Beasts of No Nation
The nightmare of war is seen through the eyes of one of its most tragic casualties—a child soldier—in this harrowing vision of innocence lost from Cary Joji Fukunaga. Based on the acclaimed novel by Uzodinma Iweala, Beasts of No Nation unfolds in an unnamed, civil-war-torn West African country, where the young Agu (Abraham Attah, in a haunting debut performance) witnesses carnage in his village before falling captive to a band of rebel soldiers led by a ruthless commander (an explosive Idris Elba), who molds the boy into a hardened killer. Fukunaga’s relentlessly roving camera work and stunning visuals—realism so intensely visceral it borders on the surreal—immerse the viewer in a world of unimaginable horror without ever losing sight of the powerful human story at its center.
The Criterion Collection brings Cary Joji Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation to Blu-ray on a dual-layer disc in its original aspect ratio of 2.39:1 with a 1080p/24hz high-definition encode. The film was photographed and completed digitally, and Criterion appears to be using a master supplied to them by Netflix.
Fukunaga mentions throughout the disc’s included features how he had originally envisioned shooting Beast of No Nation on 35mm film but budget restrictions ended up pushing him to shoot digitally. He wanted a film look and dreaded how it would come out, but he was assured by his colorist that they could still pull off a film look during post-production. This does hold mostly true during the film’s brighter sequences, which have a nice photographic quality to them, yet low-lit scenes and scenes that take place at night can be a little problematic. This could come down to the original photography, Netflix’s supplied master, Criterion’s encoding, or all three to varying degrees.
Low-lit scenes can have a noisy look, with blocky patterns jumping about in places, not an uncommon artifact for digital photography, which can have trouble with low light. This could also be leading to issues with black levels in low-lit sequences, the blacks appearing milky during these darker shots, causing weak shadows and a flattened image. Netflix’s own presentation shows the same thing, though, so I doubt it’s any of Criterion’s doing. Still, more prominent artifacts show up, macroblocking and banding being the worst offenders. These latter artifacts are at their worst during a nighttime action sequence close to the end, where helicopters come in and start firebombing. The light from an explosion illuminates the area and there are clear banding issues in several shots. Criterion’s encodes as of late have had issues with macroblocking and banding, but I don’t think it’s their fault in this case: Netflix’s own presentation on their streaming service shows the same artifacts. Granted, I can’t say how much of that has to do with streaming technology and my internet’s bandwidth, but playing the scene over and over again on the streaming service consistently showed the same artifacts that are similar to what's on Criterion's disc, so I'll gladly put it more on the original photography and/or Netflix’s master.
Getting past all of that the rest of the film looks great. The daytime sequences are bright and sharp, details looking excellent. Colours lean warmer (as they do on Netflix’s presentation) but are nicely saturated, the dirt showing off a nice red hue. Blues and greens also come off looking brilliant, and a scene where our young protagonist starts tripping out we get a wide array of colours from his point-of-view. Black levels look a bit stronger during these sequences, though rarely ever look a pure black. Artifacts don’t appear to pop up during these moments.
In all, the presentation is fine, probably about what Netflix itself delivers, but it looks as though the original photography and Netflix’s master are limited.
The film comes with a DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround presentation. Unlike other Netflix releases from Criterion this one doesn’t appear to have a descriptive-audio option, though the film does on Netflix's service. The list of features incorrectly list it as an option.
The film has plenty of action sequences and the 5.1 mix does an exceptional job with them. Gunfire, explosions, yelling and more move nicely between the speakers with a natural flow. Compared to Netflix’s own Dolby Digital 5.1 presentation (which is the option I have through my 4K FireTV stick) it is noticeably more dynamic, range sounding significantly wider with the action sounding louder. Dialogue is clear and distinct, and Dan Romer’s score moves beautifully around the environment. The lower frequency is used effectively as well, with a few nice "booms" but it’s never overpowering. It’s a sharp sounding mix.
The supplements on most of Criterion’s Netflix have been a little hit-and-miss, most of the material feeling to have been produced and/or filmed by Netflix and then given to Criterion, sometimes leading to more of a “public relations” feel. For this edition, Criterion has produced and created all of the material for it, and it comes off a bit better because of it.
First is a new audio commentary featuring Fukunaga and first assistant director Jon Mallard. As expected, it’s an incredibly technical track, covering the very lengthy production and the obstacles that came up during every step of the way. This all leads to details about the equipment used (like a Steadicam rig), how certain effects and shots were done, and discussion around the enormous amount of research Fukunaga had done prior. Some of this information gets repeated in other features on the disc, but we get a number of exclusive stories around shooting in Ghana, including ones around how the government became a bit anxious when the film crew was putting extras, made up of locals, through military training so that they'd look believable on film. It’s a good track and, impressively, there isn’t any dead space.
The rest of the features are made up from new interviews. There’s a rather fascinating 20-minute solo interview around the film’s costumes featuring designer Jenny Eagan explaining the influences behind the costumes and the difficulties that came with working in the remote areas they filmed in. Fukunaga also appears in a new 21-minute talk with cultural commentator Franklin Leonard, where the filmmaker covers some of his earlier work, which leads to a discussion around the importance of representation and the research and respect that needs to go into making films around cultures not one’s own.
Criterion has also put together a lengthy 61-minute making-of documentary called Passion Project, featuring interviews with Fukunaga (looking to be taken from the same interview with Leonard), producers Amy Kaufman, Daniela Taplin Lundberg and Riva Marker, author Uzodinma Iweala, and actors Idris Elba and Abraham Attah. Despite being a talking-heads feature with some behind-the-scenes footage it manages to stay engaging as it commendably covers the film’s production without repeating all that much of what was discussed in the commentary. Fukunaga talks a bit more extensively about the excessive research he had put into the story, which leads to him discovering Iweala’s novel, Beasts of No Nation. This then nicely segues to the author talking about his novel and individual research before talking about the novel’s narrative structure compared to the film’s (the film also changes the ending rather drastically). There is more discussion around finding the funding for the film (which started after Fukunaga had finished his adaptation of Jane Eyre), leading to some strange requests from possible investors, like casting Eddie Murphy in the film. Getting Attah to participate in this is also a big plus, the young star of the film recalling the experience, which he saw more as playing, and Elba praises his young co-star’s performance, admiring how easily he was able to improvise with him. In the end it’s your standard making-of but the story behind the film proves to be a fascinating one.
The disc then closes with one trailer for the film, and the included insert features a nice essay on the film by critic Robert Daniels. What’s missing, and what I would have expected, is maybe more around the film’s impact in changing the landscape when it comes to theatrical releases and streaming, the film being the first to be released in theaters and on Netflix’s streaming service at the same time. Daniels touches on this in his essay and Fukunaga talks about it with Leonard in his interview, where he admits it wasn’t exactly what he wanted but was sold on the idea that more people would potentially see it, yet I almost would have expected maybe a little more around the impact of Netflix going this route, which had its share of criticisms at the time. Disappointingly, this is also the first Netflix title not to have any sort of elaborate packaging: the film comes in one of Criterion’s standard Scanavo cases with a simple fold-out insert.
Despite not being as flashy as some of the other Netflix titles I still felt, in the end, the content was good. The features do an impressive job detailing the film’s production and its subject matter, and all of it was well worth working through.
The video presentation is about on par with what you’ll get streaming the film off of Netflix, but the improved audio (at least based on what I streamed) and engaging supplements may make this one worth picking up if you’re an admirer of the film.