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Feature


Roman General Maximus Decimus Meridius (Russell Crowe) has just led the Roman Army to victory against Germanic barbarians, ending a prolonged war, and earning the esteem of elderly Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris). Recognizing Maximus’ leadership qualities, and recognizing moral shortcomings in his own son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), Aurelius chooses Maximus as the heir to his throne. Disappointed in his father’s disapproval, Commodus murders Aurelius, and claims the throne for himself. When Maximus refuses to swear allegiance, Commodus orders him and his family executed. Maximus is able to save himself, but unable to save his family, and in a twist of fate is found dying by slave traders and sold to Antonius Proximo (Oliver Reed). Proximo recognizes Maximus’ raw talent and begins to craft him into a powerful gladiator. Though initially too distraught by the death of his family to fight, Maximus quickly changes his tune when he realizes a career as a gladiator could lead him back to Rome, and a chance for revenge.

Gladiator: Sapphire Collection
Speaking from an entirely historical sense of film achievement Ridley Scott’s Gladiator is an important work, despite major plotting issues, and a loose sense of historical accuracy. The most obvious direct influence was the post-release major studio interest in big budget, period-type films, which lead to the production of Troy, King Arthur, Scott’s own Kingdom of Heaven, and most importantly, The Lord of the Rings. Besides this superficial influence Scott’s direction also had a major stylistic influence. Along with Saving Private Ryan it has arguably defined the modern war genre ( LOTR served to somewhat re-define it, but still utilized the basic tools set forth by these two films, along with the lessons learned by Kubrick, DeMille, etc). More specifically, Scott’s over-edited battle bits looked a little overwhelming at the time, but their quick cuts, shaking camera, shutter speed augmentation, and speed ramping are all commonplace now. Though they’d made plenty of previous appearances in high profile motion pictures, Gladiator also served to introduce us to the talents of Russell Crowe and Joaquin Phoenix to the mass of the masses. Even more important it severed to re-introduce Scott to an audience that largely forgot him. Scott’s post Blade Runner work was arguably overlooked as that of a director for hire alone. He was nominated for Thelma and Louise, but that film’s pop culture success owed more to its plot and actors than Scott’s commercial inspired direction. Following Gladiator, despite being in his 60s, Scott re-discovered himself, and his subsequent work has always been advertised with his name front and centre.

Gladiator is separated from all the other entertainment for the masses disguised as ‘important’ period filmmaking thanks to Scott’s occasionally ridiculous artistic streak. The production is filled with so many faux-poetic details and over-stylized camera tricks that the lack of historical accuracy is rendered moot. The film is a visceral, broad stroke music video look at history, featuring larger than life, rock star performances. It is not, ironically enough, an Oscar-baiting, understated, self-important monstrosity. I personally see the final product as having more in common with Julie Taymore’s over-the-top Titus than Gibson’s hyper-realistic Braveheart, or Scott’s follow-up epic Kingdom of Heaven. This is why Gladiator has lasting power, and likely will keep living as popular even as its specified look grows more dated. The film’s entertainment over ‘importance’ aspect (which I’m possibly wrongly assuming was the point of the exercise) also helps insure the mammoth run-time isn’t much of a problem (though unlike the Lord of the Rings films, I do personally prefer the shorter theatrical cut in this case). The stringent three act structure is the oldest fashioned aspect of the whole thing, which was ironically the basis for a lot of the film’s early advertising (‘A general who became a slave. A slave who became a gladiator. A gladiator who defied an emperor.’), besides this narrative base rooted in classic storytelling, Gladiator is a modern film that practically defines the first year of the new millennium.

Gladiator: Sapphire Collection

Video


Perhaps my expectations are beyond realistic, but I’m pretty disappointed by Gladiator in 1080p video. The film’s original DVD release was so popular it practically single-handedly brought the format into its own, and even that release looks pretty good when played through an upscaling player. I won’t go as far as to accuse this new Blu-ray transfer of being a simple upscaling of that SD transfer, but such an accusation wouldn’t be entirely unfounded either. The first act Germania scenes fair the worst. The blue tinting looks wonderfully clean and pure, clear even of heavy grain (which would be expected considering the high contrast production), but details are less than effective, and full of offending white edge-enhancement. These scenes are some of the transfer’s most successful because of their darkness, which masks some of the edge-enhancement and lack of detail. Close-ups are always sharp and impressive throughout the print, but anything wide is pretty damn disappointing, especially when we get out of the snow-caked darkness of Germania.

