As frantic and unpredictable as its central character, Richard Donner's Conspiracy Theory (1997) takes viewers on a wild ride from start to finish. Our man under the microscope is Jerry Fletcher (Mel Gibson), a deeply troubled cab driver who perpetually peeks behind the curtain and believes in shady cover-ups, shadow government, and other suppressions of the truth. When he's not irritating customers or publishing his newsletter (with all of five subscribers), Jerry secretly monitors the apartment window of Alice Sutton (Julia Roberts), a government lawyer for the Justice Department. She's seen him before, of course: before constantly bugging her at work, the annoying but seemingly harmless Jerry once saved her from a mugging. Yet his unraveling, loopy behavior eventually becomes understandable: he's been kidnapped before---and recently---by the mysterious Dr. Jonas (Patrick Stewart), who uses Clockwork Orange-level torture to interrogate the troubled man. It turns out that one of Jerry's conspiracy theories is right...but which one?
It's been probably a decade or more since I've seen Conspiracy Theory, having missed its theatrical run and playing catch up on VHS/DVD a few years later. Regardless of its political leanings or the logical plausibility of what its central character believes in, there's no denying that Conspiracy Theory has an interesting premise and, for the most part, succeeds in its goal of running viewers through the wringer. The early kidnapping and subsequent "nose" scene remains one of the film's most memorable moments, instantly justifying our loopy hero's previous descent into madness. Yet as the film progresses he almost seems to be getting better: Alice ends up being the emotional focus of Jerry's life, from his research of (and possible involvement in) her father's recent death to the simple fact that she entertains him.
Gibson has arguably never been better than his turn as Jerry Fletcher. In light of the man's subsequent career path and personal life, he turns in a tremendous performances almost every step of the way and, for better or worse, makes Jerry infinitely more likable that he probably should be. Any thriller with central characters and romantic undertones like these should probably have a "creep out" factor lurking beneath, yet their affections feel sincere and many of the reveals fall into place nicely. Despite a few too many twists and turns (evidenced by the film's somewhat bloated 130-minute running time), not to mention the idea that a Justice Department attorney would be led around by the nose so easily, certain events end up feeling strangely natural within the skewed boundaries of Donner's busy, unpredictable film.
I will admit, however, that certain things still bug me. The film's sporadic use of sudden, shocking invasions of Gibson's life---from his early kidnapping to government sponsored break-ins and even a helicopter pursuit---gradually drift a little too far over the top, even in this world. Its ending also feels far more conventional than it really ought to, as if studio interference or test audiences wanted to see more of a crowd-pleaser than a film that truly went all the way. Also, the typically reliable Carter Burwell (frequent collaborator with the Coen brothers) turns in a truly uneven score, an odd mixture of traditional "swelling orchestra" cues, clichéd suspense music and dated, jazzy numbers. Some of this music just calls attention to itself for the wrong reasons or, worse yet, tells us exactly how we should be feeling. Even so, the bulk of Conspiracy Theory moves nicely and, as long as you wait a while between viewings, will continue to surprise and entertain more than just once. It's not a forgotten masterpiece, but it's better than your average 90s thriller.
Originally released on DVD by Warner Bros. back in their "snapper case" days---and later, tucked inside a keepcase---Conspiracy Theory's bonus features have never included more than a handful of production notes, cast biographies and *cough* "interactive menus". Sadly, this situation hasn't been remedied for Blu-ray but the A/V presentation gets a nice bump that fans will certainly appreciate. Either way, its low price will likely tempt anyone sitting on the fence.
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Quality
It's not up for debate: Conspiracy Theory features a fantastic visual presentation that frequently outpaces most other mainstream catalog releases. Framed at 2.39:1, this 1080p transfer is very film-like with excellent image detail and strong textures, especially during close-ups and not limited to daytime scenes. It's a well-lit film with plenty of little details lurking in the background and this added resolution definitely improves the viewing experience. Colors are often rich and well-saturated...and though some of them oddly lean towards the teal-and-orange palette that's so popular nowadays, there doesn't appear to be any conspiracies going on here. Without questions, fans will be pleased.
DISCLAIMER: The screen captures featured in this review are strictly decorative and do not represent Blu-ray's native 1080p image resolution.
The audio is also impressive, as the default DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track features a wide dynamic range. The only downside, of course, is that it's not optimized for home theater viewing so you'll probably need to adjust your volume every so often. But the film's occasional (and sudden) outbursts really pack a punch, especially during the film's over-the-top third act. Dialogue remains well-mixed throughout and generally easy to understand, while Carter Burwell's uneven score doesn't fight for attention very often. Optional dubs and subtitles are available in nearly a dozen languages (!) including English SDH, French and Spanish. Obviously, that means that the disc itself is region free.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging
Though predictably low on style points, Warner Bros.' standard static menu interface is clean, easy to navigate and loads quickly. Sub-menus are included for chapter selection and audio/subtitle setup. This dual-layered, region-free disc is housed in a silly "eco-friendly" case with plain back disc artwork and a cover image similar to the DVD and poster. Sadly, no bonus features have been included (not even a trailer), but at least this package is priced accordingly.
Conspiracy Theory certainly has its moments and, to be fair, its fundamental strengths outshine other elements that don't work quite as well (most notably, a few too many twists and the somewhat conventional ending). But having not seen this in at least a decade, it was still better than I remembered and the lead performances by Mel Gibson, Julia Roberts and Patrick Stewart are uniformly strong; in fact, it may be Gibson's finest hour. Warner Bros.' low-priced Blu-ray shines brightly in the A/V department but, predictably, is just as bare-bones as the original "snapper case" DVD. Despite its varied shortcomings, Conspiracy Theory offers a wild ride worth taking every so often. Recommended.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs and writing in third person.