A documentary, certainly, Baraka reminds us of the presence of humanity, technology, and nature itself all around this remarkable planet. The title roughly translates to "the breath of life" and the movie goes further than most, challenging us to follow that common thread that connects us all, amid scenes of war, death and despair, but also the antiquity that grounds us as we are forever humbled beneath the heavens. And through it all, our spiritual diversity helps us to keep on keeping on. This is a "non-verbal" film, with no spoken dialogue, and while highly engaging, was not intended as entertainment per se.
The creators came from IMAX film production, and Baraka represented the opportunity for some significant innovations in camera design and control to capture the extraordinary footage they needed to tell their story. Switching to 70mm meant potentially broader distribution beyond IMAX venues, and a longer running time. The shooting schedule was actually planned around the phases of the moon, for the sake of the all-important lighting. The results are touching, inspiring and if you watch with an open mind, downright hypnotic.
Baraka was transferred at what they're calling "8K UltraDigital HD," marking the first time that a 65mm film camera negative has been scanned at 8,192 pixels of resolution, before color correction and digital restoration were performed. Keep in mind that the James Bond transfers that we recently wrote about were done at 4K, and they remain groundbreaking, and the Blu-ray format offers 1,080 horizontal lines, so 8K is pretty forward-thinking, and allegedly flirting with the limit of what the human eye can appreciate. It obviously works wonders on the contrast and the range of colors. The full-sized 30-terabyte scan file would ultimately be downconverted to Blu-ray levels, but with a higher level of perceptible detail than if simply scanned at 1080p. The goal of this process was to remove any distraction between the viewer and what he/she was seeing, yielding an experience much like living, breathing pages out of National Geographic.
How good does it look? I must answer that question with another: How good is your home theater? We are collectively awed not just by the choices of the specific locales but by the way in which they are filmed, with lots of long shots and multiple levels of focus. A shot can also change color right before our eyes as the light shifts during time-lapse photography. There are lots of clouds, reproduced as sharply as I've ever seen, sometimes with a subtle rainbow materializing in the mist. At another moment we might see a teeming sea of humanity, and yet we can pick out individual figures. Close up, worshippers read their sacred texts, and we can read the pages right along with them, or count the scales on a lizard's back or the hairs on an ape's head. Blacks are rich and stable, and slow-moving shots give us the chance to discover obscure secrets. Any artifacting that I did see was so rare and minor as to be negligible. The 2.21:1 aspect ratio matches that of the 70mm Todd-AO theatrical exhibition.
The original music was written by Michael Stearns, who also served as the musical director and later returned to personally restore and remix the soundtrack for 5.1-channel DTS HD Master Audio 96/24. The thump of his drums is palpable, even as the high tinkle of a bell is clean and bright. This accompaniment is seamlessly blended with the sounds of life: everything from crashing waves to chirping insects. A tree falls in the forest and we're there to hear it, waves crash, a controlled explosion is set off in a mine. Wind and rain and thunder unleash their fury, but meet their match in the power of a chanting voice. Much of the above had to be added in post-production, due to the complex style of filmmaking. At first listen, it seems to play as a largely front-heavy mix, keeping us fixated on the images, but the surrounds (and the subwoofer) are quite active throughout. This is a worthy complement to the bar-raising visuals.
Before even watching this new edition of the film, I had to click over to the seven-minute featurette, "Restoration," presented in VC-1. This level of technical discussion is not for the casual home viewer, but techno-geeks like us can't get enough of such discussion, the nuts and bolts of producing what is unquestionably one of the best-looking Blu-rays yet. "Baraka: A Closer Look" (76 minutes, VC-1, although the quality of the source material varies wildly) explores the career histories of the filmmakers and the challenges faced on their biggest project, including the daunting subjective decisions of where to shoot, and when it would be sufficiently "global." If the movie sticks with you, you'll want to check out this behind-the-scenes tale.
Buy Baraka as a stellar reference disc, and leave it on in the background if you can't quite commit, although at some point you will likely be transfixed by these flawless visions of an incredibly beautiful world. Ours.
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