Panic Room: Special Edition Review
David Fincher surprised audience and critics alike when it was announced that his next feature project after Fight Club would be a rather more mainstream affair, a thriller by the name of Panic Room. The film deals with a divorced middle-aged woman, Meg Altman (Jodie Foster), who moves into a large New York town house with her diabetic daughter, Sarah (Kristen Stewart). The house has one interesting oddity in the form of a Panic Room: a seemingly impenetrable "safe room" with an outside phone line and round the clock video surveillance. Most people would probably be thrilled to have such a feature in their homes, but Meg is not initially particularly interested in it. All that changes, however, when three men (Forest Whitaker, Dwight Yoakam and Jared Leto) break into the house in the dead of night. Meg and Sarah lock themselves in the Panic Room, but it soon becomes clear that when the men want is inside the Panic Room, and they have no intention of leaving until they get in.
In an age where the box office is more often than not dominated by pretentious drivel (the recent The Passion of the Christ is a fine example of a film that believes itself to be more important than it really is), Panic Room is a film that wants to be nothing than a tight, entertaining B-movie. The setup is simple, the aims are clear, and all that is left to do is to take the audience on a fun ride. It works, for the most part. While Panic Room's script can never be accused of originality, it is enjoyable and occasionally surprising, as screenwriter David Koepp runs with his initial idea and expands on it in a number of interesting ways.
What elevates Panic Room from the hundreds of other B-movies out there is a combination of excellent performances from the cast, and the ever-stylish directing of David Fincher. While I think that Fincher is somewhat overrated (and I would certainly never refer to him as an auteur, as some people have a habit of doing), he has an undeniably strong understanding of the technical aspects of filmmaking. His photography (partially thanks in no small way, doubtlessly, to his two cinematographers, Darius Khondji and Conrad W. Hall) is consistently polished and imaginative, as he often takes the camera to normally unreachable places. The entire set for the house in which most of the film takes place was built to be deconstructible, allowing a far greater choice of camera positions than would otherwise be possible. Panic Room is also treated to Fincher's trademark gloomy look, with the colour palette frequently almost monochromatic and a continually hazy level of contrast, designed to mimic the vision of someone whose eyes have become accustomed to darkness.
The performances from the small cast are unanimously good. Jodie Foster, who stepped into the title role (originally held by Nicole Kidman) with only a couple of days of preparation, gives a superb performance that is at once subtle and assertive. As was the case with Sarah Polley in the recent Dawn of the Dead remake, she takes a rather flat character and expands it into something more than it is on paper. Twelve-year-old (at the time of shooting) Kristen Stewart also gives an impressive performance as her daughter. She bears more than a passing resemblance to Jodie Foster and shares some of her mannerisms (notice, for example, the way both of them say "I don't know"). It's difficult to imagine her being as convincing if she had been playing Nicole Kidman's daughter. The three men cast as the burglars are playing stereotypes, but they run with them and inject such a level of energy that it's difficult not to be engrossed in their plight. In particular, Jared Leto gives an aggressive performance as Junior, the petty crook who thinks he's a bad-ass. The three villains only get a couple of scenes with Foster and Stewart (most of their interaction is otherwise carried out via the house's video surveillance system), but the antagonism is always clear.
The film does have problems, however, the foremost of which is the fact that there's not really much going on below the surface. It's a simple story that doesn't give the audience much to think about. In essence, it's like a rollercoaster: it's gripping while it lasts, but at the end you haven't really gained anything. There's nothing really wrong with that, since sometimes it's good to be able to just shut your brain off, and to the film's credit it doesn't pretend to be something it isn't. However, you could be forgiven for expecting more from a film by the director of Se7en and featuring the lead of The Silence of the Lambs.
It would also be fair to say that a number of possible avenues in the film are left unexplored. In particular, one thread that is initially suggested but never developed is Meg's claustrophobia. It seems odd to bring the subject up (in one of the earliest scenes, no less) and then never refer to it again. I also found the ending to be a little unsatisfying: it leaves too much in the air, and the comeuppance of one of the burglars is unsatisfactory to say the least. Furthermore, the final scene, used as an epilogue of sorts, feels clichéd and somewhat out of place given the tone of the film up until that point. I can't help thinking that it would perhaps have worked better as a "bonus scene", shown after the closing credits instead of before.
Still, Panic Room is enjoyable enough and stands up to repeated viewings quite well. Given the pedigree of those involved in its production on both sides of the camera, you could perhaps be forgiven for expecting slightly more, but as far as light entertainment goes, Panic Room is all good.
