Into The Wild Blu-ray Review

I was peripherally aware of Christopher McCandless’ story but had no real interest in it before viewing Paramount’s Blu-ray release of Into The Wild (2007). My take on it was that a financially well to do and academically successful student abandoned his family and all material possessions to journey into the Alaskan wilderness where he eventually died due to lack of adequate preparation. While my thin synopsis is vaguely accurate, it in no way captures the haunting beauty that director/screenwriter Sean Penn instills in his cinematic adaptation of Jon Krakauer’s 1996 non-fiction work of the same name.

Penn’s envisioning of Chris shows him to be anti-materialistic to the point of donating the majority of his college fund ($24,000) to charity, abandoning all material possessions beyond what it would take to “live off the land” and eventually burning what little money he had left. His uncompromising will drove him to divorce himself from mainstream civilization through destroying all forms of identification, never talking to his family again and adopting the new name of “Alexander Supertramp.”

If the movie were nothing but a vehicle to deliver the character’s naïve hippie idealism, I doubt I would have made it through a single viewing. Intellectually, I have no sympathy for the explicit expression of the character’s ideals, yet Penn’s cinematic vision does not work primarily on that level. It attempts to plug into the deeper spirit of what drove Chris to do what he did. It is that drive which most humans can relate to; the desire for a simpler, more pure life outside the constraints and complications that modern life brings. Yet most people would never go to the extremes that Chris did.

While Chris is compelled to go “Into The Wild,” he does not detest human companionship yet does not find it essential either. Along his journey, he develops friendships with several people including counter culture hippies Jan (Catherine Keener) and Rainey (first time actor Brian Dierker), farmer Wayne Westerberg (Vince Vaughan), a young teenager Tracy (Kristen Stewart) and a wise, solitary old man Ron Franz (Hal Holbrook). He emotionally touches almost everyone he encounters, and several try to break through the determination that fuels his reckless ways with futile results.

Along with the above mentioned actors, there are several others rounding out the cast of the McCandless family: William Hurt (father Walt), Marcia Gay Harden (mother Billie) and Jena Malone (sister Corine). Yet beyond all the big name talent in the film, at its core is the revealing portrayal of Chris by Emile Hirsch. Hirsch loses himself in his depiction of Christopher McCandless to such a degree that I quickly forgot I was watching “Speed Racer” or the geeky kid from The Girl Next Door. In many scenes he is the only actor on screen and carries the film with a hypnotic performance that draws you into the mentality of the main character.

Making the film all the more heartbreaking is the somber narration by Chris’ sister Corrine. It balances the story and shows that Chris is not simply being idealized but reminds of the pain that his leaving caused his family. What ultimately makes the film work is that at its heart it is an earnest endeavor. It is not cynical, and Penn honestly tries to understand the motivation behind Chris’ actions and allow us to relate to his inspired wonder of the natural world.

Into The Wild is often beautiful but never in a facile way. More often it is painfully poignant knowing the ending you are being drawn towards. The film’s concluding scenes reaffirm the last days of Chris’ life. One of the final entries in his journal states “happiness only real when shared,” and the final note he left was signed with his given rather than “assumed” name.

Paramount brings Into the Wild to Blu-ray with a VC-1 encoded 1080p transfer framed at 2.40:1. It was also available on HD DVD with an AVC encode which I have not seen, so I cannot give a comparison though the movie takes up almost twice as much space on the new Blu-ray (~43 Gigabytes). Whatever the differences in the transfers may be, the Blu-ray provides a rich visual experience thanks in large part to the work of cinematographer Eric Gautier (The Motorcycle Diaries).

No matter how you feel about the protagonist’s ideals, the visuals that portray the grandeur of nature in balanced comparison against the particular character interactions are stunning. To call this film visual poetry is not an exaggeration. While Penn’s precise direction and the actors’ consummate work help propel the story, the visual texture cements the overall feel of the film.

There is very little to fault in the transfer. It has an appropriate but never obtrusive amount of grain, and I did not notice any forced digital processing of the image. It is definitely not what I have come to term “hyper-realistically” sharp which is an aesthetic choice many modern filmmakers have chosen. Instead we get a warm, film-like experience. While the movie is not razor sharp in every aspect, there is still abundant detail.

