Every year, it seems the technology for watching movies improves a little bit more, inching along on the quest to provide the audience total immersion in the film. So much is made about advances in visual fidelity, however, that the role of sound is often overlooked. Great sound design is a crucial aspect of filmmaking, engulfing the audience in a way visuals simply cannot, and theaters are always looking for ways to make their sound systems better. Dolby’s Atmos system is one of the latest formats to hit commercial and home theaters, and sounds incredible thanks to its ability to rain sound effect from up above and all around you.
Unlike a surround sound setup, in which sounds come from a limited number of channels broadcast through speakers arranged around a room, Atmos broadcasts each object of sound (such as a glass hitting the ground or a person shouting) to a specific place in the room, as designated by the engineers who mixed the soundtrack. This enables sound mixers to craft highly detailed soundtracks for films that convince the audience that they are within the action. Already popular in theaters, Atmos is also available in homes, as more Blu-rays are being released with Atmos soundtracks. The selection is currently limited (less than 50 titles domestically) and, to put it politely, not every film of the selections is good. Here is our comprehensive breakdown of every Dolby Atmos film: the good, the bad, and everything in between.
Mad Max: Fury Road
Mad Max: Fury Road, the resurrection of George Miller’s apocalyptic 80s franchise, was a surprise hit, garnering rave reviews for its highly kinetic action and uncompromising vision of dystopia. Set in Australia years after nuclear war has scorched the Earth, the film follows series protagonist Max Rockatansky as he joins a band of women fleeing a brutal warlord. The ensuing chase sets the ugliness of machinery against the beauty of the natural world, as ramshackle vehicles hound each other across the red wastes. As metal clashes and flames erupt, the sound is as important as the explosive visuals, surrounding the audience with a symphony of warfare. Fury Road is an intense two hour chase sequence, underscored by a muscular soundtrack from Junkie XL; it’s a celebration of everything action movies should aspire to be, and one of the best Atmos demonstrations available today.
The old-school action film, rife with gun violence and merciless protagonists, seems like a relic today in a market dominated by family-friendly superhero movies. Perhaps this is why John Wick, despite a familiar premise (a badass gunfighter seeks vengeance on those who wronged him), feels so fresh. Starring Keanu Reeves as the titular assassin, John Wick is a pulsing revenge thriller, beautifully shot and anchored by an appropriately grim performance from Reeves. It’s a perfect film for home theater viewing. Exhibit A: a scene wherein Wick massacres his way through a criminal nightclub, the whole scene drenched in red and blue, as a melancholy pop song throbs underneath. Violence has never seemed so beautiful.
Leon: the Professional
Some filmmakers have a distinctive style, their films rife with traits that are unmistakably theirs. French director Luc Besson is one such artist, his works characterized by frantic gunfights, slick cinematography, and a strange mingling of sentimentality and violence, traits exemplified by Leon: the Professional. Set in New York, Leon follows its titular hero (Jean Reno), a quiet assassin who takes in an orphan named Mathilda (Natalie Portman) after her family is murdered by a corrupt cop (Gary Oldman). The cast is talented, and despite the pulpy premise much of the film is focused on the relationship between Leon and Mathilda, as he trains her in the art of killing and she brings him an appreciation for life. Don’t mistake this for a sappy drama, however; the film’s body count is high, and Gary Oldman’s cocaine-addled cop is one of his more disturbing roles, no small feat for an actor known for playing psychopaths.
Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation
The Mission Impossible films have never pretended to be anything other than highly entertaining spy thrillers, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The latest entry, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, follows the traditions of its predecessors, setting protagonist Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) on the hunt for a mysterious international crime syndicate, charging all the while through a series of dangerous, tightly choreographed action scenes. The various set pieces are a treat for the senses, particularly a tense fight in an opera house, where the punches, crashes, and other assorted sound effects punctuate a performance of Puccini’s Turandot. There are few films as straightforward in their thrills as Rogue Nation, an explosive spectacle that shows blockbuster filmmaking at its best.
