Zodiac Blu-ray Review

For nearly a decade, starting in late December 1968, a murderer known as The “Zodiac Killer” held both Northern California and the San Francisco Bay area in the grips of fear. His methods were unique for a serial killer: victims were seemingly random, and the pattern they occurred in was made even more unclear via the threats and cryptic codes sent to police and Bay Area newspaper publishers. When one of his ciphers arrive at the San Francisco Chronicle in the summer of 1969, it sparks the interest of Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), the paper’s young political cartoonist who has a knack for puzzle solving, and Paul Avery (a first-rate Robert Downey Jr.), a staff reporter who approaches the case from a career-boosting angle.

After the Zodiac commits his first murder in San Francisco, inspectors Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and Bill Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) are assigned to the case. Along with investigators from three other Northern California jurisdictions, the two carry on a complex and ultimately unsatisfying search for the Zodiac. The long trail of leads and clues surrounding the case and killer causes Toschi and Armstrong to occasionally collide with Avery and, for Toschi a decade later, Graysmith whose interest in all things Zodiac extends long after most have given up. The obsessive nature of the case that consumes these men proves to have consequences almost as dire as being an actual victim of the killer himself.

When it was released in March of 2007, the expectations were that Zodiac would become the next Seven; at least that was what co-financers Warner Bros and Paramount were hoping for. After all, the films shared common ground in both its subject matter (an elusive murderer one step ahead of everyone else) and director (David Fincher). When critics and audiences discovered that Zodiac was more of an examination of procedure and the nature of obsession and not a repeat of the 1995 box office smash, critics championed it, and audiences stayed away in droves, opting instead for the simple-minded awfulness of Wild Hogs and 300 instead.

The film’s box office failure and subsequent shutout during the 2007 awards season were a real shame. Zodiac is a smart, involving suspense thriller that is probably the best one to come out of Hollywood since The Silence of the Lambs. On a technical level, Zodiac is your typical Fincher flick. The time period is meticulously recreated, helped greatly by Digital Domain’s superb visual effects and Harris Savdies digital cinematography. But on another, welcome level, the emphasis Fincher places on substance, and not style, is what sets this film apart from the likes of Fight Club, Panic Room and yes, Seven.

Fincher and screenwriter James Vanderbilt have cited Alan J. Pakula’s 1976 masterpiece All the President’s Men as a major influence in their creative approach to Zodiac. It definitely shows, and I mean that as a compliment. Vanderbilt’s screenplay is based on witness testimonies and the two books Graysmith wrote on the Zodiac. Thankfully, it’s rich in detail and character, not the demographic-friendly thriller clichés meant to sell tickets. There are no sequences of cops chasing a suspect or set pieces reminiscent of Hitchcock. Zodiac is propelled forward by interaction, research, procedure and investigation. Fincher and Vanderbilt throw a tremendous amount of information at the viewer over the course of 162 minutes. In the wrong hands, this could have proved to be as exciting as a three-hour conference call. But Fincher’s own near-obsessive filmmaking nature makes the dense material compelling cinema with the only real, albeit small, misstep being third act sections dealing with Graysmith’s crumbling marriage.

After nearly two decades of déjà vu, it is nice to know that the serial killer genre has some genuine life –and intelligence- left in it. David Fincher has always been a filmmaker who constantly flirted with greatness only to be stunted by thin stories and an excessive visual style. With Zodiac, the filmmaker finally found a common ground between the two. This is a meticulous, atmospheric and genuinely unsettling film that demands and rewards the viewer’s attention. We may never know who the Zodiac killer was. But thanks to Fincher’s film, trying to at the least makes some terrific cinema.

The version of Zodiac presented on Blu-ray Disc is an extended “Director’s Cut” that runs approximately four to six minutes longer than the theatrical cut. The additions are minute and don’t disrupt the story’s flow or pacing. There is an extended bit of dialogue here and a new scene there, the latter includes a rather interesting one-minute sequence in which the passage of time is played out on a black screen and backed by sound bites from the era. Did the film really need the restored footage? Not necessarily. The footage could have been left out completely and no one would be the wiser. But given the pre-release stories that Fincher had cut approximately 30 minutes of footage from the theatrical cut, one can’t help but feel slightly let down by the restoration of such a short amount of deleted material.

One thing you can’t feel let down by is the overall Blu-ray presentation, which arrives roughly a year after the release of the HD DVD edition. As was the case with the HD DVD, Zodiac hits Blu-ray as a 2-disc edition. The contents on both editions are identical.

In the past, I have been rather vocal in my dismay with the use of high-definition cameras to shoot motion pictures. Despite using the latest technology, films such as Superman Returns, Apocalypto, Miami Vice and I Know Who Killed Me didn’t look all that great, especially when transferred to Blu-ray where they should look their best. Fast motion tends to be a bit blurry and the picture appears to look flat at times.

Zodiac was shot using the Thomson Viper HD cameras and while there are still some small issues to be had, the visual look of the film is a major step forward in terms of HD being an acceptable form of motion picture cinematography. The Blu-ray’s 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 transfer, spread across a BD-50, only accentuates the format’s progression. Color, flesh tones, picture detail and contrasts are all first rate. Black levels are solid despite slight instances of black crush occasionally popping up in nighttime scenes. Edge-enhancement and compression artifacts are nowhere to be found, and video noise only shows up in a few wide shots. Overall, this is one terrific visual presentation that bodes well for the future Blu-ray release of another Fincher film shot with HD cameras, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

On the audio front, one should not expect an aural assault. Once again taking a cue from films of the 1970s, Zodiac’s sound design is by and large a front-channel affair. As such, the 5.1 Dolby TrueHD track offers nice audio dimensionality across the front speakers with the dialogue crystal clear from the center channel and music and effects from the right and left fronts. Surrounds and bass are sparingly used.