Panic Room is presented anamorphically in its original aspect ratio of 2.39:1. This new transfer was supposedly supervised by Fincher and is slightly different from that of the previous releases.
Given the colour palette and the fact that most of the film takes place during the night with very little lighting, this was always going to be a difficult film to transfer. Still, the previous UK release and indeed the earlier American package erroneously labelled as a Superbit (a great deal of the disc space remained unused, and the transfer had noticeable artefacting) looked better than this. Although the colours, contrast and level of detail are mostly fine, artefacting is quite severe. Some idiot appears to have applied a form of noise reduction that simply freezes parts of the image with little or no movement in them. As a result, the screen is continually a mess of frozen grain patterns swimming about, especially during the scenes that take place in gloomy half-darkness (at least 75% of the film). I really wish they had just stuck with the previous master, which would still have left plenty of room for the three commentaries included with this new release.
The shots below compare the old UK release to this new 3-disc set. You can quite clearly see the encoding is much messier on the new transfer, destroying much of the natural grain. Edge enhancement also seems more prominent on the new transfer. The old UK release is my idea of a high 9, possibly a low 10, in terms of image quality. The quality of the new release, while reasonably good, is disappointing. If you want to see a Fincher film being handled properly on DVD, look no further than the R1 special edition of Se7en by New Line (avoid the UK release by EIV).
Above: the old R2 UK transfer.
Above: the new R1 USA special edition transfer.
(These images were captured in PowerDVD 5 and enlarged by 300% in Photoshop. Both were saved as jpegs with a compression level of 9.)
The DTS mix present on the earlier releases has been unceremoniously tossed aside in favour of French and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks. The original Dolby Digital 5.1 English mix has also been replaced by a new, different mix. This was created under the supervision of director David Fincher, so I don't see any problem with this.
The new mix is not substantially different from the previous one, but the surrounds are slightly more active, with ambient noise seeming a bit more accentuated. Everything is perfectly clear, with no distortions or drop-outs. The gas explosion in Chapter 10, in particular, demonstrates some ass-kicking bass and split channel effects. Overall, however, I still favour the DTS mix on the original release.
Subtitles are provided for the film in English, French and Spanish. Spanish (but not English or French) subtitles are provided for the commentaries and other extras.
The menus are nicely designed, but unneccessarily long-winded. Thankfully, the ridiculously lengthy opening animation for each disc can be skipped, but not the transitions between menus which, as you can imagine, is very annoying on discs 2 and 3, where a number of the available features have multiple sub-menus. I'm sorry, but if you have to wait more than a couple of seconds to get from one menu screen to the next, that's too long.
The packaging is either incredibly original or incredibly lazy - I simply can't decide which. The discs come in a triple digipack with a cardboard slip cover. There is no artwork at all on the cover: just the title and some text against a plain black background. Inside is more interesting, with some nice artwork but, alas, no chapter listings. I should probably also point out that the outer slip is too flimsy and too tight, making it prone to damage when extracting the digipack contained inside.
Some people might think consider three discs to be overkill for a film that has little going on below the surface, and initially, I would have been tempted to agree. Having said that, I was happily proved wrong once I sat down to work my way through everything on offer here.
Note: A nice feature included on many of the documentaries on Discs 2 and 3 is that information is sometimes relayed on-screen via text-based messages.
Director's commentary - David Fincher, who always has plenty to say, discusses just about every aspect of production from the script to the sets to his opinions on Super35 vs. anamorphic Panavision. While not the most engaging speaker ever to grace a commentary track, he has a down-to-earth quality that makes him interesting to listen to, and there are very few moments of silence in the commentary.
Writer's commentary - In my favourite of three three commentaries by far, screenwriter and producer David Koepp is joined by veteran writter William Goldman (who penned, among other films, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid). Goldman acts as an interviewer of sorts, asking Koepp various questions about both the script and the final product. He's not shy about expressing his own opinions, though ("Why's that kid riding a fucking scooter?" he demands early on in the commentary), and some of his observations are not only pretty hilarious but also very on the mark.
Cast commentary - Jodie Foster, Forest Whitaker and Dwight Yoakam each chip in with their impressions of Fincher, the script, the shooting experience and the finished film. All three actors are also directors, so it is quite interesting to hear their their views on how Fincher's methods compare to their own. However, I personally found this to be the least engaging of the three commentaries. All three speakers are recorded separately.
Trailers are also included for Panic Room, Taxi Driver, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Midnight Express, Lawrence of Arabia and Dr. Strangelove.
Prep - Prep is split into two sections.
