Like most people who are into watching movies at home, I went out this week and bought The Dark Knight on Blu-ray. I’ve found it to be both an incredible use of the medium and simultaneously an awkward step in the format’s development. While I think there are some clever ideas on display with the extras, I find most of the BD-Live content to be pretty cheesy, and wonder if a significant amount of people would ever make use of such features. Primarily, though, this is a fantastic example of a beautifully-shot movie being exhibited in the best manner that current technology allows, and while that fact alone excites me, there is one aspect of this disc that really annoys me.
Christopher Nolan clearly feels that the IMAX format will be The Next Big Thing—not just figuratively, but quite literally—in film production and exhibition. It’s an interesting format, and has a lot of potential, but I feel that Nolan has gone about making use of it all wrong with The Dark Knight. (I’d actually intended to write a separate review of The Dark Knight: The IMAX Experience this past summer, but never got around to it… although a lot of my comments here apply equally to the theatrical IMAX release, which will be back in theaters next month.)
Unfortunately, only parts of The Dark Knight were shot in the IMAX format. The introductory bank robbery scene was filmed entirely in IMAX, but that is the only complete sequence that can make that claim. Throughout the rest of the film, the uses of IMAX are largely restricted to helicopter establishing shots, with a few brief action shots thrown in. It makes it feel like we’re paying to watch the filmmakers experiment with a new format, and in fact that’s partly true. But just because experimenting with shooting in IMAX is “a very fun thing to do” that doesn’t necessarily make it a good idea, especially when it comes at the expense of the cohesion of the movie.
To demonstrate the kind of high production value I believe in, I have taken video on my cell phone of my TV while watching The Dark Knight on Blu-ray and uploaded it to YouTube in order to illustrate my point:
If by some odd chance it’s not completely clear what you’re seeing there, I’ll summarize: most of the movie is presented in a 2.40:1 aspect ratio, which means it’s letterboxed when viewed on a 16:9 (1.78:1) HDTV. The IMAX scenes, however, take up the entire 1.78:1 viewing area, in addition to appearing a bit more crisp and defined, with better color balance, making them feel even “more high-def” than the rest of the movie. What this amounts to is that the black letterbox bars come and go throughout the movie, at times for only seconds at a time and several times during a single scene. It’s like the movie is continually informing you, “NOW YOU’RE WATCHING IMAX… now you’re not… NOW YOU’RE WATCHING IMAX!… now you’re not…”
Using a large format like IMAX is supposed to enhance the film-viewing experience; it’s not supposed to replace it. That is, it should make it more enjoyable—more impressive—to watch the movie, but it should not be, in itself, the source of that enjoyment, brashly calling attention to itself every chance it gets. Instead of the experience of viewing The Dark Knight—either in an IMAX theater, or in high definition in a home theater—being broadened by the occasional use of IMAX, it is instead detracted from by virtue of the fact that the format changes are jarring and obtrusive.
In short, it interrupts the suspension of disbelief.
This is a film that purports to Say Something, but unfortunately it believes that the assertion that you have said something is equivalent to actually saying it. The most prominent example of what I’m referring to: at the very end of the film, Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) states that Batman will go on the lamb, because that’s what Gotham “needs right now.” This is a really dramatic way both to end your movie and to set up its sequel, but unfortunately nothing in the preceding two and a half hours has set up this moment: saying “he has to” is not a valid substitute for taking your character through a progression that convinces the audience that this is the case without having to actually state it. Likewise, I think that the premature use of IMAX makes for an ultimately dissatisfying experience, akin to teasing the audience with what might have been had the filmmakers only gone the whole way with it.
All of that said, though… damn, do those IMAX-filmed scenes look amazing on Blu-ray on a nice big HDTV. I’ll be excited to see the first major motion picture that’s filmed entirely in IMAX make its way to the format, so that it can be enjoyed without the distractions inherent to this type of partial use of it.