Zodiac: Director's Cut (US - HD)
Gabe has written his entire review in code, and sent it to the S.F Chronicle...
Based on Robert Graysmith's book, Zodiac is the story of a serial killer that terrorized the San Francisco Bay Area in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Calling himself the Zodiac, the killer taunted police with letters and cryptic messages, which he sent to the San Francisco Chronicle where they ended up in the hands of cartoonist Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), and columnist Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.). The film follows the investigators—Graysmith, Avery, and an ever-growing crop of police and detective—as they obsess on the still unsolved case for decades.
Initially I was overjoyed at the prospect of the Zodiac director’s cut, but my mood was quickly soiled when I realized I’d actually have to write a review. The film was already a complicated onion the first time around, one that I had problems dissecting, and now I have a director’s cut to decipher. I am intimidated by the task, and I’m not sure I have anything new to add to one of the best reviewed features of 2007.
David Fincher more or less redefined the serial killer genre when he spit out a grimy, jet black lung cherry called Se7en in 1995, and though very much in demand and critically acclaimed, the director only made three other features over the following twelve years. Though a great deal of time passed in the interim, as an audience we have very little means to fully appreciate his growth. I bull-headedly watched Zodiac expecting Se7en Part 2, despite dozens of glowing reviews telling me the exact opposite. Depending on one’s attachment to the concept of a direct follow up to Se7en, this could be construed as disappointing. In the simplest terms— Zodiac is not a neo-gothic, music video infused horror movie, it is a hyper-realistic documentary.
Zodiac is all about the details, the sharp and jigsaw layered details. Usually there’s a bit of artistic license when adapting real life events. Usually inference must be made on the part of adaptors in the name of drama and entertainment. Zodiac is a particularly fascinating film because it sticks to the bare facts like wet spaghetti to a dry colander, and because the true story has no end. Not only doesn’t the story have an end, but we all know it the story has no end. The entire film is a laborious and meandering trek to no end, but the fine details are so enticing and expertly crafted that it doesn’t matter.
Zodiac fits into several genre categories, including the obvious cop drama and serial killer elements. Fincher and company brightly navigate the cop tropes made boring by years of television drama like Law and Order or NYPD Blue, and breath new life into the theatrical lives of newshounds, who were nearly creatively killed in the waning days of Murphy Brown. The serial killer elements play against the unavoidable horror aspects of the horror-birthed genre, but the nature of the murder still insures a certain measure of horror and suspense. Nobody spends any realistic time explaining the motivations of the killer, or any psychological damage he may have suffered as a child. The Zodiac himself, contrary to the serial killer norm, doesn’t even have a face. He’s more like a force, or even a shape, like a slasher film anti-hero (perhaps this is the route Rob Zombie should’ve taken with his Halloween remake).
In the end this is both the anti- Se7en and the logical sequel—a film about the reality of the true crime/serial killer phenomenon rather than a theatrical representation. Both films are relentlessly grim, but Zodiac puts things in their proper perspective. In the real world serial killers and society’s obsession with them are both entirely unimportant to the big picture, and life will go on with or without them. Spike Lee dealt with similar themes in his 1999 feature Summer of Sam, interweaving the tale of real life serial killer Stan Berkowitz with the social upheavals of ‘70s era New York City. Intentionally or not, Fincher avoids too many comparisons between his film and Lee’s by largely ignoring the Haight-Ashbury hippy movement (which was taking place in San Francisco during the Zodiac’s reign) in favour of a kind of Altman-esque obsession with the story’s characters, all of whom are so impeccably played that the actors entirely disappear behind the facts.
Or maybe I’m entirely missing the point. Maybe Zodiac is all about the hippy era and the real world importance of serial killers, but that’s what makes the film, especially in this longer, more obsessive and detailed director’s cut, one of the most important films of 2007. My guess is that unlike Fincher last box office slip-up, Fight Club, Zodiac won’t find its cult audience, and after the inevitable Oscar snub, most filmgoers will entirely forget it. Perhaps the film is just too obsessive, and perhaps the details are a little too indulgent for a larger audience.
David Fincher is the most intelligently visually intensive film director to arise in the last ten, maybe twenty years. His absorption of pop culture visuals impress even in his modest failures ( Alien 3 and Panic Room), and like Steven Spielberg he possesses the ability to craft images so incendiary that filmmakers the world over smack themselves in the forehead for not thinking of them first. Fincher recycles as regularly as any popular modern filmmaker, but he does it with such confidence it’s impossible to dismiss. He isn’t above frills and flare, but Zodiac represents his vision at its most ‘classically’ tuned. If Fight Club was a rock concert, Zodiac is a twelve movement symphony.
Se7en was compulsively reconstructed for its second DVD release, and Panic Room was an early Superbit adopter, but this marks the first fully high definition release of a David Fincher film. Zodiac is full of digital colour correction (in fact, the film was almost entirely filmed digitally), and this transfer glows with auburn and golden hues throughout. When a blue article of clothing, or one of the yellow support beams of the San Francisco Chronicle invade the frame they pop beautifully without any bleeding or noise. The film on the whole is darker then dark, and the contrast levels are almost unbelievably precise. Black is black, not dark blue, grey or red. Fincher’s tight details are also in perfect focus, edges tight and sharp.