The Testing Phase covers the various tests carried out involving film stock, lighting, costume design and the gas explosion scene. This feature runs for slightly over 16 minutes and is narrated mainly by cinematographer Conrad W. Hall and special effects coordinator Joe Viskocil.
Safe Cracking School runs for just under 13 minutes and goes step-by-step through the process of drilling into a safe, as seen in the film.
Previsualization - There are four sub-sections here.
Creating the Previs is a 10-minute feature showing Fincher reviewing a previsualization (essentially, a computer-generated mock-up of the camera moments and actors' performances) of some of the early scenes in the film. He admirably demonstrates his ability to think on his feet and articulate what he is looking for in terms of angles, camera moves, etc.
Previs Demo, with optional commentary by previs coordinator S. Quinn and another unidentified speaker, gives us a split-screen comparison of the previs, the finished scene, and another camera angle of the previs showing the position of the "virtual" camera.
The Habitrail Film lasts for about one minute, and shows, from a single angle, the previs of the scene in the film where Meg and Sarah hide in the elevator from the burglars.
The Multi-Angle Featurette is a rather large section that allows you to compare various stages of the film, including storyboards, previs and final film. Four audio tracks are featured, including the raw on-set sound, a commentary by storyboard artist Peter Ramsey, the final mix, and a commentary by animator Colin Green.
Shooting Panic Room is a 52-minute documentary taking you from the previsualization process through the set construction and actual shooting. A great deal of information is covered here, revealing (among other things) the fact that an entire street and house was constructed on an interior sound stage, complete with detachable walls (to increase the number of possible camera locations) and weather effects. In particular, it is interesting to see a couple of brief clips of footage that was completed with Nicole Kidman playing the role of Meg, before she was replaced by Jodie Foster.
Make Up Effects is a 9-minute interview with Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff, Jr., discussing many of the gore effects in the film, and concentrating in particular on a couple of fingers that manage to get detached from one of the characters in the film. Funny if you have a morbid sense of humour.
Sequence Breakdowns - Breakdowns are provided for four scenes: The Phone Jack, End of Junior, Hammer Time and Burnham Surrounded. Each sequence can be viewed in five different forms: script, storyboard, B-roll, dailies and tests.
Super35 technical explanation - This text-based feature explains the Super35 format, what it means for framing and 4x3-reformatted releases, as well as how it compares to the other options available for shooting films in the 2.39:1 aspect ratio. Very interesting and a great primer for people with no knowledge of film formats.
Digital Intermediate - In this 11-minute documentary, post-production supervisor Peter Mavromates and cinematographer Conrad W. Hall discuss the advantages of processing the colour timing of a film digitally, as opposed to doing it in a lab. Finally, digital colour timer Stephen Nakamura provides a demonstration of the process of colour timing an early scene in the film. Viewers who have seen the digital grading featurette on the Extended Edition of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring will know what to expect.
Visual Effects - This section includes an introduction by visual effects supervisor Kevin Haug, and discussions with Haug and visual effects coordinator Leslie McMinn 19 key subjects: Main Titles, Thru Bedroom Door, The Skylight, The Big Shot, Through the Railing, Giant Dust, Thru Wall and Floor, The Hose, Propane Gas, The Explosion, The Flashlight, Slow Motion, X-Ray Floor, Safe Shavings/Digital Squibs, CGI Gun and Cell Phone, Arm on Fire, CGI Propane Tank, Headwounds, and Fluttering Bonds and CGI Leaves. In all, there is at least 75 minutes of material here. By far the most interesting feature is a detailed analysis of the opening credits, which I personally consider a little gimicky but nonetheless very intriguing.
Sound Design - This 15-minute feature is comprised of an interview and demonstration covering the specifics of audio design with sound designer Ren Klyce, conducted by DVD producer David Prior.
Scoring - This section covers four different themes composed by Howard Shore: Main Titles, Sealing the House, The Phone Call and Altman. This is comprised of footage of the orchestra performing the score, along with a split-screen showing the finished footage, accessible via the angle button.
That's it. It's definitely a huge amount of material to get through (around 6 hours, not counting the commentaries), but I found just about all of it interesting. If a studio is going to invest money in creating a 3-disc set, this is how it should be done. Even viewers who normally have little interest in bonus material are well advised to check these features out.
Overall, this is a pretty good package - superb from the point of view of the extras, but let down by the transfer. I can think of films that are more in need of a 3-disc special edition than this one, but it wouldn't be fair to claim that Panic Room doesn't "deserve" these extras, as it were. If extras aren't your thing, though, and you just want the film, the UK bare-bones release will give you a slightly more satisfying presentation.
Last updated: 27/06/2018 05:55:01