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Site created 12/15/97.


review added: 10/23/02



Insomnia
Widescreen - 2002 (2002) - Warner Bros.

review by Dan Kelly of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

Insomnia (2002 - widescreen)

Film Rating: A-

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A-/B+/B+

Specs and Features

118 mins, R, letterboxed widescreen (2.35:1), 16x9 enhanced, single-sided, dual-layered (layer switch at ???), Snapper case packaging, audio commentary (with director Christopher Nolan - presented in filming order), audio commentary (with star Hilary Swank, production designer Nathan Crowley, editor Dody Dorn, cinematographer Wally Pfister and screenwriter Hillary Seitz - presented normally), Day for Night featurette, 180º: A Conversation with Christopher Nolan and Al Pacino featurette, In the Fog: Cinematography and Production Design featurette, Eyes Wide Open: The Insomniac's World featurette, still gallery, theatrical trailer, cast and crew bios, deleted scene (with optional director commentary), DVD-ROM features (including weblink), animated film-themed menu screens with sound, scene access (31 chapters), languages: English (DD 5.1) and French (DD 5.1), subtitles: English, Spanish and French, Closed Captioned


Christopher Nolan is quickly emerging as one of the premiere directors of the thriller genre. His Memento was hailed as a breakthrough piece of storytelling, and impressed critics and fans alike with its non-linear approach to its material. I didn't enjoy Memento as much as others did (I actually didn't like it, to be honest), though I found much to be admired in Nolan's skilled direction and the performances he was able to pull from the lead actors. Despite the fact that it is a remake of a 1997 Norwegian film, Insomnia feels in many ways like an original film and is a logical follow-up to Memento.

Al Pacino stars as Detective Dormer (cute choice in surname for an insomniac), a veteran Los Angeles detective with a shady past and an esteemed career of piecing together unsolved homicides. He and his partner, Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan), are on loan to the town of Nightmute, Alaska. In a town where crimes are usually limited to petty theft and domestic assaults, the murder investigation of a teenaged girl demands outside assistance. Nightmute is also in the midst of a white night - 24 hours of constant sunlight. The persistent presence of daylight proves to be a slow form of torture to the already sleep-deprived Dormer. Rookie detective Ellie Burr (Hilary Swank) jumps at the chance to assist the troubled L.A. cop and never hesitates to drop knowledge of his previous work. When their investigation leads them to an abandoned cabin on a hazy incline, a tragic mishap puts as much focus on Dormer's investigation of the murder as it does the murder itself. The investigation intensifies, and all signs point to Walter Finch (Robin Williams), a local crime writer, as the culprit in the murder.

Nolan guides Hillary Seitz's script as it changes course midway through the film. The film could easily fall flat once the Finch character appears on screen, but once we reach this point, Nolan expertly steers the story away from what could potentially become a typical caper story. It becomes something more engaging and complex. Finch and Dormer become the focus of the story, and the film firmly roots itself in the mind games between the two of them. Nolan fine-tunes the tension, and we realize that someone's lies will catch up with them sooner than we think. Pacino, who has built a career out of characters that are always at or near the point of boiling over, hits his stride in Dormer's moments of quiet sensitivity and weakness. His final moments on screen are mesmerizing in their gentle way, and in just one short sentence he manages to sum up his life as a cop and, for that matter, as a human being.

On top of this, Wally Pfister's smart camerawork does a great job of painting the daylight as an intrusion into Dormer's world and his ability to perform his daily functions. When he needs sleep, it's the light forcing its way through the shades that keeps him awake. When the protective cover of night would facilitate his pursuit of Finch, the sunlight makes it impossible to sneak out of view.

The audio and video presentations of Insomnia are on par with Warner's typically first-rate transfers of recent theatrical releases. The quality of the anamorphic image on this DVD is very good, with first-rate color reproduction as the highlight of the picture. Indoor scenes are richly colored with warm, vibrant tones to offset the cold, drenched white and blue hues that dominate the outdoor shots. What little actual black there is in the film is finely detailed to produce needed depth and clarity to the image. Even the foggy sequence (an area that is often a trouble spot in a digital transfer) comes off beautifully. All this is yours courtesy of a blemish-free source print. The sole detriment to the picture is occasional minor, though still visible, compression artifacting. Note that if you prefer the "boxy" look to your movies on DVD, there's also a separate full frame edition that hacks off half the 2.35 widescreen image to "fit" your TV screen.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 track, offered in both English and French versions, is just about as good as the video image. This is an inconspicuous mix that wisely dispenses itself of unnecessary music and effects trickery in favor of minor audio signals that keep your focus on the film. Most of the audio is in the form of dialogue, and it is steady, concise and squarely maintained in the center speaker. Use of the split surround channels is limited to intermittent directional effects, but the music score predominates in these channels. Response from the .1 LFE channel is also nominal, though when it's in use, it really makes its presence known.

You'll find no less than four production featurettes on this disc, which total about 45 minutes in length. Each one of them has good stuff in it. The Conversation with Christopher Nolan and Al Pacino piece is mostly anecdotal in nature, but once the two get past the initial awkwardness of interviewing each other there's some entertaining bits to be found. Pacino finds plenty of time to discuss his 30 years of work in the business, with just enough time to do a give and take Q&A session with Nolan. Day for Night is a generic, "behind the scenes" featurette, and is mostly talking heads EPK material. But some of it proves to be quite insightful. There's a minute or two of screen time in this feature devoted to Robin Williams, as he discusses his approach to his character - one that is decidedly different from the parts he's taken in the past. In the Fog is actually shown twice over, each time with different audio commentary. Cinematographer Wally Pfister and production designer Nathan Crowley give separate discussion time on the making of Insomnia and specifically the foggy cabin stakeout scene. Lastly, there's the Eyes Wide Open segment. Here, two sufferers of insomnia and a couple of experts give their take on the disorder and how it's played out on screen. It's worth a look, but ends up being a brief six minutes.

Of the two feature-length audio commentaries, only Nolan's is worth a listen. Continuing his fixation on inverted time sequence, this commentary is not told in scene order of the finished film; the scenes are arranged in the order they were filmed. His running commentary is generally technical in nature and is plenty satisfactory, but the real treat is to watch the movie in filming order. It's one of the best visual representations I've seen of how the work of the director, cinematographer, editor and script supervisor among others combines to make the final product. The combined commentary with Hilary Swank and four of the crew is, for all intents and purposes, worthless. It's not screen-specific and is pieced together from different interviews with each of its participants. In reality, the commentary is spread over just 40 minutes of the film, so perhaps the material would be better served if the interviews were put into a separate feature. As it is, it's not worth the trouble. Nolan also provides optional commentary on the deleted scene. On its own, the scene adds more dimension to the relationship between Dormer and Rachel, the innkeeper (Maura Tierney), but as a part of the film, it brakes off from the narrative and becomes a bit of a distraction. The remaining features are stock DVD extras: a still gallery of a couple dozen images, the theatrical trailer and cast/crew bios. Pop the disc into your DVD-ROM and you'll get a customized interface with a link to the theatrical website. Nothing special there, but the rest of the features complement the disc nicely.

With the release of Insomnia Christopher Nolan cements his place as one of the best directors working today. I'm sure this is just a sign of more good things to come. Fans of the original 1997 film (reviewed on DVD here) might want to view this one as a different take on the same material. Insomnia is definitely a disc worth owning, either as a companion to the Criterion release of the original film or as a stand alone release for those that enjoyed it in the theatre.

Dan Kelly
dankelly@thedigitalbits.com




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