Solo: A Star Wars Story in Dolby Vision HDR and Atmos Sound

solo

Now that Disney owns the Star Wars franchise, the studio plans to milk it for all it’s worth, releasing a new title every year until the end of time. This year, it’s Solo: A Star Wars Story, a standalone tale not part of the episodic main sequence. As with all the recent Star Wars movies, this one was graded in Dolby Vision high dynamic range and mixed in Atmos immersive sound for presentation in Dolby Cinemas, so naturally, I bought a ticket for opening night.

This is the origin story of Han Solo (Alden Ehrehreich) and how he became the smuggling scoundrel who eventually meets Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi in the Mos Eisley cantina during A New Hope. Young Han and his girlfriend Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) are petty criminals on the slave-based shipbuilding planet Corellia, which is ruled by Lady Proxima (voiced by Linda Hunt), a giant caterpillar-like being. Qi’ra is caught after their latest caper, but Han escapes. To earn enough rescue Qi’ra, he enlists in the Imperial Navy. There, he meets Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson), Val (Thandie Newton), and Rio Durant (voiced by Jon Favreau), who end up allowing Han to join their thieving crew.

Along the way, he befriends Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) and ends up winning the Millennium Falcon from gambler Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover), whose spunky droid companion L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) is dedicated to droid rights. The villain of this tale is Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany), head of a powerful crime syndicate called Crimson Dawn.

The movie is great fun for Star Wars fans, with lots of humor and references to iconic elements that the audience knows so well. In particular, I was delighted that the line about “making the Kessel run in less than 12 parsecs” from A New Hope is finally explained. (It always bugged me that a unit of distance—parsecs—was seemingly used to indicate an amount of time, but writers Lawrence Kasdan and his son Jonathan cleverly made sure it makes sense here.) Several scenes are directly parallel to scenes in the earlier movies, but there are also a few plot twists I didn’t see coming.

Alden Ehrehreich does quite a creditable job as Solo, though I can see why some reviews complain that his evolution is somewhat confused. He’s too much of a good guy here to believe he will become the scoundrel Luke and Obi-Wan meet in A New Hope. I especially enjoyed Donald Glover’s Lando; he’s as smooth as Billy Dee Williams’ portrayal in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. I also thought Paul Bettany was superb as the evil yet cultured Dryden Vos.

Unfortunately, the visual presentation was among the worst I’ve seen in a Dolby Cinema. The blacks were no better than a conventional cinema, and the shadow detail was quite poor, giving the movie a very murky look. By far the best black was the starfield in the closing credits! This is especially troubling since much of the movie is very dark with a limited and undersaturated color palette. The only way I could tell it was Dolby Vision high dynamic range was the higher-than-conventional brightness in a few scenes—plus, the Dolby Cinema sizzle reel looked normal. After the showing I saw, I stepped into a conventional theater for a few minutes, and the image looked no better than what I had just seen.

I’m afraid the audio was also problematic. The surround and overhead speakers were fully engaged, but the sound was super-harsh. It felt like I was getting a buzzcut! Also, the dialog intelligibility was quite poor. The LFE (low-frequency effects) channel was very active, shaking the seats more than most movies in a Dolby Cinema—an effect I do not enjoy.

The levels were pretty high: Leq (average RMS level over the entire length of the movie plus trailers) = 95.5 dBZ (flat), 86.5 dBA, 94.1 dBC; Lmax (maximum 1-second RMS level) = 121.2 dBZ; L10 (level exceeded 10% of the time) = 97.3 dBZ; L50 (level exceeded 50% of the time) = 85.7 dBZ. The overall level was 1.5 dB above reference, which doesn’t seem like much, but when you combine that with the harsh tonality, it quickly became tiring.

I don’t know why the showing I saw was so poor. I find it hard to believe that Disney did such a bad job at grading and mixing, especially after seeing and hearing some excellent Dolby Cinema presentations from that studio. Perhaps the system was misadjusted in some way. If so, maybe it’s better in other Dolby Cinemas and something was wrong only in the screening I attended.

If you’re a Star Wars fan, you’ll probably want to see Solo: A Star Wars Story, and you’ll probably enjoy the movie itself, regardless of the presentation. I’d love to hear about your experience, especially if you decide to see it in a Dolby Cinema; for a complete list of locations, click here. In any event, I really hope the UHD Blu-ray is better in terms of image and sound quality.

Check out the trailer: