The Movie (5/5)
The year is 2001. Christopher Nolan, hot off the success of his independent film Memento, which garnered two Academy Award nominations and moderate box office success, Nolan is called upon by the major studios to take up the reins and make a follow up. Rather than jumping straight into an ambitiously budgeted, high expectation blockbuster, he and his creative team play it safe. Rather than jump into the Hollywood studio system head first, they test the waters, tapping the critically acclaimed 1997 Norwegian film titled Insomnia as a source for their first big league outing. The resulting film, aptly titled Insomnia, is both a diligent and respectful remake and a pushing off point for the mainstream career of one of modern Hollywood’s favorite directors. Often overlooked by his fans and buried under the reputations of movies Nolan made before and after it, I felt examining Insomnia was the perfect place to start our race to Nolan’s newest blockbuster epic, Dunkirk.
Insomnia is the story of a murder investigation set in the small town of Nightmute, Alaska. Called in for help by the chief of police, two Los Angeles detectives, Will Dormer and Hap Eckhart arrive to help local police solve the case. Aided by local police detective Ellie Burr, they begin an extensive investigation, and while attempting to lure the suspect back to the scene of the crime, Dormer accidentally shoots and kills Eckhart. Suddenly Dormer’s world begins to collapse around him as he not only must solve the murder case, but also save himself and the accomplishments of his career from the potential devastation brought on by the death of his partner and the blackmail laid on him by the murderer himself.
Looking back nearly fifteen years after its original release, Nolan’s decision to helm the remake of this Norwegian crime drama seems like a natural choice. It’s setting in a small, atmospheric town in a remote area of Alaska allowed Nolan and his creative team to create a unique sense of scope and scale that he would later refine when approaching creating the distinct world of Gotham City. The characters, especially Detective Dormer, are good natured, but easily corrupted into doing terrible things to save themselves, and the film is rife with many themes that Nolan would explore in later movies, such as the effects of power on average men and a general distrust in authority.
Also, perhaps due in part to Nolan having little to do with writing the film beyond developing the screenplay, Insomnia feels like a much tighter movie than some of his later productions. It lacks the layers of exposition that have tainted his more recent films, and allows its plot to develop in a rather organic way. When Dormer, played by a surprisingly grim, desensitized, and nervous Al Pacino, accidentally shoots his partner from a distance during a foggy chase through a crime scene, the script doesn’t linger on explaining the implications. It trusts us to understand the consequences of the action, and then immediately moves into the next course of action. When Ellie, played a young Hillary Swank, begins her parallel investigation of Eckhart’s death and pushes Dormer into working with Walter Finch, played by the frighteningly sincere and unhinged Robin Williams, in order to try and save each other from the consequences of their own actions, it stands its ground and remains relentless in its pacing and sharp dialogue.
Besides its narrative strengths and great script, Insomnia shows off an early example of Nolan’s ability to coerce incredible performances out of otherwise aging, or stagnant actors and actresses. Pacino, leading into the early 2000s had basically been running on fumes, delivering competent performances that did nothing more than simply maintain the status quo. Here, he delivers a career highlight performance as a man who is slowly digested by his own guilt and the crippling insomnia that occurs as a result. He’s so convincing in his delivery that it’s tough not to sympathize with him, even as the cracks in his psyche begin to show. The real star of this show however, is Robin Williams, who shrugs off his family friendly armor to play Walter Finch, a broken man who, crippled by his own loneliness, made a deadly mistake that set off this entire chain of destructive dominoes. Playing against his type, he delivers an eerie, menacing, and a tad bit sad performance that is not only my favorite Williams appearance on screen, but one I hope will be looked back on years from now as one of the highlights of his long and illustrious career.
Insomnia was a safe, but strong choice to kick off Christopher Nolan’s career. It highlighted his ability to work well with experienced actors, and craft stories that are both intimate and engaging. It proved, with its box office success and nearly unanimous praise from critics and audiences alike that Nolan and his creative team were ready to move onto something bigger, something Warner Bros. was clearly more than ready to allow him. Memento was a brilliant start to build mainstream exposure for Nolan; Insomnia helped prove it wasn’t a fluke.
The Video (4/5)
Insomnia was shot on 4-perf 35mm film with Panavision anamorphic lenses. It was photochemically finished, and show in theaters with an aspect ratio of 2.35:1 on 35mm film prints. It was then scanned to create a digital master, which is presented here in 1080p resolution, in the original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 by Warner Bros.