Gladiator: Sapphire Collection
It’s give and take through the rest of the transfer, from gorgeous close-ups, to fluffy long shots. The North African scenes are clean and bright, and the Roman scenes are deep and dark, but things never find a balance. This mix of issues and lack of consistency also flattens the overall transfer, which is a big problem considering the overwhelming beauty of Scott’s compositions. Gladiator is nothing if not an easy to look at motion picture. The rich colours (check out those reds during Maximus’ first trip to the arena) and overall brightness makes the upgrade worth it for fans with sets bigger than say, 32 inches, and I don’t have any major complaints concerning compression noise or artefacts, but anyone expecting perfection is going to be disappointed.

Audio


The video quality is far from reference material, but nobody dropped the ball on this rather massive DTS-HD Master Audio track. The whole thing is pretty incredible, but there are a few particularly impresses moments, most of which involve a lot of blood. The opening battle is an obvious example, featuring roaring, flying fireballs, and zipping arrows, but for my money it’s the coliseum gladiator battles that impress the most. The trumping gallop of horses rocks the LFE, while the clang of metal on metal, and the punch of metal on flesh crush the front channels. Directional effects, such as flying arrows, are accurate and intense, while the rear channels are constantly brimming with the roar of the crowd (which of course roars a little louder during some of the gorier shots), giving the effective illusion of watching the film in an actual Roman audience. The dialogue (or growling tigers) isn’t muffled by the action or music, but doesn’t overwhelm either.

Gladiator: Sapphire Collection
The music mix is actually a little lower overall than I’d been expecting, but assumption could very well have something to do with the extremely high volume of Hans Zimmerman’s similar score for the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Had Zimmerman outgrown Gladiator this particular score might have stood as his crowning achievement, but the composer has been consistently re-composing the same score over and over again throughout the past nine years. It is a great score, taking cues from classic adventure films and mixing them with the beautiful voice of Lisa Gerrard, but the sound has been so overused now it doesn’t carry the same rousing power it once did. Still it’s hard not to hear that hero’s theme in the back of your head, and it’s hard not to swing your fist while hearing it.

Extras


Extras start with Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe’s Extended Edition DVD commentary. Despite his continued status as a Hollywood asshole, Crowe is positively charming and personable, and the interplay is both entertaining and informative. The technical aspects of the commentary that hold the most interest are those that pertain to the constant re-writing of the script during production. The talk of Joaquin Phoenix’s on-set behaviour early on in the track is probably the most intriguing of the tracks less technical bits, but all the personal little actor’s stories Crowe recalls are good listens. Scott’s solo tracks are always quite good and consistent (the original DVD release of Gladiator had one, which is also available here to watch during the theatrical cut), but when coupled with a good talker like Crowe his tracks are almost magical. I regret not sitting through this particular commentary earlier.

Gladiator: Sapphire Collection
The ‘Scrolls of Knowledge’ is a customizable in-film experience. The set up is a little confusing, and works hand in hand with the ‘Visions from Elysium’ option. Two ‘scrolls’ will appear on screen. On the left hand of the screen is a scroll marked history, which periodically pops-up new, click and watch options. When clicked we are taken to a series of brief featurettes, most (all?) of which were part of the old DVD release (as the SD video makes very clear). EDIT: I am wrong in this assumption, please see the comments section for a correction that was emailed to me. On the right hand side is a scroll marked production. This won’t lead you to a featurette, but mark the featurettes you want to watch on the second disc under the ‘Visions of Elysium’ menu. This is pointless because you can choose them on the second disc menu as well. The problem with the set up, besides a little confusion, is that the bottom third of the screen is taken up with factoids and the option menu, making it hard to honestly watch the film while engaging the option. The factoids are a bit moot if you’re planning on watching all the featurettes, or if you’re listening to the commentary. This option is available for both the theatrical and extended versions of the film.

