The Neon Demon Ultra HD Blu-ray Review
Almost to die for
After the perfection of Drive and the diversion of Only God Forgives, Nicholas Winding Refn's visual and aural mastery reaches its zenith.The Neon Demon is, as you would only expect from Refn, hard to place. Ostensibly, it's a tale of Elle Fanning's 16 year old 'innocent' whose striking natural looks captivate LA's fashionistas, much to the disdain of the last-next-big-things, whose jealousy of her becomes all-consuming. All the while, Fanning's starlet is being transformed by the attention into her own narcissistic nemesis. As a commentary on the eat-their-own-young world of fashion; the vanity and the narcissism; the exploitation and cold-blooded competition, The Neon Demon is an exquisitely crafted, visually arresting feature that unravels the vacuous fashion scene without mercy.However, as is unsurprising given both the title and Refn's predisposition towards subtext and symbolism, The Neon Demon is probably more appropriately quantifiable as an otherworldly horror, equal parts sci-fi and supernatural; a sort-of confluence between Black Swan and Under the Skin. There are themes of pagan occult worship, witches, rituals, and an almost literal neon demon - and of course the core Greek myth of Narcissus himself. Refn masters both worlds - real and fantasy - with some of his most striking visuals, whilst collaborator Cliff Martinez's arguably finest score draws you further into this world. For some it will prove one of the greatest experiences of the year.
Picture QualityThe Neon Demon hits 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray in Germany courtesy of Koch Media, sporting an HEVC / H.265 encoded 2160p transfer framed in the movie's original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.39:1 widescreen. The UHD Blu-ray was reviewed on a Samsung UE55KS8000 Ultra HD TV and a Samsung UBD-K8500 Ultra HD Blu-ray player.
Although still in its relative infancy, there are a couple of things that people have come to expect from UHD Blu-rays, and one of them is certainly High Dynamic Range (HDR). Whether or not HDR was something of a last-minute focus to compensate for the relative lack of noticeable difference in resolution on most normal size screens at reasonable viewing distances, it has proven to be something of a USP when it comes to the Ultra HD format, perhaps even its saving grace, adding depth, range and vitality to the image and making for a visually distinctive from its 'standard' Blu-ray counterparts.
Given how sumptuous Refn's visuals are - and not just in this film - it's also somewhat understandable that fans of his latest, The Neon Demon, would be eager to see how it would perform on the format. Surely the visuals would look even better? Surely this would be the new game-changer; the new defining title for Ultra HD Blu-ray?
Unfortunately - shockingly - releasing studio Koch Media were reportedly only able to provide a Standard Dynamic Range (SDR) Rec.709 presentation, rather than an HDR Wide Colour Gamut (Rec.2020/DCI-P3) grade that fans of Ultra HD Blu-ray have (quite rightly) come to expect. It's still a 4K disc, or as near as - the film was shot digitally in 3.4K and the digital intermediate was delivered in 4K too, so there was everything there to make it a demo title, but the lack of HDR is noticeable. Or rather, the lack of HDR makes it harder to notice the difference between this and the standard Blu-ray.
The lack of HDR makes it harder to notice the difference between this and the Blu-ray, but not impossible
All is not lost, however. On freeze-frame inspection, it doesn't take long to realise that this is more detailed than its 1080p counterpart; the 4K DI does make a significant difference in that respect, turning in the finest nuances during the vibrant opening title sequences (particularly on the red flashes, where the Blu-ray loses focus), and highlighting more textures - more naturally - in the first bloody shot of the film. The close up furthers this; the Blu-ray sporting a sheen of smoothness whilst the 4K (or as near as) image is considerably sharper and more refined.
And whilst the lack of HDR is an undeniable disappointment on the colour front, enhanced 10-bit depth and higher chroma resolution on the UHD do still set it apart, at least technically, from its standard Blu-ray counterpart, affording better colours even if they aren't in the same easily-discernible league as titles benefiting from full HDR.
Of course the film itself is never less than a magnificent feast for the eyes, with Refn's majestic, visually opulent shots stunning to behold, and whilst it might be nice to think that a better full HDR release may eventually hit the shelves, it would be hard not to be tempted by this superior Ultra HD set - it may not have HDR, but it still boasts better detail and better colours and promotes this visual marvel in the best way currently available.
Sound QualityAlthough the Blu-ray disc's stomping audio track provided easy demo and reference material, there is already a slightly bitter taste from the lack of HDR, so the lack of any effort to upgrade to Dolby Atmos hits twice as hard.
Still, for the majority of home users, it's a hard-to-fault track which is spectacular. The sound is at least as important as the video when it comes to this (and most of Refn's work), with Cliff Martinez tour de force score pervading the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. Indeed even the dialogue and effects - again, as you'd only expect from a Refn movie - take a distinct backseat to the score which plays a core role in this movie.
The score is some of Cliff Martinez's finest work
Nevertheless dialogue comes through clearly and coherently throughout, predominantly across the front and centre channels, whilst effects pick up camera clicks and roaring animals, and all the finer nuances that bring the environment to life. But it's Martinez's entirely non-organic score - i.e. entirely electronic - which brings Refn's world to life, perfectly blending to the visuals in a way Refn has not achieved since Drive. It's some of Martinez's finest work, and the track is demo and reference through and through.
ExtrasAgain, as with the lack of HDR, in a relative first for the new format, this 'Ultra HD Blu-ray' sports all of the extra features also present on the accompanying Blu-ray disc (rather than being bare-bones, with the extras relegated to the BD). Whilst we only have the single-disc extra features here, they still make for a nice selection, and are all English-friendly (identical to the UK BD release).
The disc is headlined by a great little Commentary track by the Director Refn, and star Elle Fanning, who talk about some of the symbolism; the organic development of some of the story elements which weren't in the original script, the tight budget, the casting and performances, and the seminal score.
The German release boasts all of the extras available on the Blu-ray, only, curiously, actually on the Ultra HD disc
There's a further, all-too-short, Featurette - Making the Music - which has Refn and Martinez look at the beats and thrum of the outstanding score, and the important part it plays in the movie, and all of the movies that they've made together. In addition we get an Interview between Refn and Fanning, although the information within is largely covered more comprehensively in the Commentary.
The disc is rounded off by an Image Gallery and the original Trailer.
Ultra HD Blu-ray VerdictAn acquired taste but for some The Neon Demon will be one of the most unique experiences of the year
Undoubtedly The Neon Demon was always going to be one hell of an audiovisual experience and the UK Blu-ray release already proved just how spectacular it is, so expectations were understandably high for the Ultra HD Blu-ray release. Unfortunately the first version out of the gate from German studio Koch Media doesn't even boast HDR, and therefore the differences between it and its Blu-ray counterpart are harder to notice. That said, there is still a clear uptick in detail even if the colour improvements are more slight. And, for a film so visually distinctive, there may be enough improvement here to push completists (particularly those not yet equipped with Atmos, and thus not quite as frustrated by that further omission being another nail in the coffin) to import.
You can buy The Neon Demon on German Import Ultra HD Blu-ray here
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