Blade Runner 2049 in Dolby Vision HDR and Atmos Sound

blade runner 2049

I’ve been a fan of Blade Runner since it was released in 1982, when I saw its initial theatrical run. So, I was excited to learn that a sequel was finally being made 35 years later. Even better, Blade Runner 2049 would be shown in Dolby Cinemas with Dolby Vision high dynamic range and Atmos immersive sound. I bought a ticket for opening night and settled in for what I hoped would be another powerful, thought-provoking cinematic sci-fi experience. (In preparation for the new movie, I saw the original in the same Dolby Cinema the night before; see my review of that experience here.)

As the title implies, the movie is set in the year 2049, 30 years after the original’s time frame. It opens with a written recap of what happened in the intervening three decades. The Tyrell Corporation, maker of the replicants that wreaked havoc in 2019, went bankrupt and was acquired by scientist-savior Niander Wallace (Jared Leto). He continues to develop replicant technology with an emphasis on eliminating all rebellious tendencies, and now they co-exist with humans in large numbers.

However, a few older models remain stubbornly obstreperous, requiring the services of special cops still known as blade runners to eliminate them. Among this elite cadre is Agent KD6-3.7, aka K (Ryan Gosling), an obedient replicant with a virtual girlfriend, Joi (Ana de Armas). His boss is Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright), a somewhat obnoxious human. During a mission to kill rogue replicant Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista), K learns of a stunning secret, with clues from retired police officer Gaff (Edward James Olmos). The investigation eventually leads to retired blade runner Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), who has been in hiding since 2019.

Written by Michael Green and Hampton Fancher (one of the screenwriters on the original) and directed by Denis Villeneuve (who also directed Arrival, one of my favorite recent sci-fi movies), Blade Runner 2049 tries really hard to be as deep and profound as its progenitor. It returns to the existential issues of life and death, freedom and slavery, the nature of memory, and what it means to be human that were raised in the original.

In my view, however, it does not quite meet the bar set by Ridley Scott’s masterpiece. For one thing, the original feels timeless, with little to indicate when it was made, other than some of the visible technology. The sequel seems much more rooted in the time of its making, with lots of contemporary idioms and mannerisms. Also, I found the story somewhat difficult to follow in certain key elements.

On the acting front, Gosling and Ford play essentially one subdued note throughout the entire movie, with only a couple of explosive exceptions. And I especially didn’t like Robin Wright’s character, which, I suspect, was more a problem with the direction than the acting. Finally, at almost three hours, it’s too long, with odd, uneven pacing and several slow sequences that are completely unnecessary.

Still, the visuals are absolutely spectacular. The huge billboards that covered the sides of buildings in the original have been partially replaced by giant holograms dancing in the streets and interacting with passersby. The Los Angeles cityscapes are even more dismal than they were 30 years ago, and the choking red dust of Las Vegas is almost palpable.

Speaking of visuals, the entire movie seems to be designed as one long demonstration of high dynamic range. Many scenes take place in dark interiors with very bright light coming from windows in the background, and the detail in the dark areas remains quite visible. Likewise, shadow detail in dark scenes without bright highlights is beautifully rendered, and blacks are inky. I can’t wait until it’s released on UHD Blu-ray, which will be an HDR showpiece for sure.

I ducked into a conventional screening after the one I saw, and the SDR image looked washed out and dull by comparison. A dark scene with bright light in the background looked much more obscure, and the black level was quite elevated.

There was one fly in the ointment during the screening I saw. Dolby Cinemas use twin projectors, and at the AMC Burbank 16 last night, they were obviously misconverged in the lower-left quadrant of the screen. This wasn’t obvious in most images with little other than defocused backgrounds to draw the attention there. But during the opening text backstory and some captions identifying the location of some scenes, the text in that area of the screen looked like I had double vision.

The Dolby Atmos soundtrack is exceptional. As in the original, the rain almost never stops, which is conveyed very effectively by the overhead speakers. Flying cars zoom around, and there is lots of ambient sound throughout the hemispherical soundfield. In addition, the score by Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer—which harkens back to the original score by Vangelis—is mixed well into the room on all sides.

The soundtrack is extremely bass-heavy, making this movie a prime candidate for subwoofer demos. And it felt very loud, though my measurements confirm this was more in the low frequencies than most movies: Leq (average RMS level over the entire length of the movie plus trailers) = 99.4 dBZ (flat), 81.8 dBA, 97.1 dBC; Lmax (maximum 1-second RMS level) = 120.3 dBZ; L10 (level exceeded 10% of the time) = 101.7 dBZ; L50 (level exceeded 50% of the time) = 78.6 dBZ.

Notice that Leq was only 81.8 dBA, more than 3 dB below reference, while the flat and dBC readings, which take low frequencies more into account, were 15-18 dB higher than dBA. Normally, dBZ and dBC measurements are roughly 10 dB higher than dBA, so there was more bass in this soundtrack than most. In fact, the buttshakers in the seats were more active than any other movie I’ve seen in a Dolby Cinema, which I found pretty distracting.

I had hoped that Blade Runner 2049 would match the original’s depth and timelessness, but as with so many sequels, it doesn’t. Of course, you may disagree, which is perfectly fine with me. In any event, the presentation in Dolby Vision and Atmos is among the best I’ve ever experienced. If you plan to see it, I strongly recommend you make the pilgrimage to a Dolby Cinema if there’s one anywhere near you; for a list of locations, click here. Hopefully, the projectors won’t be misconverged!

Check out the official trailer: