Angels and Demons 4K rocks while Final Fantasy XV show the way ahead for animated actors
By Jim Bray
Two great new disc releases from Sony show how technology is moving entertainment forward, and in the case of one release, it could also offer hope to actors and actresses who Hollywood may judge past their prime or otherwise "not ready for prime time."
The first release, Ron Howard's take on Dan Brown's novel Angels and Demons, is one of the latest 4K discs to hit the market and it's a compelling yarn even on the 1080p Blu-ray disc that accompanies the set and holds its interesting set of supplements.
The second, Kingsglaive Final Fantasy XV, is a computer-generated extravaganza based on a game franchise and its not only a good home theatre romp, it's a fascinating look at how movies can be made with, or without, "real" actors.
No Demonizing of Angels…
Angels and Demons is director Ron Howard's 2009 sequel to his earlier The Da Vinci Code. Both films star Tom Hanks as Harvard "symbologist" Robert Langdon but this one seems (I admit it's been years since I saw the Da Vinci Code) a little more action/adventure oriented - kind of a more laid back Raiders of the Lost Ark-type story than the anti-Christianity rant I expected to come from Hollywood.
It's actually pretty even handed when it comes to religion/Christianity, even though the bad guy is a muckety-muck in the Roman Catholic church (I won't spoil it by telling you which one it is, though - because the movie is full of them, and it may not be who you think!).
It also features a great twist near the end. I figured I had the perp(s) figured out long before he/she or it is finally unmasked but as it turned out I was 180 degrees wrong - and so rather than feeling smugly superior to Hollywood's brain trust I sat there gobsmacked at how the climax actually unfolded. Well done, Messers Brown (assuming the ending in the book was the same, and I have no idea), Howard et al.
The story is about a revenge plot by the Illuminati - the secret society supposedly bent on world domination (much like SPECTRE, I gather) and it even has a cool sci-fi element in it thanks to the Large Hadron Collider and an experiment with antimatter the Illumi-naughties have absconded with in a plot to blow up the entire Vatican City just as all the Cardinals are there to elect a new Pope.
It's a ripping yarn, a race against time for Langdon and his decorative assistant from the LHC (Ayelet Zurer, who was saddled, apparently with a name that's reminiscent of a shoe part) as they rush around the Vatican (which was recreated on a California parking lot and inside a computer - and it's done really well!) trying to save the lives of four kidnapped Cardinals who are scheduled to be executed each hour before, on the fifth hour, the anti-matter bomb will be detonated.
There's some violence, but nothing graphic enough that my dear wife had to leave the room - and in fact she stuck around for the whole movie; it's that engrossing.
The picture quality is lovely in both 4K and 1080p (plus, we watched the Blu-ray up converted to 4K and it looked great), though obviously the 4K picture is the one to lust after if you have the equipment to play it back (4K TV and 4K disc player - plus Dolby Atmos decoding for the audio). Besides the ultra HD resolution, which is very sharp indeed, the picture features exquisite colour (which comes in handy considering the gorgeous look of the "virtual Vatican" itself and the colourful duds worn by the Catholic poobahs. Blacks are inky deep without becoming a dark mass, which comes in handy considering most of the film unfolds at night and in subdued indoor lighting - and if you think (like I do) that a great Blu-ray can positively leap off the screen almost as if it were 3D, you should be quite satisfied with Sony's treatment of this disc - especially, of course, the 4K version.
I don't have Dolby Atmos capability in my home theatres yet, but Atmos is "backward compatible" to Dolby TrueHD for the rest of us who only have "conventional" lossless surround systems, and it's very good dumbed down like that. Oh, I've heard better, or at least more bombastic, soundtracks, but this one is just fine - we're not talking about exploding planets here (well, not for most of the film). But the track is nice and dynamic, never shrill or boomy and though the surround is more for ambience than anything (and there's nothing wrong with that) there's enough to help make you feel part of the action.
There are no extras on the 4K disc, but there's a good selection on the conventional Blu-ray, which includes some very interesting "making of" stuff - from the creation of the "virtual Vatican" to the adaptation from the novel. There are also supposedly all-new interviews with Tom Hanks, Ron Howard, Dan Brown and Brian Grazer, as well as trailers and a look at the - undoubtedly completely coincidental - pending release of Howard/Hanks' third kick at the Dan Brown Cat, Inferno.
