Some think superhero origin stories are difficult, but I beg to differ. An origin story has it easy, in that you get to unveil the drama associated with the evolution of a regular person into a superhero, and the inevitable reveal of this new hero to the world. These are situations rife with dramatic import and emotional impact. I think sequels have it tougher. And The Dark Knight, following on the heels of the critically acclaimed Batman Begins had it pretty tough, as fans of the revitalized franchise looked to the sequel with high expectations.
Happily, Dark Knight met or exceeded the expectations of most, with a stand-out performance by the late Heath Ledger as The Joker (his last major role), and solid turns by all of the major and minor characters, as well as an original and compelling story line (or multiple intertwined story lines). If one were to level any criticism on this sequel, it might be that the story is almost too ambitious, with too many major characters and too complicated a plot. But even that would be off-base as the film succeeds in spite of (perhaps because of) the richness of its myriad characters and characterizations, and the manner in which they interact. And as we've seen in Memento and Batman Begins, Director Christopher Nolan is a master of distilled complexity.
The story begins shortly after Batman Begins left off, but not immediately. For details on what transpires between the two films, check out the animated "Batman: Gotham Knight" also available on Blu-ray. As The Dark Knight begins, most of the runaway criminally insane prison escapees from the first film have been rounded up and the city returned to relative calm. Organized crime still rules the city streets with Salvatore Maroni (Eric Roberts) stepping in to rule the mob where Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson) stepped out. A new District Attorney has risen to power (Eckhart) with a tough stance on crime and a soft spot for Bruce Wayne's childhood sweetheart Rachel Dawes (Gyllenhaal). But it turns out that organized crime is the least of Gotham's worries as a madman with a flair for the dramatic (Ledger) arrives on the scene with mayhem and carnage on his mind.
The film unfolds with the lives of all of the main characters criss-crossing with sometimes darkly humorous, sometimes perilous results. Is Harvey Dent the public hero that Gotham needs? Will Batman become irrelevant and be able to retire? And who will get the girl?
At various points in the film's two and a half hour running time, it seems like, "well, this could be the end," but instead the film careens on, descending further into darkness until finally, as the audience is about to cry "Uncle" the film's finale is upon us. And while it is not particularly uplifting, the ending is entirely satisfying, yet it does leave the viewer with the certain knowledge that more tales of the Batman are coming, and that's not such a bad thing.
For an alternate take on the film see our theatrical review of The Dark Knight.
In a word, wow! Many scenes of The Dark Knight were shot in IMAX at the slightly wide aspect ratio of 1.44:1, and others were shot and framed for the more traditional 2.4:1 cinematic aspect ratio on 35mm film. On Blu-ray we can have the best of both worlds, in that the IMAX scenes are presented in a 16:9 aspect ratio that will fill the screen of your HDTV with exquisite detail. The rest of the film is presented in 2.4:1 aspect ratio with the requisite black bars at the top of the bottom to preserve the original cinematic aspect ratio.
The details of this 1080p transfer are fine, the colors true and well saturated. It is a dark film, and shadow details during the many night shots and shady interiors come through clearly. Some of the interior IMAX shots are a bit grainy, and a few scenes seem overly sharp, but for the most part, the transfer is free of any obvious flaws. This is another near-reference quality video transfer from Warner - it blows up very nicely on a 92-inch 1080p projection screen but looks equally at home on a 50-inch plasma flat panel with its deep inky blacks and precise shadow detail.
I am a bit curious how an anamorphically-enabled "fixed height" screen front projection system will handle the material. Most likely it will switch in the anamorphic lens and processing during the 2.35:1 scenes and will disable this during the 16:9 scenes, but I wonder if this lens change will disrupt one's enjoyment of the film. If it does, one could always turn off the anamorphic detection during the film and watch the whole film at its 2.4:1 aspect ratio (or as 16:9 if you want to catch every last detail of the IMAX scenes).
As with Batman Begins, Blade Runner: The Final Cut and many of the other Warner titles on Blu-ray, The Dark Knight features a lossless Dolby TrueHD 5.1-channel English soundtrack, as well as standard Dolby Digital 5.1 options in English, French and Spanish and an English Dolby Digital 2.0 track. Unfortunately, the Dolby TrueHD track is not the default, so I watched the first five minutes of the film in plain old boring Dolby Digital 5.1 before realizing it (guess I was too distracted by the pretty picture to notice the sound). I hit the pop-up menu and enabled the TrueHD track for the rest of the film, and boy am I glad I did. The LFE track provides a deep substantial foundation - a brooding undercurrent that permeates the film with a sense of tension and menace, without being overly boomy or overpowering. The dynamics of the music and effects sequences are excellent and dialog is clear and articulate. A perfect match to the visual brilliance of the images.
The Dark Knight on Blu-ray Disc includes some enjoyable extras but nothing that really pushes the format's envelope. Instead of providing an In-Movie Experience (PiP BonusView commentary) as they did with Batman Begins, Warner chose to use "Focus Points" instead - little making-of snippets that can be called directly from the relevant scenes in the movie via seamless branching. You can also access each individual Focus Point from the Special Features menu on disc 1 if you don't want to break up your movie-viewing experience with these (admittedly interesting) asides. I was curious to know what challenges faced the film-makers in shooting scenes in IMAX, with the heavier, bulkier camera gear, and this is one of many topics covered in the Focus Points.
Also on Disc 1 is a link to Warner's BD-Live Network, where one of the more innovative features lives - namely the ability to create your own film commentary, synched with the film. At least in theory. After about ½ hour spent trying to create an ID on the BD-Live system, back and forth from TV to PC to check e-mail for a confirmation link, etc., I gave up. My account creation failed with an unspecified error message when I attempted to create my BD-Live account. I've e-mailed their support address and will update this review if I get a response. It's possible they're still working out some kinks in the system prior to the 12/9 street date.
Two documentaries are included on disc 2, "Batman Tech: The Incredible Gadgets and Tools" and "Batman Unmasked: The Psychology of The Dark Knight." The segments are both presented in high definition. The first examines the real-world technology that enables some of the gadgets used in the film and the second explores the psychology of not only the dark knight himself but other major characters in the film. A fascinating real-world study in fictional characters.
"Gotham Tonight" includes a series of six short faux TV "news magazine" segments which feature some of the characters in the film, and some we never see such as the opposition candidates running against Harvey Dent in his bid for District Attorney of Gotham City. These are hosted by Anthony Michael Hall (my, how he has aged since "The Breakfast Club!"), in character as newsman Mike Engel. There are also still photo galleries, theatrical trailers and TV spots for the film. The 2-disc set actually includes a third disc with a digital copy of the film (for use on PCs and mobile devices).
Warner has a good track record for high quality audio and video transfers on Blu-ray and they continue this tradition with The Dark Knight. While the extras are not particularly extensive, the ones that are present on the disc are enjoyable and may hold up to repeated viewings. The BD-Live option could offer some promising interactive features assuming they get the kinks worked out by the disc's street date on December 9. Those who buy The Dark Knight Blu-ray set from Amazon.com get free instant access to the film on its release date (December 9) via Amazon's Video-on-Demand service (offer ends 12/25).
On the strength of the picture and sound alone (and the quality of the film itself, of course), The Dark Knight on Blu-ray is well worth owning. Recommended.
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