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Reviews » HD DVD Reviews » Batman Begins (HD DVD)
Batman Begins (HD DVD)
Warner Bros. // PG-13 // October 10, 2006 // Region 0
List Price: $28.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Adam Tyner | posted October 17, 2006 | E-mail the Author
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C O N T E N T
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A U D I O
E X T R A S
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Highly Recommended
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It takes a mind-boggling amount
"Where were the other drugs going?"
"I...I never knew...I don't know. I swear to God."
"Swear to me!"
of time, money, and effort to ravage a franchise the way Warner had with their Batman series. The goth-deco, live-action cartoon that Tim Burton directed was bastardized into an unrecognizably garish, campy monstrosity complete with plastic-molded nipples and sterling dialogue like Mr. Freeze's "Ice to see you!" A franchise that was churning out another installment every couple of years lay dormant for nearly a decade. Director Christopher Nolan's revival bears little resemblance to any of the five Batman films preceding it, sidestepping some of the pitfalls of the perhaps-too-faithful Superman Returns that would follow a year later. (Also in stark contrast to Bryan Singer's Superman sequel, Batman -- this time played by Christian Bale -- actually hits something.)

Our first glimpse of an adult Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins is as a disheveled inmate in a Bhutani prison. A smartly-dressed enigma introduces himself as Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson), and aware of Wayne's identity as well as the young man's thirst for vengeance after his parents were butchered before him years earlier, Ducard presents him with a new path. Wayne undergoes brutal training under Ducard as part of his initiation into a shadowy organization that since time immemorial has carved away the cancer of decadent societies overrun by injustice. Wayne learns a great deal throughout the course of his rigorous training, including that he's not suited to wear the mantle of judge, jury, and executioner as the unflinchingly violent League of Shadows demands. He and the League explosively part ways, and after seven years away and long thought dead, Bruce Wayne returns to Gotham City.

Gotham was in tatters before Wayne fled to the other side of the world, but crime has infested every level of the city in the years since. With the assistance of his loyal butler Alfred (Michael Caine) and the technical wizardry of Lucius Fox, a brilliant Wayne Industries inventor who'd been shoved aside for rattling the corporate cages, Bruce Wayne possesses the tools he needs to restore Gotham to its former glory. Wayne works alone, but others share the same goals; former childhood friend/assistant D.A. Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes) and Sgt. Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) are two of the only people in Gotham's justice system who aren't on the payroll of brash mobster Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson). Wayne's first outing as the Batman pits him against Falcone, and shutting down the crime boss' drug operation points him in the direction of Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy), the corrupt psychologist who runs Arkham Asylum and moonlights as the masked Scarecrow. As Batman soon discovers, Crane is just a foot soldier in a scheme to rend Gotham in two.

Christopher Nolan has created a world that's surprisingly plausible. The movie is anchored around Bruce Wayne, not his pointy-eared alter ego, and the camera rarely lingers on Batman when Wayne eventually does don the cape and cowl. This can be somewhat disorienting in the fight sequences with tightly composed, quarter-second shots that leave Batman looking like more of a blurry black smear on the screen than a costumed superhero. It's a polarizing approach Nolan has taken, but it's one I found tremendously effective. For one, I think the frenzied editing in the street brawls works for precisely the reason so many people have criticized it; Batman is intended to be more of an abstract concept than a man. No one in Gotham should be able to pin down precisely what he looks like -- reality always pales in comparison to hearsay and legend -- and the rough, dirty combat style matches what Wayne had been taught by the League of Shadows. It's all too appropriate that Batman's assault on a group of drug-smugglers at the docks owes more to the horror of Ridley Scott's Alien than two-fisted comic book action.

Nolan is disinterested in shoehorning in marquee draws as villains or overindulging himself with cartoonishly over-the-top special effects. Everyone and everything that appears on-screen, even its central villains, are there to service the story: the power of fear, shaping one's character, and the transformation of an angry, tormented young billionaire into a force to be reckoned with in and out of costume. It's the first of these movies to really be about Batman...about Bruce Wayne...not his rogue's gallery, ornate set design, or a shameless grab for a nine-figure box office. That's not to say that the production design isn't top-notch -- I'm especially impressed with this spry, tank-like incarnation of the Batmobile -- but it complements the storytelling rather than overwhelm it. Batman Begins adopts a more serious tone but isn't unrelentingly bleak or grim, and even though its title character isn't seen in costume until well into the film, the pacing doesn't drag as its somewhat philosophical back story is established.

