In the late 1960s, a Bay Area serial killer going by the name of “Zodiac Killer” completely baffled authorities. His victims were seemingly random, and the pattern in which they would occur was actually made known to police and the public in advance through threats and weird codes sent to the authorities and newspaper publishers. When one of his ciphers arrived at the San Francisco Chronicle, it sparked the interest of political cartoonist Robert Graysmith (played by Jake Gyllenhaal), who has a knack for puzzle solving, and Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), a staff reporter who approaches the case merely to boost his career. Inspectors Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and Bill Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) are assigned to the case, and eventually its obsessive nature consumes the men and has consequences almost as dire as being an actual victim of the killer himself.
When it released in March of 2007, the film Zodiac was supposed to be “the next Seven.” After all, the films shared common ground in both subject matter and director. When critics and audiences discovered that Zodiac was more of an examination of procedure and the nature of obsession and not a repeat of the 1995 box office smash, critics championed it, and audiences stayed away in droves, opting instead for the simple-minded awfulness of Wild Hogs and 300 instead. That’s too bad. Zodiac is a smart, involving suspense thriller that’s probably the best since The Silence of the Lambs.
The version of Zodiac presented on Blu-ray Disc is an extended “Director’s Cut” that runs approximately four to six minutes longer than the theatrical cut. The additions are minute and don’t disrupt the story’s flow or pacing. There is an extended bit of dialogue here and a new scene there, the latter includes a rather interesting one-minute sequence in which the passage of time is played out on a black screen and backed by sound bites from the era. Did the film really need the restored footage? Not necessarily. The footage could have been left out completely and no one would be the wiser. But given the pre-release stories that Fincher had cut approximately 30 minutes of footage from the theatrical cut, one can’t help but feel slightly let down by the restoration of such a short amount of deleted material.
One thing you can’t feel let down by is the overall Blu-ray presentation, which arrives roughly a year after the release of the HD-DVD edition. As was the case with the HD-DVD, Zodiac hits Blu-ray as a 2-disc edition. The contents on both editions are identical.
In the past, I have been rather vocal in my dismay with the use of high-definition cameras to shoot motion pictures. Despite using the latest technology, films such as Superman Returns, Apocalypto, Miami Vice and I Know Who Killed Me didn’t look all that great, especially when transferred to Blu-ray, where they should look their best. Fast motion tends to be a bit blurry, and the picture appears to look flat at times.
Zodiac was shot using the Thomson Viper HD cameras, and while there are still some small issues to be had, the visual look of the film is a major step forward in terms of HD being an acceptable form of motion picture cinematography. Color, flesh tones, picture detail and contrasts are all first rate on the 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 transfer. Black levels are solid despite slight instances of black crush occasionally popping up in nighttime scenes. Edge-enhancement and compression artifacts are nowhere to be found, and video noise only shows up in a few wide shots. Overall, this is one terrific visual presentation that bodes well for the future Blu-ray release of another Fincher film shot with HD cameras, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.
On the audio front, one should not expect an aural assault. Once again taking a cue from films of the 1970s, Zodiac’s sound design is by and large a front-channel affair. As such, the 5.1 Dolby TrueHD track offers nice audio dimensionality across the front speakers with the dialogue crystal clear from the center channel and music and effects from the right and left fronts. Surrounds and bass are sparingly used.
Disc producer David Prior has assembled a choice collection of supplemental materials for this release that are among some of the best attached to a studio-produced release outside of the Criterion Collection. While the extras may not cover every bell and whistle associated with the film (where are the deleted scenes?), the ones present do a great job at covering the production and the real-life events that inspired it. One supplement aside, the video-based extras are all presented in 1080i High Definition video.
The sole extras found on disc one are two Audio Commentaries, one with Fincher and the second with Gyllenhaal, Downey, producer Brad Fischer, Vanderbilt and L.A. Confidential author James Ellroy. Fincher’s track is engaging, filled with technical information on the making of the film and the occasional personal tidbit as well (Fincher’s family lived in San Francisco during the early 70s). The second commentary track has the film’s two lead actors providing enjoyable bits of talk. The sections involving Fischer, Vanderbilt and Ellroy are also quite good if a tad redundant in light of the documentaries. I almost wish an entire commentary track had been given to just Ellroy.
