Latest Underworld is 'gore-geous' in 4K - while Teen Titans storm onto Blu-ray
By Jim Bray
Kate Beckinsale is back and kicking werewolf butts in Underworld Blood Wars, which debuts from Sony on 4K UHD disc next week. And if you're tired of computer generated landscapes, blood and characters, Warner Brothers has a more classically animated superhero title that might catch your eye, though it isn't available in 4K as of this writing.
Teen Titans was a bit of a trip down memory lane for me, thanks to its Saturday morning cartoon look and feel - the type of superhero animation I used to watch with my kids when they were, well, kids.
But it's 4K that I'm interested in primarily these days, as the market moves from BD's to UHD's the same way it evolved from VHS to DVD and then to Blu-ray. UHD offers four times the resolution of 1080p, with twice the horizontal and vertical pixels (3840x2106 vs. 1920x1080) and, while the difference is noticeable more on bigger screens and even then is sometimes subtle anyway, a good 4K disc can be absolutely stunning.
Such is the case with Underworld Blood Wars, too, and that's especially welcome because so much of the film is very dark - for obvious reasons when the subject matter is "children of the night." The Blu-ray, which is included along with a digital copy in the 4K package, looks great as well, but the 4K HDR treatment lets you see more fine details even in the darker areas - so instead of just a mass of black, you can actually find the nuances of the costume, the set, or whatever.
I came to the Underworld series late, though I've always found the concept intriguing. In fact, this is the first in the franchise that I've seen, so I'm probably not the best one to comment on the Underworld Universe. Fortunately, my daughter-in-law is a fan and she brought me up to speed with some of the lore and that helped me wrap my head around creatures that are supposedly dead (or at least undead), yet can be gunned down and/or stabbed, etc. to make them, to rip off a much more timeless movie, really most sincerely dead.
Anyway, this latest installment sees Selene (Beckinsale), a Death Dealer who, thanks to the earlier episodes in the canon, can function in sunlight even though she's a vampire. The situation in which Selene finds herself is a five movies-long (so far) war between vampires and werewolves (called Lycans here) that's more sci-fi action/adventure than it is traditional horror fare. So there's no staking of vampires and the like; instead, we have specialized bullets that can take down either race (separately, with differently functioning ordnance) and the type of typical gun, knife and fist fights that are so common these days that it seems almost as if studios use the same ninja choreographers for every action film made.
Still, as far as escapist entertainment is concerned, and with what I've seen from this one movie in the series, I'm "lycan" the concept overall. I, er, liken it to the typical superhero movie, though of course these folks aren't really your typical superheroes. They also move so fast there's no chance for lichen to grow beneath their feet, and none of the characters can really qualify as a "fun guy."
And that's about all the Lycan puns I'm going to make.
I wish now that I'd seen the other films in the series, because Blood Wars does seem as if the producers and studio are merely making one more trip to the well, rather than extending and/or freshening a franchise as happened with, for example, the Star Trek reboots. Its story is okay but even though I'd never seen an Underworld movie before the characters are such that you've seen them a million times before in genre movies. Ditto for the action, the stunts, the sets, the - well, everything. I hope the other four movies weren't like this!
And for a supposed action/adventure film, there isn't a huge amount of stuff going on between all the talking, though this could be a feature and not a bug, since the action seems so clichéd anyway.
The CG is obvious, too.
Still, while the movie itself is quite humourless, it's also kind of fun.
And it looks very good in 4K, with a picture that's sharper and clearer than the Blu-ray version. The BD disc is no slouch in that department, either, but when I ran scenes back to back with the UHD disc the 1080p version looked drab in comparison. There's so much great detail on offer in 4K (the film was apparently shot digitally, which undoubtedly doesn't hurt), whether characters' flesh or hair or costumes - and even the sets look more realistic in 4K. If you have the technology in your home theatre, the 4K disc is definitely the way to go.
And since Sony has, as is typical of the 4K disc market so far, included a Blu-ray in the package, it's a good way to get into the film and have the movie evolve to the new standard with you, whenever that might be.
