Star Trek Beyond in Dolby Vision HDR and Atmos Sound

I’ve been a Star Trek fan since the original series first aired starting in 1966; I was 13, geeky, and ready for some serious sci-fi on prime-time TV. Now, 50 years later, the Star Trek franchise is alive and well, thanks to the reboot started by J.J. Abrams in 2009, which created an entirely different timeline for the universe conceived by Gene Roddenberry half a century ago. It was a brilliant move that opened the door to any number of new stories featuring Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and all the other original characters living different lives than they had in the original timeline.

Last night, I saw the third installment of the rebooted franchise, Star Trek Beyond, at my local Dolby Cinema. The movie had been graded in Dolby Vision high dynamic range (HDR) with an Atmos immersive soundtrack, so of course, that’s where I wanted to see it. (For a list of Dolby Cinema locations, click here; for a list of Dolby Vision-graded titles, click here.)

Actually, I had a ticket for the night before, but after waiting half an hour for the previews to start, the audience was told the projector was down, and both screenings that night were cancelled. AVS Forum member fookoo_2010 reports that he went to see it in the same theater yesterday morning; when he arrived, there was as test pattern on the screen, and the movie was presented with only one of the two Dolby Vision projectors. By that evening, I didn’t notice any lowered brightness, so they must have gotten both projectors up and running by then.

I found the first Abrams Star Trek movie to be quite good overall, but I thought the second one, Star Trek Into Darkness, was a poor retelling of the Kahn story. I had hoped that the new movie would be better—at least a new story rather than a rehash. Penned by Simon Pegg (who plays Chief Engineer Montgomery “Scotty” Scott) and Doug Jung, the story is indeed new—but that’s almost the only good thing I can say about it. Otherwise, it’s weak, full of plot holes, and seemingly designed to maximize the number of whiz-bang battles, the specialty of director Justin Lin, a veteran of the Fast and Furious franchise. (Abrams took the producer’s chair this time around.)

Okay, there’s one more good thing: I didn’t see how our heroes were going to prevail in the face of seemingly impossible odds until near the end, so it kept me guessing in that regard. And thanks to the skill of the actors playing them, the main characters—Kirk (Chris Pine), Spock (Zachary Quinto), McCoy (Karl Urban), Scotty (Simon Pegg), Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Sulu (John Cho), and Chekov (Anton Yelchin)—remain eerily true to the originals, with the possible exception of Spock, who is much more emotional than Leonard Nimoy’s characterization. The two main guest stars—Idris Elba playing the bad guy Krall and Sofia Boutella playing the scrappy alien survivor Jaylah—were both quite good despite the lousy material they had to work with.

In addition, there were lots of tributes and nods to the original series, all of which I really appreciated. Of course, Leonard Nimoy’s time-traveling Spock is there in memory, and young Spock contemplates a photo of the entire original crew he finds in old Spock’s file. Also, the movie is dedicated to Nimoy and Anton Yelchin, who died in a tragic car accident shortly after shooting was completed.

Then there’s the decision to make it plain that Sulu is gay—though it’s only one brief shot of him, his partner, and a little girl who is presumably Sulu’s daughter. (We meet Demora Sulu as a young ensign in Star Trek Generations, and her origin story is told in Peter David’s non-canon novel The Captain’s Daughter.) Earlier in the movie, Sulu looks wistfully at a photo of a young girl who must be his daughter. Still, I would have liked a bit more backstory here.

George Takei, who played Sulu in the original series and several movies, is gay and an outspoken advocate for LGBTQ rights, but he has said he wishes they had made some other character gay. However, I see it as a tribute to the actor, an affirmation of what he stands for, even though he felt it necessary to stay “in the closet” during the original series and early movies.

Although the story leaves a lot to be desired, the HDR imagery is spectacular. Super-deep blacks, bright highlights, and rich colors reminded me once again that this is the state of the art in movie reproduction. There are several scenes in which some of the characters explore dark interiors lit only with their flashlights, and yet there is plenty of detail to be seen in the shadows. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the only light used to illuminate those shoots was from the flashlights themselves.

With such beautiful images, the only thing I now yearn for is shooting at a higher frame rate. For example, pans across the highly detailed buildings in Starbase Yorktown are totally blurry. (BTW, that facility is fascinating—a spherical habitat floating in space with high-rise buildings jutting from the inner surface toward the center at all angles; very cool!)

Likewise, the Dolby Atmos soundtrack is amazing. In fact, it almost seems like Krall’s bee-like swarms of ships were conceived to take advantage of immersive audio—they appear to fly all around the room! As with many Atmos titles, the music is also mixed into the surround and overhead speakers to great effect. On the downside, dialog intelligibility was pretty poor, especially after hearing how good it was at the Wolf Theater seeing The BFG.

As expected, the volume levels were quite high: Leq (average RMS level over the entire length of the movie plus trailers) = 95.6 dBZ (flat), 84.6 dBA, 94.5 dBC; Lmax (maximum 1-second RMS level) = 121.1 dBZ; L10 (level exceeded 10% of the time) = 97.5 dBZ; L50 (level exceeded 50% of the time) = 85.0 dBZ. It’s almost exactly “reference level,” which I maintain is way too high for comfort and even safety.

Despite the weak-ass story, Trekkies (or Trekkers, whichever term you prefer) will no doubt dig this return to the universe we have grown to love over the last 50 years. And there’s plenty of fast-paced action for all you adrenaline junkies—in fact, that’s just about all there is to it, aside from the references to other elements of the franchise. But the real saving grace is the amazing image and sound quality in Dolby Vision and Atmos. If you plan to see Star Trek Beyond and live near one of the 21 Dolby Cinemas in the US or five in Europe (for a list, click here), I encourage you to spend the extra few bucks to see it there. Even if the story doesn’t do it for you, the images and soundtrack surely will.