There are numerous touches that I appreciated as a long-time fan of the comics. It establishes the trust and friendship formed between Jim Gordon and Batman that the other movies largely glossed over, and with as significant a character as Lucius Fox has been in print, it's welcome to finally see the spotlight shone on him on-screen as well. The radio-friendly "buy our soundtrack!" pop music that peppered the past few movies has also been tossed aside in favor of a traditional score. It's too easy to condense Batman down to a billionaire orphan who used his wealth and torment to shape himself into a crusader, immediately flashing-forward from Point A to Point B, and the journey Bruce Wayne takes in Batman Begins is much more richly drawn than anything we've seen on-screen before. Christian Bale also transforms himself the most completely of the other actors in the franchise. I'm as much a fan of Tim Burton's Batman movies as anyone, but I still just see Michael Keaton in a rubber mask. Bale disappears into the role and is borderline-unrecognizable when he's in full costume.

My gripes are fairly minor. Katie Holmes isn't especially convincing as an assistant district attorney and is merely adequate compared to the rest of the cast. Still, it's appreciated that she's not the traditional superhero-movie love interest, especially with as uncomfortable as Bale and Holmes look when they do inevitably kiss. The way Bruce Wayne electronically modulates his voice as Batman just sounds strange rather than ominous and terrifying, but so little is said in costume that it doesn't amount to much. The concept of the microwave emitter that factors so heavily into the film's climax seems like more of a discarded comic book plot point than anything else in Batman Begins, although I enjoyed the rest of the movie enough that suspending a bit of disbelief wasn't terribly difficult.

Previous installments in the franchise were four-color fantasies, but Batman Begins is a darker, grimmer tale of the Dark Knight and one that much more closely matches the tone of the comics over the past twenty years. This is not the mindless summer blockbuster incarnation of Batman that audiences may have wanted, but Christopher Nolan has given them the one they needed. Sharply directed, near-flawlessly cast, and intelligently written, Batman Begins is by far the most exceptional of the recent glut of superhero movies.

Video: Initially slated to be among Warner's first few HD DVD releases, Batman Begins was the reason I picked up a player at launch. The six month delay was mildly frustrating, but now that I hold this disc in my hands, in no way does its 2.39:1 high-definition presentation disappoint. The transfer accentuates colors that looked comparatively flat on DVD, and considering that Batman is a creature of the night, black levels and shadow detail are appropriately robust. The grime and grittiness of this decrepit metropolis are contrasted with some stunningly beautiful photography in Iceland, and the level of fine detail in each of these varied settings is unsurpassed. There is not a single flaw or imperfection to mention, and Warner's continued ability to top itself with each successive wave of HD DVDs never ceases to amaze me.

Audio: Batman Begins is one of an increasing number of HD DVDs to feature lossless Dolby TrueHD audio, and it too is a marvel. The action sequences are astonishingly engaging and immersive, swarming the room with an aural assault from every direction. Even more impressive than its aggressive use of multichannel sound is the dynamic range in this TrueHD track; the tremendously deep bass is tight and punishing without ever negatively impacting the beautifully rendered score or immaculately reproduced dialogue and sound effects. Along with this truly exceptional TrueHD track, Batman Begins also features subtitles and Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 audio in English, French, and Spanish.