The latest in the increasingly misnamed "Final Fantasy" franchise is also a ripping yarn, a blend of science fiction and fantasy created in the same basic way that James Cameron did Avatar (sans "real" actors) and Steven Spielberg/Peter Jackson did with The Adventures of Tintin. It's a completely CG rendered film in which everything was created inside a computer except for the actors' voices and movements.
The story is kind of derivative, in that you've seen most of what's in it elsewhere even if it's only a shot or two here and there - to give them the benefit of the doubt I'll say the "film" is full of homages to other genre films. There's also a ridiculously blatant piece of product placement that's so egregious it threatens the suspension of disbelief - a CG Audi R8 driving through alien streetscapes in which every other vehicle (and some are really cool!) is a fantasy design. Even that doesn't spoil the fun, though, and at least they picked a cool real car for it.
Anyway, the tale is such that the magic of a crystal has kept safe the people of the land Lucis, whose Kingsglaive are an elite military unit that can use the magic as an aid. Alas, as happens in such tales, the kingdom of Niflheim has been waging a prolonged war against Lucis, despite its protection by the crystal. It looks as if the hostilities are about to end, though, thanks to a peace agreement that sees Lucis' king Regis of Philbin (okay I made up the "of Philbin" part) agreeing to an arranged marriage between his son and the former princess of the land of Tenebrae (which had been conquered by those nasty Niflheim nabobs). Fortunately, Nyx, who's one of the Kingsglaive, becomes privy to the fact that all may not be as it is being presented in the peace agreement and he sets out to set things right.
It's a neat story but the real star is the technology. The CG, as it was in Tintin, is so good you forget that you're watching a glorified cartoon - and that's why I wanted to review this film. I saw the first Final Fantasy film when it came out years ago and was amazed by what they did with CG back then, and that made me curious about how it has evolved.
I wasn't disappointed. In Tintin, which featured photo-realistic "real world" settings, I'd forget I was watching CG until the film closed in on characters' faces, which were designed to be cartoony. In Kingsglaive, however, it was the opposite. While the settings and the like are photo-realistic and very believable, they're obviously fantasy/sci-fi - but the "actors'" faces kept amazing me to no end even under extreme close-up. Yes, it's done that well.
Another thing that works better in this Final Fantasy (I wonder which one will actually be the "final" one) is that there's now performance capture technology available, in which an actor's motions are captured into the virtual world and the character is animated to those movements. As far as I can remember, this was first made mainstream in the Lord of the Rings trilogy with Andy Serkis' performance of Gollum, followed by his take on the character of Kong. Cameron used it extensively in Avatar and then Spielberg/Jackson upped the ante in the completely CG Tintin.
So here we not only have photo-realistic actors, but - unlike in the first Final Fantasy - they move like real people too.
It seems a tad odd to me that the three main characters used different voice and body actors, but if I hadn't learned that by watching the supplements I'd have never known. As it is, the main characters are given voice gravitas by Aaron Paul, Sean Bean, and Lena Headey, while the supporting cast of people with whom I'm not familiar did its own performance capture. Guess it pays to be a star…
The Kingsglaive Blu-ray isn't in 4K but the 1080p picture is first rate, as is the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track, which is as dynamic and immersive as a fantasy/sci-fi film like this should be. There's also a decent selection of extras about the production.
Sure, this isn't likely to win a bunch of Oscars, but it's fun and a great toy for the eyes and ears.
The technology used to create the film reminded me of an old sci-fi story I wrote decades ago (and which, to the eternal shame of magazine editors, remains unsold to this day). It outlined a scenario in which an elderly movie star - a Gloria Swanson type who lived in a nursing home - was approached about licensing her "star persona" to a tech company that wanted to cast classic actors in its CG films - essentially giving new, youthful life (and a new career) to these forgotten people - much to the chagrin of the Screen Actors Guild.
Since it's said that life imitates art (or, in the case of my short story, "art"), if such a technological scenario had existed at the time could have, for example, allowed Christopher Reeve to keep acting "normally" after his accident, especially since they could have hired someone else to do the body movement for him like the creators of Kingsglaive did.
Anyway, if nothing else this could prove that it may not be a great time to be a young, up and coming film thespian hoping for a multimillion dollar contract.
Copyright 2016 Jim Bray
Jim Bray's columns are available from the TechnoFile Syndicate.