Batman Begins Review (HD DVD)

Ever since HD DVD debuted in April of this year, Batman Begins has been promised by Warner Home Video as “coming soon” and coveted by early adopters in a near zealous way (myself included). Well, the wait is over and was more than worth it. Warner has delivered an HD DVD that should be required ownership for anyone who owns or is planning on picking up a player.

The truly atrocious Batman and Robin film should have ended the Caped Crusader’s cinematic career once and for all. But it seems you can’t keep a good bat – and its profit potential – down. After eight years of cinematic limbo, Batman came back in a very big way in “Batman Begins,” a decidedly straightforward version of the crime-fighter’s origins directed by Christopher Nolan, who also helms “The Prestige.”

The film opens with the death of Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale)’s 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), Bruce 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).

Bruce returns to Gotham City years later to find it overrun by dangerous individuals manipulating the system, such Falcone and psychiatrist Dr Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy). He also discovers that Richard Earle (Rutger Hauer) is slowly acquiring control of Wayne Industries, his family’s company. With the help of his trusted butler Alfred (Michael Caine) and new allies such as detective Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) and Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) at the Wayne Industries’ Applied Sciences division, Bruce sets out to stop the rot and in the process, creates his crime-fighting alter ego, Batman, to save Gotham City.

The screenplay by Nolan and David S. Goyer (Blade Trinity) is extremely well written, structured and developed – a rarity in big-budget films these days. Time is actually taken to establish Wayne’s character, what makes him and the multitude of supporting characters tick, as well as their motivations and how fear’s impact, the film’s main theme, effects them all.

Nolan displays the same level of care and intelligence in his directing as he does in his screenwriting. After the deliberately paced build-up in the first half, Nolan unleashes a non-stop barrage of action scenes without losing sight of characters or plot, such as a terrific chase through the streets of Gotham. Nolan, aided by superb work by Editor Lee Smith, cinematographer Wally Pfister and set to a driving score by Hans Zimmer and James Newton-Howard gives us a Gotham City once removed from reality but no less believable because of it.

Bale is excellent as Wayne, perfectly capturing the playboy billionaire’s tortured soul along with his need for revenge. I cannot think of another actor working that could have pulled this off as well as he does. He finds excellent support in the performances of Caine, Wilkinson, Murphy, Neeson, Freeman and Oldman, while Watanabe and Hauer are adequate 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 won’t be showing up in the sequel.

Presented in a 1080p, VC-1 encoded transfer and in its original 2.40:1 theatrical aspect ratio, Batman Begins looks nothing short of spectacular. Black levels and colors are rock solid, allowing for spectacular shadow and minute detail to stand out. As to be expected with a film a mere year and half old, the print is in perfect condition. The folks at Warner took should be highly commended for such a beautiful picture transfer.

Equally as impressive are the audio tracks. The Dolby Digital track on last year’s DVD release was superb, but the Dolby Digital Plus and TrueHD tracks are even better. 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. The TrueHD track does give the film a bit more oomph, but either track is a clear-cut winner.

With the exception of one new and rather important addition (more on that shortly), all of the extras that were found on last year’s 2-disc DVD edition can be found here (one lament: the cool comic-book style menu pages are not ported over to this release.). I could have done without Tankman Begins, which already seems dated, and wish that Warner had included the various trailers and television spots for the film instead of the so-so teaser trailer that is included here.

The other extras, including 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), are quite good and cover a lot of ground. Each short gives the viewer a nice background look at how much effort and care went into every aspect of the movie, which rises it a bit above the usual “talking head/backslapping” puff piece one normally finds on DVDs these days.

In addition to those featurettes, 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.

Finally, there is the 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. Of the many extras on the disc, this is easily the standout.

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! Whether Nolan and company can make lightning strike twice with 2008’s The Dark Knight is anyone’s guess at this point, but one thing is for certain: Batman Begins has quickly-and rightly-taken its place as one of the best comic book movie adaptations ever made. With Warner Home Video’s magnificent HD-DVD release, it has also justly taken its place as the best HD release to date.

– Shawn Fitzgerald

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