Reviewer's Note: I apologize for the lateness of this review, which was due to a problem with the screener (specifically, copyright text that covered the bottom third of the image). This does not occur in any publicly sold discs---and to Fox's credit, they were kind enough to send out a proper copy for this review.
It's a good film to get lost in, but don't approach Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven (2005) expecting to see much in the way of originality. This historical epic, set during the Crusades (circa 12th Century for the math majors), is truly epic in scope and execution from start to finish. It contains engaging drama, fast-paced fight sequences and about 180 minutes worth of story---which is, unfortunately, crammed into 144 minutes. At times, you'll often wonder how or why things are moving as fast as they are---almost as if you're getting the abridged version of the complete film. Yes, even more than usual.
In fact, you are getting the abridged version---but most people eager to see Kingdom of Heaven already knew that when they bought their movie tickets. In its present 144-minute form, it makes a habit of glossing over many scenes---especially early on in the film---and the frequent bouncing around can be quite confusing at first. This problem is in no way helped by the relatively quick editing style, which is fairly distracting during action sequences…and even more so during the slower-paced, dramatic ones. It's not as problematic as the other Scott's films, but it's still a problem. With any luck, the additional footage incorporated back into the film---which will undoubtedly make its way to DVD via a Director's Cut within a year or so---may help alleviate both problems. Even so, at the core of Kingdom of Heaven is an entertaining story that survives despite the initial drawbacks.
It barely requires mention at this point, but director Ridley Scott is perhaps best known for his films of the more epic variety. Having recently directed Gladiator and Black Hawk Down, Scott only paused for pit stops in-between each one with the darkly underrated Hannibal and the offbeat but enjoyable Matchstick Men. Even so, Kingdom of Heaven is entirely closer to the former group---it's a sprawling, expansive drama/adventure with a keen eye for detail and composition. The cinematography on display is second to none, so those who appreciate fine visuals will certainly find much to enjoy here. Again, it's a good film to get lost in...just remember to bring popcorn and you'll be fine.
Though many critics felt that Orlando Bloom (who portrays Balian, the hero of our story) wasn't ready for the limelight in such an epic film, I'd argue that the character himself is more to blame than the performance of Bloom. It calls for a hero of the working class variety; in this case, Balian is a blacksmith in mourning after the death of his wife and child. He's not in the same league of leadership as Maximus in Gladiator---in fact, he's a little closer to Frodo Baggins in The Lord of the Rings (just taller and much handier with a sword). He's supposed to be overshadowed by the formidable screen presence of Liam Neeson (who portrays Balian's long lost father, Godfrey), Jeremy Irons (Tiberius), Ghassan Massoud (Saladin) and pretty much everyone else of authority. He's supposed to portray the blue-collar underdog, and he does so quite well. Of course, the supporting characters---both those already mentioned and a handful of others---chip in to round out the performances quite nicely, which combine with the terrific production values to suck you right into the atmosphere. If only the story were consistent enough to stand on its own two feet, Kingdom of Heaven would be a major contender. As it stands, it's a decent epic in need of some fine-tuning.
Though many also criticized the film for its neutral stance on religion, this neutrality is out of respect for both the Christian and Muslim religions---not a sterile, politically correct version of this bloody, emotional war. Of course, the film spotlights the light and dark on both sides: faith, doubt, intolerance, hatred and much more. Though it could've really dug deeper in a few cases, these surface problems may also be remedied when the entire picture is revealed. These nitpicks are further emphasized by the film's tendency to favor Hollywood drama over complete accuracy (it's not a blatant criticism, but the shortening of the original cut combined with this gives it more of a commercial spin than it should have gotten). This mild lack of substance is noticeable, even if it doesn't hurt the film for you---and because of this problem, the theatrical cut suffers more.
For these reasons, it's hard to treat Kingdom of Heaven as a complete film in its present form. Of course, those who really enjoyed the theatrical cut should be thrilled at Fox's fine efforts for this excellent 2-disc package: it's got a near-perfect technical presentation and a host of solid bonus features---and by the time you read this, you might be able to find a used copy on the cheap! In any case, it's one of the better standard-edition DVDs that's been released this year.
