Every year, the technology for watching movies improves a little more, inching along on the quest to provide total immersion in a film. So much is made about advances in visual fidelity, however, that the role of sound is often overlooked. Sound design is a crucial aspect of filmmaking, engulfing the audience in a way visuals simply cannot, and theaters are always looking for ways to make their sound systems better. Dolby’s Atmos system is one of the latest formats to hit commercial and home theaters and sounds incredible, thanks to its ability to rain sound effects from up above and all around you.
Unlike a surround sound setup, in which sounds come from a limited number of channels broadcast through speakers arranged around a room, Atmos broadcasts each object of sound (such as a glass hitting the ground or a person shouting) to a specific place in the room, as designated by the engineers who mixed the soundtrack. This enables sound mixers to craft highly detailed soundtracks for films that convince the audience that they are within the action. Already popular in theaters, Atmos is also available in homes, as more Blu-rays are being released with Atmos soundtracks. At around 150 Dolby Atmos movies, the selection is limited, but there are still plenty of movies on the list that deserve the surround sound experience.
Mad Max: Fury Road
Mad Max: Fury Road, the resurrection of George Miller’s apocalyptic 80s franchise, was a surprise hit, garnering rave reviews for its highly kinetic action and uncompromising vision of dystopia. Set in Australia years after nuclear war has scorched the Earth, the film follows series protagonist Max Rockatansky as he joins a band of women fleeing a brutal warlord. The ensuing chase sets the ugliness of machinery against the beauty of the natural world, as ramshackle vehicles hound each other across the red wastes. As metal clashes and flames erupt, the sound is as important as the explosive visuals, surrounding the audience with a symphony of warfare. Fury Road is an intense two-hour chase sequence underscored by a muscular soundtrack from Junkie XL; it’s a celebration of everything action movies should aspire to be, and one of the best Atmos demonstrations available today.
John Wick 1 & 2
The old-school action film, rife with gun violence and merciless protagonists, seems like a relic today in a market dominated by family-friendly superhero movies. Perhaps this is why the John Wick films, despite a familiar premise (a badass gunfighter seeks vengeance on those who wronged him), feels so fresh. Starring Keanu Reeves as the titular assassin, John Wick is a pulsing revenge thriller, beautifully shot and anchored by an appropriately grim performance from Reeves. It’s a perfect film for home theater viewing. Exhibit A: a scene wherein Wick massacres his way through a criminal nightclub, the whole scene drenched in red and blue, as a melancholy pop song throbs underneath. Violence has never seemed so beautiful.
After you’ve watched John Wick enough times that you’ve memorized Reeves’ crazy gunplay choreography, you’ll want to move on to the equally great sequel, John Wick: Chapter 2. The sequel picks up right where the original left off, but this time Wick has to fight off a myriad of assassins looking to collect the price on his head. Chapter 2 is more of the same in all the right ways, and every gunshot and gut punch will pulsate beautifully throughout your living room in Dolby Atmos sound.
Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation
The Mission Impossible films have never pretended to be anything other than highly entertaining spy thrillers, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The latest entry, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, follows the traditions of its predecessors, setting protagonist Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) on the hunt for a mysterious international crime syndicate, charging all the while through a series of dangerous, tightly choreographed action scenes. The various set pieces are a treat for the senses, particularly a tense fight in an opera house where the punches, crashes, and other assorted sound effects punctuate a performance of Puccini’s Turandot. There are few films as straightforward in their thrills as Rogue Nation, an explosive spectacle that shows blockbuster filmmaking at its finest.
As brutal as it is heartbreaking, Logan takes Wolverine (and the superhero genre as a whole) into unknown territory, and the film serves as the perfect swan song for the titular character who’s been clawing up bad guys and evil mutants for nearly two decades. Wolverine’s softer side is on full display in Logan, but that doesn’t mean our favorite killer mutant doesn’t show his animal side, too. Hearing the sounds of Wolverine’s claws unleash and slice through a horde of evildoers is as stirring as it is frightening, especially when it’s magnified through a surround sound system that makes you feel like you’re right beside the lone mutant.
The Martian: Extended Edition
After he’s abandoned on Mars with virtually no resources, Mark Watney (Matt Damon) uses his NASA training and wits to help him stay alive and send signals back to Earth. Director Ridley Scott’s sense of magnitude and scope makes Damon’s odyssey through Mars equal parts beautiful and desolate. The soundtrack projected through the Atmos systems gives you a better sense of suspense as the film leads to its adventurous climax, which puts Damon’s character in life or death situations as he’s making split-second decisions and attempting to make his harrowing escape back to Earth. The extended edition of The Martian adds 10 more minutes to the film as well as a plethora of special features.
