Unless you have no access to modern media—in which case, you wouldn't be reading this—you know what a juggernaut the new Star Wars movie is. It shattered all sorts of box-office records in its opening weekend with over $500 million in ticket sales worldwide, half of which was in North America. Plus, there are more merchandising tie-ins than I've ever seen before, ensuring that Disney will make back its investment in the franchise and much more in relatively short order.
When I learned that Star Wars: The Force Awakens would be graded in Dolby Vision high dynamic range (HDR) and shown in that format at Dolby Cinema venues, I bought a ticket for the earliest showing at the AMC Burbank 16 for which one of my favorite seats was available. When the appointed hour approached, I settled into the cushy leather recliner for what I hoped would be an exceptional cinematic experience.
Exceptional it was—in presentation. The HDR images were breathtaking. The black of space was true black, and the many dimly lit interior shots were extraordinary, with plenty of detail in the darkness. I especially liked one of the early shots of stormtroopers in a landing craft, which was pitch black except for flashes of light momentarily illuminating their helmeted heads. There might have been a bit of black crush in low-light shots of the evil Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), whose black hair and clothes were occasionally obscured against a very dark background.
The added brightness of Dolby Vision was also used to good effect—for example, explosions were brilliant. And areas of high brightness coexisted nicely with areas of low light in the same shot, a hallmark of HDR imagery. All of this resulted in a picture that really popped with outstanding dimensionality, even though it was 2D. (There are a few shots that were undoubtedly designed for 3D, which is used in Imax and other SDR venues, but I didn't miss it at all.)
One thing I didn't like about the visuals was the 24-frames-per-second motion blur and judder, which was painfully obvious during pans across a starfield and in other shots with lots of motion. Maybe I'm more sensitive to it than usual because of my recent conversation with Douglas Trumbull
about high frame rates, but it really bugged me during The Force Awakens.
The Dolby Atmos soundtrack was spectacular, with lots of activity throughout the 3D soundfield—spaceships whizzing around, laser fire, explosions, even the music filled the entire auditorium. Interestingly, Kylo Ren's voice was much less intelligible when he removed his mask; when he was wearing it (which was, inexplicably, most of the time), his voice sounded like it was coming from a transistor radio, and his words were much easier to understand than when he took it off. Otherwise, dialog intelligibility was generally good, even Harrison Ford's gravelly voice as he played the aging Han Solo.
As expected, the volume levels were pretty high—Leq (average RMS level over entire movie plus trailers) = 96.3 dBZ (flat), 84 dBA, 94.5 dBC; Lmax (maximum 1-second RMS level) = 120.1 dBZ; L10 (level exceeded 10% of the time) = 98.6 dBZ; L50 (level exceeded 50% of the time) = 84.4 dBZ. I had my fingers in my ears several times, but I decided not to wear my earplugs so I could evaluate the Atmos soundtrack fully.
As for the movie itself, my opinion will be at distinct odds with many—if not most—viewers. I'm definitely a fan of the Star Wars franchise, and I had high hopes for this episode based on some early reviews. But I can describe my impression of the movie in one word: BORING! There are a few funny moments, but I found nothing whatsoever that deepened the mythology or moved the story forward in any meaningful way. The movie felt very shallow to me—I kept thinking, "This is Star Wars masturbation!" It's nothing more than a rehash of Episode IV: A New Hope with no real emotional depth.
Avid fans will love it because it's familiar—and maybe that's the problem. Most big-budget movies these days are essentially similar to their predecessors because that's the safe route for studios to take. Why risk hundreds of millions of dollars on something creative and original when you're virtually guaranteed a big return on investment if you simply make the same movie over and over again with better effects and bigger explosions than the one before? That's what Star Wars: The Force Awakens felt like to me—a safe bet based solely on the loyalty of the fan base. It's a bet that seems to have paid off in terms of revenue, but in my view, certainly not in terms of storytelling.
On the other hand, it's a prime example of HDR imagery and Atmos immersive sound, and I recommend seeing it in a Dolby Cinema for that reason alone; for a complete list of current and upcoming locations, click here. (There are now 12 Dolby Cinemas up and running in the US and two in the Netherlands.) For some reason, the AMC Village on the Parkway 9 in Addison, TX (near Dallas) is not showing The Force Awakens in its Dolby Cinema auditorium, but as far as I know, all the other locations—as well as the El Capitan in Hollywood, CA, which is not an official Dolby Cinema—are showing it in Dolby Vision and Atmos sound. It's worth the trek to see and hear the state of the art in commercial cinema, but don't expect a meaningful movie.