Is there such a thing as a movie that is too suspenseful? If there is an edge to the amount of stress and suspense that a movie can have and still work, Panic Room is right on that edge. David Fincher is relentless for almost two hours as he assaults us with fear, panic and terror, and all without much comic relief or release. One of the great tactics of suspense directors is to build up the anxiety and anticipation for an event and then release it. In Panic Room Fincher tries something a little different, leaving the audience trapped in their own anxiety much like the characters on screen. It's not a pleasurable experience, but it is very well done.
What really makes Panic Room work are the performances: Jodie Foster is excellent in one of her best performances since Silence of The Lambs. She manages to maintain an intensity which is magnetic. I also really liked Forest Whitaker, who crafts a performance which helps create more sympathy for his character than Foster's. Kristen Stewart, Dwight Yoakam and Jared Leto also all put in solid supporting performances.
The real star of the film is the Panic Room itself. Fincher seems to spend more of his time and attention on exploring and defining the space over the people in it. Don't get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoyed Fincher's exploration of even the most microscopic detail (like he does in the opening of Fight Club), but in some points it stood out probably a little more than it should.
Fincher has become a very sought after Director, but it may be more for his craft than the actual roles. It's amusing that in Panic Room three of the main actors, Foster, Whitaker and Yoakam, all are acomplished Directors in their own right. Some Directors are considered 'an actor's Director', perhaps Fincher is 'a Director's Director'. In any case he is a fine crasftsman and what he creates in Panic Room is certainly worth watching.
Video: Panic Room is the first major theatrical film to 'debut' on Columbia Tri-Star's Superbit line. For those of you who aren't familiar with Superbit, it's a line of DVDs focused more on providing high picture and sound quality verses special features. Panic Room is presented in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1 which is enhanced for widescreen TVs.
As a 'Superbit' title, I think the expectations for the video should be higher than your average release. Unfortunately Panic Room's video isn't much better than some of the 'standard' transfers out there. The picture is overall crisp and clear, but it doesn't seem to be able to maintain that clarity throughout some of the dark and murky scenes in the movie. Comparing Panic Room side by side with Resident Evil and Blade II I found the blacks to be much softer in Panic Room and the overall transfer to be much more muted. This may be somewhat intentional as the film does have a gritty dank and dirty look to it, but if you didn't know it was supposed to be a 'Superbit' release, you'd never guess that it was.
Audio: I was pretty disappointed with the audio on Panic Room. Both the Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS tracks were way too dim in the center channel, and I ended up having to boost my center channel to be able to hear the dialogue clearly. There are some nice surround moments in the film where you're surrounded by the sound of falling rain, and those moments did sound nice, but the imbalance between the dialogue and effects really threw everything off. Of the two main soundtracks I did prefer the DTS as it was slightly 'fuller sounding' but not as dramatic or appreciable as some of the other DVDs I've seen. Again compared to other non-Superbit DVDs you wouldn't guess from the soundtrack that this was a 'Superbit' release and the audio on Resident Evil (a non Superbit Columbia Tri-Star release) easily surpasses Panic Room.
One thing that you should definitely not overlook on the Panic Room DVD is the French Audio track. Jodie Foster does the French dub for many of her films and it's extraordinarily to see her perform the role in French (with English Subtitles). Fans of Panic Room will want to watch it again in French simply to catch another version of Foster's solid performance.
Extras: I'm fearful that 'Superbit' is going to become a way to market 'barebones' DVDs. The only extras on Panic Room are a non-anamorphic teaser trailer and filmographies. I can understand the desire to get a release out quickly for a movie, but with a Director like David Fincher it's a crime. Panic Room is a movie screaming for extras: Fincher used a comprehensive previsualization process for the film that would be nice to see, he shot eighteen days with Nicole Kidman as the lead, and Jodie Foster was pregnant during shooting which meant they had to go back and reshoot some of the scenes after her child was born.
The Packaging: To date Columbia Tri-Star has released all their Superbit titles in Amaray cases with a cardboard silver slip sleeve over it. For panic room they use both a cardboard case with a cardboard slipcover. This is very similar to some of the 2 Disc Special Editions put out by Warner Bros. Only Panic Room is a single DVD so the whole packaging is much thinner. I have no idea why Columbia Tri-Star went with this packaging for Panic Room as the thin cardboard sleeve is much to tight a fit over the DVD case. I found that within only a few viewings I had managed to mangle the inner case that holds the DVD.
Final Thoughts: Panic Room is a very well made movie that is definitely worth checking out. Unfortunately, Columbia Tri-Star made a mistake classifying this DVD release as a 'Superbit'. The Panic Room - Superbit Edition DVD doesn't meet the expectations set by the Superbit line and falls short in both the video and audio category. While no special edition has been officially announced for Panic Room, I can only hope that there is a more complete release for this movie in the future. It's the kind of movie where a glance into the craftwork might really enhance the viewing of the film.