Panic Room (2002)
Superbit Deluxe Collection
2.35:1 (16x9 Enhanced)
DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1
Columbia Tristar, $27.96

Since the release of his apocalyptically dark thriller Seven and the mind-bending Fight Club, director David Fincher has attracted a cult following of fans devoted to his precise, moody style and often-nihilistic perspective. Those fans certainly weren’t left hanging with Panic Room, which stars Jodie Foster as embittered divorcée Meg Altman. Meg decides to stick her cheating ex-husband where it hurts – namely, his wallet – by purchasing the priciest four-story brownstone available in Manhattan for herself and her daughter (Kristen Stewart). The sprawling, lavish apartment features one peculiar amenity: a panic room. Installed by the building’s previous owner, the room is a virtually impenetrable, steel-reinforced, electronically isolated, concrete-surrounded bunker.

On their first night in the apartment, Meg and her daughter are surprised by three burglars (Forest Whitaker, Dwight Yoakam and Jared Leto), who are convinced that there’s a sizeable stash of money hidden somewhere on the premises. Meg and her daughter hole up in the panic room, and as tensions build, Meg engages in a cat-and-mouse game with the somewhat disorganized intruders.

Fincher told AC in March ‘02 that the film’s shoot was "the hardest in my career." Midway through the shoot, director of photography Darius Khondji, ASC, AFC (Seven) was replaced by Conrad W. Hall, who had operated for Fincher on features and commercials. Behind-the-scenes drama aside, Panic Room features some spectacular images and exquisitely subtle, "no-light" underexposure work. The film’s visual construction and shot execution can only be described as "slick" – the camera never flinches in its placement or movement, and the audience is given very specific visual clues in a precise yet seemingly organic fashion.

It is the murky, often nerve-wracking, fine line between the subtle falloff of hues and completely underexposed murk that makes the "Superbit" digital mastering process showcased on this DVD all the more important. Because the majority of the film’s visual information resides in the "Did I see something lurking in that dark corner?" realm, even mild compression could make the fine tonal gradations look like the cinematic equivalent of a 24-fps Light ’N’ Bright animation. Touted as the highest standard in DVD-encoding schemes, the Superbit process utilizes the entire DVD’s disc space – including space normally devoted to supplemental materials – to optimize picture and sound. Superbit DVDs are said to be encoded at almost double the normal bit-rate, yet are still fully compatible with standard DVD players.

The difference the Superbit process makes is readily apparent in this edition of Panic Room. Even with one’s face almost pressed to the monitor, the image is virtually free of any "compression chunkiness." The shadows are free of artifacts, and the subtlest tonal changes in the lighting are faithfully reproduced. Fincher’s use of a digital-intermediate master for the film’s theatrical release no doubt aided in this effort as well; producing a finely nuanced, 2K video master of Panic Room essentially guaranteed that the film’s subsequent life in the digital domain would retain the quality of the filmmakers’ sepulchral visions. The use of Superbit mastering further serves to retain the purity of this post process, all the way downstream to your DVD player.

However, the excellent visual presentation is only part of this DVD’s appeal. The audio presentation is also superb; every tiny floorboard creak and hushed breath is clearly projected. And as is typical with Fincher films, the ambience tracks immediately bring the viewer into a moody world fraught with ternsion.

The only drawback to this disc is the complete lack of supplemental goodies, which might have given fans a peek at Fincher’s fanatically precise filmmaking process. The logic behind the Superbit process is obvious, but that doesn’t mean consumers should be hung out to dry in the value-added department – other Superbit DVD releases have addressed this issue by including a second disc of bonus materials. (In fact, Fox’s DVD of Fight Club virtually set the standard for value-added packaging.) However, those concerns weren’t addressed for this edition of Panic Room, and the otherwise stellar DVD suffers for it.

– Christopher Probst

<< previous

© 2002 American Society of Cinematographers.