There are certain movies that aren’t meant to be thought too much about, movies that are just pure, dumb fun. San Andreas is such a movie, in which Ray Gaines (Dwayne Johnson), a helicopter pilot, must reunite with his ex-wife and rescue their daughter in the midst of an earthquake that levels San Francisco. It’s a film that never stops for breath, a film in which the only thing the director destroys more spectacularly than the San Francisco skyline is the actual physics of earthquakes. At one point the hero drives a boat up a tsunami, and you can’t help but laugh and enjoy. Put San Andreas on, let the rumbling engulf you, and maybe even shed a tear when the American flag waves steadily over the ruins of California.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
Guy Ritchie’s films are known more for style than substance, and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. does nothing to change this perception. Set in the 60’s, the film follows Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer), agents of the CIA and KGB respectively, who must thwart a plot by Nazi remnants to build a nuclear weapon. If the names and premise didn’t give it away already, this is a film not meant to be taken too seriously, a lighthearted homage to the cheesy spy fiction of the Cold War. The film captures the 60’s milieu — the fashion, the cars, the music–well, and puts its protagonists through a number of old-fashioned set pieces. The Man from U.N.C.L.E is not the greatest action movie, but it does have enough style and humor to make it worth a watch.
The Expendables 3
Sylvester Stallone’s 2010 film The Expendables seemed like a thrilling idea at the time, bringing together various old-school action stars (including Stallone, Jason Statham, and Bruce Willis among many others) for an explosive, no-frills adventure. Sadly, the first Expendables film lacked the goofy charm of old-school action movies like Willis’ Die Hard or Stallone’s Cobra. By this, the third outing for the franchise, the titular superteam has expanded its roster to ridiculous numbers (even Kelsey Grammar finds his way onto the squad) that make the Justice League seem cozy. This time, the Expendables are at odds with a vicious arms dealer played by Mel Gibson (seemingly returned from Hollywood exile). It’s a ripe premise, but one that the film squanders by not embracing 80’s insanity. The picture quality and audio mixing are top notch, and the action scenes are competently made, but fans of classic action films will find this one a mere shadow of what could have been.
Transformers: Age of Extinction
The fourth entry in Michael Bay’s hyperactive ode to 80’s cartoons is a reboot nobody needed, providing a new cast of human characters to run around and gasp as over-designed robots slap each other. Set a few years after the third film, Age of Extinction involves new protagonist Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg), a down-on-his-luck father and engineer, helping the Autobots to thwart a government conspiracy involving a rare substance called Transformium. While nobody would go to a Transformers movie for interesting narrative, the film fails to provide even the visceral thrills of a blockbuster like Mission Impossible or Mad Max, instead clobbering the audience with excessive bass and the metallic screeches of Bay’s overwrought robot fights. One might think this would make a killer Dolby Atmos demonstration, but unfortunately, it’s pretty underwhelming.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Hollywood is in the grip of addiction: not to alcohol, cocaine, or any physical drug, but to nostalgia. Audiences seem prone to see any film that draws on their childhood, and film studios are only happy to oblige. It is this cultural addiction which leads to films like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the cinematic equivalent of rock bottom. Produced by Michael Bay, the film resembles his Transformers films. The turtles, once goofy cartoon parodies of dark 80’s comic heroes, are here rendered as hulking CGI monstrosities, more akin to mutant potatoes. Warped by science into the pizza-gobbling abominations they are, the turtles wage a shadow war against the Foot Clan, a group of ninja terrorists operating in New York City. Together with reporter April O’Neil, they try to stop the Foot Clan’s plot to destroy the city. Over the course of 101 minutes, the turtles fight their way through dingy streets and sewers while the camera struggles to hold still like a child three sodas deep. Unless you have a strong hankering for an hour and a half of explosions and random pop culture references, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a slog to get through.
The Gunman is directed by Pierre Morel, who also directed 2009’s surprise hit, Taken, and it’s difficult not to compare the two. Both feature a middle-aged man with a violent career (in this case, Sean Penn rather than Liam Neeson) coming out of retirement to rescue a loved one (here an ex-lover instead of a daughter). The comparisons can only hurt The Gunman, which comes across as worse in pretty much every way than Taken. Penn lacks the menace that lay underneath everything Neeson’s character said, and to some extent the film seems like a vehicle for Penn to run around shirtless in various locales. While Taken kept the plot tight, the story of The Gunman involves an international conspiracy, a cartoonish antagonist (Javier Bardem), and even a love triangle. It’s a forgettable film, unless you just really like Sean Penn.
Peter Pan, the classic children’s novel, has been adapted in some form or another so many times, one would think there is nothing left of the story to tell. The creators of Pan found a way, however, creating an origin story in which Peter Pan (Levi Miller) saves Neverland from the oppressive pirate, Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman), befriending a young Hook along the way. It’s an adaptation that seems completely unnecessary, adding a convoluted backstory to a tale that was timeless in its simplicity. The film isn’t even particularly fun to look at, with the characters wading through green screen environments. Even by the generally lower standards of “kid’s films,” Pan seems like a rough draft of a film, a bizarre mess in which, among other things, the people of Neverland perform an ensemble rendition of Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit.