|HD DVD Action-Adventure|
|Written by Darren Gross|
|Wednesday, 01 November 2006|
When Warners decided to restart the Batman movie franchise, they clearly brought the right people aboard. Director Christopher Nolan (and screenwriter David Goyer)’s depiction of Batman’s origin and early days is a near-perfect work and an astounding technical, visual and dramatic feat. Utilizing Nolan’s flair for playing with narrative time (as seen in “Memento” and his current release “The Prestige”), “Batman Begins” relates the story of a young Bruce Wayne, son of wealthy parents who, traumatized by an experience in a cave full of bats and the murder of his parents by a mugger, evolves into a one-man crusader of justice.
Bale is perfectly cast as the haunted, driven and resourceful Wayne and the main strength of the film is in allowing a significant portion of the film to focus on his character with a degree of depth. Instead of it being about Batman, who is also Bruce Wayne, it’s a film about Bruce Wayne, who is also Batman. It’s a slight shift in focus, but it makes for a rich, more compelling film. As events unfold, Wayne’s road to becoming Batman is laid brick-by-brick without contrivance or overt manipulation. You don’t get the feeling that Wayne’s being moved around like a chess piece by the filmmakers, and as a result you become engrossed and fascinated by the journey as all the ingredients start to come together, and the emergence of Batman seems simply inevitable.
The rest of the cast are near-perfect. Michael Caine is simply wonderful as loyal Wayne butler Alfred; the script allows him touching moments of warmth and droll asides in fair measure. The A-level supporting players (Freeman, Hauer—better than he’s been in years, Wilkinson, Murphy) are perfect. Gary Oldman is the “Batman Year One”’s Jim Gordon brought to life, and it’s a joy to see Oldman playing a good guy for a change, even if he is often frustrated. Liam Neeson seems completely engaged by his character of Ducard. Neeson cuts quite a dashing figure here—trim, fit and athletic and he’s consistently believable in the demanding action sequences. He also makes for a fascinating, charismatic opponent/ally since he’s a man, similar to Bruce Wayne, who has gone down a darker path. The flaw in the diamond is Katie Holmes, who never pushes beyond her extremely limited repertoire and is simply not believable as an assistant district attorney. There are probably a dozen actresses that have played similar roles in the last twenty years on “Law & Order” that could have really brought something to the part. But, alas.
Warner Bros. clearly wasn’t hedging their bets on “Batman Begins” and the production is an enormous, elaborate one, seamlessly switching between location exteriors, studio exteriors and CGI cityscapes. It’s a gorgeous film; bright and colorful early on and at Wayne Manor, but Gotham itself is a an appropriately dim, brown-soaked and shadow-filled nightmare city. It’s a cinematic Gotham portrayed as a huge corrupt labyrinth of pipes, steam vents, power lines and filth.
Batman is a character who utilizes fear and was created by it but “Batman Begins” is the first film whose imagery is actually frightening. There’s imagery here that’s nightmarish and hide-behind-the-couch terrifying. The hallucinatory vision of Batman as an actual humanoid bat is enough to make your teeth rattle, and Scarecrow’s hallucinatory attacks are unsettling. It’s an aspect sure to give little kids nightmares. I can’t wait to see what Nolan does with The Joker in the follow-up.
Nolan’s film is arguably the best Batman film yet; that he managed to make such a well-written and character-based film under the enormous pressures and dozens of executive voices of a huge-budgeted big studio production is astonishing.
The HD DVD is a flawless transfer of a visually rich and pictorially challenging film. The film has a lot of dark imagery that ranges from dim light to utter darkness; it’s reproduced here perfectly, with deep impenetrable blacks and a multitude of gradations above. There is also a strong amount of daylight photography which is conveyed with accurate, occasionally vivid colors. Sharpness and clarity are stunning and the wide cityscapes and panoramic glacial scenes reveal an impressive level of detail. It’s a 1:1 perfect replication of the cinematic experience (only smaller), and in my opinion, HD DVD’s first perfect demonstration disc.
The 5.1 True HD track (via analog audio inputs) should please audiophiles everywhere. While picture quality on the first few waves of HD DVDs has been exemplary, the lack of the highly anticipated True HD audio tracks has been a source of disappointment to a few. True HD is touted as the audio equivalent of what HD is to standard definition DVD, and this format offers a completely “Lossless” sound encoding format that is supposed to replicate bit-for-bit, the sound of the original studio master recordings, without any of the compression or lost detail that are necessary in Dolby Digital or DTS audio tracks. While I have not had any issues with the Dolby Digital Plus audio tracks, the True HD track on “Batman Begins” has a tangible power, presence and weight to it. It’s a stunning, heavily demanding track—beautifully designed with an incredibly elaborate amount of highs, lows and powerful room rumbling explosions. The Batmobile’s loud, growling and thrilling sound effects fill the room, as if the machine was barreling through your home theater. Dialogue is always clear and audible, and the surround channels are constantly active and well utilized, especially during explosions or flapping bat attacks. If this is the quality to be expected of True HD audio tracks, then it needs to be made the standard, immediately.
The In-Vision commentary is an interesting format, as the multiple voices comment on the on-screen action, little pop-up windows appear throughout. Mostly talking heads, but occasionally behind the scenes snippets illustrating what the participant is discussing. The pop-up windows are a little small, for my tastes. One doesn’t want to totally obscure the film itself, but they could benefit from being enlarged a tad. The rest of the disc ports over all the bonus features from the two-disc standard definition DVD and its a worthwhile package. The featurettes are interesting, but never push too far into the overly technical. The “Genesis of the Bat” focuses on the comic book stories that were the inspiration for the script and is particularly interesting. One wishes, though, that some deleted scenes were included (there have to be some, given the amount of subplots and characters) or something about the editing, release and success of the film. Still, it’s hard to gripe with such a voluminous amount of extras which are just icing on a brilliantly satisfying cake.