Disc producer David Prior has assembled a choice collection of supplemental materials for this release that are among some of the best attached to a studio-produced release outside of the Criterion Collection. While the extras may not cover every bell and whistle associated with the film (where are the deleted scenes?), the ones present do a great job at covering the production and the real-life events that inspired it. One supplement aside, the video-based extras are all presented in 1080i High Definition video.

The sole extras found on disc one are two Audio Commentaries, one with Fincher and the second with Gyllenhaal, Downey, producer Brad Fischer, Vanderbilt and L.A. Confidential author James Ellroy. Fincher’s track is engaging, filled with technical information on the making of the film and the occasional personal tidbit as well (Fincher’s family lived in San Francisco during the early 70s). The second commentary track has the film’s two lead actors providing enjoyable bits of talk. The sections involving Fischer, Vanderbilt and Ellroy are also quite good if a tad redundant in light of the documentaries. I almost wish an entire commentary track had been given to just Ellroy.

Disc two, which houses all of the video-based supplements, is broken up into two sections: “The Film” and “The Facts.” The highlight of the Film section is Zodiac Deciphered, a behind-the-scenes doc that consists of seven separate sections (Zodiac Deciphered, Blue Rook Springs, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Hall of Justice, Presidio Heights, Lake Berryessa and Obesssion) which can be viewed separately or as one 54-minute documentary.

Zodiac Deciphered covers various stages of the film’s production such as shooting at the locations where the real-life murders occurred, using digital effects to recreate the late 60s and 70s as well as what it’s like working with a perfectionist like David Fincher. Producer Bradley Fischer, screenwriter James Vanderbilt, the real-life Robert Graysmith and costume designer Casey Storm provide on-camera interviews while actors Gyllenhaal, Downey and Ruffalo offer insight via voiceovers. Production footage aside, Fincher is absent from the documentary. Zodiac Deciphered is a well-produced “making of” that fortunately sidesteps the usual puff-piece backslapping one would find on such docs.

The Visual Effects of Zodiac is a 15-minute look into how state-of-the-art computer graphics helped Fincher and company successfully achieves their vision for the film. The recreations of the San Francisco cityscape and Lake Berryessa, the fateful taxi ride and the use of CGI in lieu of blood squibs for the murders are all covered here. This is a short feature well worth checking out. Just make sure to do so after you watch the movie.

Three Pre-visualizations of the murder sequences are the only supplements presented in 480p standard definition. Each pre-viz is presented on one part of the screen with the completed scene playing in another at the same time. “Blue Rock Springs” and “San Francisco” both run just a little over a minute each while “Lake Berryessa” runs approximately 4 ½ minutes.

It’s not listed on the outside cover but the final supplement in the film section is the Theatrical Trailer running 2 ½ minutes in 1080p video (the only supplement that is in 1080p) with Dolby 5.1 surround sound. Sure, it sells the movie as Seven, Part II, but it is an excellent trailer and it looks and sounds great.

In The Facts section of disc two, there are two documentaries, This Is the Zodiac Speaking and His Name Was Arthur Leigh Allen. Both are directed by David Prior and help solidify the fact that Vanderbilt and Fincher did their homework when it came to accurately presenting the events and facts in the film.

This Is the Zodiac Speaking can be viewed two ways: in four separate sections (Lake Herman Road, Blue Rock Springs, Lake Berryessa and San Francisco) or as one 102-minute program. Each segment deals with the Zodiac’s known murders and features interviews with the law officials who were the first on the crime scenes as well as two of the real-life survivors of the Zodiac attacks: Michael Mageau of the Blue Rock Springs incident and Bryan Hartnell who survived Lake Berryessa. While the majority of the documentary is comprised of the interview subjects speaking directly to the camera, it contains a fair amount of archival footage and still photography. It’s an engrossing documentary whose straightforward style makes it all the more compelling… and disturbing.

His Name Was Arthur Leigh Allen is a 43-minute portrait of the main suspect in the Zodiac murders played well in the film by John Carroll Lynch. The doc further examines the man and his past courtesy of interviews with Allen’s friends (who claim he wasn’t really that bad of a guy), colleagues, law officials and a few individuals who had the misfortune of crossing paths with the man. Vanderbilt claims that Zodiac did not set out to say that Allen was the Zodiac. This documentary on the other hand all but implicates him. There is one voice of consent in the special, one that comes from a criminal psychologist. She believes that Allen wasn’t the Zodiac because he didn’t fit your typical serial killer profile. The points she presents are indeed valid, her thoughts wind up being too little and too late in light of what is shared beforehand.

Despite all the studio and award-influenced love for the decent but overrated romantic epic Benjamin Button, Zodiac easily remains David Fincher’s best work to date. The film may not have the answers people have been obsessively looking for over the past four decades but its thought-provoking, involving and at times disturbing nature certainly makes for great cinema. Paramount’s Blu-ray Disc is a winner in all departments with a great presentation of the film and solid supplements to back it up. This is a must-own for fans and a strong rental recommendation for anyone who has yet to see it.

-Shawn Fitzgerald

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