Fight Club: Special Edition Lands on its Feet

Brad Pitt, Edward Norton, Helena Bonham Carter. Directed by David Fincher. Aspect ratio: 2.40:1 (anamorphic). Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround 2.0 (English, French), THX-certified. 139 minutes (film). 1999. Fox Home Entertainment 200035. R. $34.98.

Some films defy description. When Fight Club opened in theaters, I avoided it like the plague. The concept—an underground club whose members meet for the purpose of beating each other to a pulp—just did not appeal to me. "That'll have 'em rolling in the aisles," I thought. But while the film is quite violent in spots, the actual fighting fills only about 10 minutes of its running time; it's the genuinely odd, grunge-celebrating script that makes it seem like a great deal more. Much of the violence is played out in the viewer's mind, and in that respect, among others, the trailers were misleading.

For much of its length, in fact, Fight Club is a very dark comedy. Jack, an insomniac insurance investigator (the film is intentionally vague about his real name), meets soap salesman, free spirit, and genuine weirdo Tyler Durden. They hit it off, though you can't imagine more extreme opposites. When Jack's apartment blows up (this isn't the first sign that we're in for one strange ride), he moves in with Tyler, who's squatting in the seediest abandoned house imaginable. Not long after that, Tyler starts Fight Club. Jack is initially put off by the idea, but soon becomes an even bigger booster of the club than Tyler. Along the way, Marla Singer, a free spirit whom Jack met at the support groups (testicular cancer, parasites, etc.) he once voyeuristically frequented as a cure for insomnia, starts spending a lot of nights with Tyler. How it all turns out I won't reveal, but Fight Club rarely takes the direction you expect.

The film is based on a novel by Chuck Palahniuk; the screenplay is credited to Palahniuk and Jim Uhls. Whether the writers intended the story to be a primal celebration of violence, a parable about masculine frustration in the modern consumerist world, or something else, is unclear.

Everyone will come away from Fight Club with his or her own interpretation; I saw it simply as something very different from the usual six or so basic plots that are continually recycled into movie scripts. I didn't expect to like it, but I did. It kept surprising me. Director David Fincher is either one very sick puppy or the world's biggest fan of grunge-cinema. (Fight Club is as dark as his Seven, though less gruesome).

There's much more to savor here than just the movie—enough, in fact, to spill over onto a second disc. There are six production clips, each with multiple angles and audio tracks (a first, in my experience), nine behind-the-scenes visual-effects vignettes, the original storyboards, seven deleted scenes, three trailers, 17 TV advertising spots, and more. It will take you a good 15 hours to work your way through it all, including watching the film five times: once for the film itself, and once more for each of the four (!) separate commentary tracks. I still haven't gotten through all of it.

Technically, Fight Club is a first-rate release, and one of the best yet from Fox. The anamorphic video is just a hair short of premier quality; there are occasional scenes with visible edge enhancement. The film's overall dark look must have been a nightmare to transfer, but the technicians did a superb job: Shadow detail is excellent. The colors are slightly muted, as you might expect, and the color palette leans to green, much as in The Matrix. I didn't see Fight Club in the theater, so I don't know if it has a stylized, grainy look; given the subject matter and Fincher's past work, I suspect it does. There's little grain in the video transfer, however. (Video noise plays havoc with MPEG encoding, and is often filtered out for that reason.) But the dark look and the muted, slightly "off" colors are more than sufficient to convey the appropriate mood.

If the video is merely very good, the audio is astonishing: dynamic, crisp yet never overbright, full of unexpected surprises, and with an astonishing bass line that worked my subwoofer to within an inch of its life. I understand that Fight Club was also encoded for Surround EX, but you wouldn't know that from the packaging. I'm not yet set up to deal with that format, which uses one or two rear center speakers, so I can't comment on the result. But there's little left to be desired from a straight Dolby Digital playback of the soundtrack, which is an immediate contender for one of the best of the year.

The movie may not be your cuppa, but if you can get past the subject matter and the intense if sporadic violence, you may well find something to think about. But if you're absolutely certain about what it all means, you're one up on me.