Christopher Nolan’s ultra-serious take on the Batman legend, Batman Begins, opens where you would expect a Caped Crusader origin story to begin: with the death of Bruce Wayne’s (Christian Bale) parents, a traumatic event that leads to a consuming obsession with revenge on the man who committed the crime. When that opportunity is snatched from him by the Gotham crime boss, Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson), the young Wayne heads to the Far East, where he acquires direction and training with the mysterious League of Shadows, led by Ra’s Al-Ghul (Ken Watanabe) and his assistant Ducard (Liam Neeson).
Years later, Bruce returns to Gotham City to find it overrun by dangerous and corrupt individuals on both sides of the law, such as Falcone and psychiatrist Dr Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy), manipulating the system. He also discovers that Richard Earle (Rutger Hauer) is slowly acquiring control of Wayne Industries, his family’s company. With help from his trusted butler Alfred (Michael Caine) and new allies such as Gotham detective Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) and Wayne Industries’ Applied Sciences division head Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), Bruce sets out to stop the city’s criminal rot. In the process, he creates his crime-fighting alter ego, Batman, to save Gotham City.
I enjoyed the goofy 1960’s television series and Tim Burton’s two entries in the franchise from the late 1980s and 90s, but I never felt they got the character right. Batman seemed to be more of an underdeveloped, bored prop (the Burton films) or straight man (the TV series) to the over-the-top villains and their throwaway one-liners (both). For someone whose revenge was driven by witnessing the death of his parents, I never felt any sense of urgency in Batman’s mission, and never connected with the character of Wayne.
As we all know by now, that has changed. Batman Begins plays it straight and get is right. So much so that I believe it is the best superhero film made since 1978’s Superman: The Movie. The screenplay by Nolan and David S. Goyer (Blade Trinity) is extremely well written, structured and developed – a rarity in big-budget films, be they superhero films or not, these days. The duo actually take the time to establish Wayne’s character, what makes him and the multitude of supporting characters tick as well as their motivations and how the impact of fear, the film’s main theme, affects them all.
Nolan’s direction displays the same level of care and intelligence as his screenwriting. After the deliberately paced build-up in the first half, the filmmaker unleashes a non-stop barrage of action scenes including a terrific chase through the streets of Gotham, and does so without losing sight of characters or plot. Backed by superb work by editor Lee Smith and cinematographer Wally Pfister and set to a driving score by Hans Zimmer and James Newton-Howard, Nolan gives us a Gotham City once removed from reality but no less believable because of it.
Bale is excels in the lead role, perfectly capturing the playboy billionaire’s tortured soul along with his need for revenge. You’d be hard pressed to find another actor working today that could have pulled this off as well as he does. Solid support is given in the performances by Caine, Wilkinson, Murphy, Neeson, Freeman and Oldman, while Watanabe and Hauer are decent in their brief screen time. Only Katie Holmes as the requisite love interest/district attorney (yeah, right!) really fails to make much of an impression, which might explain why she’s been replaced by Maggie Gyllenhaal in the upcoming sequel.
Ever since the next-gen formats debuted over two years ago, Batman Begins has been coveted by Blu-ray owners (that did not have an HD DVD player) in a near zealous way (myself included). Well, the wait is finally over. One week before we get the next chapter in the Batman saga, Warner has released the first film on a BD that should be required ownership for anyone who owns or is planning on picking up a player.
There was hope among Blu-ray adopters that Warner would re-master the film’s video and audio to take advantage of the extra space found on a BD50 disc. They did not. The video and audio found on this disc is identical to its HD DVD counterpart. While that may sound disappointing, it actually is not. Truth be told, the 1080p, VC-1 encoded transfer (2.40:1 ratio) really looks fantastic. Black levels and colors are rock solid allowing for excellent picture detail to stand out. There is a slight softness to the image in certain scenes, but I believe those may be source-material related rather than an issue with the transfer.
As was the case with the HD DVD release, the audio tracks are equally as impressive as the picture. The Dolby Digital Plus track is great, but 5.1 lossless Dolby TrueHD is where you really want to crank it up. Dialogue is as clear as a bell, the surround channels are constantly active and immersive and the .LFE… well, let’s put it this way: if you want to test how sound your home’s foundation is, give this baby a drive.
D-BOX Motion Code
While gaining experience with D-BOX encoded films, I’ve found those where designers take advantage of the opening title sequence to put D-BOX Motion Code to work are more memorable to pop in for a quick second go-around or demo for a friend. Men in Black’s excellent opening title sequence full of “airborne” D-BOX moments still sticks in my mind weeks after first enjoying it, and now the thousands of bats flying through the Batman Begins title sequence can join it.
