuals delivers a film that relies so much on computer-generated vistas it resembles an animated movie at times, but this is not the overly clinical look of something like the Star Wars prequels and it always works for the story rather than becoming the focus of it. The story itself can be boiled down to one word: family, and although we’ve had another action blockbuster this summer starring Vin Diesel that did its traditional “your friends are your family” routine, here it feels so much fresher because this kind of inner exploration of the characters is extremely rare for the MCU. Vol. 2 isn’t the same brand of knockabout fun as its predecessor but that’s no bad thing because it’s so much more than that. And this time I really do mean that 9/10 score.
THE 4K ULTRA HD BLU-RAY
When Ultra HD Blu-ray was launched in early 2015 it had the backing of almost every major studio apart from arguably THE major studio: Disney. Rumours abounded as to why (“They’re waiting for Dolby Vision!”, “They don’t want to release 2K upscales!”) but the silence on the matter continued unabated until James Gunn stated on social media that he was badgering Disney to release Guardians Vol.2 on UHD (this is of course a Marvel Studios film but it is distributed by The House of Mouse). We finally got confirmation earlier this year that they were indeed planning a UHD Blu-ray release and here it is, a 2-disc package which includes the regular 2D 1080p Blu-ray enrobed in a smart slipcase. Both editions are presented in a fixed 2.39 widescreen aspect as opposed to the alternating IMAX ratio and frame breaks on the 3D Blu-ray edition (not reviewed here). Please note: the screenshots in this review were extracted directly from the 1080p Blu-ray and are for illustrative purposes only. This review was carried out on a Sony 65ZD9 4K HDR display, Sony X800 4K player and Denon AVR-X2200 receiver.
The movie was shot largely on the digital 8K RED Weapon ‘VistaVision’ camera, so-called because the sensor size is not too dissimilar from the classic 8-perf 35mm process of the same name, with other cameras like the Phantom 4K employed for specialist slow motion work, and it was post-converted for 3D. Despite what you may have heard or read, the movie was NOT finished at 4K resolution and so this 2160p 4K presentation is indeed a 2K upscale. But, as with John Wick 2, (UHD review here: https://www.thedigitalfix.com/film/content/79907/john-wick-chapter-2-4k-ultra-hd-blu-ray-review/) the star of the presentation is the High Dynamic Range (HDR). The premium Dolby Vision HDR format which provides a higher bit depth and more accurate dynamic tone mapping is not included here despite Gunn’s gushing over it for the theatrical DV release (rumours abound of technical problems with the specific UHD Blu-ray encoding tools) but the results of the static-metadata HDR10 encode on this disc are excellent regardless, with the disc mastered to 0.005 nits black level and 1000 nits maximum.
The colour fair explodes off the screen unlike almost anything else I’ve ever seen in UHD, and I say “almost anything” because the Lego Batman Movie is a similarly intense experience (both were finished on the ultra-wide-gamut ACES workflow). Primaries like your reds and greens are richer and deeper but the secondaries also benefit hugely; the gold-skinned Sovereign race truly look burnished and golden on the UHD but their colouring registers as more of a straw yellow on the Blu-ray, and the various Technicolour yawns from the beastie at the beginning as well as the light show at the end are more layered and vibrant. The opening scene with de-aged Kurt Russell looks colder and more distant in SDR but becomes warmer and friendlier in HDR, with the curtailed dynamic range of SDR blowing out the sun’s reflections on the windscreen into a flat white smudge whilst the HDR keeps that golden orb fully resolved.
Indeed, there’s an impressive amount of control and refinement here because one of HDR’s key benefits is the ability to maintain saturation in brighter areas of the image. There are many scenes in the 1080p Blu-ray where the bright highlights just burn out but in UHD the colour maintains its sheer vivacity across the breadth of the visual palette and the highlights retain far more detail, like in the doorway behind Ego when he first welcomes the Guardians across the threshold of his inner sanctum, or the dreamy horizon behind Quill and Gamora when they dance on Ego’s planet. Black levels are also true and deep, the movie not falling prey to the more recent trend of thin, washed-out blacks and weak contrast. No, this movie was made for strong contrast and a firm black level is absolutely crucial in maintaining that aesthetic from shot to shot. If anything the UHD has a slightly darker countenance than the BD which when allied with the brighter HDR highlights gives it a much stronger sense of contrast. Thankfully neither disc is betrayed by obvious compression artefacts, handling the colour gradients and the tricky roll-off into black with ease.
Detail levels are good but the UHD lacks the tack-sharp acuity that one may expect. I know what you’re thinking: “what were you expecting? This is just a 2K upscale right?” but I’ve seen many, many upscaled UHDs which really do have more spatial detail than their HD counterparts, and this having been shot in 8K would normally mean that a good slab of that detail is rendered down into the final 2K product via the wonders of oversampling. And yet I just can’t shake the feeling that this UHD is slightly below-par in that respect, even for a 2K upscale, something borne out by comparison with the 1080p Blu-ray which has supremely fine detail for that format and shows that there is no additional UHD detail to be found on things like faces, hair and clothing. Clearly the 1080p Blu-ray isn’t compromised with too much filtering to begin with because the digital source is so clean and free of noise and grain. I think a lot of the time Blu-ray compressionists have to balance encoding noise/grain with detail and one or the other can suffer as a result, which enables the more efficient encoding and higher mastering resolution of UHD to provide tangible visual benefits for both spatial and temporal resolution, even to 2K upscales. But in this case the source is so good that it compresses just as well for BD as it does for UHD, so it’s all on the HDR and while that is excellent I can't help but pine for just a touch more sharpness with it.
This disc marks not only Disney’s first foray into UHD visuals but also their first home venture into immersive object-based audio, namely Dolby Atmos. Alas, I can only listen in standard 7.1 layout because there is no Atmos in this dojo (I have the AVR but not the requisite ceiling speakers), in which case the disc will default to its lossless TrueHD 7.1 core (there’s also a lossy 7.1 Dolby Digital Plus track encoded @ 1 Mb/s) so I will report on it thusly and, like a lot of recent Marvel movies on Blu-ray, the mix lacks the kind of wanton abandon that the flamboyant source material is crying out for. It’s got terrific dialogue reproduction with the occasional directional spread across the front speakers, yet the music never quite engages as I’d hoped it would and bass is certainly present but lacks true depth and slam. The sound field springs into life during the action scenes but is quite front-heavy most of the time, although I liked the moment when Rocket asks Quill for some tape during the end battle and you can hear Quill zooming off into the space above your head asking everyone. It’s good but rarely outstanding and even the Marvel Studios logo which opens the disc in plain Dolby Digital 5.1 has got more impact and intensity than the same logo attached to the head of the movie.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 on the accompanying Blu-ray disc sounds very, very similar with perhaps just a touch less ‘openness’ (for want of a better word) than the TrueHD. The UHD mix may well be elevated to top notch material by proper Atmos decoding but that will have to wait for this reviewer. For the extras we get the usual Marvel array of powder-puff featurettes, gag reel, mostly inconsequential snippets of deleted scenes and a rather scatty commentary from James Gunn, all of which are contained on the Blu-ray disc while the 66GB UHD disc is barebones. The BD also auto-plays with the teaser trailer for Thor: Ragnarok while the UHD supports "Ultra Play": basically a grand name for simply being able to start the movie straightaway. Whatever will they think of next?
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
is a genuinely heartfelt addition to the MCU roster, not the free-wheeling sequel that most people anticipated but it’s all the better for it. This debut 4K Ultra HD pack from Disney presents a superb Blu-ray alongside a very good UHD with a forgettable serving of extras.