Monday, May 2, 2011

The Way Back Blu-ray Review

When I heard that there was a new Peter Weir movie that starred Ed Harris, Colin Farrell, and Mark Strong I was immediately interested.  What made it even more appealing was when I heard that the The Way Back was also a prison escape movie which sealed the deal.  Weir has an incredible track record with movies such as Witness and Master and Commander, so I knew that had to be a pretty good movie especially with this kind of a plot.  While this is a prison break movie up to a point, this is more of a celebration of the human spirit and its ability to endure even in the face of terrible odds.

Film (3 1/2 out of 5 stars)

This film is based loosely on Slavomir Rawicz’s The Long Walk which he claimed to have escaped from a Siberian camp and walked to India but that account was later discredited.  When Peter Weir started to research this movie, he discovered that despite many tales of prisoners walking long distances to freedom, it was very difficult to prove their stories and he ended up renaming the film The Way Back and acknowledged that the movie is only inspired by real events but it’s largely fictional.

As with almost all Peter Weir films, this one is about a sense of community and nature itself.  This is a frequent theme he loves to delve into whether it’s the Amish community in Witness, or a ship’s crew in Master and Commander, or in this case a group of prisoners of many nationalities who are forced to work in a brutal environment.  These men come from all walks of life too, with some of them being former professors, while others are cooks, political prisoners, and even murderers.

When a Polish man named Janusz (Jim Sturgess) is arrested by Russian authorities, he is asked to sign a confession of his crimes that he didn’t commit.  The Russians have tortured Janusz’s wife until she told them what they wanted to hear and agreed to testify against her husband and he is sent to one of the many Siberian prison camps where the men either cut down trees or work in the mines until they die.  Life is very hard in the camp as there is little food and everyone is only concerned with their own survival.  When Janusz tries to offer his food to an elderly prisoner, he is warned against it by an American named Mr. Smith (Ed Harris).  Smith is a realist and tells Janusz not to show kindness in the camp because it will be a liability and could get him killed.  Another prisoner named Khabarov (Mark Strong) who used to be an actor witnesses their exchange and takes Janusz under his wing and tries to indoctrinate him to the camp.

Khabarov tells Janusz about his plan to escape the camp which he’s been planning for a long time.  He’s built up a supply of food through trading with other prisoners and plans to make a run for it in the spring.  For Janusz, life in the prison camp is unbearable as he wants to return to his wife and he doesn’t want to wait for spring to come.  At the rate the prisoners die in the camp, they may not even make it until spring because either the hard labor or the cold will kill them, if they aren’t killed by a fellow prisoner first, which is a strong possibility when a prisoner named Valka (Colin Farrell) is around.  Valka is a vicious killer and had no problem killing a man for his sweater just so he could continue to play cards with that as capital.  Despite his thuggish ways, Valka isn’t a fool and once he realizes that Janusz and his companions are about to escape the camp, he makes sure that he leaves with them.

Once the prisoners do escape during a snow storm, the movie really kicks into gear and its true nature is revealed.  This is not a prison escape movie but more of a meditation on the human spirit and how it can overcome almost insurmountable obstacles.  The trek from the gulag to India is a harsh one, with their weather conditions going from one extreme to the other as they travel is snowstorms, to humid and mosquito filled areas, and on through an arid desert with little prospect of water. Along the way, they meet a young girl named Irena (Saoirse Ronan) who isn’t all she claims to be but still manages to inspire the men with her fierce determination.

The movie shows us how such a disparate group of people join forces for their common survival and while I’d like to believe that that unity and self-sacrifice is possible, there’s a cynical part of me that wonders if basic human nature would allow that to flourish in a group of people that didn’t really know each other and includes a serial murderer in their midst.  I think I would be sleeping with one eye open myself.  With this being a Peter Weir film, the visuals and the authenticity of the sets, wardrobe, and locations are all incredible.  Weir and his production team built a real gulag and that quest for authenticity is one of his strong points and it pays off here.  The decision to film in Bulgaria and  Morocco was also a wise one as it adds a lot to the film.  Even the sets that were built to represent the forest look amazingly real.

Unfortunately, not as much time was spent developing the characters.  We learn surface details about all of them but only enough for the movie to move forward.  While the viewer may sympathize with their predicament, there’s isn’t any true empathy for these men since we barely know them.  Despite that, the performances are all excellent with the actors doing the best they could with what they had, but with this many characters to focus on, the characterizations are spread thin and it’s a shame.  It doesn’t help that the ending of the movie is  fairly anti-climatic after such an arduous journey.  For as much time that was spent building up to the finale, it felt rushed at the end and wasn’t as emotionally satisfying as it should have been.  Part of that is due to the fact that a mention at the start of the movie which tells us basically how it ends, so it’s just a matter of seeing which prisoners make it or not which deflates a lot of the tension that should be there.  Even with these shortcomings, this was a good movie and it had a lot of good aspects to it, but the script could have used another draft by the right person which would have made it even better.

Video (4 out of 5 stars)

This 1080p (2.35:1) transfer is very good overall and it captures the look of the film almost perfectly.  Whether it’s the freezing snow in Siberia, or the humid atmosphere, or the sun-baked desert, the picture captures all of it well.  Detail is excellent throughout the film and flesh tones are natural and consistent.  Black levels are also suitably inky and there’s some nice contrast as well.   My only complaint about the picture quality was one scene that had some excessive noise but it didn’t last long and seemed to be the only issue since the rest of the film looked great.

Audio (5 out of 5 stars)

The Way Back’s DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is stupendous and the best thing about this disc.  That shouldn’t come as a surprise to any of you that have seen Master and Commander on Blu-ray which also has a fantastic track as well.  Peter Weird obviously spends a lot of time with his crew to maximize the effect of his mixes and it’s time well spent.  Every speaker is pushed to the limit with this track and it’s a constant force.  With all of the varied environments visited in the film, each one of them is perfectly captured and so immersive that you will feel like you are there with them.  There’s some very nice cross panning action that shoots from one side of speakers to the other and it all adds a considerable amount to the film.  It’s so good that it feels like you are in a snowstorm, or surrounded by seemingly man-eating mosquitoes, or on the edge of a sand storm.  This is a fantastic mix!

Special Features (2 1/2 out of 5 stars)

As much as I would like to list a ton of extras for this movie, I can’t do that since there’s only two extras included and one of them is just the trailer.  Both of these are in standard definition.
  • The Journey of the Journey – A thirty minute look at the behind the scenes action which actually does a pretty good job showing the filming and challenges involved.  There’s a generous amount of time spent with the cast and crew who talk about the movie and why they were interested in it, and what they felt the movie was all about.  Peter Weir is also involved in this but not enough to meet my expectations, especially since there’s no director’s commentary track.
  • Trailer

Final Thoughts (4 out of 5 stars)

I enjoyed this  movie but not as much as I thought I would with all of the people involved in it.  Peter Weir as always captures the harshness and power of nature and its effect on the humans desperate enough to brave it.  The movie has an old fashioned feel to it and it has a scope to it that you don’t see very often anymore.  Although the performances are very good, the script could have been better and it would have been nice to get more extras.  The audio mix is fantastic and gives the film a large boost and an immersiveness that packs a punch.

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