Insomnia’s Blu-ray presentation is nearly 7 years old, and media technology has improved considerably since its original release, but not enough to discount a quality older presentation when I see one. Insomnia is a primarily overcast film, with a color scheme that pushes heavily into the blues and grays of the color spectrum. Even though its set in a town that never sees true nighttime, it is a dark film, and relies heavily on a decent amount of contrast to present detail and texture. Luckily, it delivers for the most part. Detail is strong, particularly in interior shots and close ups, allowing us to soak up as much of the photochemical detail that 1080p can muster. Unfortunately, shots register a bit softer and detail isn’t as strong in location shots, and grain sometimes takes on a very noisy, less natural appearance at random points throughout the film. It is for the most part, a quality presentation, but there’s absolutely room for improvement that a proper 4K master, or even 4K UHD Blu-ray release could bring to the table.
The Audio (4/5)
Insomnia was originally shown in theaters with a 5.1 surround sound presentation on 35mm film prints. That experience has been recreated here with a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio surround sound track.
Much of Insomnia’s biggest scenes are set against the quiet serenity of the Alaskan locales the story takes place in. As a result, much of the 5.1 sound space is utilized to create atmosphere and establish just how isolated these people are. Gun shots register with a nice oomph from the subwoofer, and the film’s score comes through quite nicely through the front speakers and surrounds. Dialogue is centered, as is typical of modern film productions. This track won’t take names, but it serves as an accurate representation of the way the film was meant to be heard.
Special Features/Packaging (3.5/5)
Released to home video by Warner Home Video, Insomnia has been packaged in a standard Blu-ray keepcase. The front artwork features a depiction of Pacino as Detective Dormer moving through the fog in an attempt to find the murderer, with a figure watching him in the distant background, with the title and “Academy Award Winners” banner placed over top. The back artwork is very much the same, with Robin Williams as Walter Finch in the foreground and Hillary Swank as Ellie Burr in the misty background. Between them is an advertising quote for the Blu-ray, a paragraph about the film, a list of special features, and theatrical credits as well as technical specifications for this release. A minimal package design, it does a good job of representing the visual style of one of the film’s most important moments quite well.
The extras included are as follows:
180: A Conversation with Christopher Nolan and Al Pacino – a 17 minute interview from the film’s DVD release. The two have a very casual discussion in which they discuss the pre production process of the film, the differences between theater and filmmaking, and how that impacts the overall process, as well as other topics.
Day for Night: The Making of Insomnia – an 8 minute DVD extra on how the film was made, and its various themes and ideas with lots of input from the cast and crew who worked on the film.
In the Fog – a 6 minute clip of a mix of pre production footage from location scouting, and principal photography from the rocky beach location. There is commentary for this footage from both Director of Photography Wally Pfister and Production Designer Nathan Crowley.
Additional Scene – a single excised scene, of a discussion between Detective Dormer and the character Rachel, who discuss loss and family together. Commentary is available for the single scene.
Theatrical Trailer – the film’s trailer, as seen in theaters during the time leading up to its 2002 release.
Commentaries – a number of scene specific commentaries from editor Dody Dorn, production designer Nathan Crowley, screenwriter Hillary Seitz, Hillary Swank, and a complete feature commentary from director Christopher Nolan in production order, rather than the final edited order of the film.
Eyes Wide Open – a 7 minute look at the effects of insomnia on normal people, and how studies and research played into the development of the film.
From the Evidence Room – a collection of stills from the production of the film.
All in all, there’s a sizeable amount of extras here, but nothing new to make it stand out from previous releases of the film. Oh well. There’s always a chance for the eventual 4K remastered release to have some interesting new stuff, right? Right? RIGHT?
Technical Specs (click for technical FAQs)
Region Coding: None
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 (English)
Dolby Digital 5.1 (French)
Dolby Digital 2.0 (Spanish)
English, French, and Spanish
Runtime: 118 minutes
In 2002 Insomnia was a promising start in the studio system for a popular independent filmmaker with one major success under his belt. In 2017, it stands as one of the tightest, most engaging character driven crime stories Christopher Nolan has crafted from behind the camera. It’s tensely constructed, and carried to great heights by two brilliant performances from two of Hollywood’s favorite stars. Combined with brilliant photography and editing, it could easily stand toe to toe with many of Nolan’s more popular works, and is more than worthy of reexamination today. Luckily, Warner Home Video has released it to Blu-ray with an aged, but still competent video transfer, excellent audio, and the complete set of extras it was released on DVD with. 7 years after its original release, I would still find myself giving this Blu-ray a recommendation, as the movie is such a quality piece of film making and is more than worth your time.