During the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s, Nicolas Roeg built a reputation as a cinematographer, contributing to a number of films, including such classics as 'Lawrence of Arabia,' 'Doctor Zhivago,' and 'Fahrenheit 451.' It wasn't until the dawn of the seventies, though, that Roeg eventually slid into the director's chair. After partnering with co-director Donald Cammell for the cult movie 'Performance' (featuring Mick Jagger in his first acting role), Roeg went on to helm about two dozen other movies over the years--from his acclaimed psychological thriller 'Don't Look Now' to the vessel for an out-of-this-world David Bowie, 'The Man Who Fell to Earth.' But it was Roeg's 1971 debut as a solo director that is still widely regarded as his greatest cinematic achievement. That film is 'Walkabout.'
For those who are unfamiliar with the term "walkabout," a text blurb at the beginning of the film basically defines it as a rite of passage in Australian aborigine culture. When adolescent males reach a certain age, they must venture off into the bush for months on a ritualistic voyage into adulthood. There the boys hone their hunting skills, find their own shelters, and ultimately, learn to survive the harsh untamed wilderness all alone. Some also believe a walkabout to be more of a soul-searching expedition (just ask John Locke from 'LOST').
'Walkabout' tells the tale of a high school girl (the alluring Jenny Agutter of 'Logan's Run') and her five-year-old brother (Nicolas Roeg's son Luc), who end up deserted in the rugged Australian outback after an afternoon picnic with their father (John Meillon, 'Crocodile Dundee') goes terribly awry. Far from the city and left with little supplies, the lost siblings have no choice but to wander the desert in search of civilization. Losing a battle against starvation and dehydration, they finally make human contact, except it comes in the form of a teenage aborigine (David Gulpilil, 'Rabbit-Proof Fence') on his walkabout. Although the language barrier proves to be a difficult challenge at first, soon the young native is teaching the outsiders his ways of life -- guiding them on a physical and spiritual journey that may change their lives forever.
There isn't a whole lot to the plot in 'Walkabout.' In fact, the script, penned by British playwright Edward Bond (loosely adapted from the novel by James Vance Marshall), apparently only consisted of fourteen pages. This doesn't matter, though, since Roeg constructs his narrative mostly through captivating imagery. At its most basic level, 'Walkabout' is a film filled with stunning photography of breathtaking vistas and extraordinary wildlife from one of the most enchanting landscapes on Earth. But Roeg also weaves in more complex layers, inserting numerous messages via symbolism and metaphors. Contrasts between sophistication and primitiveness, industrialization and nature, and more are everywhere. Sexual undertones lurk around every corner. It doesn't take long to realize the film is a cryptic puzzle that is much deeper than it seems.
As absorbing as 'Walkabout' is, though, that doesn't mean the film is completely devoid of flaws. The main thing holding the movie back a bit is the occasional heavy handedness of Roeg's direction. Usually his photography techniques work brilliantly, but once in awhile he tends to get carried away and overuses the tricks of his trade, which, to be honest, can be a little distracting. I also thought a few scenes (like the ones involving the weather research team and the buffalo hunt) disrupted the flow of the movie. I know why they were included and they do add more food for thought, it's just they weren't integrated smoothly. The choppiness makes them feel confusing and out of place.
But even with these missteps, 'Walkabout' is still a beautiful film worth seeing, and one that belongs in every film lover's collection. The cinematography is simply amazing and has enough replay value on its own, and the highly interpretive structure really gets those mental gears turning. This is the kind of film that exposes something different not just for every viewer -- but for every viewing.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
The Criterion Collection had previously released 'Walkabout' on DVD back in 1998, and this new release is issued as spine #10 on both the DVD and Blu-ray formats. The high-definition edition comes on a dual-layered BD-50 Blu-ray disc housed inside one of the studio's trademark clear keepcases. The disc boots up directly to the menu after a slight loading delay. The Blu-ray is also reported to be region-locked and therefore will only function properly in Region A compatible machines.
'Walkabout' arrives on Blu-ray with a rejuvenated 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 (1.78:1) encode. A short note on the restoration process is included inside the packaging:
"This new high-definition transfer was scanned in 2K on a 4K Spirit Datacine from a new 35mm preservation interpositive made from the original camera negative. The color timing was approved by director Nicholas Roeg. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, warps, jitter, and flicker were manually removed using MTI's DRS system and Pixel Farm's PFClean system, while Digital Vision's DVNR system was used for small dirt, grain, and noise reduction.
The results of this brand-new transfer are quite dramatic. Color saturation is much more vibrant than ever before. The bright blue sky provides a nice contrast to the rust-colored desert sand and the lush green plant life scattered about the Australian outback. Skin tones are authentic and there are times where Agutter's lips clearly show signs of dehydration. The image retains a thin and consistent veil of grain, but it doesn't affect the overall crispness of the restored picture. Many scenes have an attractive sense of depth to them, and fine detailing is beautifully rendered. Lizard scales, marsupial fur, human hair, and clothing fabrics have really nice separation and texturing. 'Walkabout' is a sight to behold, especially with Roeg's breathtaking cinematography.
As gorgeous as this transfer is, the film is still very old and has a bit of unavoidable wear and tear. A few scratches and debris have managed to sneak past the filtering tools, and flicker still occasionally occurs. While black levels are usually fine, they do fade periodically in night and dark indoor shots, too. And at around the 51 minute mark I noticed a technical hiccup, that kind of pulled me out of the movie just for a second. But honestly, even with these faults, 'Walkabout' looks amazing for its age.
According to the liner notes, the original audio has also been re-mastered at 24-bit from the 35MM optical soundtrack print. The Blu-ray presents the track in its purest form through a lossless LPCM Mono mix.
The soundtrack is super clean, as all instances of clicks, hums, and other defects were removed using Pro Tools HD. The few exchanges of dialogue the film has are usually pretty clear, although Luc Roeg's lines can be tough to understand in some scenes as he tends to mumble his words. All of the calls of the wild and other sound effects have a crisp and distinct presence as well. But it's really John Barry's enthralling, almost hypnotic original music that is the highlight of the track. The instrumentals sound fantastic and the entire musical presentation feels very spacious despite its limitations. Without a doubt, purists will love this mix.
The Blu-ray also includes optional English subtitles, however there are no alternate audio options provided on the disc.
The Blu-ray and concurrent 2-disc DVD editions of 'Walkabout' include some recycled content and a few new items found only on these releases.
I don't know if I'd go as far as to label Nicolas Roeg's 'Walkabout' a masterpiece, since it does have some awkward moments, but at the very least it's an incredibly beautiful, haunting, and thought-provoking film. The Criterion Collection has done another masterful job on the technical front, meticulously restoring the film and serving it up on an exquisite high-definition platter rounded out with their usual complement of quality extras. This Blu-ray is an all-around excellent release that comes highly recommended for anyone who appreciates film and poetry in motion.