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IMAX: Rocky Mountain Express

Shout Factory // Unrated // July 12, 2016
List Price: $39.93 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by John Sinnott | posted July 3, 2016 | E-mail the Author
The Movie:

Railroad fans will want to seek out a copy of Shout! Factory's latest 4K UHD release: Rocky Mountain Express. Originally shown in IMAX theaters and shot in 70mm, this short film is part documentary, part travelogue, and part nature film telling the story of Canada's first railway to cross the Rockies. The gorgeous Canadian countryside looks stunning in UHD and the disc even comes with some great bonuses that complement the main feature.

In 1871 British Columbia became part of Canada, and one of the provisions of their joining was that a railroad would join the province with the rest of the country. That was easier said than done since the Rocky Mountains separated the two. In the early 1880's, a man with the imposing name of William Cornelius Van Horne was charged with creating the railway that would get through the tall mountains and over the course of five years he did just that, having his men blast and dig their way through treacherous and often deadly terrain.

This film chronicles Van Horne's feat, through period photographs and the writings of people who were there. It also shows what the railway looks like today, with beautiful aerial photography but mainly from the train itself, snaking its way through the Rockies. Not just any train however, but a restored steam engine that makes the trek through the mountains in much the same fashion as travelers did back in the 1880's.

As a documentary, the film itself is quite interesting. The fact that they spent over a decade just looking for a pass through the mountains is impressive, and the description of how the railroad was built was fascinating. The one qualm I have it that Van Horne's contribution was touted a bit too much. They explained some of the decisions that he made and why, but most of them seemed just flat out wrong, adding a lot of time and expense to the project, both in terms of money and human life. One such choice was to have the rail take a southern route, which was more dangerous but would bring in business from the Norther US, or a more northern route which would be easier to build but a bit longer. He chose the southern pass, hired a surveyor who mapped out a route that was nearly impossible to build (and subject to avalanches that covered the track in the winter) and pushed through even though scores of men died in the harsh conditions. Though this southern route had to be redone a couple of times in the following years (the track being so hazardous that the rail company returned and blasted serpentine tunnels through the mountains... twice!) they never come out and say that Van Horne made a horrible mistake.

The scenery is incredible though. As a travelogue/nature film is where this feature really succeeds. The vistas are stunning and the tree-covered mountains and cool, flowing rivers are absolutely beautiful. It is an attractive part of the country and this film is the next best thing to seeing it for yourself.

The Ultra HD Disc:

This set comes with the 4K UHD disc as well as a Blu-ray disc that also contains the movie and all extras. There is not a 3D Blu-ray disc (as there are with Shout! Factory's releases of Journey into Space and Flight of the Butterflies) since the movie was not shot in that format.


Originally intended for exhibition in IMAX theaters and filmed in 70mm, the 1.78:1 image looks great. The also comes with HDR (High Dynamic Range) but unlike most 4K releases, it is optional which is great for geeks like me who enjoy seeing the difference the HDR makes in the image quality. You'll want to watch with the HDR on, as the extra contrast really improves the picture. The level of detail is extraordinary, as one would expect. The smoke billowing out of the engine has texture and definition that the BR version just doesn't have, and the lush Canadian countryside really comes to life. If you like looking at nature, you'll really enjoy the way it looks on this disc.


This documentary arrives with a Dolby Atmos (core Dolby TrueHD 7.1) soundtrack that does the job. The sounds of the locomotive chugging down the track are deep and powerful, filling the room with the sound and the narration is clean and clear. Aside from the train itself, there isn't a lot of call for the surrounds or subwoofer, but that's okay. The audio is pleasing and pleasant and works well with the material.


There are a couple of cool bonus items included on this disc. The first is an eleven-minute animated short created by the National Film Board of Canada entitled The Romance of Transportation in Canada. Made in 1952 by Colin Low, father of Stephen Low, the director of Rocky Mountain Express, it's a cute history of transportation in Canada done in a modern/ UPA-style of animation that was popular at the time and still holds up well today. It is a very nice surprise that I wasn't expecting. The second featurette, also sponsored by the National Film Board of Canada, is Railroaders from 1958. This B&W 22-minute documentary looks at the life of people who work on the rail line, the same one profiled in the Rocky Mountain Express. It's an interesting look at a bygone lifestyle, and while it does run a bit longer than it should, the film is well worth watching an is an excellent supplement to the main feature.

Final Thoughts:

A beautiful and interesting documentary on the building of a railroad, this IMAX feature looks great in 4K UHD. Recommended.

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