During the Vietnam War, young U.S. Captain Willard is given the assignment to hunt down and kill one of his own: Colonel Kurtz who has apparently gone insane, murdered hundreds of innocent people, and constructed a strange kingdom for himself deep in the jungle. Willard and his crew embark on a surreal river journey to find Kurtz, meeting along the way a Lieutenant- Colonel who likes to watch surfing during live combat, and Playboy bunnies dropped in by helicopter to entertain rowdy troops.
At the 1979 Cannes Film Festival premiere of 'Apocalypse Now', a beleaguered Francis Ford Coppola – terrified that this one screening of a still-incomplete version of his long-delayed and notoriously troubled movie could make or break his filmmaking career – famously stated: "My film is not a movie. My film is not about Vietnam. It is Vietnam. It's what it was really like. It's crazy. And the way we made it was very much like the way Americans were in Vietnam. We were in the jungle. There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little by little we went insane." Honestly, that quote sums up the movie and the circumstances surrounding the movie's creation so perfectly that I don't know how much there is that anyone, looking back on the film more than three decades later, can add.
'Apocalypse Now' is a film about the collision of genius and madness that is itself a product of both genius and madness. The movie is a loose retelling of Joseph Conrad's classic novel 'Heart of Darkness' moved up to a setting in the only-recently-ended Vietnam War. The story tells of one Capt. Willard (Martin Sheen), a Special Forces operative ordered to take a patrol boat up-river deep into the Cambodian jungle to "terminate with extreme prejudice" the command of rogue Col. Walter Kurtz (Marlon Brando), who has reportedly gone completely mad and succumbed to his basest animal urges and instincts. Starting in the midst of the chaos of combat, the further Willard travels away from civilization (such as it is), the more he loses sight of his even his own sanity, until eventually there's nothing left but himself and the jungle – embodied by Kurtz as a figure of pure primordial id.
But of course, I'm sure you already knew that. 'Apocalypse Now' is a very famous and endlessly-analyzed movie. I won't pretend to have the space available here to adequately dissect its thematic depth, its layered use of symbolism, its surrealist approach to storytelling, or its still-astounding directorial techniques. Entire books can and have been written on those subjects. Suffice it to say that the film is a masterpiece. This isn't just a war movie. It transcends genre classification. It's a movie about the very heart of the human soul, and the ease with which darkness can consume it.
Personally, the thing that fascinates me most about 'Apocalypse Now' is how the film's greatness wasn't immediately recognized. Sure, some early supporters labeled it a masterpiece, and the picture shared the top prize at Cannes that year despite not really being completed at the time. It made a healthy profit at the box office, though perhaps for the wrong reasons, such as the action-packed visceral excitement of the famous "Ride of the Valkyries" sequence. Yet critical and public response at the time was heavily divided. Many viewers (especially critics) had trouble separating the countless tales of production troubles and release date delays from their perception of the finished product. Some may have acknowledged the quality of the first half of the film, but got lost in the thematic murkiness of the second half and failed to recognize the deliberate purpose to such a structure. In short, like many of the greatest films ever made, 'Apocalypse Now' was a movie ahead of its time. And like so many others, the passage of time has helped to clarify its artistic merits, as audiences have finally grown sophisticated enough to recognize them.
Nonetheless, it would appear that director Coppola took many of those early criticisms to heart and never quite got over them. Despite eventual validation, he long contemplated restructuring the movie and reworking it to incorporate some additional footage from the many extra hours that he originally shot. That finally happened in 2001 with the release of a new version of the film dubbed 'Apocalypse Now Redux' that added almost 50 extra minutes to the (already quite long) running time, and also made numerous small editorial changes to the workings of countless existing scenes. Coppola had much of the movie re-edited from scratch.
Ironically, the new and improved (by Coppola's reckoning) 'Redux' was widely greeted as inferior to the previous theatrical cut, even by many of those who took a long time to acknowledge the original's merits in the first place. In the wake of similar revisionist tampering with other movies of the era (namely, the abhorrent 'Star Wars: Special Editions'), 'Apocalypse Now Redux' was viewed as another case of a filmmaker who should have just left well enough alone. I fully admit that I immediately fell into this camp, and still largely agree with the sentiment. I've never thought that 'Redux' wrecked 'Apocalypse Now' the way that the "Special Editions" wreck 'Star Wars', but it sure seemed to water down the film's power unnecessarily.
However, as before, I think that the passage of time has been almost as kind to 'Redux' as it was to the 1979 theatrical cut. Re-approaching it now with a further decade's distance, I found myself really caught up in 'Apocalypse Now Redux', and appreciative of many of the new scene additions. What this amounts to is that 'Apocalypse Now Redux' is simply a different movie than 'Apocalypse Now'. The additions don't just inflate the running time. They often completely change the tone and meaning of many scenes. Where 'Apocalypse Now' is a story primarily driven by themes and archetypes, 'Apocalypse Now Redux' is more humanistic in approach. One is a movie about the madness of war, and the other is a movie about people.
