Every few years, Hollywood decides to revisit the western genre, usually with a big, sprawling epic featuring huge, outdoor vistas of big, open sky, and rolling hills as far as the lens can see. The Magnificent Seven is Hollywood’s latest big western offering, a remake of the 1969 original, which starred Yul Brynner, Charles Bronson, and Steve McQueen. That film, of course, was an adaptation of Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 masterpiece, The Seven Samurai.
Other than the star-studded cast in this modern remake, and the fact that westerns have a special place in my heart following the recent conclusion to HBO’s excellent Westworld, I was attracted to this film because Antoine Fuqua was the director. I was a big fan of his last film, Southpaw, and think he did an admirable job of updating the film for modern audiences and utilizing the different strengths of his cast.
The essential plot of Seven is that evil through-and-through industrialist baron, Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard), comes into Rose Creek and strong arms the locals in town, giving them an ultimatum at the end of a pistol barrel to sell their land at a pittance or else. He promises to return in three weeks’ time for their decision. Instead of buckling, the townsfolk pool their resources and look to hire warriors that will fight for them. The effort is led by Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) who seeks to avenge her husband, and she begins by hiring tough bounty hunter cum lawman, Sam Chisholm (Denzel Washington), who then recruits outlaw/gambler/ne’er-do-well, Josh Faraday (Chris Pratt), Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke), and others that ultimately total the Seven.
The story moves along fairly quickly and organically as the team is assembled, gathers to help train up the townsfolk, and ultimately prepares for the return of Bogues’ men, with the film steadily moving to its inevitable—and lengthy—violent showdown.
The film’s score plays terrific homage to Elmer Bernstein’s original, iconic, and immediately recognizable theme, updating and repurposing it throughout the film. I knew the music the second I heard it, but didn’t actually know where it had come from. Interestingly, this is the final original film score written by James Horner, who perished in a plane crash before he could see the film. Horner composed several pieces of original music for the film from reading the script, and these served as the basis for the soundtrack.
Even though the transfer was upconverted from the studio’s 2K digital intermediate, the UHD disc does a terrific job extracting and presenting fine details, like the patterns and texture in fabrics, the whisker and pore detail in faces, or the surface detail on the buildings and backgrounds. A bit of film grain is apparent in some of the outdoor shots of clouds and sky, but the transfer is generally clean and detailed and will look impressive on a new Ultra HDTV.
As an epic western, nearly all of the film is shot outdoors, with wide and grand 2.39:1 aspect vistas that play beautifully up on a big screen. The high dynamic range on the Ultra HD disc does a terrific job of capturing the vibrant outdoor scenes, with images pushing the nit limits of your display, making you squint against the bright sky in several scenes. At the same time the film retains the deep, dark details in scenes shot at night, next to firelight, or within the folds of someone’s clothing. Things that are meant to be dark and concealed, such as people standing in shadows, or Chisholm’s entirely black outfit, remain dark yet detailed.
With a mostly muted earth-tone color palette, and actors wearing drab browns, tans, and blacks, the film doesn’t often push Ultra HD’s wide color gamut to its limits, but outdoor vistas of greenish-brown scrub, trees, and blue skies are well rendered.
Much of the fun of this film is watching the story unfold and seeing the cast interact with one another. Denzel plays his classic, stoic, and reserved thrust-into-leadership role, and if you liked Chris Pratt as Star Lord in Guardians of the Galaxy, then you’ll love the cocksure western-version of his character here. While there is a lot of gunplay and killing, it is of the PG-13 variety with gore and viscera kept to a minimum.
One big reason for watching the Ultra HD Blu-ray over the regular disc is the audio: the UHD disc features a full-blown Dolby Atmos soundtrack, whereas the Blu-ray just gets a DTS-HD mix. While this movie has a dynamic audio track, it was actually a bit difficult to pick out demo-worthy scenes, as many are quite lengthy. The Atmos audio really captures the big sense of the outdoor space throughout, with lots of little audio details like wind blowing, leaves and grass rustling, or birds chirping.
If, however, you’re looking for some places to narrow your demo search, here are five scenes that play especially well.
(Warning: Spoilers follow…)
Recruiting Vasquez: Chapter 5, 29:26–31:56
The scene begins with Chisholm and Emma riding up to a desolate shack out in the woods. When the music stops, you can hear the rustle of branches overhead as the trees gently sway. When the couple enters the shack, you hear a flies buzzing all around the room and overhead, including one that seems to pass right in front of your face. When Vasquez comes in, he kicks a pistol away from Emma and you can clearly track it sliding across the wooden floor and out of frame far left of your room. All during their conversation, you hear the subtle creaks and groans of the wooden shack, as well as the outdoor sounds of birds chirping.
Fastest Gun Wins: Chapter 6, 32:25–34:30
As the two gunfighters stand facing each other in the corral, notice the swirling of wind and dust that travels through and around the room, setting the dusty stage throughout the scene. The pistol shots are loud and dynamic, and you can track the tin can whipping up into the air as it is shot. When they decide to do it for real, note the murmuring voices around the room as the bystanders get ready for the action.
Sending Bogue a Message: Chapter 9, 51:30–59:00
The real action doesn’t start until the 55-minute mark, but this is just such a great scene watching the Seven roll into town full of bravado and coming up against Bogue’s men. The music sets wonderful tension as it slowly builds to the brutal showdown between these hard men. When Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier) shoots his first arrow, you can hear it whistle down from the top of the room to the front, and you can clearly track the following footsteps as they clomp around overhead as a man walks into position on a balcony directly over your seating position. When the shooting starts, it’s quick and comes from all directions, with blasts coming from all around the room and overhead, near misses whipping past your head, putting you right in the middle of the fray.
Shooting Practice: Chapter 11 1:09–1:12
If the previous scene has a bit too much killing for your demonstration needs, this next one should fit the bill. It starts with Robicheaux offering rifle practice with the townspeople that stayed to fight. You can clearly hear the different reports of the rifles as they fire at sandbag targets. As one trainee misfires you’ll likely have someone jump from the blast if played at volume. During the second round of firing you hear the ricochets and dust kick up all around. Wait until Robicheaux finishes firing, and notice the long decay as his rifle shots echo around the room.
Battle for Rose Creek: Chapter 14, 1:38–1:46
The film has been building to this showdown between the forces of good and evil, and Fuqua delivers the goods here. The battle rages along for many minutes, and there is plenty of immersive audio to enjoy, with the entire battle scene filled with frenetic mayhem coming at you from all sides. There’s a terrific audio moment at 1:39:50 when Emma takes a rifle shot and then the camera quickly changes point of view and you clearly hear her spent brass eject and rattle off in the far left side of the room. Horses charge past you, gun shots explode from all corners of the room and high up on the walls as both sides give their all. At 1:41:30 notice how the audio tracks up the front wall as the camera pans up to cover the shooters on the balcony. While the battle rages on for several more long minutes—and the Gatling gun makes for a sonic fury, spitting bullets and destruction all around the room, splintering wood and ejecting brass all over—the demo takes a dark turn as many of our heroic Seven start meeting brutal ends, making this the best place to cut the demo.