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Quality:
A few reviews have commented that Kingdom of Heaven's 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is too dark---but like another recent release (Batman Begins), it's best described as a dark film that holds up well on DVD. Blacks are rock solid (if not a little flat at times), while the beautiful cinematography---filled with lush blues and warm oranges---ensures that the color is as striking as the image detail. A very, very mild amount of edge enhancement was spotted during a few scenes, but the overall lack of digital problems earns this disc very high marks overall.
The audio, on the other hand, suffers from absolutely zero problems at all, ensuring that Kingdom of Heaven stands tall as one of the best-sounding DVDs on the market today. A variety of options are on board, including a pair of English tracks (Dolby 5.1 and DTS Surround) and dual 2.0 Surround mixes (Spanish and French). Both of the English options provide a fantastic atmosphere that's balanced very well, from the aggressive, atmospheric score to the Earth-shaking battle sequences---but as usual, the DTS mix won out for slightly stronger dynamics and clarity. Dialogue also remains crisp and clear, ensuring that you won't have to reach for the remote during the main feature. Optional English, French and Spanish subtitles have also been provided for this release.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging:
As expected, the beautiful animated menus (seen above) offer a strong atmosphere and easy navigation. Each of these discs features a similar design and overall presentation, offering "play all" options for every appropriate bonus feature. The 144-minute film has been divided into several dozen chapters, while a barely noticeable layer change was detected just before the 90-minute mark. The packaging is basic but very attractive, as this two-disc release is housed in a slim double keepcase that's surrounded by a sharp matching slipcover. An insert booklet (with a complete chapter listing and content summary) and a few promotional inserts are also tucked away inside.
There's a mixture of great and average stuff here, but most fans will really enjoy what's on board. Disc One kicks off with a subtitle "commentary" entitled The Pilgrim's Guide; in short, it's a series of historical facts that play while the film runs. Unfortunately, the subtitle presentation is a little rough: in addition to a handful of
speeling errers typos and grammatical flubs, these large blocks of text tend to cover up a good portion of the onscreen images. Also on this disc is a short Inside Look at Tristan and Isolde, which doesn't look terribly interesting but may appeal to fans of the genre.
Disc Two is where the bulk of the features wound up, and it kicks off quite well with an Interactive Production Grid; basically, this is a series of behind-the-scenes documentaries that focuses on pre-production, production and post-production. The trick here is that each of the production sections can be viewed from one of three different perspectives: that of the director, cast or crew. Viewers who don't like to experiment should simply select the handy "Play All" option (85 mins. total).
Up next are a pair of A&E Documentaries ("History vs. Hollywood" and "Movie Real", 44 mins. each) which attempt to give Kingdom of Heaven a more accurate historical foundation and context. Of the two documentaries, the second is perhaps more worthwhile---especially since "History vs. Hollywood" often chooses to compare instead of inform. Also here is a series of Internet Featurettes ("Creating Worlds", "The Adventure of a Lifetime", "Bringing an Old City to Life" and "Creating Characters Through Wardrobe", 10 mins. total); these go into mild detail for each of their respective subjects. Last but not least is the film's Theatrical Trailer, which is always a valuable inclusion.
This is a broad selection of bonus features overall, but there were still a few mild disappointments. For starters, the lack of an audio commentary and deleted scenes is perhaps the biggest letdown, as director Ridley Scott has proven himself in the past (and the deleted scenes might've answered a few questions, of course). The presentation of the bonus features is also sloppy: while the Inside Look and Production Grid are presented in anamorphic widescreen, everything else is not (NOTE: The A&E Documentaries are presented in their original 4:3 aspect ratio). This may be an insignificant problem for most viewers, but it's annoying for anyone with an anamorphic setup.
It's not the first time this has happened: despite the strengths of Kingdom of Heaven on DVD, it still seems like something of an appetizer for a future deluxe edition (Gladiator and Black Hawk Down, anyone?). The film seems rushed in certain parts, making it obvious that there's more to the story than what's presented in this theatrical cut. Even so, there's a lot to like about this package: the technical presentation is one of the best yet (and it'll likely remain the same for a future release), while the extras are informative and well put together. Those who enjoyed Kingdom of Heaven in the theater will certainly find this disc satisfying, while more casual fans should at least give it a rent until the eventual Director's Cut is released. Overall, it's still a great DVD that comes Recommended.
Randy Miller III is a moderately affable art instructor based in Harrisburg, PA, who also enjoys freelance graphic design and illustration. When he's not doing that, he enjoys slacking off, general debauchery, and writing things in third person.