Colors are deeply saturated with striking rich textures that lend depth towards the panoramic shots of natural landscapes. Shot on location in Alaska, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, California, Mexico, South Dakota and Arizona, it includes many scenic compositions that look like something out of a Natural Geographic documentary and are perfectly suited to high-definition. Into the Wild easily stands in the top 5 most beautiful naturalistic transfers I have in high-def.

My only complaints revolve around a few nighttime shots. Some are overly dark which looks to be due to less than adequate lighting, and while the murkiness of the scenes is noticeable, it would have been out of place to use artificial lighting. I also noticed what appears to be color banding in the nighttime sky in one scene. Still these are very minor complaints and in no way take away from the grandeur of the sumptuous high-def visuals.

The audio for the film well compliments the gorgeous visuals. We get a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track (upgraded from the Dolby Digital-Plus track on the HD DVD) that well presents Michael Brooks score along with songs by Eddie Vedder. Being a big Pearl Jam (the group that Vedder fronts) fan, I have owned his collection of solo tunes used in the movie for the better part of a year. While I enjoyed them previously, they took on a new life when used in the context of the movie.

A good bit of the film revolves around environmental noises that are delivered with a well presented ambience. Dialog and the narration come through consistently clear and anchored in the front channels. While the musical numbers along with the score and some ambient moments move into the surrounds, much of the film also exists in quiet contemplation or dialog which is well balanced through not showy.

I really have little complaint about the audio presentation and while it is stating the obvious, it is not a bombastic action film so does not compete in that context. Overall this is a solid lossless track that perfectly blends with the stunning cinematography. English, French and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks are the other audio offerings with subtitles in English (SDH), English, French, Portuguese and Spanish.

For some movies I have little or no interest in the related special features (or do not care if there are not any) and am content just to have the film. Others make me want to dig into the inspiration or production background, and Into The Wild is such a film. Sadly, the extras do not do justice to either the making of the movie or the real life events that inspired it.

What we get are two short but serious featurettes and the trailer. This is a film that screams out for a commentary. Considering that Penn has done one previously and his devotion to bringing Chris’ story and Krakauer’s book to the screen, I do not know why one was not constructed for this release. A deeper look into the book, the movie and McCandless’ life along with supplements like maps and a timeline would have been very appreciated.

Into The Wild: The Story, The Characters (21:54) – This featurette delves into the real life events that inspired both the book and movie. Sean Penn discusses discovering the novel and how it took him over 10 years before the McCandless family gave him support to make the movie (he could have done it without their consent but refused). Jon Krakauer goes into some detail behind his writing of the book, and it is evident that both he and Pen are deeply moved by Chris’ story on a personal level.

Emile Hirsch, Hal Holbrook, Marcia Gay Harden, William Hurt, Kristen Stewart, Jenna Malone and Eddie Vedder give their thoughts as well. Fans of the film will find this a rewarding watch, but as previously stated this really does not delve deep enough or fully do the subject matter justice.

Into The Wild: The Experience (17:20) – This featurette goes into the making of the film. It looks like much of the footage was culled from the same source that the previous extra was with Emile Hirsch, Sean Penn, Catherine Keener along with producers, production designer, editor, costume designer, art director and the production sound editor all giving input.

As with the previous featurette, this is totally worth watching. It is by no means a cheap promotional piece and fills its scant 17 minutes with interesting details. It is amazing to hear about Hirsch having to lose weight where he dropped from 156 to 115 lbs over an eight month period. However, this just leaves me wanting more.

Theatrical Trailer (2:35, HD) – Trailer for the film in HD.

Into The Wild took me totally by surprise. I went into it expecting some gorgeous visuals and while I got that, I also experienced a moving cinematic story. Emile Hirsch gives a groundbreaking performance, and Sean Penn has never been more on his game as a director.

The visuals and audio are top notch on Paramount’s Blu-ray, but the extras should have been so much more. I hope Paramount will revisit this film on Blu-ray in the future to give it the well-rounded release it deserves. Until then we will have to take the superb film, which is immensely rewarding in itself.

– Robert Searle

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