Steve McQueen escapes again!
Ten years after 'The Great Escape,' a WW2 era POW escape film, the king of cool made a flick that shares the same basic theme, but crafts its own beautiful, intricate tale of survival, pinning the indomitable will and resourcefulness of its lead against the seemingly impossible to beat, sometimes cruel odds against him, as a man who was wrongly convicted of murder seeks not to clear his name, but to clear his calendar, to get out, and be his own man.
Based on the memoir of the same name, 'Papillon' stars McQueen as Henri Charriere, a man with a butterfly tattoo on his chest, and a sentence to life imprisonment on Devil's Island, a tropical prison in French Guiana, where the prisoners aren't guaranteed survival, and escapees are faced with the daunting elements, cruel treachery, and scores of former inmates turned manhunters, who get paid whether they bring back a live prisoner or a corpse. Papillon, as Charriere is known, befriends Louis Dega (Dustin Hoffman) on the initial voyage to the penitentiary, playing equal parts muscle and buddy, as the two forge a lifelong friendship against all odds, including the fact they have little to nothing in common.
'Papillon' is an interesting story, whether you treat it as absolute fact or a piece of fiction or exaggeration. It doesn't matter whether the events truly happened, as the accuracy of the story being told is secondary to the beautiful, inspirational tale that unfolds over two and a half prolonged hours. The film is a slow burn, that isn't about the escape as much as it is the experience, with the attention to the most minor of details only making the plot seem more truthful. You believe everything you see, you accept the actors for their characters, and as they fail, you suffer along with them as the film drags out the misery and pain.
While the makeup effects that tell the story of the passage of time may be questionable, it's hard to not be hooked as you follow Papillon through each step of his incarceration, with two escape attempts bringing seven additional years of hellish solitary confinement, with guards trying to break the spirit of the man who refuses to give up or even give them an inch, suffering silently rather than vocally. In a story like this, you'd normally see a character looking to death as an escape, especially with the prisoners who serve extended sentences being forced to stay on the island even after their incarceration ends, but the strength of one man, his nearly impossible to reach breaking point are amazing to follow. McQueen is perfectly cast, as the career antihero is exactly that here. Hoffman doesn't outperform his Golden Globe nominated costar, but he definitely plays the part better in respect to the changes in a person due to the passage of time, with his Dega character experiencing more dramatic changes than the subtleties found in Papillon. One man is beaten and broken, the other refuses, and it's fantastic to watch the divergence of the two as the film progresses.
It's hard to not call this film inspirational, as the will of Papillon, through all his struggles, all the betrayals, the tortures, he doesn't give up, up to the ending scene of the film, which is quite beautiful in its own unique way. Not even nature itself can stop him, nor does it seem to want to, as his will seems to overpower that of Mother Earth itself. As we live vicariously through the struggles of the caged butterfly, who seeks to do nothing more than fly free, we reach unimaginable heights and feel the harmony with the world that he must feel, with the astounding cinematography capturing a natural, free life style that seems lost in modern times. 'Papillon' is the type of film that will never be made again, as the dramatic following of the exploits of one man aren't as exploitative as films like 'Rescue Dawn,' where the performance can be outdone by the physical demands and tolls of the role, and the crawling narrative demands your attention and patience, rather than satisfying you with quick action or death defying risks. 'Papillon' instead grabs you, won't let go, and acts like Virgil to your Dante, guiding your journey through Devil's Island, where death is not an option for one iron-willed man.
The Disc: Vital Stats
Warner Bros. release of 'Papillon' on Blu-ray comes on a Region A/B/C BD50 disc, housed in a collectible, limited time (though the window is unknown) digibook. The book itself is the same as all of Warner's other efforts, though the extreme glossiness of this release makes it very neat looking. There is no pre-menu content, just company credit screens.
'Papillon' is the tale of two Blu-rays, all in one. A troubled opening ten to twenty minutes is followed up by some of the best looking results for a picture of this era. Warner Brothers' 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode at 2.40:1 may be one of their best achievements for the year so far!
In the beginning, I was ready to buckle myself in for another 'The Fellowship of the Ring' situation, as the heavy grain, slight noise, random blurriness, lack of detail, and possible DNR smearing had me aghast. The picture just failed to impress, and looked like a lazy dump release.
Then, something special happened. The rest of the film, over two hours worth, was magnificent. Truly spectacular. There was shot after shot of footage that, aside from the colors themselves, could have been filmed just yesterday. The picture didn't have any shake or wobble, and there wasn't an inch of debris or dirt, absolutely nothing! Whites were perfectly clean, blacks didn't crush in low lit shots, and not even the red and white striped "uniforms" aliased. Detail was consistent, soft shots were nowhere to be found, and images were amazingly deep and beautiful.
My experience with this disc should be a reminder: never count a disc out. I really don't understand what the problem was with the opening portions of the film. All I know is the rest of the way, I was sitting amazed, watching a fantastic story unfold in the best high definition I could have imagined for a film of this sort and era.
The audio for 'Papillon' only comes in one flavor, which is an oddity for a catalog Warner release. The English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is passable, and pure, but hardly innovative or enveloping.
The dialogue is crisp and clear, and is always discernible, even in the softly muttered lines underneath a heavier bit of the Academy Award nominated score. There's no static or hiss, no crackles or pop, and no problems with volume levels being inconsistent. Bass levels were surprisingly solid when they came out to play, accenting some scenes with a fantastic low rumble that took me by surprise. The rear speakers don't get much to do with this one, as they are mostly there for the Jerry Goldsmith music. You won't work out your audio equipment with this release, but you also won't be shaking your head in disappointment, either!
There are three subtitle options: English (subtitled for the deaf and hard of hearing), Spanish, and French.
The oddity of this digibook release is that there are no new features. None. The 1999 release from Warner Bros. has the two same special features, nothing more, nothing less.
'Papillon' isn't for everyone, due to its very tough pace, which makes the runtime seem an hour longer than its already lengthy journey. Still, Steve McQueen is fascinating to watch, bringing his character to such amazing life that it's hard to not be captivated by his every action or inaction. Warner's digibook release of the escape flick has video that goes from blah to fantastic in fifteen or so minutes, and good audio, both of which show no signs of wear. This digibook isn't cheap (few are!), but it's definitely a keeper!