Sony has put Dolby Atmos audio on the 4K disc, but it's backward compatible to Dolby TrueHD 7.1 for the vast majority of people who haven't - or won't - take the Atmos plunge. I'm one who hasn't embraced Atmos yet (Atmos-fear?) so can't comment on that aspect of it, but the "dumbed down" version still sounds great. Ordnance zips around the home theatre nicely, with wonderful fidelity, and dialogue is mostly up front, emanating for the most part from the centre channel, as it should. It's a very dynamic sound track.
Extras are mostly on the BD disc, which seems standard operating procedure with 4K discs so far, though there is some character-related stuff on the 4K disc. The package also includes a digital copy of the Underworld: Blood Wars graphic novel (which we used to call comic books, right?), a look at Selene's character through the series, as well as those of Thomas, David Vidar and Lena, as well as another one that focuses on Cassius, Marius Semira, Varga and Alexia. There's a short "making of" feature and some trailers as well.
I'd never heard of the Teen Titans before Warner Home Video offered me the Blu-ray of "The Judas Contract" to review, but since I was a DC comics fan back when I read comics, and not much of a Marvel fan at all back then, I thought it would make for an interesting title to try. And it is, though it's definitely a minor entry in the comic book movie universe.
Teen Titans are basically a junior Justice League, kind of like the Muppet Babies, Tiny Toons and maybe even the upcoming "Young Sheldon" spinoff of Big Bang Theory (be afraid!) were junior versions of existing franchises.
In The Judas Contract, we have Starfire, Beast Boy, Raven, Blue Beetle, Robin and Nightwing being joined by mysterious newcomer Terra (isn't that Terrable?) to supposedly help them battle the evil Brother Blood and Deathstroke. Naturally, there's more to Terra than meets the eye, too.
There's even some romance happening between some of the Teen Titans.
This title sprang from actual comic books, so perhaps the "classic" animation look is perfect for it because it looks like an animated comic book rather than a photorealistic fantasy world - as with Underworld, Tintin, Avatar and so many others. It may be full animation, too, which is a lot more expensive and difficult to make than limited animation, but it plays like the kind of "quick and dirty" product we used to get in such old series as the animated Star Trek and so many others - going right back to the days of Huckleberry Hound (though the animation here is much better than that old Hanna Barbera stuff).
The Judas Contract seems like a bit of a dog's breakfast - at least to this Teen Titans newbie - but it's fun and watchable, with some neat action. There's even a cameo by director and nerd Kevin Smith, though it seems more than a tad added on. And if you're planning to watch with young kids, be warned that there's some reasonably mild profanity (no "F" words). The teens are also quite full of themselves, have their own issues, and their egos clash a lot - a heckuva team environment, that! - but, perhaps to no one's surprise, they manage to put it all together in the end and they save the day.
Warners' Blu-ray also comes with a DVD and a code for a digital download. The picture quality is fine, but this 2D animation isn't really going to stretch your home theatre. Despite that, the BD looks better than the DVD, which isn't surprising and is as it should be. The colours are very nice but, as one might expect from this type of animation, there isn't a lot of fine detail in which to revel.
Audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and it's better than I expected from this type of animated production. There's plenty of surround use, in all channels, dialogue is clean and up front, and there's plenty of low frequency effects to shake your room quite nicely.
I found some of the extras more interesting than the feature, especially the reunion of Marv Wolfman (who from his name should be working on the Lycans!) and George Perez, the guys who wrote the original comic book. They talk about creating the Teen Titans and revisit their working relationship and it's a pretty cool feature. There's also a piece on Deathstroke, some bonus cartoons, and a more substantial than I expected look at upcoming DC universe animation.
Okay, these are both pretty lightweight titles in the grand scheme of things, but if you're fans of the franchises you'll probably find them quite watchable. And while Teen Titans is a pretty ordinary example of the high definition disc species, Underworld: Blood War is appreciably better in its 4K UHD HRD incarnation than it is on the 1080p HD version.
Note: for these reviews, I used Panasonic's 4K TC-55CX850U 55 inch 4K TV coupled with Oppo Digital's UDP 203 player.
Copyright 2017 Jim Bray
Jim Bray's columns are available from the TechnoFile Syndicate.