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Lord of the Rings

Lord of the Rings trilogy makes for a spectacular 4K set

By Jim Bray
December 7, 2020

Fans of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy are in for a treat with the new 4K treatment the films have received just in time for Christmas. It's a spectacular package, a nine-disc set that includes both the theatrical and the extended versions of Jackson's three classic fantasy films.

And if that isn't enough for Middle Earth for you, Warner Brothers has also released the Hobbit trilogy in 4K.

I'm a huge fan of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and have auditioned all the video versions, from the original DVD's of the theatrical versions to these brand new 4K transfer. I'm also a fan of the original J.R.R. Tolkien books, but upon rereading the Fellowship of the Ring a couple of years ago I discovered I now find the books unnecessarily bloated and actually prefer Jackson's versions – the extended editions, at least.

Sometimes a "Director's cut" or special edition merely means they added stuff that had been on the cutting room floor. But not always. James Cameron's Aliens and The Abyss have extended editions that are superior to their theatrical ones (though T2 is better in the theatrical edition, go figure). And with LOTR, Peter Jackson and his gang of overachievers created versions that flesh out the characters and the story so much so I don't understand why they were cut in the first place other than the fact that they'd make for some very tired bums in movie theater seats. The theatrical version of the longest, Return of the King, for example, has a running time of 201 minutes (just shy of three and a half hours), whereas the much more satisfying extended version runs a whopping four hours and 23 minutes - with no intermission built into the film.

Regardless of which version you think is best, Warners has very thoughtfully put both into the package, so there's a LOTR for everyone.

Well, everyone except those who like substantial supplements, which the old Blu-rays had in spades. Here, there are no extras at all, other than a code for a digital download of the trilogy.  

That's a downside for me because I love all the behind the scenes, making of, stuff. Fortunately, I still own the Blu-rays, so that stuff is still available to me. If, however, you don't have the Blu-rays and want the extras, you may want to hold off on buying this new 4K set because Warner Brothers says it's going to release all six films, in "short" and extended versions – with extras – in 4k next summer. There'll also be a new, remastered Blu-ray set for those who haven't moved to 4K.

Meanwhile, if you don't care about the supplements, this LOTR 4K set is easily the best one yet. Easily.

I probably don't need to dwell on the story of Hobbit Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) and his quest to return the One Ring of Power to the spot of its creation (Mount Doom, in Mordor) to destroy it and prevent the evil Sauron from destroying freedom and ushing in an age of darkness the likes of which haven't been seen until the current efforts of today's Left.

It's a kind of "cast of thousands" epic that hearkens back to such old time Hollywood extravaganzas such as The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur, Spartacus, etc.  Except instead of a cast of thousands, Jackson and the folks from Weta Digital (his special effects house, which raised the effects bar substantially) used computer-generated extras – and it works very well.

These movies have already been given excellent video versions in the past, so the only real reason to opt for this new set is the 4K, with Dolby Vision HDR and audio remixed into Dolby Atmos (which is backwards compatible to Dolby TrueHD 7.1, which is backwards compatible to Dolby TrueHD 5.1).

Is it worth it? You bet! I did some A/B tests of favourite scenes from the Blu-ray and the 4K versions and the difference is day and night. And I thought the Blu-rays looked fantastic – before. But they now pale in comparison to these exquisite version.

The theatrical editions each fit onto a single 4K disc, but the extended ones extend over two, so you have to get up and switch platters halfway through, just like you do in such other epics as Lawrence of Arabia. This is a bit of a pain, but since you've already sat for two hours or so it's also a nice chance for an intermission even though there are no actual intermissions built in.

It reminds me of the old laserdisc days, when the most you could get onto one side of a disc was an hour.

But I digress.

Warner Brothers says Peter Jackson oversaw the 4K transformation and, while all three films look great in 4K, the quality improves across the three. So, while The Fellowship of the Ring looks really good, The Two Towers is even better – and The Return of the King is so lovely it'll bring tears of joy to the videophile's eyes.

I'm going to comment on the 4K HDR treatment as if it's all one movie, since the worst you can expect here is excellence. And it has really paid off. I watched the trilogy via Oppo's UDP-205 4K Universal disc player feeding a 75 inch QLED TV, which is a good place to start, and the films knocked my socks off so much I'm going out later today to get newer, tighter socks.

