Bad Beatles musical looks and sounds great in 4K - while Geostorm blows
By Jim Bray
Somewhere, Ken Russell looks down (or is it up?) and smiles.
That's because director Julie Taymor's "Across the Universe" is arguably as much a tribute to the late Mr. Russell's visually excessive style of filmmaking than it is a tribute to the Beatles. To me, the film felt like they took Ken Russell's interpretation of The Who's Tommy and put it into a blender with Milos Forman's Hair, but the result - other than looking and sounding fantastic in its 4K incarnation - was less satisfying to me than either of those other films.
Full disclosure: I'm a long time, diehard Who fan and was also a fan of Hair when it first came out (before I grew up and put childish things - well, some of them - away), so I have a soft spot for both of those older movies, even though both were wildly different from their source materials - the original 1969 Tommy album and the late 60's Broadway rock/counterculture musical.
Across the Universe also reminds me of "Mama Mia!" - in that they use Beatles songs (instead of ABBA's) to turn an otherwise ordinary storyline into a musical, complete with a bit of dancing, except that the folks singing the songs here should have just shut up and let the original songs play instead.
The rather loose story is a kind of mishmash of 1960's history, viewed through the usual left wing lens, in kind of a paean to aging hippies' memories, and it follows some rather loosely developed characters as they "live out" life as if it were set to Beatles music.
As with the Hair movie, we have a protagonist who ends up going to Vietnam, a Liverpudlian who leaves home to find his father in the United States and thereby gets sucked into 1960's counterculture, and girl whose love transfers seamlessly from her intended (a U.S. military man who dies in action before he can come home to her) to the Brit named, coincidentally I'm sure, Jude.
What story there is takes a back seat to the songs, and the dances, and the overall style of the film (the Ken Russell stuff), which would be fine if they'd done something with it. And while I can understand why the filmmakers would want to have their own characters singing the songs, they should have cast people who could sing, and I wish they'd have stuck closer to the original arrangements.
For example, one of my favourite Beatles songs is "If I Fell," from "A Hard Day's Night," because I fell in love with the beautiful harmonies. So here, of course, it's done as a solo. A shame. I mean, if you're going to use a musical source, make it as good or better (if such is possible) than the original.
The cast does what it can with the material, and it was interesting to see folks like Joe Cocker, Bono, Salma Hayek and Eddie Izzard along for the ride in minor parts, but Across the Universe is such that I very nearly turned it off before it reached its inevitable conclusion - but I stuck it out was because I had to review it. But I won't make the mistake of watching it again.
Still, the 2007 film looks gorgeous in 4K and it sounds excellent as well. I just wish there were more meat on these bones.
The 4K HDR picture is really something to behold, though, especially in the "psychedelic" scenes where the filmmaker throws colours and textures at you - the kind of stuff for which 4K is the best. Blacks are deep and detail is as fine as you could want it. It features a bright and broad colour palette that leaps off the screen and nearly into your lap.
The audio is Dolby Atmos, which is backward compatible to work on "lesser" home theatre audio systems, and it sounds very good. The music is the main focus (as it should, especially considering the screenplay…) Most of the music is front-centred, which is fine, but all the home theatre's speakers are made good use of throughout the film, including the scenes of riots and conflict. It's a very dynamic soundtrack.
Extras include an audio commentary with director Taymor and composer Elliot Goldenthal (I guess Lennon and McCartney weren't available - well, Lennon anyway). It's interesting to hear them talk about the original songs, and how they were "reimagined" for the film, even though I wish they hadn't.
There are also some decent documentaries, including "Creating the Universe," "Stars of Tomorrow" (the cast, obviously), "All About the Music," (guess what it's about!), and more. There's also a deleted scene. The supplements are probably better than the film warrants (though, as always, your mileage may vary).
Meanwhile, Dean Devlin's Geostorm makes Across the Universe look like a masterpiece. It's your typical modern disaster flick, and one that adds nothing new to the panoply of disaster flicks that have come before it.
It's also a liberal fantasy that starts with catastrophic climate change threatening to lay waste to the entire world until countries of the world come together in a big kumbaya moment to design and build "the Dutch Boy" program, a system of satellites and stuff orbiting the Earth that can bomb the fury out of Mother Nature, which sounds awfully judgemental.
Dutch Boy has been working flawlessly for a couple of years, so much so that the United States, who spearheaded the project, is getting ready to hand over control to the international community. But then things start going awry, leading to some interesting special effects scenes and pulling star Gerard Butler (whose career must be in trouble now, if not before Geostorm) out of retirement and sending him into orbit to troubleshoot the Dutch Boy, named after the tale of the young Nederlander who stuck his finger into a dyke to stop a flood.
Naturally, the problems can be attributed to human interference (and not from them spewing too much carbon into the air!) and the mission becomes a race against time to find and fix the problems before a horrible "geostorm" wipes out whatever it's going to wipe out which, apparently, is everything.
Along the way we get to see how corruption has reached the very top of the Democratic party (and no, Geostorm isn't meant as a documentary), which is probably not what the filmmakers had intended. That would be far too subtle for this mess.
There's nothing here that you haven't seen many times before, including the effects sequences that were really the only reason I was interested in seeing Geostorm. Nothing is new here, the characters are cardboard cut outs, and I even had issues believing Butler's American accent.
Warner Brothers sent me two Blu-rays, the regular one and a 3D version and the audio and video quality of both is first rate. The 3D makes the movie much more interesting, though obviously it had no effect on whatever screenplay showed up. Unfortunately, I have trouble seeing 3D properly and so am not the best one to comment on that aspect of it. But the colours are rich and deep, the black levels are very good and the overall picture is very satisfying. I imagine it would look even better in 4K because once I'd seen the movie in its native resolution I watched some of it again up converted to 4K via Oppo Digital's great UDP-205 universal player (thereby taking a bullet for you, dear reader!).
The audio track is in DTS-HD Master Audio and it's appropriately dynamic and enveloping. There are plenty of opportunities here for great use of surround and the low frequency effects channel and the filmmakers have made good use of this.
Extras include "Search for Answers," in which director Dean Devlin (who used to partner with Roland Emmerich on various other disasters such as Independence Day and Godzilla) talks about the genesis of Geostorm. There's also "An International Event" and "Wreaking Havoc." I didn't notice any featurette on the dearth of creativity in Hollowood.
I'm torn over deciding which of these movies I liked the least but I guess it would have to be Geostorm, which could have at least been fun instead of tedious and preachy and predictable. At least Across the Universe has Beatles songs, even if they've been emasculated.
Or you could just watch Hair and Tommy - and The Towering Inferno - and be done with it.
Copyright 2018 Jim Bray
Jim Bray's columns are available from the TechnoFile Syndicate.