Alfonso Cuaron’s 2013 masterpiece drew praise for its sound design and cinematography, which combined to give viewers the sensation of being in space. Following a pair of astronauts adrift in space after their shuttle is destroyed by debris, Gravity explores their personalities and relationship against the backdrop of the cold, all-encompassing void. It was dazzling to watch on an IMAX screen, but while the human drama managed to translate to home theaters, the overwhelming spectacle was harder to capture. Atmos is a great format for the film, where the position and movement of sounds are key to immersing viewers in the physics of space. The chirping of machines, headset chatter bouncing around in the astronauts’ helmets, and of course, Steven Price’s stirring, layered score; all of these mesh together to create soundscapes unlike anything else in Hollywood cinema. If you have an Atmos setup and want to show it off to friends, Gravity is easily one of the most impressive experiences available.
It may be hard to imagine that mere miles from the border of Texas are cities that resemble war zones. Such is the case with Juarez, Mexico, a city that just a few years ago had the highest murder rate in the world. It is in this borderland that Sicario sets its scene, beginning when FBI agent Kate Mercer (Emily Blunt) joins a covert operation to hunt the cartel leader responsible for a series of killings in America. As the strike team moves closer to its goal, Kate experiences firsthand the stagnant horror of the war on drugs, a conflict that corrupts both sides of the border. Heavy subject matter aside, Sicario is a relentless thriller, with a cloud of dread hanging above even the most sunlit scenes. When the tension snaps and the bullets start flying, viewers may feel as if they have been sucked into the vicious quagmire themselves.
Clint Eastwood has made an impressive career directing smaller-scale character dramas about troubled men, and Sully is yet another notch in that belt. Based on the autobiography of Chesley Sullenberger, Sully puts you in the middle of the improvised and harrowing landing that the accomplished pilot made on the Hudson River in 2009. The film also gives you insight on the psyche of Sully after the near fatal landing, and it captures the tense and tumultuous board hearings where he’s questioned over his choices. Experiencing the famous landing as well as a visceral and controversial dream sequence where Sully crashes a plane into a skyscraper makes for required viewing in Dolby Atmos.
Game of Thrones Season 1-6
You’ve somehow managed to miss out on HBO’s epic fantasy soap opera? There is still time to catch up before the show wraps up. Set on the fantasy continent of Westeros, the show chronicles the political and military conflicts centered around control of the throne. The series has adapted (and eventually diverged from) George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fireseries, packing all of the political intrigue and violence of the novels into a taut episodic format. Despite being made for the small screen, there is nothing small about the scale of Game of Thrones, with the exotic locales and pitched battles of Westeros rendered in vivid detail.
Admittedly, T2 isn’t as subversive as the original, but it’s still worth watching just to see what your favorite drug-addicts have been up to the last 20 years. Also, it’s a Danny Boyle film, which means that the price of the Blu-ray is worth it for his original and stimulating visuals alone. Just like the original, T2 is accompanied by an amazing soundtrack that’s a who’s-who of post-punk and new wave brands. The mix of captivating visuals and perfect soundtrack makes for a home theater experience that you simply won’t be able to get with any other film currently available in Dolby Atmos sound.
Watching everyone’s favorite Merc With a Mouth kill a bunch of bad guys while making cringe-worthy jokes was a treat in theaters, but it’s an even better time when you’re laughing along with your friends and family at home. Every bullet, stab, and terrible pun is amplified for the better with Dolby Atmos sound. Composer Junkie XL’s distinct ear for grandiose electronic music makes for a soundtrack that sets the stage perfectly for the wisecracking anti-hero to make his way through bad guys like knife and butter.
Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie
With a name like Captain Underpants, you’d hope that the movie would be a fun, silly way to spend an hour and a half. It delivers on that front, while also serving up a serviceable side of heartwarming moments thanks to the on-screen friendship voiced by Kevin Hart and Thomas Middleditch. The list of family-friendly animation movies available in Dolby Atmos is scarce; if you’re sick and tired of Minions and don’t want to endure the Smurf movies, Captain Underpants will save the day. The film’s wonderful animation is accompanied by enough laughs to keep everyone in the family entertained. Captain Underpants also features an amazing soundtrack that features everyone from Weird Al to Lil Yachty. You truly haven’t taken advantage of your Atmos system until you’ve heard Weird Al’s Captain Underpants theme song.