I still think that the original version of 'Apocalypse Now' is the artistically superior film, and the one that deserves to stand the test of time. Also, no matter how much Coppola tries to explain or justify it in interviews, the long French plantation scene in the middle of 'Redux' just does not work at all, and should have been left on the cutting room floor. Nonetheless, 'Redux' is a worthy film in its own right, for its own reasons. I might even go so far as to say that, had this version of the movie been released in 1979, it may have been more immediately embraced by viewers of the time.
In the end, 'Apocalypse Now' in any configuration is a staggering artistic accomplishment. I'm grateful that, unlike some of his contemporaries, Francis Ford Coppola has chosen to allow both versions of his movie to co-exist equally, side-by-side, so that we can discuss and debate and judge and argue about both versions of this gorgeous, lyrical, triumphant film for decades to come.
In years past, 'Apocalypse Now' was previously distributed on VHS, Laserdisc, and DVD by Paramount Home Entertainment. However, production company Zoetrope Studios recently changed distributors to Lionsgate Entertainment, which has released the movie on Blu-ray in two configurations: either a 2-Film Set or a more comprehensive 3-disc Full Disclosure Edition (the copy under review here).
Both Blu-ray releases include the two different versions of the film seamlessly branched on Disc 1: the 1979 theatrical cut (153 min.) and the 2001 'Apocalypse Now Redux' cut (202 min.). You must select which one you want to watch through the "Play Film" menu. Unlike Paramount's most recent Complete Dossier DVD edition from 2006, the movie is not interrupted by a disc break.
Both versions of the movie conclude without any end credits. This is a recreation of the movie's original 70mm theatrical release prints. At the time, theater patrons were handed a pamphlet with the film's credits printed. The regular 35mm release prints had a full set of credits during the movie, which played over an image that appeared to show the destruction of the Kurtz compound. This extra footage can be found in the supplement section of the Blu-ray.
The 2-Film Set contains both movies and a second disc of bonus features. The Full Disclosure Edition adds one more disc with further supplements, plus the 'Hearts of Darkness' documentary. Sadly, the 2-Film Set has nicer packaging with the original poster art on the cover. The Full Disclosure Edition comes in a box with rather ugly artwork, inside which is a fold-out digipak with an even uglier cartoon drawing of the movie's most famous scene. The face of the third disc also features a hideous cartoon drawing of Marlon Brando. I cannot fathom what the studio was thinking with this.
At the time of this writing, Lionsgate has not issued a comparable DVD version of either set.
Any proper discussion of the 'Apocalypse Now' picture quality must cover two important (and controversial) topics: aspect ratio and color. The Blu-ray represents the first time that the film has been presented on home video in its full 2.35:1 theatrical aspect ratio. Although the movie was originally composed for 2.35:1 and played at that ratio theatrically (both in 1979 and 2001), all previous widescreen home video releases were cropped to a narrower ratio of 2.0:1 at the instruction of cinematographer Vittorio Storaro. In the late '80s, Storaro concocted a goofy theory he calls Univisium, which states that all movies should be displayed at a universal aspect ratio of 2.0:1. Unfortunately, he has been retroactively imposing this rule even on his older movies that were clearly not originally composed with this in mind. ('The Last Emperor' suffers this fate on Blu-ray.) As a result, significant portions of the image were removed from the sides of the frame.
Storaro claims that he always composed 'Apocalypse Now' (and 'The Last Emperor') with a 2.0:1 crop in mind, but that was belied by the uncomfortably cramped nature of the Laserdisc and DVD pictures and the fact that the visible portion of the image panned and scanned from one end of the frame to the other. If Storaro had genuinely composed the movie with the intention of cropping, he should have framed all of the important picture information within the 2.0:1 safe area. That was not the case.
In the past, director Francis Ford Coppola had conceded to Storaro's wishes and approved these cropped video transfers. However, in preparing this Blu-ray release, Lionsgate managed to talk Coppola into restoring the entire original 2.35:1 frame. The result is a huge improvement. The picture is much better balanced now. Countless scenes throughout the movie are plainly composed with important activity occurring at the extreme edges of the frame, far from the 2.0:1 center zone. The film is really not watchable at any other aspect ratio than the full 2.35:1.
Next is the issue of color. Because he's an incessant revisionist tinkerer, Storaro has adjusted the movie's color scheme numerous times over the years, making a new change with every release print or video transfer he approved, from Laserdisc to DVD to the 'Redux' theatrical release and to the 'Redux' DVD, none of which is quite the same as any other. In most cases, his inclination has been to give the movie more vibrant primaries reminiscent of the old three-strip Technicolor process.
The video transfer for this Blu-ray was not supervised by Vittorio Storaro. However, its colors are closest to those of dye-transfer prints struck for the 'Redux' theatrical release in 2001, which were overseen by Storaro. Representatives from the production team at Lionsgate claim that they attempted to strike a compromise between the dye-transfer print supplied by Francis Coppola and the 'Redux' DVD transfer. Overall, the Blu-ray color scheme leans toward yellow and golden hues. It also has many heavy color washes that were not present back in 1979.