Other notable and unique D-BOX moments in Batman Begins include young Bruce Wayne falling down his father’s well and striking the ground below, the blows D-BOX replicates when Bruce and Ducard swordfight, and the short but sweet scene of Bruce and Ducard sparring on the ice. All of the intricate chair movements coded into these scenes are different than anything I’ve personally experienced from D-BOX before.
One appropriate and relevant word and one word only sums up the overall Batman Begins D-BOX experience: “Tumbler.” The sequence when Batman escapes in the Tumbler Batmobile through and above the city of Gotham is a D-BOX dream come true. The Motion Code is persistently active throughout the entire chase whether recreating the Tumbler crashing through objects or aggressively weaving through traffic or slamming on the brakes. D-BOX turns this sequence into an event not appropriate for those with weak hearts.
Batman Begins is also full of intimate moments and long dialogue exchanges where D-BOX rests idle. Those moments are more a breather than a detriment to enjoying the D-BOX Batman Begins thrill. Bring on The Dark Knight D-BOX Motion Code.
Batman Begins on Blu-ray is available as a standard release and in a limited edition box set costing roughly $15 more. Both editions include the same Blu-ray Disc in a blue jewel case and the stunningly beautifully shot in IMAX The Dark Knight prologue presented in full 1080p high definition at 1.85:1, obviously not available on HD DVD. The limited edition boasts a secondary outer case the standard edition does not.
At first the limited edition seems like a fantastic deal as half the additional cost is covered by a $7.50 movie ticket voucher for The Dark Knight. The remaining exclusives in the limited edition are hardly worth a couple bucks, much less $7.50. They are comprised of a lenticular card visible through the outer box’s case, five perforated postcards, a comic book version of the Dark Knight prologue by Dark Horse Comics and a booklet with the script, storyboard and images from The Dark Knight prologue.
These materials are fun to quickly flip through once but that’s about it considering the actual The Dark Knight prologue is on the disc which will demand anyone’s attention first and foremost. Even if there was a desire to view them again, removing the materials or putting them back in the outer case is a hassle as its sturdiness is comparable to a fast food French Fry box. Opening or closing the flap is begging for a big rip to occur.
All of the extras that were found on the HD DVD edition can be found on Blu-ray. Tankman Begins, the idiotic and dated MTV spoof from 2005, is on this disc as well. I really wish this could have been ditched and replaced with the multitude of trailers and television spots for the film instead of the so-so teaser trailer that is included here.
Ten featurettes (Digital Batman, Batman-The Journey Begins, Shaping Mind and Body, Gotham City Rises, Cape and Cowl, Batman-The Tumbler, Path to Discovery, Saving Gotham City, Reflections on Writing Batman Begins, Batman Begins Stunts) that range from a mere 66 seconds (Digital Batman) to a more lengthy 15 minutes (a majority of the featurettes) comprise the majority of the supplements. All are quite good and cover a lot of ground. Each short gives the viewer a nice background to the massive production and is a bit above the usual “talking head/backslapping” puff piece one normally finds on DVDs these days.
In addition to the mini-docs, there are a great collection of Artwork Stills that show American, International and experimental posters. If you are like me and lament the current sad state of poster art in today’s cinema, then you’ll really enjoy this section. Another still collection, set up like readout on Batman’s computer, takes a look at the Caped Crusader’s allies, mentors, villains and gear. There is nothing revelatory here, but it’s a nice little aside to go through once or twice.
Next is the formerly HD DVD exclusive In-Movie Experience, Warner’s picture-in-picture commentary. Comprised of approximately 70 minutes of pop-up interviews with cast and crew, illustrated comic-book comparisons to certain scenes and a ton of behind-the-scenes production footage, this running visual commentary is the type I actually prefer. It’s informative, well-placed and thought out, and it doesn’t distract from watching the actual film.
Batman Begins did the impossible when it hit theaters in June of 2005. Not only did it bring a dead franchise back to life, it also proved to be such a great entertainment that it made you forget the previous four films in the series! It appears that Nolan and company have hit another home run with The Dark Knight, which we should have in our little BD-loving hands by December. Until then, we can enjoy the original and The Dark Knight prologue over and over again to our heart’s content. Thanks to a separate standard Blu-ray release, you won’t even need the limited edition set or higher price tag to join in on the Batman Begins and The Dark Knight prologue fun.
– Shawn Fitzgerald with additions by Dan Bradley