New Zealand filmmaker Vincent Ward is likely best known stateside as the director of What Dreams May Come, or perhaps as the original story writer of the flawed but fascinating Alien 3. Not exactly the most bulletproof resume (I like 'em both just fine), but Ward's eye for detail was there right from the start with Vigil (1984), his feature-length debut that doubled as New Zealand's first accepted entry at the Cannes Film Festival. Ward returned with The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey (1988), a film that's neither as bad nor as sprawling as its title suggests. The "medieval" part is dead-on, though: our story follows a group of 14th century English villagers, including a young prophet named Griffin (Hamish McFarlane) and his adventurous mentor Connor (Bruce Lyons), who fear the swiftly approaching Black Plague.
Haunted by visions of a deep cavern and towering church spire, Griffin and company decide to tunnel through a similar ravine near the village; they believe that they'll end up on the other side of the Earth, where they can win God's favor by placing a holy cross atop the church spire in Griffin's dreams. But instead of "the other side of the Earth", they end up in 20th century New Zealand with no frame of reference and a belief system at least six centuries old. But this isn't Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home or even Time Bandits: The Navigator plays it more or less completely straight from start to finish, presenting their journey in a much more realistic manner than its surreal setup probably warrants. We're not bombarded with "fish out of water" gags, as Griffin's group tackles their holy quest in this strange new land without even blinking. Their biggest obstacles are crossing an eight-lane highway, locating a foundry to forge their cross out of copper, and reaching the area's tallest church steeple before sunrise. All things considered, this goes pretty smoothly.
It's probably obvious by now, but movies like this aren't for everyone. Your enjoyment (or tolerance) of the story requires a very strong suspension of disbelief, as nothing is explained in any kind of logical manner. Things just happen and, like the 14th century villagers, we've just got to accept them at face value. The fact that these occurrences -- from the Black Plague and time travel to an endless supply of easy coincidences -- are perceived by their primitive minds as evidence of a divine being doesn't really matter: within the context of this story, such beliefs are perfectly justified. Either way, The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey is firmly anchored by its outstanding visual design, high production values, and a few extremely difficult sequences that its director described as "grueling for everyone". Shot almost completely at night in just ten weeks, the result is one of the more grounded and insular fantasy imports you're likely to see.
Arrow's one-two punch of Vigil and now The Navigator on Blu-ray is wonderful news indeed for Vincent Ward fans, as both serve up outstanding A/V presentations with a handful of appropriate bonus features and great packaging. Although a double-feature would've been ideal (I really can't imagine anyone liking one and hating the other), both releases offer perfect ways to [re]discover these early works by the singular, polarizing, and visually gifted director.
Presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, this new 1080p transfer of The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey (presumably identical to their Region B Blu-ray released the same week) looks fantastic with bold colors, strong image detail, and a thick coating of natural film grain. The blacks run deep and, when combined with some of the film's frugal indoor lighting and severe weather conditions, look a little crushed and noisy at times. But, like a few trace amounts of print damage and softness, these are likely source material issues and not the result of heavy tinkering. Likewise, the black and white scenes can't help but seem a little scruffier in comparison -- it definitely looks like 16mm at the most, but I can't be sure -- and, in most cases, just makes the color scenes pop even more. The Navigator has terrific visuals served well by diverse locales and a healthy bit rate (hovering right around 35 Mbps), and overall looks outstanding in high definition. For even the most die-hard fans who have owned it on multiple formats, this will be like seeing it for the first time.
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Arrow's DTS-HD 2.0 Master Audio presentation of The Navigator's original stereo mix sounds more than acceptable under the circumstances; in fact, it's a lot more impressive than I anticipated. There's a solid amount of presence and depth at times with strong channel separation, a healthy low end, and clear dialogue that's balanced nicely without fighting for attention. Davood Tabrizi's diverse score doesn't exactly dominate the film but is also in great condition, even though it sometimes places The Navigator in the era of its release and feels a bit distracting. Optional English SDH subtitles are included during the main feature only, which may help those who have trouble with regional accents.
The menus are smooth and functional with clips and music from the film plus access to subtitle setup and bonus features (no chapter selection, but there are 13). This one-disc release is packaged in Arrow's standard stocky keepcase with attractive reversible cover artwork on both sides and a nice Booklet with an essay and a few promotional photos.
A few solid extras are also here, most of which fall in line with those on Vigil. First up is another Interview with film critic Nick Roddick (13:22), who talks about Navigators's funding troubles during pre-production, shooting in Auckland instead of Wellington, the film's themes, seven dwarfs, and Ward's later work including Alien 3 and What Dreams May Come. Also here is "Vincent Ward: Filmmaker" (29:18), a 1989 segment of the New Zealand documentary TV series Kaleidescope that offers an overview of the director's work, interviews with his collaborators, and even a trip to meet his parents on their family farm (aww!). Finally, we get the film's Theatrical Trailer (2:25), which looks to be in good condition.
Vincent Ward's The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey isn't quite as well-regarded or profound as his debut Vigil, but I enjoyed its surreal nature and time-travelling fantasy elements. There's a bit more to enjoy on the surface (even if digging deeper doesn't reveal quite as many interesting revelations), and the artistic value is off the charts as expected. Fans of the director should enjoy [re]discovering this one on Blu-ray, as Arrow has served up yet another rock-solid home video presentation that plays to the film's strengths. Featuring a terrific A/V presentation and a few brief but valuable bonus features, it's at least worth a rent and probably more...for the right audience, at least. Recommended.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work and runs a website or two. In his free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs, and writing in third person.