When there’s something strange in the neighborhood, what ya gonna watch? Whether you’ve seen the movie hundreds of times or haven’t watched it since it came out on VHS, Ghostbusters is still worth it just to see the entire cast, from Bill Murray to Sigourney Weaver, at the top of their game. Watching the film in high definition and Atmos sound will have you smiling just as big as when you first watched the classic as a kid, and seeing the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man take on New York has never looked so good. As an added bonus, Ghostbusters 2 and the remake are also available in Dolby Atmos.
Your only two options for an R-rated action comedy in Dolby Atmos sound are Baywatch and Pineapple Express. Sure, Baywatch has Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson killing bad guys and running from explosions all in the name of coastal security, but Pineapple Express has fun action sequences of its own, and the movie’s two stoner leads (James Franco and Seth Rogen) are always a joy to see on screen together.
Swiss Army Man
Your Dolby Atmos system can handle any explosion, gunshot, and punch you throw its way, but what about a fart? When Swiss Army Man premiered at Sundance in 2016, people walked out of the theater due to its dumb and excessive fart jokes, but behind this story of a suicidal man finding a farting corpse is a thoughtful, funny, story about human connections and expressing who you are. The film might not be for everyone, but it caught the attention of NPR, which interviewed the director and went into great detail over the metaphor hiding behind a farting corpse.
On Any Sunday: The Next Chapter
In 1971, Bruce Brown (with help from Steve McQueen) released On Any Sunday, a documentary about the then-fringe world of motorcycle racing. It was a momentous film, receiving an Oscar nomination and helping make motorcycles more mainstream. In 2014, Brown’s son Dana (with help from Red Bull) released On Any Sunday: The Next Chapter, which examines the state of motorcycle racing today. The tech on display (both the motorcycles and the filmmaking equipment) is more advanced, and the racing segments are thrilling, demonstrating the technical skill and dangers involved. The film lacks the artistry of the original, however; where Bruce Brown’s film was willing to track McQueen as he bounces across sand dunes, a whimsical organ piece playing in the background, The Next Chapter turns everything up to eleven, with pumping drum-and-bass and frequent jump cuts.
Roger Waters: The Wall
Pink Floyd’s The Wall is a legendary album, made famous by hits like Comfortably Numband Another Brick in the Wall, as well as marking the start of the band’s decline due to internal conflicts. Bassist Roger Waters was largely responsible for the direction and songwriting of the album, and his solo tour from 2010-13 represents probably the last time it will be performed in its entirety. Roger Waters: The Wall captures the grandiose performances from that tour, where Waters traded the psychedelic imagery from the original performances of The Wall for striking visuals that evoke contemporary political issues, such as financial corruption and terrorism. Age has not dulled Water’s musical talent at all, his melodic bass and trademark snarl injecting soul into the theatrics. Interspersed through the film are scenes of Waters visiting the graves of his father and grandfather (both soldiers killed in war) and ruminating about their lives. The film provides a dramatic re-imagining of one of the biggest rock albums of all time.
Nature documentaries are well-trod ground at this point, but that doesn’t mean they can’t still impress. Produced by the BBC, Enchanted Kingdom is a tour through the diverse biomes of Africa, with everything from the tiniest insects to the tallest mountain peaks captured in immaculate detail. The filmmakers used a variety of cameras and techniques to document their subjects, and the level of craftsmanship on display is impressive, with even the time lapse sequences looking too seamless to be real. The film accurately reproduces the sounds of the wild as well, and moments like a volcano erupting will rock the audience. Idris Elba provides narration, his rich baritone enveloping viewers on their journey through nature.
Journey to Space
When NASA closed its doors on the Space Shuttle Program in 2011, hope for exploring new worlds and witnessing life beyond ours started to dissipate. Journey to Space brings hope back by showcasing NASA’s audacious plans for landing on Mars in the distant (but not too distant) future. You’re given just a glimpse — the documentary is a lean 45 minutes — but it’s packed with beautiful footage from space that was originally featured in the IMAX film, Space Station 3D. If you missed out on that movie when it was released in theaters, Journey to Space is the only way to see that footage in the comfort of your home and surrounded in Atmos sound. The doc is also narrated by Sir Patrick Stewart, who knows a thing or two about the deep realms of space from his old Starfleet days.
