Blu-ray Reviews

The Dark Knight Blu-ray Review

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Quick Take: Warner's TDK Blu-ray treatment does not quite match its box office achievements.

“And here… we… go!” –The Joker

The film that made disappearing pencil tricks fun again while raking in a billion dollars at the box office in the process, The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan’s exhilarating follow up to his 2005 blockbuster Batman Begins, comes charging onto the Blu-ray format just in time to make everyone’s holiday a little, ahem, “darker.”

Knight picks up a year after Bruce Wayne and his alter-ego, Batman (Christian Bale) began their war on Gotham City’s criminal underworld. Despite saving Gotham citizens time and again, Batman and his work have not been universally welcomed by those he protects. Some respect and support the Caped Crusader, going as far as inspiring a small group of copycat Batmen, while others believe he is nothing more than a masked vigilante that has caused more harm than good. The outcry is enough to make Wayne think that maybe Gotham doesn’t want or need a Dark Knight; it needs a White Knight instead.

The latter might be Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), the popular District Attorney who himself has done a solid job on his own waging Gotham’s official, legitimate war on the mob. When his crackdown hits a snag, he reluctantly joins forces with Batman and Lieutenant Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman). The triumvirate prove to be so effective that Bruce gives further consideration to hanging up alter ego’s cowl for good, a move fueled by the hope of winning back the love of his life, assistant D.A. –and Dent’s current girlfriend-Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal).

But the heroic trio soon find themselves prey to an unpredictable psychopath known only as the Joker (the late Heath Ledger). With no grand plan or agenda to speak of, the Joker’s mission is simple: thrust Gotham into disorder and create death, destruction and anarchy at every turn. The scarred freak’s escalated campaign of chaos forces everyone, including Batman himself, to venture into darker territory to stop him, blurring the line between hero and vigilante in the process.

In Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne committed himself to creating a symbol representing the incorruptible nature of Gotham City, a symbol that would strike fear into the hearts and minds of criminals everywhere. In The Dark Knight, Wayne sees in District Attorney Harvey Dent many of these same qualities, wrapped not in abstract symbolism but in the more powerful and effective form of a real-life, flesh-and-blood man. To Wayne, Dent is Gotham and all its potential for good. The Joker senses this, too, and conspires to subject Dent– and all that he represents– to the ultimate test. For the Joker, the road to victory is paved with the Harvey Dents of the world and all their good intentions. And so, Dent’s fate and the fate of Gotham itself become one and the same.

With its massive scope and giant action sequences, one could suspect that The Dark Knight might lose some of its visceral impact on the small screen. It does not. What worked in the theater, especially an IMAX theater, translates just fine to the small screen. Building on the excellent groundwork laid with 2005′s Batman Begins, The Dark Knight takes the comic book/superhero genres to a new, far more mature level. Wally Pfister’s rich cinematography, Lee Smith’s sharp editing and James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer’s superbly moody music score, which is about to be dicked over by the Academy, all help make the film letter-perfect on a technical level.

But what really sets The Dark Knight head and shoulders above the rest of the pack is what lies under the visual spectacle: a morally complex story (written by Nolan, his brother Jonathan and David Goyer) that examines the nature of identity, what makes and defines a hero as well as the morality and consequences of one’s actions. The multiple allusions to 9/11 and the War on Terrorism (via the Joker’s campaign of chaos) make for a potent combination with Nolan’s focused, passionate directing to create a breathlessly paced, relentlessly intense film that respects and rewards its viewer on many levels during repeated viewings.

Bale excels once again as our hero despite reduced screen time, giving his performance enough shading and gravitas to further develop his character. Eckhart is equally impressive as Dent, smartly balancing conviction and believability so the viewer buys into Dent’s crusade and eventual downfall. Gyllenhaal makes for a nice replacement for Katie Holmes, while the terrifically understated Oldman, Michael Caine (as Alfred) and Morgan Freeman (as weapons expert Lucius Fox) all give solid performances that take advantage of their character’s further development and expanded screen time.