Disc two, which houses all of the video-based supplements, is broken up into two sections: “The Film” and “The Facts.” The highlight of the Film section is Zodiac Deciphered, a behind-the-scenes doc that consists of seven separate sections (Zodiac Deciphered, Blue Rook Springs, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Hall of Justice, Presidio Heights, Lake Berryessa and Obesssion) which can be viewed separately or as one 54-minute documentary.
Zodiac Deciphered covers various stages of the film’s production such as shooting at the locations where the real-life murders occurred, using digital effects to recreate the late 60s and 70s as well as what it’s like working with a perfectionist like David Fincher. Producer Bradley Fischer, screenwriter James Vanderbilt, the real-life Robert Graysmith and costume designer Casey Storm provide on-camera interviews while actors Gyllenhaal, Downey and Ruffalo offer insight via voiceovers. Production footage aside, Fincher is absent from the documentary. Zodiac Deciphered is a well-produced “making of” that fortunately sidesteps the usual puff-piece backslapping one would find on such docs.
The Visual Effects of Zodiac is a 15-minute look into how state-of-the-art computer graphics helped Fincher and company successfully achieves their vision for the film. The recreations of the San Francisco cityscape and Lake Berryessa, the fateful taxi ride and the use of CGI in lieu of blood squibs for the murders are all covered here. This is a short feature well worth checking out. Just make sure to do so after you watch the movie.
Three Pre-visualizations of the murder sequences are the only supplements presented in 480p standard definition. Each pre-viz is presented on one part of the screen with the completed scene playing in another at the same time. “Blue Rock Springs” and “San Francisco” both run just a little over a minute each while “Lake Berryessa” runs approximately 4.5 minutes.
It’s not listed on the outside cover, but the final supplement in the film section is the 2.5-minute Theatrical Trailer, the only supplement that is in 1080p, with Dolby 5.1 surround sound. In The Facts section of disc two, there are two documentaries, This Is the Zodiac Speaking and His Name Was Arthur Leigh Allen. Both are directed by David Prior and help solidify the fact that Vanderbilt and Fincher did their homework when it came to accurately presenting the events and facts in the film.
This Is the Zodiac Speaking can be viewed two ways: in four separate sections (Lake Herman Road, Blue Rock Springs, Lake Berryessa and San Francisco) or as one 102-minute program. Each segment deals with the Zodiac’s known murders and features interviews with the law officials who were the first on the crime scenes as well as two of the real-life survivors of the Zodiac attacks: Michael Mageau of the Blue Rock Springs incident and Bryan Hartnell who survived Lake Berryessa. While the majority of the documentary is comprised of the interview subjects speaking directly to the camera, it contains a fair amount of archival footage and still photography. It’s an engrossing documentary whose straightforward style makes it all the more compelling .,. and disturbing.
His Name Was Arthur Leigh Allen is a 43-minute portrait of the main suspect in the Zodiac murders played well in the film by John Carroll Lynch. The doc further examines the man and his past courtesy of interviews with Allen’s friends (who claim he wasn’t really that bad of a guy), colleagues, law officials and a few individuals who had the misfortune of crossing paths with the man. Vanderbilt claims that Zodiac did not set out to say that Allen was the Zodiac. This documentary on the other hand all but implicates him. There is one voice of consent in the special, one that comes from a criminal psychologist. She believes that Allen wasn’t the Zodiac because he didn’t fit your typical serial killer profile. The points she presents are indeed valid, her thoughts wind up being too little and too late in light of what is shared beforehand.
Zodiac easily remains David Fincher’s best work to date. The film may not have the answers people have been obsessively looking for over the past four decades, but its thought-provoking, involving and at times disturbing nature certainly makes for great cinema. This is a must-own for fans and a strong rental recommendation for anyone who has yet to see it.
Buy Zodiac on Blu-ray from Amazon.com.
- Score: 9