Rocky Mountain Express
Between self-automated semi-trucks and Amazon package drones, railroads seem like a minuscule accomplishment from more than a century ago. Rocky Mountain Express puts into perspective just how amazing of a feat it was to build railroads. Originally an IMAX release, the documentary follows a restored 1930’s steam engine as it travels railroads throughout rural Canada, and as the train goes on its journey, we’re treated to aerial footage of breathtaking landscapes and once-in-a-lifetime views. The thunderous roar of a steam engine echoing throughout your home gives you the sensation of a train travelling just right outside your front door. Admittedly, a documentary about trains doesn’t sound too enthralling, but you’re quickly captivated at the train’s remarkable power and ingenuity. The feeling is how you imagine people felt in the late 1800’s when film was first introduced and audiences were enthralled with the Luiere brothers’ 50-second film, Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula
Bram Stoker’s most famous novel has been adapted many times, with the titular count making more than 200 film appearances. Though most films featuring Dracula stray far from the source material, Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 film retains most of the plot, even using multiple narrators and viewpoints to capture the fragmented nature of the novel. For those who haven’t read the horror classic, the story concerns the arrival of the vampire Count Dracula (Gary Oldman) in 19th century London, and the group of people who run afoul of him. Coppola reimagines the count as a tragic figure, but doesn’t sacrifice any of the horror he brings with him. Filmed using practical effects in order to maintain an antique aesthetic, Coppola’s Dracula is a delirious journey through romance and horror, the type of big budget spectacle most directors could only dream of making nowadays.
The Fifth Element
Summer blockbusters have become so rote that it is hard to remember a time when big budget action films dared to be a little mad. Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element, set in the 23rd century, involves a New York taxi driver/special forces soldier (Bruce Willis) helping an ancient woman (Milla Jovovich) locate a superweapon capable of destroying a planet-destroying evil. And that’s just the setup. Depicting a grotesque future where consumerism and industry have ruined the Earth, The Fifth Element is a gutsy sci-fi adventure with an imaginative setting and over-the-top action set pieces. The film’s sound design is also key, immersing the viewer in bizarre machinery and the alien music of Besson’s future.
“So bad it’s good” is a phrase thrown around a little too easily these days. Some films are worth watching not because they’re great or even good in any discernible way, but because they strive so hard to reach new heights that their failures are more spectacular than a typical movie’s successes. Jupiter Ascending, the latest film from the Wachowski siblings is, like pretty much every movie they’ve done since The Matrix, a mess. Unlike the second and third Matrix films, however, it’s a fascinating mess. The story begins when Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) discovers that she is the genetic reincarnation of the Mother Abrasax, the previous queen of the solar system, making Jupiter royalty. Abrasax’s three children want the inheritance all to themselves, and so Jupiter must contend with them and save the universe from their control. She is accompanied on her galactic journey by Caine Wise (Channing Tatum), a bounty-hunting werewolf who wears rocket boots — a sentence that by itself should convince anyone to watch Jupiter Ascending.
The Cabin in the Woods
If you like horror films with a bit of a comedy and a dash of “what the hell is happening?” then there’s no better movie available in Dolby Atmos than The Cabin in the Woods. In it, a group of college kids decide to take a break from their studies and have some fun in the woods, only to be interrupted by a family of zombies. Sounds like a pretty standard horror flick, but by the time you’re in the third act, you’re watching people get massacred by everything from werewolves and ghosts to unicorns and a mermaid (sorry, merman). Directed by Cloverfield‘s Drew Goddard and written by The Avengers writer/director Joss Whedon, Cabin in the Woods plays with your psyche as much as it plays with horror tropes, and it treats you to a blood-ridden horror film that never forgets to make you laugh.
Rebooted Star Trek Trilogy
For every lightsaber and TIE fighter battle in Star Wars, there’s a deep, sometimes dry, discussion about human nature or physics in Star Trek. Filmmaker J.J. Abrams’ production company saw this as an opportunity to revitalize the Star Trek franchise for the 21st century, and the results were a trilogy of films as explosive as any other action film, while still holding true to the franchise’s tradition of being obsessed with time theory and quantum mechanics. Experiencing Future San Francisco fall to the hands of Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch), or watching a young Kirk steal a car and nearly jump off a cliff while blasting The Beastie Boys, makes you realize just how fun it is to witness blockbuster sci-fi films push your Atmos surround system to new limits.