(movie review written in 2002)
Director David Fincher's films have been complex thrillers that present intelligent characters in richly crafted thrillers. With "Panic Room", the director's dark visual style is taken a step further, but the story itself is certainly the most straightforward and mainstream of Fincher's films. It's also, in my opinion, possibly the director's finest work; not only is the simple premise transformed into a consistently thrilling experience, the lead performance from Jodie Foster (a pregnant Foster replaced an injured Nicole Kidman; as phenomenal an actress as Kidman is, I have a difficult time seeing anyone aside from Foster in this role. Kidman, however, does have a voice cameo.) is one of her best in recent memory.
The film stars Foster as Meg Altman, who has just divorced from millionare Stephen (Patrick Bauchau). As the picture opens, Meg and her daughter Sarah (Kristen Stewart) decide to move into an enormous mansion in Manhattan, whose sheer size seems to dwarf its new residents. While the place seems to have all the required features, there's one room that's quite different from all the rest - the "panic room", a chamber that is built with steel walls on all sides, offers its own telephone line and even video cameras capturing the entire house.
Soon after, the two settle into the house, confident that they've made the right choice. Unfortunately, they're also confronted - on their first night, no less - with three burglars; Burnham (Forest Whitaker), Junior (Jared Leto), and Raoul (Dwight Yoakam), who want to break in. Although both Meg and her daughter scramble into the panic room, things soon become complicated: what the burglars want is in that room.
Over the course of the night, an intense standoff begins as the two sides try to outsmart one another. While the burglars aren't brilliant, they will stop at nothing to get what they're seeking. In the hands of another director, this could have been an average time-waster, but Fincher's sleek style and David Koepp's occasionally crafty screenplay elevate this considerably above the norm for the genre.
The film, like all of Fincher's projects, is technically stunning. The film's gloomy atmosphere is captured wonderfully by cinematographers Darius Khondji (who left partway through the production) and Conrad W. Hall. In addition, there are remarkable instances of computer-aided cinematography, as the camera manages to move around the house in ways that it otherwise could not. Fincher also supplements the experience with some additional visual tricks and even a great sequence where the sound is cut out almost entirely.
The performances are nearly perfect, especially Foster's. She plays the role masterfully, with a combination of fear, caring, intelligence and adrenaline. Stewart also makes a good impression as her daughter. As the other side, Leto is believably, entertainingly on edge, while Whitaker is excellent as a criminal with heart. Even country star Dwight Yoakam is superb as the quietest of the three who also turns out to be the most psychotic.
Although this was reportedly a fairly troubled production at times, Fincher has succeeded in putting together a fantastic thriller that keeps working up the suspense as it pushes forward. I still think "Panic Room" is one of the year's strongest pictures.
VIDEO: The original review: "Panic Room" is presented in 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen by Columbia/Tristar Home Entertainment. This is a considerably dark picture, often maintaining a level that seems just a few steps away from total darkness. Still, cinematographers Conrad W. Hall and Darius Khondji (Khondji left during production due to creative differences), often capture the house beautifully.
Still, the transfer is dealing with difficult material to clearly capture and, while there are a lot of positives in regards to this presentation, there are also some noticable negatives. Sharpness and detail are about as good as one can expect from a film with this sort of visual style; shadow detail is generally passable, although some scenes can appear considerably dark and lack clarity.
Further issues arise: some slight edge enhancement is infrequently spotted, as is some occasional noise. Print flaws, such as specks and marks, are not seen, though, nor are any instances of pixelation. The film's very minimal color palette looked fairly well-reproduced, with no smearing or other faults.
This is a fairly solid reproduction of how I remember the picture looking when I viewed it theatrically last Winter, but given its "Superbit" status, I was surprised that it wasn't a little more consistent.
This new presentation of the movie once again offers the film in 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen. This appears to be a very similar presentation to what I remember of the original release, although a few of the concerns seem to have been remedied. Sharpness and detail are once again pretty fine, considering the very dark nature of the film.
Edge enhancement is still seen here-and-there, but seemed lessened over the prior release. Compression artifacts are not noticed, nor are any print flaws. The film's very subdued color palette once again seemed well-rendered.
SOUND: The original release of "Panic Room" fell under the studio's "Superbit" line, deleting supplements (aside from a trailer) in order to maximize room for "optimal" presentation quality. That release offered a Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 track. This release unfortunately does drop the DTS track from the equation, instead bringing French and Spanish 5.1 options to the table.
