The Revenant and Dolby Atmos

I attended a special screening at Dolby Labs Thursday night of The Revenant, where the movie’s Oscar-nominated audio mix could be played back in the full glory of Dolby Atmos. I’ll tell you about The Revenant, and also about Atmos.

In that difficult-to-find point where cinema technology merges into cinema art, The Revenant feels like a masterpiece. Emmanuel Lubezki’s outdoor cinematography, augmented by a team of CGI specialists, goes beyond spectacular. The natural landscapes inspire not only with their beauty, but with their cruel indifference to the tiny humans trying to survive them. The many action sequences are staged are executed to horrific and suspenseful perfection. The film is gruesome, but appropriately so.

By the way, The Revenant was shot digitally. Considering how good it looks, the arguments for shooting on film are getting weaker and weaker.

But the screenplay by Mark L. Smith and director Alejandro González Iñárritu (Birdman, Babel) has serious problems. It emphasizes revenge too much. Leonardo DiCaprio’s protagonist experiences so many unpleasant and potentially lethal disasters that I found myself thinking “Not again” at least twice (which wouldn’t be so bad if the film wasn’t so serious). And the final fight with the main bad guy (Tom Hardy) goes on too long.

DiCaprio plays early 19th century frontiersman Hugh Glass (a real person; the screenplay is loosely based on a Michael Punke novel which was based on actual events). A bear attack leaves him all but dead. His companions figure that they can’t take him with them or safely wait for him to die, so they desert him. Glass crawls, limps, walks, rides, and fights his way back to the fort that’s as close as they get to civilization.

Of course there has to be a villain. Hardy’s John Fitzgerald is mean, cruel, greedy, cowardly, and racist. He murders Glass’ half-breed son while a helpless Glass watches. Fitzgerald lies to others so that they leave Glass unattended. Now our hero doesn’t just want to survive; he wants revenge. (None of this is in the historical record.)

The scene with the bear, which is done with long takes rather than the usual quick cutting, works about as well as it possibly could without letting a real bear maul a real Leonardo DiCaprio. The bear is CGI, of course, but the result is far more believable and effective than the traditional method of quick cutting between a real bear and an actor fighting a puppet.

Scene by scene, with few exceptions, The Revenant works beautifully. But as a whole, it’s not quite right. I give it a B+.

Dolby Atmos technology provides an exceptionally immersive audio experience where a sound can come from pretty much anywhere. I describe it in more detail in this TechHive article.

According to Dolby, only five commercial Bay Area screens have Atmos, and none of them are near me. I’ve experienced it only as invited press at Dolby Labs. And up until Thursday, I’d only experienced it in brief demos. This was my first time listening to Atmos with a complete feature film.

It performed as advertised. I heard sounds from all over the place, without any sense that they were coming from this or that wall-mounted speaker. On more than one occasion, I thought I heard someone talking or coughing in the audience, only to realize that it was part of the soundtrack.

But the thickly-layered sound mix tended to get in the way of the story. It was distracting, and sometimes made dialog difficult to understand (especially from Tom Hardy). Maybe it was just this mix. Perhaps someone was overusing this new toy. Or maybe I just need to get used to a new gimmick before I can adjust to it and get lost in the movie. Immersive sound can be great, but at some point, the audience needs to concentrate on the screen in front of them.