Disc two starts with the aforementioned ‘Visions from Elysium’ featurette collection. There are a lot of them, totally hours, and all of them are presented in standard definition because they were available on previous DVD releases. EDIT: Again, I am wrong. There are new extras mixed into the featurettes, see the comments section. They include (but are not limited to) stories concerning the alternate opening titles, getting the green light, historical accuracy, costume and production design, storyboards, visual effects, locations, cinematography, the difficulty of scale, screenwriting, getting into character, scoring, acting, casting, weapons training, release, and winning Academy Awards. Most of this stuff is better served as a general behind the scenes documentary instead of a million tiny pieces (save the galleries), or PiP during the movie (they’re SD, they could’ve fit on the first disc, and some include multiple angles) but the information is still good, and there aren’t really any stones left unturned.

Gladiator: Sapphire Collection
‘Strength and Honor: Creating the World of Gladiator’ (195:00, SD) is a seven part documentary with its own optional enhanced viewing mode. Unfortunately this featurette, along with it’s enhanced viewing bits, is entirely unneeded assuming you’ve watched all the ‘Visions of Elysium’ stuff, because it makes up the bloody collection. Honestly, these extras don’t make any sense. Why have the ‘Visions of Elysium’ option if it isn’t a PiP or branching option? Why include the footage un-edited mode on the same disc? Why leave it in standard definition? Don’t get me wrong, it’s all good stuff, but what an utter waste of disc space.

The rest of the extras are also available with ‘Visions of Elysium’. Under ‘Image and Design’ are image galleries (Production Design, Storyboards, Costume Design, Photo Galleries), a ‘Production Design Primer’ (09:30, SD), a ‘Storyboard Demonstration’ (13:30, SD), three multi-angle storyboard comparisons, and a ‘Weapons Primer’ (05:00, SD) featurette. Under ‘Abandoned and Deleted Scenes’ is the alternate title design, storyboards and outtakes for Maximus’ premonitions (with optional Scott commentary), storyboards and digital tests for a Rhino fight (with optional Sylvain Despretz commentary), a deleted scene entitled ‘Choose Your Weapon’, and a ‘Treasure Chest’ of unused outtakes. Things are completed with ‘The Aurelian Archives’, a collection of the extras found on the original DVD release, and stuff from the EE they couldn’t find somewhere else to place, including ‘The Making of Gladiator’ (25:00, SD), ‘Gladiator Games: The Roman Bloodsport’ (50:00, SD), ‘Hans Zimmerman: Scoring Gladiator’ (20:40, SD), ‘An Evening with Russell Crowe’ ( NEW, 27:00, SD), ‘Between Takes with Russell Crowe’ ( NEW, 08:00, SD), ‘My Gladiator Journey by Spencer Treat Clark’ (text based), effects explorations (24:00, SD), a teaser (HD), a trailer (HD), and a whole grip of TV spots.

Gladiator: Sapphire Collection

Overall


Though probably not worthy of an Academy Award for Best Picture (the 2000 award probably should’ve gone to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Traffic, Requiem for a Dream, or Almost Famous), Gladiator is a pretty important stepping stone in modern movie history. Personally speaking the film’s value is almost entirely visual, with the robust performances being the cherry on the sundae. Despite arguably spotty overall quality, I haven’t found any of Ridley Scott's subsequent films boring to look at (even if his less talented little brother has tried to co-opt the look into numbing repetition). I find I still enjoy the film, but I do not recommend this new Shapphire Series Blu-ray. The picture quality is diminished even with low standards in tact, and the extras are poorly conceived, and largely already available on the extended edition DVD release. Arguably the DVD’s extras were about as complete as one could ever want, but repackaging them throughout the disc is ridiculous. We’re talking a massive disappointment here. I regret that my review copy arrived after release, and that I did not have a chance to warn fans.

* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray release.


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