The film's soundtrack generally delivers on expectations. Surrounds are engaged for some noticable ambient sounds, such as the rain outside or other little touches. Sound effects, such as little whooshes during some of the computer-generated camera movements through the house, are also heard. In one of the film's big scenes, a gas canister bounces around a room, and from speaker-to-speaker. Additionally, Howard Shore's terrifically tense score is reinforced by the rear speakers.
The 5.1 mix on this new DVD is listed as being "new" and, while I can't compare it to the prior release for the purposes of my review, I must say that I was a little more impressed with how immersive the track was than I remember being with prior viewing experiences. Ambient sounds were clearly apparent, as rain, wind, air conditioning, electronic sounds and other sound effects were subtle and discrete, but still very clearly heard moving about. The menacing, moody rumbles of Howard Shore's tense score seemed particularly impressive, as as the deeper tones of the score are put forth with very pleasing low-end.
Audio quality was generally good throughout the show; Shore's score was crisply recorded, rich sounding and appropriately menacing. Most sound effects also were clear and easily heard, with footsteps and other deep sounds accompanied by a deep thump of bass. I had a problem with dialogue being somewhat low in the mix in the original release, but that wasn't an issue this time around. This section will be updated when a copy of the original release can be obtained.
EXTRAS: This long-awaited release provides a wealth of supplemental material, which I will discuss below, but the set's menus, which are 3-D animated blueprints of the house, are also quite beautifully done and worth noting.
Commentaries: I browsed through the DVD's 3 commentary tracks, which include participants: director David Fincher, actress Jodie Foster, actors Forest Whitaker and Dwight Yokham, screenwriter David Koepp and a special guest, who is a very famous screenwriter.
Fincher's commentary goes over a wide variety of topics, starting off with an interesting discussion of both the titles and screenwriter David Koepp's style. As the commentary progresses, Fincher goes into impressive detail regarding the technical processes, previsualization work, CGI issues that came up during the production and challenges that came out of shooting in the soundstage environment. Fincher, as always, is incredibly frank and honest in his discussions of the process, talking in great deal about the troubles of the shoot and how he attempted to solve these issues.
The commentary with writer David Koepp and Special Guest is an informative effort, as the guest proves to be an excellent interviewer of Koepp (whose new directorial effort, "Secret Window", opens in theaters soon). Koepp goes through the conceptual process, talking about coming up with the idea, basically visualizing the picture and seeking narrative economy. Throughout the rest of the track, we get a very enjoyable overview of the screenwriting process, occasional comments on alterations/testing process and a fine analysis of the film. As with Fincher's track, this is a very informative dialogue, but with occasional jokes and touches of humor.
The final commentary includes participants Jodie Foster, Dwight Yoakham and Forest Whitaker. The actors discuss how they became involved with the project, some of the problems and challenges that came up in shooting on the large soundstage. They also chat about working with Fincher, which is interesting, as the three participants have been directors themselves. This is a good commentary that's quite well-edited (all three have been recorded separately) and informative, although some may feel that some of this information has already been covered in the other two commentaries.
Also included on the first disc are trailers for: "Panic Room", "Taxi Driver", "Close Encounters of the 3rd Kind", "Lawrence of Arabia", "Midnight Express" and "Dr. Strangelove".
As we move on to disc two, we find a 52-minute documentary, "Shooting Panic Room", which is a piece done by DVD producer David Prior. The piece progresses through the production process, first introducing us to one of the film's main characters - the house itself, which was built on a soundstage and designed to allow easy shooting. We are then show production meetings, location scoutings and preparation for shooting, leading into the main body of the documentary, which focuses on the issues that arose during shooting.
As with the excellent documentary features done by DVD producers like Charles de Lauzirika and Prior, this is a beautifully shot, well-edited piece that takes an unfiltered look at many important moments throughout the shoot. Prior even includes subtitles that add a greater level of understanding about the processes behind key moments and to point out certain members of the crew. Other elements, such as scenes or pre-vis work, is occasionally shown in picture-in-picture boxes, as well. We hear from the cast both in occasional interviews and on-set footage (Leto: "All you need to do is watch 'Home Alone' and you've got it.")
