What would happen if you took the stoic characters from classic, nineteenth century literature and reimagined them as the superheroes of their day? This was precisely the question that intrigued reclusive comic-writer extraordinaire Alan Moore following his success with "The Watchmen." The resulting mini-series, 'The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,' was a masterwork that somehow managed to keep its premise genuinely compelling while turning fictional history on its ear.
In 2003, I nervously sat in my local theater, waiting to see how one of my favorite graphic novels would be handled by director Stephen Norrington (at the time, an absolute god in the comic industry after his cinematic treatment of 'Blade'). Two hours later, I left the theater in a haze -- shocked, muttering, despondent -- alright, maybe I wasn't that upset, but you get the point. "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" was a flashy, mediocre, blaring attempt to cash in on a piece of pulpy brilliance that failed at almost every turn. I swore I'd never watch it again. Now, almost four years later, I sat down to watch this Blu-Ray release and, I have to say, the film isn't nearly as disastrous as I remember.
It's 1899 and humanity stands at the edge of a new century. A secret organization is attempting to bring about the first World War and England calls upon legendary adventurer Allan Quartermain (Sean Connery) to stop the growing threat. He organizes a team consisting of Captain Nemo (Naseeruddin Shah), The Invisible Man (Tony Curran), Mina Harker (Peta Wilson), Dorian Gray (Stuart Townsend), Tom Sawyer (Shane West), and Dr. Jekyl (Jason Flemyng) -- a strange group of unlikely heroes that must work past their differences to ensure the survival of civilized society. Sound familiar?
Where the comic succeeded in moving beyond its X-Men influences with a careful attention to detail, the film version of 'The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen' is mainly concerned with attracting the same audience that made Marvel's mutants a success at the box office. Norrington increases the violence, amps up the effects, and moves the story in any direction that has more visual bang than the subtle pages of Moore's work. However, even the surface sheen of the film is muddied by shoddy effects, obvious wire-work, and cartoony CG. Take one look at the climactic slug-out between the Dante monster and Mr. Hyde and you can see the holes a limited budget tears in a hopeful blockbuster of this size. Even worse, the story ironically would've been more thrilling if it was translated directly from the comic -- the villain is a pale imitation of his original inception, and the characters are stripped of their complexities in the comic (Quartermain's alcoholism, The Invisible Man's psychosis, and Nemo's imposing ruthlessness... just to name a few).
Fortunately, if you remove yourself from the source material (as most will), you're left with an amusing ride hindered by occasional missteps that, for the most part, is a cut above the cartoons that litter the comic-film genre. The actors clearly had a good time and Townsend, West, and Curran, in particular, bring a lot of wry wit to their performances. Connery is the only member of the ensemble phoning it in and the screenplay is constructed well enough to ensure a good time regardless of his predictable plodding. The addition of Tom Sawyer and Dorian Gray works nicely, enhancing the story with increased humor and sarcasm.
All in all, I was surprised to find myself mildly enjoying this movie on my second visit. I only wish, years ago, I could've put aside my high expectations and succumbed to this entertaining-crap rollercoaster that romps around Victorian London with a style completely entwined with the twentieth century.
Released using an AVC transfer, this 1080p Blu-ray presentation shares the same hit-or-miss quality as the film itself. The most noticeable problem is a lack of consistency from one shot to the next -- videophiles will likely find themselves distracted in key scenes. During the library ambush, pay close attention to the video quality as shots switch between the characters. When the camera focuses on The Phantom, a pristine crispness highlights his coat and the reflective surface of his mask. When the camera flips to any angle that includes Nemo, the colors and sharpness suddenly fade and soften, an effect so jarring that you may feel as if you're switching between the high definition and standard-def versions of the film. I tallied at least a dozen other scenes where this occurred and eventually gave up tracking the problem.
Contrast inconsistency is peppered throughout the film as well. Every time a scene is set in the war room of the Nautilus, you'll see a disappointing reduction in contrast levels between the stark whiteness of the walls and the black costumes of anyone on screen. This is baffling because scenes that take place in the snowy tundra near the end of the film really popped even though they were based around the same conflict between light and dark. In fact, almost everything that will impress you during the movie has a counter-example of a moment that is entirely unimpressive. Fire in a zeppelin explosion splashed vividly across my display while industrial firestacks belched colorless flames, stones on the ground could be counted and catalogued while blades of tall grass blended together in a haze, and quick-shots would showcase solid image stability while still-shots would occasionally flicker.
