I don’t read books the way I used to and in fact, since starting up DVD Authority in 1999 I can count the number of books I’ve read on my fingers. I vaguely remember the story of Christopher McCandless, the story of a college student who gave up all of his possessions and ventured into the West only to die in the Alaskan wilderness. Now I don’t think I’m giving anything away here when I say what happened, after all it says it on the cover of the book. After a long, drawn out ordeal with McCandless’ parents, writer/director Sean Penn finally got the green light to make the story of Christopher’s last few years. It was an uphill battle and one that lasted ten years (Penn’s) and after seeing “Into the Wild” I really can’t imagine it any other way. The story became more popular back in the mid 90’s when author Jon Krakauer wrote a short article about McCandless and then felt that he hadn’t done the story enough justice so he wrote the book “Into the Wild”. In doing his research for the book, Krakauer meticulously detailed all of the events of McCandless’ last days, interviewing and talking to as many folks who had touched his life in the process. It was this kind of dedication on both Penn and Krakauer’s parts that made “Into the Wild” what it is and what it became.
Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch) was always a bit of a loner. Highly intelligent and with the ego to boot, he was an honors graduate of Emory University in Atlanta, Ga. McCandless was never one for material possessions and perhaps it was this that made him refuse a new car from his father (William Hurt) or donate all of his money to charity and take off across the country. Christopher didn’t have a bad home life, his father was a very successful scientist and they lives the good life on the outskirts of Washington D.C. His sister, Carnie (Jena Malone) was probably the closest person to him in his life, but even she wasn’t notified when Chris took off on his excursion. Christopher did what a lot of us really want to do shun it all and just hit the road and take whatever life throws at us. Most of us don’t do that, however, as we’ve families, jobs and bills to pay. This didn’t slow Chris down and while it ultimately cost him his life, he might have lived more in his twenty some years than most of us ever will.
“Into the Wild” follows all of Chris’ travels and the people he encounters along the way. There’s the hippie couple that gives him a ride, the farmer (Vince Vaughn) in South Dakota who gives him employment time and again and of course Ron Franz (Hal Holbrook), the elderly man who has lost the only family he had, who wants to adopt Christopher as a surrogate grandson. There are others, of course, and as Christopher goes in and out of their lives, it’s amazing to see how profoundly he affected them by his intermittent passings. “Into the Wild” is a character study in its most pure form and what’s more is that the entire story is true. Some names have been changed, but they’d also been changed in the book as a show of respect for the McCandless family. For those that haven’t heard of Emile Hirsch, you will. I saw something that I liked in last year’s “Alpha Dog” and he’s the star of the impending “Speed Racer”, so big things will happen to this burgeoning young actor. While not everyone will agree with what Christopher McCandless did with his life, it’s hard to doubt that he lived life to its fullest and got more out of nothing than most of us ever will.
Video: How does it look?
The battle between HD DVD and Blu-ray has finally hit me personally. After reading the book last fall, I was torn between going to the theater to see this film or wait until it showed up on HD DVD so I could enjoy the beautiful cinematography in the comfort of my living room. As it turns out, HD DVD is pretty much dead and Paramount informed me that their last HD DVD would be “Beowulf”. Great. So I had to watch “Into the Wild” on standard DVD and while that’s not a terrible thing, it’s a step back when HD video is more and more becoming the norm. As I mentioned before, the cinematography is simply amazing, showcasing some of the most beautiful and rugged areas that our country has to offer. The 2.40:1 anamorphic image is wide enough to give us the true sense that we’re as lost as McCandless is. I will say that I did notice a bit of softness attributed to the picture, but most likely I’m used to the razor sharp bit of detail that is HD DVD or Blu-ray. Flesh tones seem warm and natural and the transfer holds up surprisingly well over the two and a half hour plus running time.
Audio: How does it sound?
In the featurettes, there’s a segment on how the sound was mixed and that most of it was pure and natural atmospheric sound that was used. While I can’t say this is the best soundtrack I’ve ever listened to, it wasn’t supposed to be. Eddie Vedder (lead singer of Pearl Jam) provides some very moving ballads that synchronize nearly perfectly with the movie. Though there are intermittent bursts of action here and there, the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix sounds a bit lacking at times, but I kept telling myself that this movie wasn’t all about the audio. This is literal proof that “less is more” and it works like a charm here.
Supplements: What are the extras?
Paramount has released this movie as a “Two Disc Special Edition” but I’ve got to tell you that there’s nothing really “Special” about this edition. The first disc contains the full 148 minute movie and nothing else. As engrossed as Penn was in the making of the movie, I’d have loved to hear his comments on the film but alas, nothing. The second disc contains the supplements which contain two featurettes and a trailer. These featurettes are interesting and focus entirely on the casting of the movie and the locations, but don’t offer a whole lot in terms of actual substance. The original theatrical trailer is shown in anamorphic widescreen as well.