Then of course, there is Heath Ledger. Nearly one year after his untimely death and five months after the film’s premiere, the late actor’s performance is still the one thing people talk in regards to the film, and rightfully so. The late actor channels elements of Malcolm McDowell’s Alex from A Clockwork Orange, the late punk rocker Sid Vicious and even Jack Lemmon into his role, giving us a Joker that is a truly unpredictable, terrifying force of nature whose soul purpose is, to quote Caine’s Alfred, “to just watch the world burn.”

Screen villains are a dime a dozen, always have been and always will be. But every so often, you get one that makes such an impression on the viewer that you feel as if they are right there with you instead of being just a flickering image on a movie screen. Ledger’s take on the iconic crime clown is one that, in time, will stand proudly among the likes of Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter, Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigur and McDowell’s Alex. Premature death or not, Ledger’s work was everything the pre-release hyperbole made it out to be: darkly funny, incredibly unsettling, always fascinating to watch and worthy of awards.

If there is a downside to be had with The Dark Knight, it might be that Nolan and company has raised the bar so high that they may have set themselves up for the fall with a third chapter. They also face the challenge of finding a villain worthy of following in the footsteps of the Joker (good luck on that). For the time being, we really shouldn’t concern ourselves with looking ahead. We should just sit back and revel in the fact that the best filmmaker to hit Hollywood since Steven Soderbergh two decades ago has delivered a truly rare breed in today’s cinema: an immensely entertaining event movie with a brain.

Spread across a dual-layered BD-50 Blu-ray Disc, the VC-1 encoded transfer looks pretty damn good. There are one or two nighttime scenes that appear to suffer from a bit of black crush, and a few scenes have also had a slight application of edge enhancement applied to them as well. Overall though, I was very pleased by what Warner is offering. The picture has solid colors, razor-sharp picture detail, a decent layer of grain and rock-solid black and contrast levels.

As it did on the IMAX release prints, the aspect ratio for The Dark Knight does change at several points in the film. While a majority of the film maintains the 2.4:1 ratio of the non-IMAX parts, the scenes shot in the big-screen format have been reformatted for Blu-ray to the 1.78:1 ratio, resulting in slight cropping on the top and bottom of the image. Unless you know the image inside and out, you shouldn’t be bothered by this modification. The image on the IMAX sections is absolutely beautiful, and the shifting aspect ratios never prove to be a distraction. If anything, it drew me further into the onscreen action, which if I’m not mistaken, was Nolan’s intention in the first place.

A word of warning in regards to the audio: it defaults to 5.1 Dolby Digital. You have to go in and manually select the 5.1 Dolby TrueHD track. This one backward step aside, The Dark Knight’s audio is incredible. Immersive and clear as a bell in all channels, with fully-utilized surrounds and an LFE channel powerful enough to shake your house’s foundation, the TrueHD track on The Dark Knight makes the one on Batman Begins Blu-ray feel like one-channel mono.

For a film that the biggest opening weekend ever, raked in nearly one billion dollars and currently sits at the number two spot for all-time domestic box office grossing films, you would have figured Warner Brothers would bet all their chips in regards to creating a truly special edition of The Dark Knight for Blu-ray. They didn’t. It may look like there is a generous amount of material to be had, but after viewing the bonus bits, one can’t help but quote the Joker when summing up their feelings:

“Ha… ha… ha… ho… hee… ha… and I thought my jokes were bad.”

On the plus side, the slim supplements are presented in 1080i high definition and, in the case of the two specials on disc two, are in 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround.

Focus Points (HD): The sole supplement located on disc one, these 18 short behind-the-scenes peeks (to avoid plot spoilers, I will not list the titles here) run anywhere from 39 seconds up to nearly nine minutes. The viewer is given three options: you can access them during the movie when a spinning gold disc pops up in the left hand corner of the screen, you can watch them individually by selecting one from the pop-up menu or you can simply watch them as one 64-minute mini-doc.

