Westworld: Season One – The Maze Ultra HD Blu-ray Review
A stunning debut season
The hosts are the ones who are free. Free. Here. Under my control.Jonathan Nolan, Lisa Joy and J.J. Abrams have re-envisaged this series based on Michael Crichton’s 1973 film Westworld, much as Ronald D. Moore re-imagined Battlestar Galactica - that is to say whilst the name and basic premise are the same, that is where the similarity ends. The 1973 film was very simplistic; cyborgs in a futuristic theme park break their programming and kill the human guests. HBO’s 2016 show uses this idea but expands upon it to include the nature of self-awareness, control and sentience, using multi-layered story threads that interweave with each other, twisting and turning to keep you guessing on the true nature of the themes until the very end of the last episode. It is intriguing, intellectual and idealistic, preying on our awareness and playing with our perceptions. Such is the nature of the show that there are several central characters and bit players that combine to bring the whole together. As each story thread tightens its knot, you cannot help but be pulled along.Evan Rachel Wood plays the host Dolores through whose eyes most of the story unfolds; her character is intertwined in the majority of the story threads be it with fellow host Teddy (James Marsden), paying guest William (Jimmi Simpson) or the mysterious, untameable and vicious Man in Black (an awesome Ed Harris). Running parallel is that of another host Maeve (Thandie Newton) whose own quest for freedom brings about great ramifications for the repair crews tasked with patching up the hosts after the guests have had their 'fun'. While overseeing the park is creator Dr. Robert Ford (a magnificent Anthony Hopkins) who, along with senior programmer Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright), tries to keep the park, and the board members in check. It is with great skill that the narrative unfolds, there are some foreseeable twists, some well-hidden and one out of the blue; and it is only with repeated viewing that the breadcrumbs strewn throughout become noticeable and the whole is revealed.
Picture QualityWestworld: Season One – The Maze was shot, very unusually for a TV show in this day and age, on 35mm film using Arricam LT, Arricam ST and Arriflex 235 cameras, scanned and finished (unfortunately) as a 2K Digital Intermediate. It is presumably this DI that has been used for this Ultra HD Blu-ray. The discs presented are up-scaled to 3840 x 2160p resolution image in the widescreen 1.78:1 aspect ratio, and use 10-bit video depth, a Wider Colour Gamut (WCG), High Dynamic Range, and are encoded using the HEVC (H.265) codec. We reviewed the Region free UK Ultra HD Blu-ray release of Westworld: Season One – The Maze on a Panasonic 65DX902B Ultra HD 4K TV with a Panasonic DMP-UB400 Ultra HD Blu-ray player.
Not the upgrade you might expect
Let’s start by saying the image is clean and bright. It is well detailed; skin texture is good, clothing has discernible weaves, the run down nature of the town is well seen, with chipped pain, worn wood and dusty lanes. The piano mechanics are sharp, as are the pistols used to wreak such havoc, while the open expanse of the Utah landscape is, at times, breath-taking. Colouring is well realised, with the reds of the sandstone dominated landscape looking parched and eager, while those in the park headquarters are deep and foreboding. Greens are suitably lush in the various forests of the park, while blues maintain dignity and depth.
Brightness and contrast are set to give wonderful depth to the frame; check out the underground storage of retired hosts. Shadow detail is well realised both above and below ground. Those genuine night shots have terrific blacks, while the ‘day for night’ shots are typically bluer. At the other end of the scale there are sharp whites; clothing, skylines and buildings exhibiting good detailing even in the glare; check out the neon in the underground labs.