It’s been a while since I rented the original DVD cut, but I distinctly remember compression artefacts on the edges of the tighter details, like the Zodiac’s handwriting, and I remember quite a bit of blocking in warm backgrounds. This transfer is a definitive upgrade, with only slight hints of noise in some skin tones, and some blending issues with the ugly plaid jackets.
Zodiac’s sound design is just as meticulously crafted as its visuals and plot, but it isn’t as audibly furious as the director’s previous features. A bombastic Dust Brothers score would be out of place in this film, yet there’s nothing bland about this Dolby Digital Plus soundtrack. The surround and stereo channels are so realistically immersive they’re hard to even notice. When pop music kicks onto the soundtrack it’s effectively bassy and warm, but isn’t jarring, and shouldn’t pull anyone out of the feature. The centre channel is slightly overbearing, and the dialogue has a faint glimmer of artificial production, which is only noticeable due to the utter normality of the rest of the soundtrack. The track’s one real workout appears at the centre in the form of an audio montage set to a black screen to represent the passage of four years.
This is about as definitive as a special edition set can get without overwhelming the viewer. There are hours and hours of information to cull, but it’s never dull or repressive. Disc one starts with two in depth commentary tracks, one featuring a solo Fincher, the other featuring actors Jake Gyllenhaal and Robert Downey Jr., producer Brad Fischer, screenwriter/producer James Vanderbilt, and crime novelist James Ellroy.
Fincher’s track is technically skewed, but with a personal slant. The director recalls the technical aspects of the filming process with a few apologies to his cast and crew for his obsessive nature, but also tells plenty of behind the scenes tales, and even a few childhood memories of the actual Zodiac case. The blank spots are common, but consistently short. Fincher, like John Carpenter and Sam Raimi, isn’t as enthralling without his actors, but the track is still a sturdy one.
The actor/producer/writer track is clearly constructed from two recordings, but well structured and edited. The actors are more or less just intellectual fun (Gyllenhaal and Downey Jr. are much brighter then most commentaried actors), but the writers are full of addictive real life stories. The track is a psychological study, but not a boring or detached one. Though a bit of the best information is repeated during the making of documentaries, the contextualization is important. The films occasional shortcomings are also honestly pointed to.
Disc two begins with an exhaustive, but not exhausting, behind the scenes documentary entitled ‘Zodiac Deciphered’, which is split into seven chapters, each covering a different aspect of the filmmaking process and the real life story. Sharply edited from raw, on set footage, and heads-against-a-white-screen interviews, the documentary (displayed in full HD and 5.1 surround) has a filmic flow, and covers technical and personal stories from behind the scenes without boring. Fincher’s obsessive nature is on full display, but the process doesn’t paint a laborious picture of the behind the scenes day either.
‘The Visual Effects of Zodiac’ (also presented in HD) will probably blow a few minds. I was entirely unaware that I had been watching an effects film until I checked this pleasant little featurette. There are a few beautiful but obvious effects shots throughout the film (the bird’s eye view cab ride specifically), but the sheer volume of digital manipulation is nearly invisible unless you really know what to look for. The before and after samples might actually ruin certain aspects of the film for some viewers, but the craft is impressive.
The three pre-viz comps, featuring the digital pre-viz on the top and the final film on the bottom (in standard definition), are a little jarring in the precise nature. It seems that David Fincher is the type to stick very closely to the plan. Each selected scene is not very surprisingly, a murder sequence. These are followed by the original theatrical trailer, which enjoyably plays up the film’s humour.
‘This is the Zodiac Speaking’ (in HD) starts the documentary facts of the Zodiac case. The nearly two hour long feature details the facts of the four known Zodiac attacks, and is made up of interviews with the real cops, detectives and victims, real crime scenes photos, real documents, etc. The interviews are almost painfully intimate at times, and the entire production is marred only by a few misplaced ‘dramatic’ cuts and fades. The most interesting chunk of info pertains to the first murder, which is not featured in the film due to the utter lack of witnesses or survivors. The other attacks are presented from the point of view of people who aren’t presented as leads in the feature, and the addition angles are valuable.
‘His Name was Arthur Leigh Allen’ finishes the set off. Allen was the prime Zodiac suspect before he died of a heart attack. The featurette (also in HD and running just over forty minutes) is made up of more white background interviews with the people that knew Allen personally, and the people that investigated him, and more case documents and photos. The whole thing is kind of like something you’d see on the Biography Channel, but more in keeping with the style of the other extras. Contrary to the title, the featurette makes some implications about Allen accuser Don Cheney’s possible involvement in the case, an interesting bit of info not available in the film. Other possible clues to the Zodiac’s personality or motives, and plenty of evidence against Allen’s guilt are rather delectable as well.
Zodiac deserves this definitive release, and hopefully people will buy it and remember it. If you didn’t like the movie the first time, see it again, then watch the extras and absorb this creation like a sponge. It’s the new Munich. Besides the quality of the film and its new scenes, this HD DVD also features a stunning transfer, a solid Dolby Digital Plus soundtrack, and a satisfyingly hefty bulk of extras.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian
Release Date: 8th January 2008
Disc Type: HD DVD
Audio: Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 English
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish
Extras: Director Commentary, Actor, Writer, Producer Commentary, Making of Documentary, Visual Effects, Pre-Viz Comparisons, Historical Documentary
Easter Egg: No
Director: David Fincher
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Edwards, Robert Downey Jr., Brian Cox
Genre: Crime and Drama
Length: 162 minutes