Narrated by Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's Avery Brooks, IMAX: Mysteries of China operates similarly to many other cinematography-heavy productions designed for IMAX venues, one focused on the discovery of the Terracotta Army in the ‘70s and the anthropological insights that emerged from their analysis. The history behind their existence is inherently interesting, where farmers amid digging a well unearthed slightly larger than life-sized sculptures that, eventually, revealed the post-life superstitions and preparations centered around Qin Shi Huang, the First Emperor of China. These terracotta warriors -- alongside images of the Great Wall and contemporary China -- offer a striking visual experience that's worth checking out the short runtime of Mysteries of China by itself; however, the telling of the history and the plain, often borrowed photography of historical dramatizations keep it from being more engaging.
The IMAX experience starts off strong in its juxtaposition of modern-era China against the early historical depictions of what led to the army's discovery in 1974, offering the catchy and vibrant sights of the country as a "vision of the future" before shifting over to glimpses into its past. These visuals are so entrancing that the slow, low-rumbling narration of Avery Brooks doesn't intrude on the pseudo-documentary's rhythm at first, which moves from the bold colors of modernistic architecture and the wide expanses of the sunlight-covered Great Wall to the partly-shadowy glimpses at the Terracotta Army within its resting place. The comparatively dim lighting covering the statues accentuates the textures and textiles of their construction, which, of course, ends up being the core of the experience in sitting down to watch Mysteries of China, enveloping its audience in dark reddish-oranges and faint shades of color worn away from the ages.
Thing is, most of these aesthetic delights can be properly absorbed within the first 10-15 minutes of the piece, which leaves the rest of it to stand on its own based on the historical content being discussed, and the manner in which it's delivered. Along with perfunctory dramatizations of battles and courtroom politics -- which includes borrowed footage from an ‘8os historical epic, The First Emperor -- the actual scripting of the historical events comes across like a textbook being read aloud than one tailored for an engaging viewing or listening experience. Outside of a few noteworthy factoids, Avery Brooks' deep narration stays at a relatively monotone rhythm throughout, which doesn't help the pacing of the straightforward history lessons being revealed. Archival photographs and a computer-generated representation of infantry size comparisons between armies throughout history add tastes of interest, but the depiction of Qin Shi Huang's reign and cause of death drag down the forward-motion of the experience.
These visuals are stunning, though, and Shout Factory's 2160p, HDR-enhanced representation of the 1.78:1-framed footage certainly delivers in that regard. As previously mentioned, the Terracotta Army provides the central imagery attraction to IMAX: Mysteries of China, and the enhanced resolution allows the digital photography to concentrate on the aged surfaces of the sculptures and the coarse stone textures surrounding them, providing razor-sharp detail amid many up close and personal zooms. Shadows elevate the depth and realism of the photography through the site's trenches, and the nimbleness of the contrast's black levels takes the viewer much closer to the in-person experience than one might expect. The HDR potential of the presentation exists less in these shots and more in the exteriors of the sun-baked Great Wall and the vivid neon shades of modern China at nighttime, which accentuate the vivacity of their respective lighting elements without washing out brightness levels. There are a few shots with light blooming, but those mostly seem to be there for a historical/vintage effect and not the product of faulty UltraHD effects. It's a very attractive demo disc, one that offers both High Dynamic Range and Standard Dynamic Range visual options.
Beyond the narration and accompanying music, however, there isn't a lot to relish in the 7.1 Dolby Atmos/TrueHD sound presentation. Avery Brooks' verbal delivery hits an appropriately nuanced depth, consistently reaching into the lower-frequency response while also sporting bountiful clarity in his enunciation. Everything, though, including Brooks, mostly fall into a perfunctory listening experience that merely works to support the visuals throughout, where the musical accompaniment fills the surround channels and a few scattered sonic effects -- digging away at dirt, gently brushing debris from antiquities, the neighing and galloping of horses -- offer pronounced, balanced engagement of the high-definition track. The surround environment created fits with the doc's intentions, and stays immersive enough to lock in the viewer's experience. French and Spanish DTS-HD Master Audio track are available, as well as optional English SDH subtitles.
Extras include a ten-minute Behind the Scenes (10:05, 16x9 HD) piece that covers the creation of the IMAX experience that spanned over a few years and five different locations, where producer/director Keith Melton goes over the development. He reiterates the historical storytelling from the IMAX experience, but along with that also comes plenty of footage featuring his direction and usage of the cameras, as well as archival photo comparisons. Melton also discusses the cameras and cranes used, how coordination with the government of China afforded them close access to the Terracotta Army pits -- and the risks of shooting there -- and how they were able to use mostly Chinese talents with their production. The folks at Shout have also packaged a Standard Blu-ray Disc and a Digital Copy with this set.
IMAX: Mysteries of China offers a striking, satisfying composite of footage revolving around the Terracotta Army and other elements of Chinese's ancient history, but the composition of the feature's "storytelling" makes for a lukewarm overall experience. It'll prove to be a worthwhile introduction to the historical aspects for those who didn't know much about the rationale behind the statues' creation, as well as the connecting the dots behind Qin Shi Huang's military rise and idiosyncratic fall. The pacing of the thirty-minute feature begins to slump about halfway in, though, once the grandeur of the IMAX footage has set in and the patchwork of other visual elements accompanying almost textbook-caliber communication of details narrated by Avery Brooks. Worth a Rental, especially for the 4K/HDR eye candy.