The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, starring Jennifer Lawrence, was the top-grossing film of 2013. With a $130 million budget, there was no shortage of spectacular special effects, intricate costumes, and elaborately staged stunts. I watched the movie a few weeks ago as a Vudu HDX rental, and I liked it better than the first movie, so I decided it was worth watching on Blu-ray.

Last week, I bought the The Hunger Games: Catching Fire on Blu-ray from my local Best Buy. When I opened it up, I was happy to see that the package included a digital copy from both iTunes HD and UltraViolet ( Vudu HDX). I commend Lionsgate for releasing the disc with both of those options.

I wanted to check out the Vudu To Go application for my PC, which allows you to download Vudu HDX (as well as HD and SD) files and play them back from the computer's hard drive. However, on my computer, I only saw a blank black screen when I tried to play the movie. I reverted to streaming Vudu, which came through as a full-strength three-bar HDX stream on my 105 Mbps Xfinity Internet connection. The iTunes HD file downloaded without any problem in under half an hour.

I've performed a number of these Blu-ray-versus-online-delivery format comparisons over the past year, and the results follow a predictable pattern: Blu-ray always looks and sounds the best while Vudu HDX and iTunes HD formats compete for second place. Usually, Vudu HDX enjoys a small image-quality advantage over iTunes, but the gap between the two online-delivery formats and Blu-ray is much more noticeable.

However, the Blu-ray version of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire has a unique feature that was missing from the iTunes and Vudu versions—the aspect ratio gradually changes from 2.40:1 to 16:9 as the movie enters its climactic finale in the arena. Those 50 minutes of action were filmed in IMAX. The iTunes and Vudu versions of the movie don't feature this transition, relying instead on vertical cropping to maintain a constant 2.40:1 aspect ratio. This is a gross omission since it means the original cinematography does not come through in the online-delivery formats. Only the Blu-ray is comes close to the director's vision! To me, that is reason enough to avoid watching this movie on either iTunes or Vudu.

Not surprisingly, the Blu-ray version of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire beat both iTunes HD and Vudu HDX formats in terms of picture and sound quality. The difference was most noticeable in action scenes and scenes with a lot of camera motion and detail—in other words, Blu-ray looked noticeably better than the cloud-based formats for most of the movie.

When it comes to sound quality, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire features many scenes that take advantage of high-quality surround-sound systems. Once again, Blu-ray sounded significantly better than either iTunes HD or Vudu HDX. In fact, the difference in sound quality was quite noticeable when it came to the sounds in the battle sequences—especially in terms of how visceral the bass was.

The good news is that the Blu-ray version of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire comes with both iTunes HD and Vudu HDX versions of the movie. The bad news is that the non-Blu-ray versions possess one fundamental flaw—they do not feature a morphing aspect ratio.

Here are some examples that show the image-quality differences between the three formats as well as what's lost wheniTunes and Vudu start cropping the movie. I've uploaded the original, unresized files as PNGs—if you click into each image and view the original, you can pixel-peep to your heart's content.




Both iTunes and Vudu HDX crop the latter portion of the movie to a 2.40:1 format—the end result is not faithful to what the director intended. Blu-ray presents the original 1.44:1 aspect ratio IMAX footage cropped to a 16:9 ratio.  In terms of image quality Blu-ray looks the best; however, iTunes and Vudu also look good in this particular frame.




This scene is from an earlier part of the movie that has a 2.40:1 aspect ratio. iTunes and Vudu HDX managed to render a decent amount of detail. Overall, the Blu-ray is slightly sharper and contains small details missing from the cloud-based formats. For example, you can count more glowing embers in the dark area behind the chariot.




In this frame Blu-ray renders a lot more detail in the splashing water, which in turn makes the effect look a lot more realistic. This is clearly visible even in the resized version of the image you see here. iTunes and Vudu crop the image, which totally ruins the composition. The Blu-ray frame is so well-composed, it looks like a painting.




In this relatively static shot, the compression algorithms in iTunes and Vudu HDX are able to fill in the details. There is little visible difference between the three frames, aside from the fact that the iTunes and Vudu versions are cropped to 2.40:1 ratio.