"A hallmark title in the canon of special venue film presentations, 'Chronos' imparts a unique vision of our world -- the first non-verbal, non-fiction motion picture filmed in time-lapse photography, scored with exotic instrumentation in a multi-channel surround soundtrack. Presented as a visual symphony in seven movements, 'Chronos' embarks on an unprecedented cinematic journey across the worlds of natural beauty and manmade monuments, as it explores the essence of time."
So says the synopsis on the back of the box for 'Chronos,' which is the first IMAX film to debut on high-def (first on HD DVD late last year, and now in this Blu-ray version). But what exactly is this movie about? The closest comparison I can come up with is the 'Koyaanisqatsi' trilogy of films, which are meditative, sometimes bombastic collisions of images and music that, through montage and juxtaposition, are meant to inspire us to see our world in new and challenging ways. If that sounds a bit high-falutin' and artsy-fartsy, well, it is. And while 'Chronos' may not match the ingenuity and pure visual brilliance of the "Qatsi" films, it still achieves a good number of its own moments of beauty and grandeur.
Documentarian Ron ('Baraka,' 'The Living Sea') Fricke made his directorial debut with 'Chronos' after working for years as a cinematographer, most notably on (wait for it) 'Koyaanisqatsi.' Despite a surprisingly limited budget, compressed shooting schedule and then-developmental IMAX camera equipment, Fricke clearly surmounted those obstacles to produce a work that is often visually breathtaking. Striking images abound in 'Chronos' -- burning orange suns caressing the decaying ruins of Egypt, a steel blue moon rising over a gleaming cityscape, misty-gray low tides consuming a rocky shoreline in England. If these images, on their own, appear to have no inherent "meaning," in the moments that I absorbed them, I didn't care. There is no use in arguing with natural beauty -- just take a deep breath and dive in.
If the sum of 'Chronos' ultimately feels like less than its parts, that may because unlike the 'Qatsi' films, Fricke and his sonic collaborator, Michael Stearns, seem to have no agenda in marrying their images and music. Nor does Fricke have any apparent desire to impart any underlying social message with his mise-en-scene. As beautiful as they may be, his juxtapositions and pastiche of natural and manmade landscapes seem arbitrary. Any and all interpretation is left to the viewer. The Vangelis-esque score is less reminiscent of Philip Glass than it is Yanni on acid. And with a runtime of only 40 minutes, 'Chronos' feels more like a long short film than a self-contained work. But it is no coincidence that the word "chronos" in Greek means "time." It seems to me that if 'Chronos' has anything to say at all, it is that time is all we have. And every moment is too precious to waste.
'Chronos' first hit HD DVD last year in a 1080i transfer, courtesy of Koch Releasing. Now, the studio has gone one better and remastered the film completely in 1080p for its Blu-ray release. According to the disc notes, the company went back to the original 65mm film elements for a telecine supervised by director Ron Fricke himself.
And while I was impressed with the level of depth and detail on the HD DVD, a direct compare between the two editions reveals that the Blu-ray is definitely an improvement. The image looks smoother and less edgy -- the HD DVD looked slightly digital, whereas the Blu-ray appears more film-like, yet still sharp. Far away shots benefit the most, with fine object detail more formed and obvious. It's not a huge upgrade by any means, but it is enough of one that on larger displays it should be noticeable. Colors are comparable -- the burnt oranges of the desert vistas and the deep blues of nighttime shots remain stand-outs on both versions.
There are still print issues shared by both versions. 'Chronos' is fast approaching its twentieth birthday, and the good news is that the source print is generally clean from major defects, such as scratches and obvious blemishes. However, grain is still present throughout, and it is heavy enough to be somewhat distracting. There are also some surprising bits of dirt on select shots. For example, there is a short series of images of Egyptian statues that suddenly appear marred by splotches and the like. To be fair, some of these "dropouts" are actually birds and other physical elements (at mentioned it the commentary), but the print is still not pristine. Note also that largely due to the time-lapse photography techniques, there are some serious brightness fluctuations. However, the transfer's blacks and consistency of the grayscale remain stable throughout.
This Blu-ray edition also gets a bump in audio. Koch has supplied a new, full-blown DTS HD Lossless Master Audio track at 96kHz/24-bit. Unfortunately, as of this writing, current Blu-ray hardware is unable to decode DTS HD to its fullest, so I was relegated to enjoying the track's 1.5mpbs "core" DTS track instead.
Given this (hopefully temporary) limitation, my test spin of this Blu-ray sounded nearly identical to HD DVD. Michael Sterns' synthesizer-heavy score will not be to everyone's taste, but it certainly has a grand presence on this track. Dynamic range is very "bright," but that fits Stearn's choice of electronic instrumentation. High end remains clean and as pleasing as is possible, while low bass is deep enough that it has heft and presence but is not overpowering. The sense of presence to the rears is very effective, and often a "wall of sound" is created that is quite enveloping. Again, the score itself is an acquired taste, but pumped through a decent set of speakers, 'Chronos' can be a very immersive, wonderfully overpowering experience.
'Chronos' hits Blu-ray with the same extras as the HD DVD. Though I don't own the existing standard-def DVD release, a quick look at the disc's specs online confirms that all of the featurettes on that version have been dropped. Also missing is a "Director's Shot List," though most of the information there seems to have been replicated in new text features exclusive to the high-def release (see the next section.)
The only feature directly ported over from the standard-def DVD release is the screen-specific audio commentary with director Ron Fricke, composer Michael Stearns and production manager Alton Walpole. Perhaps because the film only runs 40 minutes, I quite enjoyed this track. Though quite technical, it still manages to feel somewhat breezy. None of the participants are pretentious, and there are some humorous stories of trying to get complex shots off in one take, including several times when the film almost ran out in the camera, or an image needed to look "foggy" so Fricke smoked "about fifty cigarettes" and blew them in front of the lens. My only complaint is that Fricke never really discusses his shot selection or why he assembled images together the way he did; a bit more creative discussion would have been welcome.
Note that I did find the menu system a tad confusing at first. When you first boot up the disc, you are taken to the main menu, but there are only three options: "Play" the movie, get a list of "About" credits (mainly an IMDB listing for the filmmakers) and "DVD-ROM" instructions for accessing additional PC-only content on the disc. The only way to access the commentary and the other HD exclusive content (see below) is to start up the movie, and then hit the "Menu" button on your remote. That brings up a real-time interactive navigation bar during playback that grants control of the audio settings, chapter search and supplemental content.
'Chronos' is an interesting IMAX film. It may not be for everyone, but I found it soothing, thought-provoking and at times breathtaking. Koch has improved upon their already impressive HD DVD release with this new Blu-ray edition -- the transfer is better, and the audio is now in full-blown DTS HD Lossless Master audio. Again, the material may not be to everyone's taste, but 'Chronos' remains a unique enough IMAX experience that it is well worth checking out in high-def.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.