I've watched the trilogy in 480p, in native 1080p and upconverted from 1080p to 4K and it looked great in all of those incarnations, as great as the technology allowed). The new 4K versions moves the films up to a whole new level. It's quite the thing to see.

The films will definitely give your video equipment a good workout, as the tale moves from the lush greens of the Shire to the darkness of Moria, the depressing blacks of Mordor, etc. Rivendell has always looked really cool, for example, but with this new version it looks ultra realistic as well. Heck, I want to move there!

Skin tones look natural and highly detailed, even if the skin is on some weird creature, the sets have incredible texture and the overall picture displays the kind of depth we were told we could expect when we were lied to (okay, hyped) about 3D. Okay, stuff doesn't pop right out of the screen into your viewing room, but it almost looks as if you could step right into the 4K picture.

Blacks are fantastically deep, flames and lava and trees show exceptional detail and rich colour, every video parameter is a noticeable step up from the 1080p Blu-ray, making this an obvious upgrade.

Peter Jackson and Weta Digital raised the special effects bar with this series and the 4K picture is so clean that, as a long-established nerd, I started looking for seams, for obvious special effects.

And I found one! One, in some 12 hours of movies that have special effects all the way through. Now, I may find more when I look more closely (I wanted to get this review done while the titles are still fresh in stores), but on the whole I came away more in awe of Weta and Jackson's achievements than when I went in. And that's a lot of awe! I even saw things that I'd never seen before (such as the head ghost soldier guy in ROTK, who appears faintly in the entrance to his domain before Aragorn leaves the Rohan dudes; I went back to check out the Blu-ray and, yes, he was there, but so faintly that I'd never noticed before).

That one area that stood out? When the Ents flood Isengard in The Two Towers, you can tell the water is an effect. Such was always the case with pre-CGI movie special effects: they could do amazing things with miniatures and mattes, but water always looked fake because (I assume) its look/texture couldn't be done in miniature – so what you ended up with was giant drops of water in a miniaturized landscape. Ditto with fire effects.

Don't believe me? Check out the flooding of the little town below the Hoover Dam in the original Superman (for water) or the pillar of flame holding up Pharaoh's troops in The Ten Commandments (fire) for examples.

I went back to the LOTR Blu-rays and checked out the supplements to see how they did the flooding of Isengard and discovered that at least a couple of shots were done on a miniature set, but with real water pouring through, and that's why the "full sized" water flowing through a miniature set looked odd. CG has changed that and despite the huge number of CG shots in the trilogy, they went "live action" here and it showed.

On the other hand, the fact that I could notice that "flaw" is also a testament to the 4K picture quality.

So, yeah, these films look fantastic.

I don't have Dolby Atmos capability and my "regular" lossless capability (DTS-HD, Dolby TrueHD, LPCM, etc.) is limited to 5.1 channels, so I can't comment on how the soundtrack has been redone compared to the original surround versions. That said, these movies sound spectacular in lossless 5.1, and always have, with exquisite use of all the home theatre's channels. And your subwoofer will get a nice workout. A really nice workout!

It's a very satisfying aural experience that's best listened to as loudly as you (or your neighbours) can stand.

The movie community doesn't often do justice to classic books. Robert A. Heinlein's Starship Troopers and Isaac Asimov's I, Robot, for example, are decent sci-fi movies in their own right, but the classic novels on which they're based were almost completely, and unnecessarily in my never humble opinion, thrown away in the process. And in Troopers' case, the parts of the book they did include were twisted out of all recognition in favour of the filmmakers' political agenda.

A lot of Heinlein fans felt betrayed by that, even if the film itself was pretty good.

It doesn't have to be that way. Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings, among others (Harry Potter, anyone?), proves that successful films can be made from books without throwing away the original material. And sometimes, they can even make movies that are better than the books. LOTR is a fine example, as are Contact, A Clockwork Orange, The Right Stuff and a few others.

And if you want to see and hear Peter Jackson's "Ring Cycle" at its best, these new 4K versions are definitely the way to go, if you have the equipment.  

Unless you want even more stuff, in which case you'll have to wait till next summer.

Copyright 2020 Jim Bray
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