Last Friday, I did something I wouldn't normally do—I went to see a blockbuster movie on opening weekend. Not only that, I saw it twice in one day! Why would I do such a thing? The day before, I learned that Elysium was playing at some theaters in Barco Auro 11.1 and at other theaters in Dolby Atmos. Since I had never heard the Barco audio system before, I decided to experience both in the same day so I could reasonably compare them.
First up was Barco Auro 11.1 at the Pacific Theatres Glendale 16 in Glendale, CA. (Interestingly, the Pacific Theatres Stadium 14 at The Grove has a Barco Auro sound system in one of its auditoriums, but it did not get a digital file with that soundtrack for some reason.) I went at 1:00 PM, hoping that most people were planning to see the movie that night, and I was right—the theater was pretty empty, so I could sit in my favorite spot, dead center about two-thirds of the way back from the screen.
I got there early enough to scope out the speaker array. Each side wall had a row of surround speakers—eight from the front to the back, with two extra speakers above the fifth and sixth surround speakers from the front. I've always heard that Barco Auro has two rows of side-surround speakers, and I guess this qualified, but with only two stacked pairs, "two rows" seems a bit misleading. There was one row of rear-surround speakers, and subwoofers in the back corners near the ceiling.
Speaking of the ceiling, there were four clusters of three speakers each mounted on the ceiling near the four corners of the room. In each cluster, the speakers were pointing forward, backward, and inward toward the audience. All of these speakers reproduce the same overhead channel, sometimes called the "voice of God" channel. I thought it was odd that the overhead clusters were so near the corners of the space and not more centrally located.
As usual, I had my trusty Larson Davis 720 SPL meter, and I was very pleasantly surprised that the volume was quite reasonable, since I didn't want to wear my earplugs in order to better evaluate the performance of the sound system. I did have to put my fingers in my ears a few times, but for the most part, it was entirely tolerable—the average level over exactly two hours (including just a few trailers) was 79.4 dBA with the highest 1-second maximum at 91.2 dBA. The level remained above 83.7 dBA 10 percent of the time, 79.2 dBA 33 percent of the time, and 75.9 dBA 50 percent of the time, with a dosage of only 2.83% of the OSHA-recommended daily exposure.
One of the first things I noticed was how bright, even harsh, the overall sound quality was. And dialog intelligibility was not good—I could barely understand the sick, soft-spoken child Matilda (Emma Tremblay), the evil agent Kruger (Sharlto Copley) with his thick Australian accent, the revolutionary/mercenary Spider (Wagner Moura), and others like him with heavy Spanish accents. As for sonic immersion, the sense of height around me was increased compared with conventional 5.1 or 7.1, but it did not extend completely overhead, even though there were plenty of opportunities for it to do so, like when aircraft fly above you or bullets fly all around.
That evening, I went to the AMC Century City 15, whose ETX auditorium has a Dolby Atmos sound system. (They also sell reserved seats, which is why I didn't go to the AMC Burbank 16 right up the street from my house—I didn't want to wait in a long line and risk getting a bad seat.) In this room, there was one row of side-surround speakers on each side wall and a row of rear-surround speakers on the back wall with four subwoofers at the back near the ceiling. On the ceiling were two rows of six speakers each extending from the front to the back. I was able to secure a seat close to dead center, one row closer to the screen than I had been in the Barco Auro theater that afternoon. (Both rooms were about the same size.) As expected, the theater was much more crowded for this showing.
Amazingly, the levels during this presentation were even lower than they had been in the Barco Auro theater—an average of 77.5 dBA over 2 hours and 6 minutes (they played a few more trailers), with the highest 1-second maximum at 90.0 dBA. The level remained above 81.8 dBA 10 percent of the time, 77.3 dBA 33 percent of the time, and 74.2 dBA 50 percent of the time with a dosage of only 1.72%. I didn't even need to plug my ears at all!
The difference in audio quality was obvious—the sound was much smoother and not at all harsh, and dialog intelligibility was much better. Also, the music was more detailed and better integrated with the rest of the soundtrack. And the sense of sonic envelopment was far more complete than it had been with Barco Auro, with a contiguous hemispherical soundstage and much greater localization of individual sonic objects. The sound of aircraft overhead was very convincing, as was the sound of bullets and exploding debris flying all around. Same with the sounds within the shuttle flying to Elysium and crashing into the torus.
As for the movie itself, all I can say is, eh. The visuals are gorgeous, especially the shots of Elysium and its environment, and the premise is good and timely. The growing gap between the wealthiest members of society and the rest of humanity, plus the overpopulation and pollution of Earth, lead the rich to emigrate to an orbiting space station called Elysium, where all residents live in comfort, and automated "medbays" can scan for and cure any disease or disfigurement in minutes. Meanwhile, the plebes back on Earth must make due with severe overcrowding, brutal police androids, poor medical care, and terrible working conditions—if you can find a job at all.
However, what starts out as an interesting idea devolves into a standard shoot-em-up, good-versus-evil trope. Radiation-poisoned Max (Matt Damon) becomes an unlikely champion of the Earth's huddled masses against Elysium's evil Minister of Homeland Security Delacourt (Jodie Foster, doing a terrible French accent) and her minion, agent Kruger. Helping Max is his childhood friend Frey (Alice Braga, niece of actress Sonia Braga), who is looking for a way to Elysium to cure her daughter Matilda of advanced leukemia.
One thing I objected to was the fairly graphic violence and gore. I had to close my eyes several times, such as when Kruger's smashed-in face gets reconstructed. No wonder this movie is rated R!
And there are so many technical implausibilities, I was never able to suspend my disbelief. For example, Max is equipped with an strength-enhancing exosuit, which is surgically installed over his clothes! Also, Elysium is a giant spinning torus, with the people living on the inside surface farthest from the center; centrifugal force provides artificial gravity. But the torus is not completely enclosed, yet the atmosphere doesn't escape, and aircraft behave as if they are in a gravitational field. And even though it's supposed to be the year 2154, there has been absolutely no change in fashion among the elite for the past 140 years. C'mon, show a little imagination!
All in all, it was an interesting adventure to compare Barco Auro 11.1, which retains a channel-based orientation with a single overhead channel, and Dolby Atmos, which implements an object-oriented approach with each speaker—including those overhead—being addressed individually. In my view, Atmos was the clear winner. While I can't recommend the movie, I can recommend that, if you decide to see it, try to do so in a Dolby Atmos theater. To find out if there's one near you, click here.