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Transsiberian (2008)

First Look Studios
Blu-ray Disc Released: 11/4/2008

All Ratings out of
Video: 1/2

Review by Mike Long, Posted on 11/8/2008

Today, it's nearly impossible to go into a movie without any expectations. We are bombarded by trailers, commercials and pop-up ads for movies. DVD box art gives us cues about the movie. This would only be possible if you were asked to watch a brand-new movie and weren't even given the title. Yes, even the name of a film can conjure certain images and make one anticipate what lies ahead. Going into Transsiberian, I already had several pre-conceived notions. I had seen a trailer and I'm somewhat familiar with the work of Director Brad Anderson. The trailer didn't interested me at all, but the cast was promising and I enjoyed Anderson's last film. I'm here to report that Transsiberian is the sort of film which can break down expectations and lead to a surprising experience.

As Transsiberian opens, we meet Roy (Woody Harrelson) and Jessie (Emily Mortimer), a married couple who have been doing missionary work in China. They have decided to take the Trans-Siberian railroad to Moscow in order to return to the U.S. Roy is a train enthusiast and he's very excited about the trip. Once on-board the train, they meet another traveling couple, Carlos (Eduardo Noriega) and Abby (Kate Mara). Carlos is open and friendly, but Abby is withdrawn. The ever-outgoing Roy invites the pair to share the compartment with Jessie and himself. Jessie is wary of this, especially since she finds herself attracted to Carlos. When she finally gets Abby to open up, Jessie begins to suspect something odd about the other couple. As the train travels through the frozen wasteland, secrets will be revealed and lives will be changed.

With Transsiberian, Writer/Director Brad Anderson and his co-writer Will Conroy are able to take several cliched ideas and put a new twist on them. You don't have to be an expert in cinema history to know that something bad is eventually going to happen when Roy and Jessie meet Carlos and Abby. While the movie is sly in many ways, Anderson doesn't hesitate to make Carlos and Abby dark and mysterious. Throughout the first and second acts, events began to unfold which tell us that these characters are on a collision-course with danger. Then, around the 54-minute mark, something happens which is shocking and unpredictable. This event takes the film in a new direction and it tells the audience that anything can happen. One can't accuse Anderson of cheating, because we know something was going to happen, and it did...just not like we thought. There is another good twist in the final act. It's not as shocking, but it definitely works.

So, not only has Anderson livened up the old "strangers on a train" scenario, he's brought real fear to the "stranger in a strange land" idea. Roy seems to be very comfortable traveling through Siberia, but Jessie is not, and every few minutes, something happens to increase her unease. She doesn't speak Russian and no one on the train seems to speak English. Once things go wrong, she can't get anyone to help her. There is a sense of both apathy and lawlessness everywhere. This is the film which Hostel wanted to be. But, while Eli Roth had to go over-the-top and present gory, sensational murders, Anderson keeps everything real, and that no one will care if Jessie and Roy live or die is very palpable.

My one complaint about Transsiberian is the pacing. It takes a long time for the story to truly begin, and as noted above, it's not until that event at the 54-minute mark that the movie seems to find its own voice. One can assume that Anderson was both trying to lull the viewer into a false sense of security and give them the idea that they'd seen this film before, but the result is a sense of boredom which is almost irrevocable. The second hour is much better than the first, but even during the last act, things get a bit slow at times. And while the snowy landscape is gorgeous, there are simply too many establishing shots here.

Transsiberian isn't quite a masterpiece, but Anderson must be commended for taking some very, very stale ideas and making them seem surprising and fresh. With this film and The Machinist, Anderson is proving himself to be a director who can take Hitchcock-like material and put a new spin on it.

Transsiberian chug-chugs onto Blu-ray Disc courtesy of First Look Studios. The film has been letterboxed at 2.35:1 and the Disc offers a 1080p HD VC-1 transfer which runs at an average of 24 Mbps. The image looks very good, as it's quite sharp and clear. If nothing else, snow backdrops usually reveal a lot of grain, but we don't get any here. There are no defects from the source material either. These same landscape shots have a great amount of depth, and the image reveals a nice amount of detail as well. Colors look fine, and the image is never overly dark or bright. Medium shots have a nice 3-D effect. The Disc contains a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track which runs at 48 kHz and a constant 640 kbps. This track provides clear dialogue and sound effects. Why pair the great HD visuals with DVD sound? Especially in a film with a train! As it stands, we get some nice stereo effects and the train does give us good bass effects, but this could have been so much more.

The Transsiberian Blu-ray Disc contains only one extra. The "Making of Featurette" (34 minutes) contains comments from Director Brad Anderson where he describes the personal inspiration for the film. From there, we get a mixture of comments from the cast and fillmakers intercut with on-set footage. We hear about shooting in both the cold conditions and on the cramped train set, as well as the experience of makign a film set in a foreign country. They also discuss the story and the characters, and we see the construction of the sets.

Review Copyright 2008 by Mike Long