Supplements: All of the digital extras from the two-disc deluxe edition DVD have been ported over to this release, and Batman Begins is also one of several Warner titles to include an 'In Movie Experience'. Think interviews and behind-the-scenes footage playing in a picture-in-picture window over relevant stretches of the movie. The problem is that this feature is largely a retread of the other extras on this disc. Very little footage is recycled, but much of the In Movie Experience amounts to different actors and crew members saying the same things in nearly the same way. Some of the material is unique, though. Actors Cillian Murphy, Ken Watanabe, Tom Wilkinson, Morgan Freeman, and Rutger Hauer as well as composers James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer weren't really seen in the other extras, but they each appear briefly here and comment on their contributions to the film. There are also a few production stills, related panels from comic books, and footage from stunt rehearsals, along with notes about Batman's fighting style, Gary Oldman coming up with an indeterminate American accent for Jim Gordon, and how Liam Neeson's height proved problematic for one key scene. With only around fifty minutes of material spread throughout this 140 minute movie, it seems more like punctuation than an actively engaging feature. The In-Movie Experience is worth a look for those who aren't interested in sifting through the individual featurettes, but there's little appeal in watching both.

The three Easter Eggs from the previous DVD set are now listed prominently under the heading of "Additional Footage". The first of them features screenwriter David S. Goyer spinning a couple minutes' worth of funny stories about the writing process and Batfans' detective work. The second is a minute long comparison between footage of Christian Bale and a proof-of-concept digital Batman, and the last of these is a two and a half minute collection of footage of Tumbler tests, Bat-harnesses, and stuntmen engulfed in flames.

"Behind the Story" is primarily a feature-length collection of individual featurettes, running right at an hour and a half in total. Batman Begins is one of those rare cases where all of its featurettes deserve a look; this comprehensive set really is interested in describing the making of the film, and there's nothing self-congratulatory or, until the very end, remotely promotional to shamelessly pad out the runtime.

"The Journey Begins" (14 min.) offers a general overview of pre-production, including bringing Goyer on-board, the collaborative garage of Christopher Nolan, the intense secrecy surrounding the film's script, and Christian Bale over-bulking up after taking Nolan's suggestions too literally. "Gotham City Rises" (13 min.) focuses on the production design, particularly Gotham City in general and the Narrows in particular, stately Wayne Manor, and the subterranean caves beneath the mansion's foundations. It also delves into the scale of the production as Gotham City was constructed in a sprawling aircraft hanger the size of eight of L.A.'s largest sound stages.

The eight minute "Cape and Cowl" delves into the mindset behind the design of Batman's costume and the flexibility Nolan required. The featurette also follows the fabrication of the suit and notes how the costume designers had to invent their own fabric for the cape. The Batmobile gets its own featurette as well in "Batman - The Tumbler" (13.5 min.), commenting on how early in the pre-production stage the Batmobile was designed and how Nolan insisted that a full-scale, fully functional vehicle be created for filming. "Path to Discovery" spends fourteen minutes on the arduous process of filming in Iceland, and "Saving Gotham City" (13 min.) notes how sparingly digital effects were used and how the name 'miniature' doesn't necessarily mean these models are the least bit small.

The last of the featurettes is the comic book-centric "Genesis of the Bat" (15 min.). It starts off by describing the influence the original comics -- specifically "The Long Halloween", Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams' Ra's al Ghul stories, "The Man who Falls", and Frank Miller's "Batman: Year One" -- had on the film, but it gradually turns into an extended plug for DC's thoroughly awful All-Star Batman and Robin comic. Still, it's nice to see the likes of Denny O'Neil and Dan Didio get some face time.

Other extras include a bafflingly unfunny clip of Jimmy Fallon's Bat-themed intro to the MTV Movie Awards, a gallery of domestic, international, and (most interestingly) rejected promotional art concepts, and a set of 'confidential files' with background information on Batman's gear, his friends, and his foes. The extras are rounded out by a trailer that some sources have erroneously listed as being in high-definition, but it's really just the familiar standard definition, anamorphic widescreen clip.

Conclusion: I'm a lifelong comic book fan, but as much as I've enjoyed so many of the superhero movies that Hollywood has been churning out over the past few years, Batman Begins is by far my favorite of the lot. It's an intense, mature film that benefits from an effective blend of action and strong storytelling, a talented cast, and a director who's more concerned about filmmaking than merchandising. Highly Recommended.

Standard image disclaimer: the thumbnails in this review were lifted from the original DVD release and aren't representative of the appearance of this HD DVD.
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