Ever since its early ’00s conclusion, The Lord of the Rings film trilogy has remained the ultimate collision of nerd scrutiny and filmmaking excellence. It’s the exact kind of series that fans have hoped to one day see on 4K UHD Blu-ray for pristine color reproduction and utmost image quality.
This year, after countless DVD and Blu-ray releases, box sets, and special editions, Peter Jackson’s acclaimed trilogy has finally gotten a home version at four times the previous pixel resolution—and it’s as beautiful as I’d hoped for. If previous Blu-ray releases had you anxious about Jackson and Weta Workshop’s color-correction philosophy, rest assured that 4K Blu-ray’s full HDR canvas has done wonders for all three Tolkien classics.
Oh, and the three Hobbit films have gotten the same treatment, if you’re into that sort of thing. (Should image quality be your jam, you might even want to start with the newer trilogy in your 4K Blu-ray player of choice.)
Filmstock, respected and retouched
Just ahead of the United States’ Thanksgiving break, I received both trilogies’ standard 4K boxed sets, each with a gargantuan $90 price tag. Pay more, and you can get the same discs in slightly fancier packaging, but not with any additional discs or video content. All of the sets (launching December 1 at retailers) include each film’s theatrical and extended edits as separate discs, along with a streaming unlock code to access the films’ 4K versions via Movies Anywhere. The LOTR set weighs in at nine discs, with each theatrical run fitting on a single disc, and each extended edition being split into two discs. The Hobbit set is six discs in all: three theatrical film versions, and three extended cuts.
The past few years have seen more classic and acclaimed films receive 4K Blu-ray launches—and these are arguably the finest way to reproduce a director’s original vision in home theaters. But newcomers to the format should know what they’re in for. 4K Blu-ray often doesn’t guarantee that every pixel is filled with raw, filmed imagery, as fueled by modern filmmaking equipment like Red 8K cameras. Rather, LOTR‘s live-action footage was shot on a variety of 35mm cameras, then immediately transferred to digital formats for the sake of preservation and digital VFX work. The completed, combined product was then transferred to 35mm.
That final digital-to-analog step remains intact in this year’s 4K re-release. Jackson’s production crew has not gone back with the full pixel depth of 4K Blu-ray to insert highest-resolution renders of massive virtual armies, or manually paint super-zoomed detail that was never originally captured. Rather, each frame benefits from a tasteful amount of digital noise reduction (DNR). Many of the films’ original filmstock artifacts remain, like mild dithering to break up otherwise solid blocks of color—yet these are set off with absolutely handsome reproductions of dynamic, color-filled moments. A flicker of light off a sword’s blade shines with the maximum luminance afforded by an HDR panel. A wave of heat blurs an indoor pyre with striking resolution and depth, making its blur effect look that much more like a real fire on your screen.
The results look cleaner and more striking than many classic film re-releases, which may be because Jackson and co. already leaned heavily on digital archival systems when filming began. However they pulled it off, the resulting balance between film stock artifacts and gentle DNR application is some of the finest work I’ve ever seen in the 4K Blu-ray universe.