But, and here is the rub, all the above is equally as valid for the 1080p Blu-ray image. Indeed the UHD Blu-ray is scarcely an upgrade in terms of detail or with HDR. The differences are there, of course: landscape shots fair particularly well, as do pinpoint light sources in the gloom (such as camp fires, or electric torches, or the strip neon in the labs) and townscape vistas during bright daylight. But on the whole, the differences are so subtle that some might question the validity of the upgrade. Indeed, I’ve not seen an image this close since Dawn of the Plant of the Apes. There are occasional bouts of softness in the image common to both 1080 and 4K, while the natural grain structure remains intact and is due to the filming technique. On balance I’d still go with the Ultra HD image as my preferred option, the increase in depth and brightness afforded by HDR, even in this subtle form, makes for a keener image.
Sound QualityThe Dolby Atmos track has no such issues though, with Ramin Djawadi’s score taking the brunt of the action with individual instruments coming from different areas in 3D space making for a cohesive whole and this really opens up the sound stage. The bass is incredible in this regard, really holding the sound in place, being deep, tight and well controlled. Check out the mechanical piano that starts up to signify a new day, hear how it clicks and whirrs around you before the tune rolls over to dominate the soundstage. Effects are well realised, whether it is the general hubbub of the busy street, the gentle hum of the control room or the open expanse of the range – the surrounds are there to add ambience. When the action hots up, gun fire, horse gallops, fist fights are all given good priority in the mix. Dialogue is clear and precise and is never lost in the mix, and is given good directionality when needed. The overhead channels are used sparingly and subtly but add significantly to the overall track, as demonstrated if you switch back to the 5.1 track.
ExtrasWarner has seen fit to include all the extras features on their respective Ultra HD discs, up-scaled but without HDR:
About the Series – A gaggle of cast and crew by way of 2 minute introduction posit on "What if Westworld really existed?"
An Invitation to Set – Same gaggle and again in 2 minutes speculate on what it might be like to “Live Without Limits.”
The Big Moment – On each disc plays a significant story twist that has occurred.
Welcome to Westworld – The same gaggle this time discuss ‘immersive fantasy’ and what it might mean, slightly more indulgent at 7 minutes.
Realizing the Dream: First Week on the Set of Westworld – Spend 10 minutes of behind the scenes footage, and with Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, outdoors in Utah.
Imagining the Main Titles – A 14 minute look at the images, thoughts and processes that went behind creating the iconic sequence; with Nolan, Joy, Ramin Djawadi and Jennifer Hall (a graphic design executive).
Reality of A.I: Westworld – The gaggle returns inviting a conversation in 5 minutes about A.I. and what it might mean.
Gag Reel – Goof and gaffs.
The Key to the Chords – 8 minutes with Nolan, Joy and Ramin Djawadi who look at the use of the mechanical piano as both a symbol and musical accompaniment.
Crafting the Narrative – A far more substantial 30 minutes has Nolan and Joy filmed while commenting on selected scenes of the season finale bringing in themes, ideas and monologues.
Booklet – A mock handbook for new employees.
Ultra HD Blu-ray VerdictThe re-imaging of Westworld is a triumph. By interweaving various story threads, across different characters but all with a common theme, show producers Jonathan Nolan, Lisa Joy and J.J. Abrams have crafted a mysterious, engaging and thought provoking show the likes of which has not been seen since Game of Thrones. Just when you think you have a handle on the narrative, there is a curve ball, just when you think you know where the show is heading, it veers sharp left, and just when you think you know the characters, you really, really don’t. Hints are sprinkled throughout and become obvious upon the reveal, a second (and third) viewing are required!
A stunning debut season
The Ultra HD Blu-ray set from Warners is an overall pretty decent package. Contentiously the image (from a 2K DI) is scarcely and upgrade from the (included) 1080 Blu-ray, both being well detailed, well coloured with significant blacks and peak whites; where the 4K image wins out is with subtle HDR improvements, such as deeper blacks, better grading, wider colours and a brighter image. The Dolby Atmos track is terrific though, being high on ambience, effects and bass level, while keeping dialogue clear and precise. The extras package is a tad light, but all are housed on the UHD discs and make for interesting, if brief, viewing. The series, however, is a winner throughout.
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