DVD Review: The Dark Knight (Single Disc Edition)

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The Dark Knight

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In preparation for what is undoubtedly the most hotly anticipated DVD & Blu-ray release of 2008, the wonderful folks at Warner Brothers have sent me an advance DVD for review of The Dark Knight to share exclusively with Film Intuition readers. Although the single disc edition boasts zero special features aside from the cool "digital copy" bonus* and some genre related trailers (along with two public service announcements including that annoying rehash of Casablanca as a warning for DVD copiers and a far superior anti-smoking ad)-- its standout-- other than the film itself is the killer preview for 2009's Watchmen.

Despite the lack of featurettes, it offered me the irresistible chance to see what it's like to view The Dark Knight on the small screen. But before we get into the technical aspects (which may indeed change your decision on which version to buy)--I'll reprint an extended excerpt of my lengthy original theatrical review of the film for you below.

The Dark Knight

Director: Christopher Nolan
(Original Publication Date: 7/18/08)

“Can somebody tell me what kind of a world we live in where a man dressed up as a bat gets all of my press?” The Joker (Jack Nicholson) memorably complained in Tim Burton’s 1989 masterpiece Batman.

Burton’s film — which took an infinitely darker yet still refreshingly humorous approach in updating the classic comic book character created by Bob Kane and later brought to brightly colored life in the popular '60s TV series and film — seemed to provide the definitive take on "the man, the myth, the bat." That was until Joel Schumacher took over the franchise and turned it into a campy, overcrowded mess in the late '90s, but that all changed when Memento director Christopher Nolan took the Batmobile out for a test drive with his Greek tragedy-tinged epic Batman Begins in 2005.

While nostalgia for Burton’s film grew each year as fans mourned the wrecked franchise, Nolan admirably avoided the temptation to try and rebuild the unstable remnants of Gotham City still left standing by Schumacher. Instead, like a master chef, he started from scratch, taking what he wanted from the comic book and earlier films and, along with his co-writers, inventing a richer, far more devastating interpretation of the Batman mythology. In stark contrast to the socially awkward, slightly bumbling and more lighthearted portrayal by Burton’s star Michael Keaton, Nolan opted to go further in depth into the origins of the tale itself. By putting a completely different spin on the character, he illuminates just how “his” Bruce Wayne came to be the existential, less than gregarious and downright arrogant man he serves up, therefore making Nolan’s Batman a genuine shock to fans, including myself, who remembered seeing Keaton's original characterization in the theatre.

While I still prefer Burton’s version — although I’m possibly biased, as much like one never forgets a first love, they never forget their first Batman -- Nolan’s adaptation of the series is uniquely his own. Upon watching Begins once more in preparation for this review, I became infinitely more impressed by Nolan’s filmmaking craftsmanship and the way he not only set up the character of The Joker in the finale of Begins but also subconsciously prepared audiences for the ultimate darkness that would fill his aptly named sequel, The Dark Knight. And indeed Knight is so entrenched in ominous, forbidding tones that it instantly recalls the nighthawk work of Michael Mann (most notably from Heat, Miami Vice, and Collateral) and makes Tim Burton’s ’89 venture seem downright sunny by comparison.

Admittedly, while Batman films have always been by their very definition distinctly preoccupied with the Bat, the events of Dark Knight’s post-production and the unspeakably heartbreaking loss of its star Heath Ledger earlier in 2008 turned all of the media attention to not only Ledger’s final completed performance — frequently cited as his best — but The Joker himself. Hearkening back to that unforgettable opening quote, somewhere in an alternate universe of movie characters, The Joker - as played by Nicholson in 1989 - must be grinning at the realization that finally it is he, instead of the Bat, who’s been given all of the press. And, this being said, is it any wonder that Nolan’s film is the first one in the series to neglect including the name Batman in its title altogether, thereby making each and every self-proclaimed “freak” in the film a Knight of darkness, if for no more than at least a few minutes?"


A Technical Review

Releasing just in time not only for the holidays but also to remind Academy Award voters not to forget about the Bat or more precisely, The Joker's Heath Ledger-- Warner Brothers has launched a superb "For Your Consideration" campaign for industry periodicals like The Hollywood Reporter and Variety that's begun cropping up online.

However, when it comes to the DVD --and much like two of last year's Best Picture Oscar contenders, Paramount Vantage's brilliant epic There Will Be Blood and Focus Features's lush Atonement-- something is lost in the transfer to the small screen.

While we could hear every single "thwack" coming out of Javier Bardem's air-gun in Miramax and Paramount's dark, neo-noir western Best Picture winning hybrid No Country For Old Men and Warner Brothers' own previous statue holder The Departed still packed a phenomenal punch when it arrived on DVD-- because of the scope of Nolan's Knight-- it falls a bit flat on DVD. More specifically, the contrast ratio is off and makes one squint even with the blinds closed as you really need to strain to focus in on the Michael Mann styled They "Fly" By Night-like production design.

Feeling a bit disappointed, I decided the next approach would be an action test. I viewed the film's coolest action sequence-- namely the entire Harvey Dent "Trip to County" and subsequent showdown between the Joker and Batman first on DVD and then stuck the disc into my Blu-ray upconvert player to check out the exact same scene (because really, who can't get enough of that?!).

Needless to say, it was a world of difference-- crystal clear digital sound, a better contrast to differentiate between the scenes making it seem less 2-D and decidedly more 3-D or-- as the Warner Brothers Blu-ray ad before The Dark Knight promised-- it felt as though we were damn near "inside the film."

While obviously, any Knight is better than the absence of Knight and fans will not let this dissuade them in picking up any version of the film-- for those who really desire to go behind the scenes of the work and explore additional features, you may want to consider skipping the single and moving to the 2-Disc Widescreen-- or at the very least venturing way past go and directly to Blu-ray which offers the most satisfying transfer of the film we all rallied around for a majority of this past summer.

Or, in the words of Ledger's memorable Joker, once you make the switch, you'll definitely be saying, "Now There's a Batman."

*Note: A tech-savvy reader hipped me to explore the criteria for Digital Copy on the DVD. FYI-- at least on the single-disc Widescreen Edition, the Digital Copy of The Dark Knight is only compatible with Windows Media and "not compatible with Apple Macintosh and iPod devices."