I especially liked some of the smaller details, such as when Prior focuses in on a Fincher meeting early on, as the director goes into detail about what colors he needs the vehicles in a shot to be. As the rest of the documentary shows, Fincher has a remarkably precise vision, with the ability to clearly note even the most minor details that he wants to see in the scene.
As we see, however, choosing car colors is certainly just the beginning. Construction of the house and the surrounding block on the soundstage is a mammoth task, which took a great deal of planning and design. Due to creative differences, cinematographer Darius Khondji left the film and was replaced by Conrad Hall, Jr. This is mentioned briefly, but I was a little surprised that a little more information about this wasn't offered. We hear more (and see a tiny bit) about how Nicole Kidman had to bow out due to an injury after briefly shooting some material, requiring Foster to step in with little or no rehearsal time.
Overall, this was a very comprehensive, informative documentary that took a look at the enormous task of constructing and pulling together this production, as well as some of the many technical and production issues.
Next, Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff are featured in a 9-minute documentary, where they discuss their make-up work, which is featured in a scene where Yoakham's hand gets badly injured.
The "Pre-Production" section starts off with the "Prep" sub-section, where viewers will find "The Testing Phase". This 16-minute documentary gives viewers a "checklist" of sorts about some of the things that need to be locked up before the film starts. Early camera tests are shown, while cinematographer Conrad Hall discusses the importance of trying to be unified behind a "look" that the cast, crew and studio can get behind. Clips from early make-up, physical effects and wardrobe tests are also offered. Also included in "Prep" is "Safe Cracking School", a 13-minute piece that has the actors learning how to crack a safe accurately before they try to portray the act in the film.
Next, the pre-production section moves over to "pre-visualization", which opens with the 10-minute featurette, "Creating the Pre-visualization", which offers a look at director David Fincher and crew members going over animated storyboards and working out shot selection. Next is a "pre-vis demo" with commentary and a "Habitrail Film", which is an animated overview of an entire chase sequence. Finally in this section is a multi-angle featurette, which offers two angles (storyboards vs. final scene and animated pre-vis versus final scene) as well as four audio tracks (raw production sound, final sound in 2.0, commentary from the storyboard artist & commentary from the pre-vis artist.) This multi-angle feature goes for no less than 38 minutes, covering the entire first part of the movie.
Moving onto the third and final DVD in this set, we find four sequence breakdowns, which allows viewers to read script pages for the scene, view storyboards, see B-roll footage of the cast at work, watch dailies and screen test footage regarding the scene.
Next, we move on to the extensive visual effects section, where "Panic Room"'s effects are discussed by visual effects supervisor Kevin Haug and visual effects coordinator Leslie McMinn. Overall, there are 21 pieces included: fluttering bonds and CGI leaves, headwounds, CGI propane tank, arm on fire, CGI gun/cell phone, explosion, flashlight, slow motion, X-ray floor, digital squibs, through the railing, giant dust, through wall/floor, the hose, propane gas, the big shot, skylight, thru bedroom door, main titles and introduction. Throughout these featurettes, at times we hear from the two visual effects participants, see visual effects elements, dailies and other material. Subtitles also often fill in additional information about the shots. Some of these are brief featurettes, but others (such as "The Big Shot", which is 17-minutes) are more in-depth.
"Digital Intermediate" is a 10-minute featurette on the film's color timing and digital framing adjustment, both done on computers. The demonstration done mid-featurette is pretty stunning. "Super 35 Technical Explanation" is just that, but also a lot more. This text-based section gives a detailed explanation of aspect ratios and other technical features and terminology designed to educate those less familiar. It's a well-written, informative and nicely organized/presented piece.
"Sound Design" is a 15-minute piece that largely focuses on an interview/demonstration with sound designer Ren Klyce, who has worked with director David Fincher in the past. The sound designer discusses creating the different layers of sound effects and ambience for scenes of the movie, even isolating different sounds in a scene to show the one element of the bigger soundscape.
"Scoring" the final feature in the set. Here, we get to see composer Howard Shore (the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy) conducting an orchestra during the scoring sessions for four scenes in the film.
Final Thoughts: "Panic Room" is a sleek and often remarkably tense picture that offers superb performances from everyone involved. Columbia/Tristar's new DVD edition offers audio/video quality that's pretty similar to the prior release, but does include a wealth of interesting new supplemental material that takes a comprehensive look at the making of the film. Highly recommended.