ZodiacZodiac on Blu-ray disc

From the director of Fight Club comes what could almost be called "Fright Club" for its creepy telling of the true tale of a California serial killer.

Zodiac is what the killer named himself and he spent a lot of time writing letters and cryptographs designed, undoubtedly, to taunt the police investigating his seemingly random killings. The murders started in the late 1960's and continued for many years, and the case was not only driving the police nuts, it was drawing an otherwise apparently normal newspaper cartoonist into an obsessive quest for the killer's identity.

The movie follows three protagonists, police Inspector David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), reporter/drunk/druggie Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.)  and cartoonist (and eventual author of the book on which the movie is based) Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) in their quest for the truth; it spans the decades of the manhunt.

Zodiac was obviously a whacko, but he wasn't stupid – and he knew how to play the police and, especially, the media. The media play an important part in society, but they aren't the knights on white chargers they'd like us to believe they are – and so we see them mulling over how to deal with Zodiac both in relation to their public duty but also as to how it could affect their careers, their papers' circulation and their competitive position.

The police come off best here, though even they are beholden to reality and therefore must work on the cases assigned to them and not necessarily the ones they want to, by which we mean that while Toschi and his partner's hearts may have been consumed with finding Zodiac, in reality he only showed up periodically and there were plenty of other cases in the meantime demanding the attention of an understaffed and overworked police department.

Then there are the "third parties," such as famous lawyer Melvin Belli (played here by Brian Cox), who gets involved in the case and actually arranges a meeting with Zodiac (or does he?) via a TV talk show. We particularly enjoyed the references to Belli's famous appearance as an evil alien force on Star Trek, but that's really a sidelight that adds some amusement and needed comedy relief to what is overall a very creepy movie.

The murders we get to witness are brutal and violent, but other than those brief but scary scenes we're never beaten over the head with the violence and, in fact, it's done quite tastefully, all things considered. Instead, director Fincher builds a suspenseful tale that, at some points, just may have you yelling "Don't go there!" or "Don't do that!" at some of the characters on screen.

Besides his great use of suspense and an overarching feeling of dread, his casting is also outstanding, and the actors get to play characters that change over the course of the film.  Gyllenhaal starts out as a bit of a flake, insecure in his gig, but as he becomes obsessed with finding Zodiac he risks losing everything important to him, from his job to his family. Okay, maybe still a flake, but...

Downey is famous as a drugged out character in his own right, and his character is a drugged out boozer as well; maybe that's a reason why Downey's portrayal is so great: or maybe it's just that this guy is a great actor. During the course of the movie his character, who at one point is threatened by Zodiac, descends from being a low rent WoodStein of Watergate fame to a pitiful has been.

Ruffalo has perhaps the most frustrating role, not so much for how he must portray his character, but for the compromises and sacrifices his character has to make if he's to keep his career on track. He's a copwith real world responsiblities beyond an old case that, frustratingly, has never been closed.

And watch for Charles Fleischer, the voice of Roger Rabbit, in a small but quite appropriate role.

Do we get a happy ending? We won't spoil your enjoyment of the film by letting you know (news junkies may already know how it ended in real life, but that doesn't necessarily mean the story didn't get Hollywoodized - and we aren't going to spill the beans).

The two disc Blu-ray is a spectacular use of the technology, giving us an exellent presentation of the film on one disc and an entire second disc full of fascinating material - in High Def. The director's cut is some five minutes longer than the original but we didn't notice anything that could be construed as padding. On the other hand, it's been years since we saw the original, so our memories could be flawed.

The movie is presented in 1080p widescreen and the picture quality is superb, with rich color and exemplary sharpness and detail. This comes in handy in a film that has a lot of scenes set at night. The movie was apparently shot, most of it at least, digitally, so you're getting the direct transfer much the way you do with CG animated films such as the Shrek films. Needless to say, the image is as razor sharp as the director intended.

It's kind of subtle; there's a kind of yellow tint to some of the film, but the detail that comes through is spectacular. For example, when documents are on screen you can read every bit of them you're shown. Not only that, but fabrics, textures and the like all look spectacular. If it weren't for the subject matter, this could be a reference disc in video stores.

The Audio is presented in Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround and it's also very good. The rear speakers don't get a great workout, but they do provide a lot of ambience and that helps build the film's atmosphere very well. Other than that, the sound track is very realistic, clean and clear and with excellent separation across the channels.

Disc one also includes a couple of commentaries, a fascinating one in which director Fincher walks you through his vision for the film and another with Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr., producer Brad Fischer, writers James Vanderbilt and James Ellroy that manages to be very interesting and doesn't re-run a lot of the stuff in Fincher's.

Disc Two is loaded with meat via a series of HD documentaries about the movie and the real life case. Zodiac Deciphered is nearly an hour long on its own, and gives us scriptwriter James Vanderbilt's view of how the real life events were recreated for the reel life movie. The research was in depth, as was the attention to detail.

The Visual Effects of Zodiac runs about 15 minutes and looks at the wide variety of CG work done on a film we came out of not figuring was much of an effects movie at all - you'll undoubtedly be as surprised as we were to find out how much of the film was actually special effects!

"Previsualization" is a short piece (the only one we noticed wasn't in HD) and looks at some of the animatics used to design some scenes.

"This is the Zodiac Speaking" takes us back to HD and is about an hour and a half look at the real life Zodiac case, including interviews with real life investigators and survivors. This one features real meat and is fascinating viewing.

There's also "Prime Suspect: His Hame Was Arthur Leigh Allen," about three quarters of an hour focusing on the person who was the leading suspect in the case. It's also fascinating.

It isn't often that you get so much meat with a movie and, though we generally aren't too concerned with supplemental material (we want the movie, presented as well as humanly possible), yet we found ourselves digging into the supplements happily; like driving by a motor vehicle accident scene, we just had to slow down and look - and we were impressed with what we saw. Zodiac is an excellent example of the Blu-ray format and a great showcase for its potential.

And if all you care about is the movie, we still recommend this one highly.

Zodiac, from Paramount Home Entertainment
162 min. 1080p widescreen (2.35:1), Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround
Starring Mark Ruffalo, Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey,  Jr.
Written by James Vanderbilt, directed by David Fincher

Jim Bray's columns are available from the TechnoFile Syndicate.

Buy the eBook
Ransom for the stars
of Jim Bray's
fantastic Sci-Fi Adventure