The only consistent video qualities I caught were sharp water detailing, a depth to smoke and dust, and the pop of the film's cityscapes. Although... that statement's only true if we're talking about the good things with the video presentation. A lot of this transfer is consistently disappointing when you can point out a slight veil of murkiness over the entire picture, clouded shadow detailing, soft Kenyan nature shots, a lack of texture dimension, and a stutter to long pan shots -- particularly of the exterior of the Nautilus. Even more noticeable, the CG effects have a more exaggerated, blue-screened appearance in high definition that made me cringe on a regular basis. It's a noticeable upgrade from the standard edition DVD, but the jump is nowhere near the level of most Blu-Ray releases.
'The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen' has a powerful DTS HD 5.1 audio track that boasts a lossless transfer of the original master. A deep bass rumbles convincingly during explosions and gunfire (both of which happen a lot), dialogue is never lost under the action, and the soundfield is overworked with channel movement. It's definitely clear why lossless audio is the wave of the future and I never found myself wondering if a complaint I had with the mix was anything other than a dissatisfaction with decisions by the filmmakers.
Which brings us to the reduction in the grade I gave the audio. Sound effects grow tiresome, repetitive, and crowded... there's such a determination to make every action scene shake the speakers, that a realistic treatment of the soundscape seems to be the last of Norrington's priorities. Not to harp on the ambush in the library, but after you've watched Nemo fade in and out, pay attention to the fight that follows. Gunfire, ricochets, sword clangs, shattering shelves, and splintered wood all assault your ears at the same volume. There's no layering in the sound design and everything battles for your attention -- no matter how loud or soft the actual effect would be in the midst of the chaos. To make matters worse, the sound bellows out of the speakers and there's never an effort made to create a convincing illusion of space and position in the soundfield.
'The Good Stuff' is a bit of a misnomer in this case because a good number of supplemental features that were a part of the standard edition DVD are missing from this Blu-Ray release. In fact, to make room for lackluster content exclusive to this disc (see below), twelve deleted scenes and a documentary have been excised. Surviving the apparent layoffs are two commentary tracks, which are that are -- I'm getting tired of saying it -- a hit-or-miss affair.
First up is a commentary featuring separate recordings of producer Don Murphy, producer Trevor Albert, and a room packed with actors Jason Flemyng, Tony Curran, and Shane West. The three groups have been edited together without much thought to commentary flow and the results are less than spectacular. The actors are great fun and their discussions and chemistry made this track reminiscent of the four-Hobbit commentary track on "The Lord of the Rings" extended release DVDs. The producers are less exciting with Albert sticking to crew salutes and Murphy giving an interesting (but dry) rundown of the entire production. Most bizarrely, Albert is so proud of the end results that he compliments people responsible for the most laughably bad moments in the movie. At one point Jekyl tips his formula back and begins to turn into Hyde through a series of unintentionally funny jump-cuts that are more Ed Wood than anything I've seen in the last decade. As Hyde prepares to save the Nautilus from sinking, Albert comments, "here you can see the terrific transformation work by our effects people". I'd keep quoting him but he goes on about it every time it happens... at length.
Last and, well, least is a commentary track featuring Costume Designer Jacqueline West, Visual Effects Supervisor John E. Sullivan, Makeup Effects Supervisor Steve Johnson, and Miniatures Creator Matthew Gratzner. This was an extremely boring track for me and, unless you're aspiring for a career in these areas, I'd avoid it. The only relief is Gratzner whose short examinations of the miniatures in the film, their creation, and the careful detail put into each one, is a welcome relief from the trite, congratulatory party between the other three participants.
'The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen' is an inconsistent experience on all fronts. The movie is best when viewed as mindless entertainment, the video lacks the punch of most other Blu-ray discs, the audio is technically solid but aesthetically challenged, and the supplemental features are a bizarre mix of unnecessary additions and monotonous commentaries. I'm glad this wasn't my first introduction to Blu-ray and I definitely wouldn't recommend that you try to wow your friends with this one, but ultimately it does deliver on the bottom line.