While the purist in me would like to see the movie's original colors, I honestly don't have much to complain about here. The new colors are quite aesthetically beautiful on their own, and feel appropriate for the film's setting and mood. For as much as I may decry his Univisium nonsense, Vittorio Storaro is a brilliant cinematographer with an unparalleled eye for color. (Thankfully, I didn't spot a single instance of teal anywhere in the movie.) As far as I'm concerned, if he has to revise the movie, he can do what he wants with the colors. I'll trust his judgment on that, and I like the results.
In other respects, the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer has a very nice representation of detail, far better than DVD. It's not necessarily the sharpest picture you'll find on Blu-ray, but it has a pleasing film-like appearance. There are scenes where the amount of detail is extraordinary, and other scenes that look soft. A lot of this stems back to the original production. (Being photographed with anamorphic lenses in the jungle probably didn't help matters.) I've read some complaints from bit rate statisticians that the disc doesn't cause their players' meters to spike as high as they'd like, but I tend not to give things like that much credence unless there are visible artifacts in the picture. As far as that goes, I will admit that there are instances where film grain looks a little mushy, notably the opening montage (though I must point out that this was a multi-generation optical composite). Also, a few of the jungle scenes lack grain and have a mildly rubbery texture that makes me suspect some Digital Noise Reduction was employed on occasion.
Keep in mind that I only say the above because it's my job to be a nit-picker. This is a nearly 3 ½ hour long movie, and my overall impression is that it looks gorgeous, even breathtaking. Is it perfect in every objective sense? Perhaps not, but it's still one of the most beautiful things I've projected in my home theater all the same.
The sound design for 'Apocalypse Now' is the stuff of legend. In fact, it was during production of this movie that editor Walter Murch coined the term "sound design." He not only helped to develop the 5.1 sound array that is the primary standard for most modern feature film production, he also created expressionistic aural montages that are nothing short of visionary in their approach to telling the story through sound effects, music, and ambience. Even more than 30 years later, this soundtrack puts most brand new movies to shame. In fact, this very well may be the greatest motion picture soundtrack ever created.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track on the Blu-ray is sterling in its fidelity. The songs by The Doors that bookend the film have never sounded better. Dialogue is crisp no matter how much is going on in any given scene. Subtle audio details are reproduced with outstanding clarity. The track makes full use of all 5.1 channels to create a fully alive and immersive soundscape. It also matrixes well to 7.1 format with Dolby ProLogic IIx decoding. The helicopter rotors in the opening scene seamlessly cycle through every speaker in the room. The film has selected moments of powerful bass, but is never loud just for the sake of being loud.
Ironically, the only scene in the movie I might find disappointing is the one I expected to be the best audio showcase. The "Ride of the Valkyries" attack kind of blurs together into a big mass of noise without as much distinction to individual sounds as the rest of the movie. That's not necessarily inappropriate to the content of the scene (which is meant to be chaotic), but it doesn't provoke the same type of hyper-real auditory response as the rest of the film. Even so, this is a 5-star presentation of a 5-star soundtrack.
The Full Disclosure Edition Blu-ray carries over almost all of the bonus features from Paramount's Complete Dossier DVD set released in 2006, plus a few that were only found on the older separate DVDs for the theatrical and 'Redux' versions of the movie, or a bonus DVD exclusive to the now-defunct Circuit City retail chain.
HD Bonus Content: Any Exclusive Goodies in There?
It would seem that Paramount's Complete Dossier DVD set was less-than-complete after all. The Full Disclosure Edition Blu-ray offers the following brand new features:
BD-Live: Requires Profile 2.0
The Blu-ray menus also direct smartphone users (really just iPhone users) to download apps for Metamenu and BD-Touch features, which will allow you to use your phone as a remote control… but only for select compatible discs. Does anyone actually use these things? At the time of this writing, there is no option available for Android users.
The Cutting Room Floor: What Didn't Make the Blu-ray?
A few items from the Complete Dossier DVD didn't make the way over to Blu-ray. These include a video introduction from Francis Coppola, an icon track that designates new footage in the 'Redux' cut, and a 2001 trailer for 'Apocalypse Now Redux'.
The Complete Dossier DVD also offered several hidden Easter Egg features such as reproductions of letters from Coppola, crew memos, and a video clip where John Milius explains the origin of the phrase "Apocalypse Now". (Milius retells that story in the new interview with Coppola.) If these are also hidden somewhere on the Blu-ray, I didn't have the patience to seek them out.
As far as wish list items, I would have liked to see some of the footage shot with Harvey Keitel in the Willard role, as well as more footage from the legendary 5 ½ hour workprint, bootleg copies of which have circulated in collectors' circles for decades.
Hands down, 'Apocalypse Now' is one of the greatest motion pictures ever made. I've even come to appreciate the revisionist 'Redux' cut over the years (but am still grateful that the Blu-ray contains both versions). Other than the ugly package art, the Full Disclosure Edition Blu-ray set from Lionsgate is very nearly a home run. It has strong (though just a bit shy of perfect) video quality, amazing audio, and tons of supplements – including the essential 'Hearts of Darkness' documentary. No fan of the cinematic art form should be without this Blu-ray set.