All are quite interesting to watch covering aspects such as shooting with IMAX cameras, creating the music score as well as stunt and effects work. Yet, I can’t help but feel I was watching a preview of a much-bigger making-of documentary. I also can’t figure out why Warner simply did not do these as an In-Movie Experience picture-in-picture feature instead of this cumbersome technique. When you select to view the Focus Points to play along with the film, the disc stops the feature, takes you out of the film to view the featurette and then plops you back at the point you stopped at to watch the short. Given the advances of Blu-ray interactivity, this is a backwards step.

Batman Tech: The Incredible Gadgets and Tools (HD): One of two specials on the disc that are produced by The History Channel. This 46-minute special looks at the Caped Crusader’s gadgets and suit from the Nolan films, while also showing their real-life counterparts. The special isn’t bad, but this is hardly what I would consider an important supplement as it seems to be more about real-life applications and less about Batman.

Batman Unmasked: The Psychology of The Dark Knight (HD): The second of two History Channel specials, also clocking in at 46 minutes, is the better of the two. This special looks at the psychology of the Caped Crusader as well as some of the more popular villains in the Batman Universe. Since the Nolan films have made psychology such a major factor, I found this special to be fascinating and could actually see myself sitting down to give this a second spin somewhere down the road, something I rarely do with bonus features.

Gotham Tonight (HD): These six shorts, which can be played individually or as one 47-minute segment, were shown on Comcast Cable’s On Demand section this past summer as a promotional tie-in to the new movie. Hosted by Anthony Michael Hall (Farmer Ted!) and featuring many of the cast members of the film, these serve as a nice bridge of events that take place between Dark Knight and Batman Begins.

Galleries: There are four still galleries to browse through here. You have the option of either still-stepping each section or you can let them run on their own as a slideshow. Joker Cards (9:44) is a rather disturbing (but pretty cool) collection of the Joker’s “calling cards.” Poster Art (1:36) displays the film’s theatrical one-sheets. Production Stills (12:00) offers both behind-the-scenes and publicity photos of the cast and crew, while Concept & Art (7:44) looks at the various clown masks used by the Joker and his gang, the new Bat-Suit, Bat Weapons and the Bat Pod.

Theatrical trailers and TV Spots (HD): Now this is more like it, Mr. Wayne. The logo teaser and two kick-ass theatrical trailers are included along with a half-dozen well-produced television spots from when the film arrived in theaters. All look great.

BD-Live: At the time of writing, I could not access the Warner BD-Live site. Chances are full access will not be granted until the December 9 Blu-ray street date arrives.

The insert packaged with The Dark Knight, however, promises some pretty cool upcoming features associated with BD-Live:

My WB Commentary: If you are like me and wanted both an audio and picture-in-picture commentary for this release, you’re in luck. This feature will allow the viewer (that has a webcam) to create your own visual commentary and share it with friends. This could prove to be really fun if you have some drinks while you are doing it.

Live Community Screenings: Warner has recently announced 100,000 lucky folks that register online will have the chance to watch the film as Christopher Nolan provides live commentary. And if you miss your chance to experience that, this feature will allow you to set up an online screening of the film with your friends.

Media Center: This looks to be similar to what BD-Live sites from Sony and Universal currently offer: exclusive footage, photos, trailers, etc.

Easy-to-follow instructions on how to log on and register for Warner’s BD-Live site are included on the flipside of the insert.

By now, you don’t really need me to tell you how great of a movie The Dark Knight is but it never hurts to tell those seven or eight people out there what they are missing. Warner Home Video has given the mega-blockbuster a decent Blu-ray, with excellent picture and audio presentations, but iffy supplemental material nowhere near as good as it could or should have been. Still, you shouldn’t let the latter stop you from owning the best summer blockbuster in ages on the best home video format around. Just keep in mind that there is probably a more comprehensive edition in the works for sometime in the near future. 2011, perhaps.

-Shawn Fitzgerald

You can secure your copy of The Dark Knight in the two-disc set as reviewed above (details here), or the Limited Edition Bat-Pod set (details here) at Amazon.com

SCORE: 4.7 out of 5