Release Date(s)2005 (July 8, 2008)
- Film/Program Grade: B+
- Video Grade: B-
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: A-
It’s been a long dark time for Gotham City. Sagging under the burden of economic depression, the teeming metropolis is rife with corruption. The populace increasingly lives in fear, at the almost total mercy of the criminal underworld. The good people of Gotham, even those among the rich and powerful, are afraid to change things. In fact, not since billionaire industrialist Thomas Wayne and his wife were murdered years ago, has there really been anyone willing to give back to the city – to stand up for what’s right, and act as a champion for the working class... the everyman.
Wayne’s son, Bruce, was traumatized as a child by the murder of his parents, which occurred right before his very eyes. Twenty years later, he’s abandoned his college studies in disillusionment and has wandered aimlessly through the seedy underworld, in an attempt to understand the events that shaped him. But it’s not until a mysterious patron, Ra’s Al Ghul, rescues him from his downward spiral that Bruce begins to find the answers he needs. Al Ghul’s major domo, Henri Ducard, shows him a better way... a way to fight Evil on its own terms. Armed with this knowledge, Bruce will soon return to Gotham with a new calling... to protect the good citizens of his city, and to strike fear into the hearts of those who would prey upon the weak.
I’m happy to say that I quite enjoyed Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins. It’s significantly better than I was expecting, definitely an improvement on the previous live-action films. This film is dark and atmospheric, and I particularly liked the build-up of the Bruce Wayne character – the classic origin mythos is handled with respect and care, and is well presented here. You see how Wayne becomes the Dark Knight, and it’s entirely believable. As all the pieces of his character fall into place, you’re never asked to make a leap of logic that isn’t easy to make. Christian Bale is quite good as the title character. He’s able to perfectly convey the uneasy sense of intensity and rage that lies just beneath Wayne’s controlled exterior. Meanwhile, Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman lend tremendous gravitas to their roles as Alfred and a Wayne Enterprises scientist who provides Bruce with all his crime-fighting toys. It’s also great to see Gary Oldman playing a genuinely wholesome good guy for a change. I really liked him as Police Sergeant Gordon (it’s nice to know that as the franchise continues, we’ll see Gordon move up in the ranks). He even looks like the Gordon I recall from the comics. Both Liam Neeson and Rutger Hauer contribute admirably to the film as well. Better still, the mood, look and production design is pitch perfect.
Batman Begins, however, isn’t a perfect film. For one thing, it could easily be trimmed by 15 or 20 minutes and you’d never miss them. While the casting overall is excellent, there’s one major bit of miscasting. Katie Holmes is certainly adequate in her role as Rachel Dawes (Bruce’s childhood friend turned Gotham Assistant District Attorney), but she also brings nothing particularly unique to the part. And as good as the first half of the film is, the plot gets a little bit too paint-by-numbers in the second half. The build-up we see here gives this Batman its own unique style, separating it from the rest of the big-screen superhero pack nicely, but the action later is pretty pedestrian. There’s also a twist in the last act that’s entirely too predictable – it’s basically given away by a line of dialogue about halfway through the film.
Still, one of my favorite things about this film is that it seldom feels as if it was shot on a soundstage. This is particularly helped by the Himalayan setting of much of the first half of the film (actually, it’s Iceland, but it passes as Tibet nicely). I also think the stunt work here is exceptional. Most of the car chase footage involving the Tumbler (a.k.a. the new Batmobile) was shot with real vehicles, full scale and at genuinely high speeds, giving it an authenticity that similar scenes in previous superhero films have lacked. And I loved the use of Arkham Asylum in the story. Tied as he is to Arkham, The Scarecrow is also nicely creepy (he’s clearly destined to return at some point). Better still, the film’s final act wonderfully sets up the potential emergence of a number of the signature villains in future sequels, including (in a nifty little touch) The Joker. And that’s the key, I think. How the sequels handle The Joker, in particular, will be the real test for this remodeled franchise.
[Editor’s Note: The film portion of this review was written back when Batman Begins was first released on DVD, well before The Dark Knight’s debut. So the answer to this mystery is now well known: Nolan’s Joker, as played by the late Heath Ledger, is simply extraordinary, erasing any doubts about this now exceptionally well-rebooted franchise.]
Warner’s new Blu-ray Disc version of Batman Begins includes the same bonus material that was on the previous DVD and HD-DVD versions, and then some. Virtually all of the extras on those editions has carried over, including the In-Movie Experience PiP commentary from the HD-DVD. Newly added for the Blu-ray is a stunning high-definition preview of The Dark Knight, featuring IMAX footage from the film’s opening sequence, which introduces the Joker. About the only thing you don’t get here is the Inner Demons comic book menus from Disc Two of the DVD (although all of the actual extras on that disc are included). You also don’t get the 72-page comic book that was part of the original DVD release, though the new Blu-ray (if you buy the Limited Edition Giftset) does include a new comic book, as well as a booklet with storyboard artwork, mini posters/postcards and a lenticular hologram.
The new Blu-ray Disc unfortunately seems to offer the same high-def video encode (or at least the original digital master) that was used for the HD-DVD version. The problem with that is that the encode doesn’t take full advantage of the added space on the BD-50 disc to maximize the compression, resulting in an image that’s just a little too soft looking and somewhat lacking in detail. I suspect that too much Digital Noise Reduction (DNR) has been used here as well, given that there’s a noticeable lack of film grain and that fine image detail is less than optimal. In any case, color is muted but accurate to the theatrical presentation, and contrast is excellent. The image isn’t bad looking in any way. In fact, it’s quite good – certainly an improvement over the DVD. But this film could have looked significantly better on Blu-ray, and it’s a shame that it doesn’t. Let’s hope that Warner abandons the overuse of DNR soon, so that The Dark Knight looks better on Blu when it arrives later this year. The audio, at least, is excellent, presented in full Dolby TrueHD lossless. The mix is nicely active and immersive, with smooth, natural staging and excellent bass.
On the whole, this Blu-ray is well worth an upgrade over the previous DVD release, though if you already own the HD-DVD, there’s little reason to replace it. The 1080p video quality is good, but remains disappointing compared to other new release titles on Blu-ray. I hope that Warner eventually re-issues this disc with less compression and DNR at some point down the line.
- Bill Hunt