A Confession: I’ve Returned To Buying Physical Media And It’s Glorious

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This week, I received a review copy of the new Ultra HD Blu-ray of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. This is not a review of the movie. (I already did that and I like it a lot.) And I don’t often write about new home video releases, but there’s something pretty remarkable about this one: After initially sitting out on Ultra HD Blu-ray (also known as 4K) releases, Disney has finally started producing discs. This is pretty big news considering that Disney has the rights to Marvel and Star Wars and Pixar – you know, a lot of titles that you probably want to watch in the best quality possible.

Oh, also, I’ve started buying physical media again – a big reason for that is 4K – and now I’m the weird fringe person who likes to have discs and I kind of love that it’s “weird.”

In college, one of my roommates had a laserdisc player and he would tout over and over the benefits compared to VHS. And, yes, technically he was correct. He wanted to show off his player one evening by playing Star Wars. It looked pretty good! And most importantly, the film was letterboxed – it wasn’t the easiest thing to get the original trilogy in anything other than pan and scan back then. And then it happened: about 45 minutes into the movie it stopped. And my roommate had to get up, eject the (comically large) disc, flip the disc, then hit play again. And then 45 minutes later he had to do this again, only this time it needed a new disc.

At the time, and now, this seems ridiculous. I remember saying to him there will be something better and the day it came out I would buy it. (Smash cut to a couple of years later and there’s me putting a $700 Panasonic DVD player and an Austin Powers DVD on my credit card that would take me over a year to pay off. I am a person of my word, I guess. Also, I remember there were maybe 10 DVDs available at the time. It was basically a choice between Austin Powers and Goldeneye.) I loved my DVD collection (and, later, to an extent, Blu-ray, which always kind of felt like a stop gap after it won the Blu-ray vs. HD-DVD format battle). But then comes the clutter and owning a bunch of movies that I will never watch again. (I have no idea why I owned a copy of Six Days, Seven Nights, but for some reason I did.) Then once HDTVs became a thing, those DVDs didn’t look so hot anymore. And then you learn what “anamorphic” means and realize a large number of the movies you own aren’t and that becomes a problem.

And then, years later, streaming came along and, boy, what a great thing. No more useless discs cluttering my shelves. All of the movies I’d ever want would be ready to go at the touch of a button. Except that’s not really true. Netflix – which seems to be the de facto place most people go for streaming movies – has an ever-shrinking library of older films. And even a service like iTunes isn’t safe. Sure, if you download the full movie onto your computer or device, yes, it’s yours, but that defeats the whole purpose of streaming. But if you pay to buy a digital copy of the film with the plan on streaming it whenever you want – which is the only option if you use Apple TV – there’s always the risk of losing it.

Then one evening while I was at a local Best Buy and noticed they have a $5.99 Blu-ray bin. Have you ever seen all those weird movies that John Cusack or Nicholas Cage are in that you’ve never heard of? I just assumed this bin would be filled with movies like that: 30 copies of Reclaim or The Bag Man or whatever.

But, instead, these are good movies – and even less expensive than buying them on streaming platforms. Digging through the bin, I’ve purchased titles like Dr. Strangelove, Stir Crazy, A Clockwork Orange, Commando and No Country For Old Men all for $5.99 each. (Honestly, I hope this is the first list to mention Dr. Strangelove and Commando in the same sentence.)

And now comes Ultra HD, which is starting to slowly seep its way into the mainstream in the midst of the “age of streaming.” From experience, it’s not the easiest thing to partake in: most likely you will need a new television and you will need a new player. Over the holidays, a bit depressed about the election (boy, that sure hasn’t gone away) and wanting a better way to watch awards screeners, I took the plunge and bought a 55-inch Ultra HD television (which wasn’t inexpensive, but also not as much as you might think) and an Ultra HD player (which, at under $200, was a lot less than I thought it would be) and started shelling out just under $30 each for the limited amount of movies that are available.

But, being limited, it does feel like an event any time an older film is released in 4K. It truly feels like I’m buying the most pristine copy of the film that’s available and can watch it at home with a theater quality picture. For example, a restored copy of Close Encounters of the Third Kind will be released on Ultra HD soon and I am counting the days. I don’t feel like this when it comes to streaming. I know when that 4K disc hits shelves I will have what should be the best transfer of that movie possible. It feels like the first days of DVD again, when any announcement of a movie hitting that new format is incredibly exciting. And streaming will always have a hard time looking as good as a physical disc. And there is 4K streaming, but by the time it gets to your television it looks like a Blu-ray. Which is still pretty good, but not near as good as what true Ultra HD looks like. Maybe you don’t care about the picture quality that much. But for people who do, you’ll want the physical discs.

The only problem was one of the largest studios, Disney, wasn’t supporting the format. And now, with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 they are. (I reached out to Disney for comment and am still waiting to hear back. Also, I cannot stress enough how good this movie looks in 4K.) But, regardless, this is great news for us weirdoes who either never gave up on physical media or, like me, went back to it. And I’m not trying to convince anyone to switch back. I kind of like that it’s a fringe thing. I like being the outlier on this who doesn’t have to rely on the whims of whatever streaming service I subscribe to. I mean, I still have those, too, but the physical discs are what actually gives me control over what I’m watching – and watching in the best way possible.

So, yes, I’m the weirdo who is reverting back to physical media for movies – and I gotta tell you, it’s pretty great.

You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.