Only a handful of modern films actually warrant the "out of sequence" approach that's becoming so popular these days; used to great effect in thrillers like Christopher Nolan's Memento, such an approach is a terrific way to grab attention and create a spell-binding, kinetic narrative. Popularized (but certainly not created) by the classic Pulp Fiction, this unorthodox structure reminds us that films can still have balance…even when presented in an imbalanced manner.
Fortunately, Alberto Gonzalez Iñárritu's 21 Grams (2003) actually warrants such a skewed approach. Carried out in sharp, often unsettling fragments, 21 Grams examines the lives of three individuals as seen before, during and after a tragic automobile accident. A terminally ill mathematician, a grieving young mother, and a born-again ex-convict: three distinct personalities, three different paths in life. During the "first act" (for lack of a better term), 21 Grams may prove frustrating for those unfamiliar with its style; we know something big is approaching---or, in some cases, has already arrived---yet the specific reason hasn't been revealed to us yet. As the story unravels, everything becomes clear, but still partially clouded by memories and human emotion. 21 Grams runs hard and fast with this idea, creating a strong, almost spiritual atmosphere that elevates an otherwise simple story to greater heights.
The success of Iñárritu's film doesn't start and stop with the story, however. The lead performances by Sean Penn, Benicio Del Toro and Naomi Watts are sharp and precise, creating an almost unsettling believability to the three protagonists. Del Toro is particularly convincing as the emotionally complex Jack Jordan, while Watts holds her own as the crumbling Cristina Peck (below left)---and though neither received Oscars for their respective roles, their nominations assure us that great performances don't always go unnoticed. The brooding, mysterious score by Gustavo Santaolalla (Brokeback Mountain, Iñárritu's own Amores Perros) only tightens the mood even further. As a finished product, 21 Grams is gripping and almost hard to watch; luckily, it holds up fairly well to repeat viewings.
Of course, the real story here isn't just about 21 Grams itself, it's about the bumpy road the film has taken on DVD. Originally released in 2004 on a technically pleasing but barebones DVD release by Universal, 21 Grams only disappointed those looking for a meaty collection of bonus material. Unfortunately, in DVD terms, that roughly translates to "the vocal majority"…even more so, when you're dealing with such an emotionally complex film.
As far as this brand new "Collector's Edition" goes, it's easily one of the most disappointing DVDs of the year. The technical presentation remains exactly the same: it offers little room for improvement, all things considered, but the real deal-killer here is a continued lack of bonus material. The sole extra that's been sloppily tacked on is a relatively weak featurette (present on most international releases the first time around), making this second incarnation of 21 Grams even more disappointing than the first Region 1 release. It's not the most shameless double dip in DVD history, but it's still a disappointing release nonetheless. Let's take a closer look, shall we?
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Quality
Presented in its original 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen aspect ratio, 21 Grams looks as grainy, gritty and oversaturated as the original release---not that this is a complaint, mind you. It's important to know that all the "imperfections" found on this transfer are completely intentional; in other words, it's supposed to look less than perfect. Digital problems, such as edge enhancement, are thankfully nowhere to be found.
The audio presentation is simple but satisfying, as the included English 5.1 Dolby Digital and DTS mixes boast clear dialogue and strong music cues. There's little to no surround activity on display here, but the visuals are absorbing enough to overshadow this factor. Optional English subtitles are provided for the main feature only.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging
The basic animated menus (seen above, presented in 1:78:1 anamorphic widescreen) offer a static, cover-themed design and easy navigation, just like the original release. The 126-minute main feature has still been divided into a generous 32 chapters, while no discernable layer change was detected during playback. This one-disc release is housed inside a standard black "child-proof" keepcase and includes no inserts.
For those disappointed by the original barebones release: are you ready for a complete batch of bonus material? Well, too bad. You'll have to keep waiting, since the only supplement provided here is 21 Grams: In Fragments (18:04), a relatively lightweight behind-the-scenes featurette. It's admittedly decent for a quasi-promotional piece, but those waiting for a more in-depth documentary will be thoroughly disappointed. With no audio commentary, cast and crew interviews or other goodies (heck, we still don't get the theatrical trailer!), it's a incredibly tough sell for those who bought the first release. In fact, it's downright impossible for all but the most ardent collectors.
It's not quite a perfect film, but there's no doubt that 21 Grams is a potent, throat-grabbing drama that's certainly worth a look on DVD. Unfortunately, those who already bought the original release have very little reason to upgrade, as the technical presentation remains the same and bonus material is almost non-existent. From an outsider's perspective, there's really no reason to bother with this release; the original version is bound to be dirt cheap by now, and it'll be extremely tough to fork over $20 for such a ham-handed double dip. Let's send a message to the studio: until a real "Collector's Edition" comes along, do yourselves a favor and keep waiting. Skip It.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey based in Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance graphic design projects and works in a local gallery. When he's not doing that, he enjoys slacking off, mocking passers-by and writing things in third person.