Life of Pi – 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray review

While Ang Lee’s extraordinary 2013 adaptation of Yann Martel’s eponymous novel lost out to Argo for a 'Best Picture' Academy Award, two of the four awards it scooped were 'Best Visual Effects' and 'Best Cinematography'.

A visual masterpiece and CGI triumph, Life of Pi immerses its audience in a magical and wondrous virtual cosmos. So if any film is worthy of the 4K Blu-ray treatment, it should be this one.

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For anyone who hasn’t yet watched the film that cropped up on nearly every critic’s top ten list in 2013, never has the phrase ‘better late than never’ been more appropriate. In fact, experiencing it in 4K (on a nice room-dominating telly) can almost make up for having missed out four years ago.

The story of an Indian boy’s survival at sea in a rescue boat with a Bengal tiger, Life of Pi combines masterful storytelling (of a tale once considered impossible to adapt for the screen) with epic adventure that makes it one of Lee’s great contributions to cinema - and to 3D cinema too.

Shot entirely in 3D – far from a gimmick to make audiences jump out of their seat, but instead a huge part of the film’s creative process and ability to immerse – it didn’t just become a must see on the big screen, but a must see in 3D.

But here's the catch: UHD Blu-ray doesn't support 3D. We can’t quite bring ourselves to say the Life of Pi UHD Blu-ray suffers from the omission – even if the film isn’t actually pure, pure 4K.

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Unlike UHD Blu-ray films shot and mastered in 4K, Life of Pi (alongside many early UHD Blu-ray releases) has been upscaled to a 3840 x 2160 resolution from its original 2K master. It was shot digitally using an Arri Alexa camera at 2.8K resolution and completed with a 2K Digital Intermediate.

In accordance with the Ultra HD Premium specification for content, the HEVC/H.265-encoded film is also presented with 10-bit video depth, Wider Colour Gamut (the BT.2020 colour space) and HDR (high dynamic range).

Don’t be too hasty to label this as 'fake' 4K, though. The upconversion and retouch process has been done with utmost care, and does in fact add to the extraordinary realism of CGI.

We load the disc in one of our reference AV partnerships – the Samsung UE65KS9000 TV and Oppo UDP-203 4K Blu-ray player – and the opening frames of the Taipei Zoo alone are a hard sell for the UHD Blu-ray format.

The resolution pulls everything that much more into focus – like putting on glasses. The rendering of the textures of monkey fur, the close-ups of Richard Parker’s face, and the patterns on snakeskin is reminiscent of BBC’s 4K trial of Planet Earth 2.

Sure, the HDR blanket ups the richness of the lush Indian green fields, the vibrancy of the market stalls and regal hues of buildings. In night scenes, the brightness of candles floating on the river is intense, as is the luminosity of jellyfish in the ocean.

It’s not just an onslaught of colour and contrast, but a considered one too, adding more shades of pink to flamingos feathers and realistic glisten to hippos’ wet backs. Even in understated scenes – pastel-coloured walls in classrooms, wooden furniture in the house and murals on walls – HDR gets to work. The way light hits foreheads and smoke billows from fires all add to the realism.

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While some 4K Blu-rays up the immersion scale on both picture and sound (like Star Trek and The Magnificent Seven with their Dolby Atmos soundtrack), Life of Pi is presented with the same DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 track that features on the standard Blu-ray.

It is more than sufficient for the Oscar-winning soundtrack – though not specifically a reason to splash out on the higher resolution compared with the standard version.

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There’s a tendency to get carried away with the idea of new and exciting technologies – but we have always believed UHD Blu-ray would live up to its hype.

But as Pi himself says in the film: “you cannot know strength of faith until it’s been tested”. Now our 4K Blu-ray watchlist has entered double figures, we can truly say UHD Blu-ray is an audiovisual godsend. And Life of Pi is one of the most impressive (picture-wise, at least) that we’ve come across.

Nothing can beat the first time, but this 4K disc certainly warrants rewatching a film you may have experienced in 3D on the big screen.

Buy Life of Pi on 4K UHD Blu-ray at Amazon


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Becky Roberts

Becky is the managing editor of What Hi-Fi? and, since her recent move to Melbourne, also the editor of Australian Hi-Fi magazine. During her 10 years in the hi-fi industry, she has been fortunate enough to travel the world to report on the biggest and most exciting brands in hi-fi and consumer tech (and has had the jetlag and hangovers to remember them by). In her spare time, Becky can often be found running, watching Liverpool FC and horror movies, and hunting for gluten-free cake.