As a child that grew up in the 1980s, HBO is probably the most responsible for me becoming the film fanatic that I am today. This decade was ripe for home entertainment innovation as cable television and the VCR allowed Hollywood unprecedented affordable access to our living rooms.
For better or worse, I grew up with a litany of movies that always played in heavy rotation on HBO. That's why I continue to hold such high esteem for films such as Midnight Madness, Real Genius and The Neverending Story. So, when The Natural debuted on HBO on June 21, 1985, I knew that it would become a touchstone sports film for me.
The underdog story that rails against avarice, The Natural stars Robert Redford as Roy Hobbs, a young baseball phenom destined for greatness in the sport. Along the way, his dreams are dashed after a chance encounter with a femme fatale leaves him injured. Hobbs is given a second chance though as a 35-year-old rookie intent on lifting the spirits of a struggling team with his mighty bat.
There is no other scene from a sports film that is as cinematic as the final home run shot from Roy Hobbs. Seeing Robert Redford circle the bases as a shower of sparks rain down on him from above is not only the most iconic sports scene ever, but it's right up there with the best scenes of all time.
Director Barry Levinson has a long resumÃ© of great Hollywood films with several emotional moments, but the story of greed and redemption that ends in a literal celebration of fireworks might top them all. Let's face it, the sports world hasn't exactly enjoyed a wholesome image over the years, so it's nice to go back and revisit a time when sports were the expression of childlike exuberance that made them so popular.
I have to say though that I was a bit hesitant ahead of my review of the 4K UHD. It had been a few years since I had lost watched The Natural and I was both anxious and excited to see if the film still had that magical quality that hooked me in 35 years ago. I'm happy to say that not only does the film hold up, but as an adult, I found new appreciation in scenes that were a bit beyond my 10-year-old comprehension.
The movie is not only a standard to which all other sports films that follow it are judged, but it's also a morality tale told in simple sports metaphors. The young Roy Hobbs steeped in his hubris after striking out the Whammer becomes a modern-day Icarus and suffers the consequences by losing his shot at the majors. It is also a redemption story that allows Roy to work his way back to the game that he loves and to reach a level of success that his high skill level warrants.
Of course, the deeper meaning of the film gets into the corruption in sports that have long plagued the various leagues. The game of baseball has long been shrouded in periods of darkness as the long shadows of scandal cast their pale long after they have taken place. The beauty in The Natural lies in Roy's renewed commitment to the sanctity of the game no matter the consequences. He believes in himself and proves to be an upstanding ambassador of the sport.
The Natural is a classic film that continues to shine through after all of these years. It will also continue to be a shining beacon to those pure in spirit long after we have departed this Earth. It's just one of those iconic films that literally captures lightning in a bat. Sorry, I couldn't resist that analogy.
So, how was the 4K UHD version? I am happy to report that Sony really outdid themselves with this presentation. The new video transfer is spectacular and really allows the film to showcase the period in which it is set. There is still enough film grain to give the movie an appropriate level of age that is in keeping with the time period. While the HDR does give the movie a wider spectrum of colors, there is still enough softness to evoke the magical moments. For instance, Glenn Close's "woman in white" scene is a great example of how you can use higher resolution without compromising the filmmaker's vision.
I also have to applaud the deeper blacks that come with the new video transfer. As a morality tale, The Natural plays with dark and light scenes to convey the movie's intentions. For instance, the antagonist owner and gambler watch the game for the owner's office which is never suitably lit. By contrast, Roy enjoys bright sunlight during his high moments and darkened sequences when he goes astray from his path. The final home run sequence is a brilliant culmination of the film's effort as the mighty blast from Roy literally rains light in the form of the sparks onto the darkness. The 4K UHD version really shines during this pivotal scene.
The 4K UHD also comes with a new Dolby Atmos audio track which is the current highest audio standard available on home entertainment. While the new audio track certainly helps to give the film a bit more texture, especially during the games, the real benefit of the new audio track is Randy Newman's score. On its own, his score for the film is haunting and uplifting and everything that you could want from a sports film score. But, his brilliance really shines through on the Atmos track and you are swept up by it all over again. I challenge you to watch this film on 4K and not well up with tears courtesy of Randy's score.
While the included bonus features were all previously available on the Blu-ray, the 4K UHD does offer both the theatrical cut and director's cut in 4K. They both also get Dolby Atmos audio tracks, so you can enjoy either version in the highest available quality. I did not recall having seen the director's cut before and the additional 10 minutes of footage really added to the overall enjoyment of the film.
Overall, The Natural is one of those films that truly captures everything that we demand in a sports film. It's both uplifting and compelling and is seemingly timeless like the lead actor himself. I challenge you to name a better sports film out there. You will not be disappointed at all in this purchase whether you already own The Natural or not.