Apocalypse Now has always been a standard-bearer in home video presentation. It is a film that just always looked and sounded great and was designed to show off that fact; be it on VHS, laserdisc or DVD, this film always showed the limits of the technology to best advantage at the date of its production, so its arrival on Blu-ray comes with quite a bit of expectation. It's not that the disc doesn't disappoint, this is Apocalypse Now, a film that by nature demands a presentation that exceeds expectation. And the presentation does. It's phenomenal, everything that it should be and more. It is visual and sonic perfection.
No, the rub is that while Apocalypse Now is a film about spectacle, it is also a very intimate film. I've seen it at home, I've seen it in a theater, and it had always been a toss-up to me which was the superior experience because while the Techicolor dye 35 millimeter prints of the film and thunderous sound of the theater was overwhelming in the best cinematic way imaginable, the introspective nature of the film lends itself to be viewed at home. The Blu-ray format offers the first time that a home theater presentation could ever hope to approach a theatrical presentation and properly reflect the true scope of the film (pun intended, see below), and the potency of the film is perhaps at its peak. It feels very much like, as I stated on Tuesday, "The Blu-ray format was invented for Apocalypse Now."
My preference is for the original 1979 version over the 2000 Apocalypse Now Redux cut, but there are unquestionably interesting sequences in the Redux version, but it takes a film whose narrative was always episodic and elliptical and makes it dramatically unweildy. However, Coppola had never intended one version of the film to supplant the other (which is why each version has a different title), and the film is available on Blu-ray in both the original 1979 and the 2000 Redux cut through seamless branching; it is nice to have the option to watch either (and on a single platter).
The big news about the transfer is that it is the first time in the home video history of Apocalypse Now that it is presented in its original Technovision anamorphic aspect ratio. All previous widescreen video presentations were at Vittorio Storraro's 2:1 "golden ratio," which was ostensibly a replication of the 70 millimeter prints (which actually would have been a somewhat wider 2.2:1). While a decent presentation, there were a few moments where one can see blatant panning and scanning (Willard and Chief's [Albert Hall] confrontation springs to mind), even moments that were scanned slightly differently between the two laserdisc and three DVD transfers. It may not sound like much, but the 2.35:1 framing is much, much more balanced. Several sequences reveal a visual symmetry to them that wasn't apparent with even the relatively minimal cropping of the earlier transfers. Niel S. Bulk pointed out to me a rainbow in one of the helicopter shots that was just not apparent with more than half of it missing; many little things like that, but all adding further poetry to what was already a kaleidescope of terrible beauty.
One of the most interesting things about Apocalypse Now is that, as fascinating as the film itself is, so too was the odyssey the Coppola and his crew experienced whilst making it, as memorably chronicled in Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper's marshalling of footage shot by Eleanor Coppola in Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse, which itself has been included on disc three along with commentary by the Coppolas. But while it has become de riguer today, it was unusual at the time for a film to chronicle its own development to the extent that Apocalypse Now had been. This means that the special features are not only comprehensive, but also go way beyond the scope of Hickenlooper's documentary and yet remain consistently interesting. Many of them focus on the film's trail-blazing sound design as well as the rocky history of the casting and production. The creation of the score is gotten into in some detail as well, with some archival interviews with Shirley Walker who was a central figure in the music conforming process. Two of the most interesting features are the interviews Coppola conducts, one with John Milius and the other with Martin Sheen, which offer some very interesting perspectives on the film.
If it were any lesser of a film, all of this hoopla would be a bit much, but Apocalypse Now stands alone as a unique work of its own. It is at once many genres — a war film, a road movie, a psychedelic trip, an epic, a psychological thriller, a surreal nightmare — and none. It is one of the most ambitious films in history, perhaps all the more impressive because it managed to accomplish such lofty goals despite being hobbled by a chaotic and prolongled production. So many elements of the film that seem now to be so much an inalienable part of its architecture, including the Michael Herr voice-over and the opening shot, came up surprisingly late in the game, but were dovetailed cleanly into the style of the film.
While the final act of the film is often criticized for how disjointed it seems, but to me that has always seemed to me to be one of the film's greatest strengths. The further up the river Willard goes, the deeper in to the subconscious he travels, and when he confronts Kurtz (Marlon Brando), he is also coming face-to-face with the source of the madness that is war itself (this is reflected in the transition from Francis and Carmine Coppola's synthesized score to Mickey Hart's percussion tracks toward the film's conclusion), taking Joseph Conrad's titular "Hearts of Darkness" to its most animistic extreme. Where Willard finds Kurtz is not a place of logic, sanity or even linear thought, and for the film to have had a more conventional resolution would have betrayed the promise of everything up until that moment.
Kurtz explains to Willard the need to subjugate any compassion in pursuit of victory; the difference between him and Kilgore (Robert Duvall) is that Kurtz has thrown off the veneer of civilization and has accepted what a monstrous creature the human beast is capable of being, what he is capable of being. Willard's final decision in the film reflects not only his realization that Kurtz's contempt for the hypocrisy of the cutlural whitewashing of brutality, but also because he sees that Kurtz is the end result of his own reasoning until that moment (including his actions on the sampan). Willard's journey puts him in a PBR with people who not only represent the face of the American military in Vietnam, but also aspects of Willard that he must shed in order to confront Kurtz. Clean (Laurence Fishburn, then still credited as "Larry") is any remaining sense idealism, the Chief is the superego (the structure for society) and Chef (Frederic Forrest) is the last bit of compassion. Unlike Colby (Scott Glenn) Willard does not ever completely sever from the world which is externalized by Lance (Sam Bottoms), which is why he does not take Kurtz's place at the end of the film.
"Because there's a conflict in every human heart, between the rational and irrational, between good and evil. And good does not always triumph. Sometimes, the dark side overcomes what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature."THE BOTTOM LINE:
If already you've seen Apocalypse Now a thousand times but want to see it again for the first time, watch it on Blu-ray.