Anchor Bay // 2009 // 692 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Adam Arseneau (Retired) // October 25th, 2010
Some legends are written in blood.
(By naked people, apparently.)
Starz hits the ground sandy, bloody, and naked with Spartacus: Blood and Sand: The Complete First Season, an orgiastic display of hedonistic excess and violence. Is it entertaining? Sure. But why do I get the feeling that poor Kirk Douglas is shaking his head in disapproval?
A young Thracian warrior (Andy Whitfield, Gabriel) runs afoul of a Roman soldier and soon finds his world torn apart by the might of the Empire. Captured and sold into slavery, he lands in a gladiator camp, enduring cruel punishment and arduous training, all for the glory of dying a bloody death in the area. The Romans give him a new name: Spartacus.
As his influence and reputation in the arena grows, Spartacus finds himself beset from all angles by treachery, brutality and corruption. Refusing to capitulate to his fate, he fights and lives to return to the embrace of his wife, lost into slavery in the Roman Empire. The name of Spartacus soon rings out in the streets: the man, the fearless gladiator, the rebel...
A foul-mouthed, anachronistic romp through sex and violence, Spartacus: Blood and Sand goes right for the jugular and never lets up for a moment. It is shameful fun. You won't feel more cultured for having watched it, but there is an awful lot of good-looking people in this show who get all kinds of naked. There is that.
As sword-and-sandal dramas go, Spartacus: Blood and Sand is all visceral thrills. Naked girls, CGI blood, decapitations and disfigurements, sexual perversion; you name it, we get a metric ton of it. In fact, one quickly realizes this methodology served the writers' room very well. An errant plot hole, you say? Throw in a naked girl -- problem solved. Is there an anachronistic historical plot point making you blue? No worries, here comes Spartacus with a sword to eviscerate a whole bunch of people. It is a shameless but undeniably effective technique.
Have you seen the movie 300? So have the creators of Spartacus: Blood and Sand. Shot primary against green screen and with liberal doses of CGI effects, the show bears more than a passing resemblance to the comic-inspired historical bloodbath. Well, okay. More than a passing resemblance; some of the sequences are practically shot-for-shot copies. Every second is profoundly R-rated, with F-bombs, naked bodies (both genders), and blood. The blood! After slamming back this DVD set, when I close my eyes, all I see is crimson. Everywhere you look: beautiful specimens of men and women, oily and filthy and covered in blood and sweat and extremely naked. Hey, when in Rome, right?
Lead actor Andy Whitfield is perfection in the lead, a monumental specimen of testosterone unleashed on a green screen of carnage. He is commanding as Spartacus, a Thracian torn from his people and his wife, forced into the gladiatorial arena to fight for a greedy Roman. With any other lead in the role, it is unlikely Spartacus: Blood and Sand would grab audiences so. It is doubly tragic that Whitfield in real life is in poor health and will not return for Season Two. How the show rebounds in his absence remains to be seen. Lucy Lawless puts on her villainous robes, then takes them off and gets naked, playing the scheming wife of Batiatus, who weaves her own machinations alongside her husband. John Hannah plays the gladiator stable owner, an unscrupulous and ruthlessly ambitious snake of a fellow. The actor is clearly enjoying the hell out of the role, playing it with delicious vitriol and bile.
What the show lacks in tactful sophistication, it makes up for in sheer adrenaline. The show hits every episode with its engines at full roar, perpetually escalating its own tangled web of deception and violence. The first few episodes are a bit rough, as if the creators can't even believe their own fortune at getting away with such excess, but settles into a narrative rhythm. Believe it or not, there's a half-decent story here. After four episodes, I was committed to the characters far more than I had ever expected to be. By episode six, I was watching with white knuckles gripped on the couch. Like a boulder tumbling down a hill, Spartacus: Blood and Sand is an exercise in momentum, with each passing episode bringing stronger performance from its cast, better writing and the drawing close of an inexorable and bloody climax.
Presenting a show like this one DVD is a bit of a travesty, especially when there exists a very technically proficient Spartacus: Blood And Sand: The Complete First Season (Blu-Ray) edition, but if you lack the hardware, this DVD set does the job well. The image is stylized within an inch of its life, heavily saturated, digitally manipulated, and green screened to create a fantastic palate of...well, blood and sand, coincidentally. Yellows and reds are heavily dominant, detail and edging is sharp, black levels are deep. Oh, how I wish I had the Blu-Ray version.
Audio likewise is good; we get a Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround presentation with clear dialogue, booming bass response, a heavy and energetic orchestral score and strong atmospheric placement. The furious roar of the crowd, the swordplay all ring clear and true across all five channels. For a television show, the technical detail is impressive, and it comes through in the audio.
Extras are decent for a four-disc set. We get commentaries from cast and crew on select episodes, extended scenes, a behind-the-scenes featurette and a whole bunch of vignettes on various different themes ("Spartacus: Battle Royale," "Gladiator Boot Camp," "Grime and Punishment," "Andy Gets Plastered," "Legend Re-Imagined," "Oh, Those Randy Romans," "Shooting Green: The Shadow of Death").
The best advice is to avoid all comparisons to HBO's Rome, a better show in every measurable aspect except nakedness and violence. Appreciate the show on its own merits, and you'll enjoy the blistering twelve-episode run. Start comparing it to other like shows, or other historical films, and you notice the unfortunate little things -- the transparency of the characters, the brutish one-note cruelty of the script, and other things that keep it from being a classic. Still, you can't knock the sheer entertainment value.
Spartacus: Blood and Sand is the epitome of a guilty pleasure. As historic re-imaginings go, the unabashed volume of filth and fury easily win audiences over. I always assume it was a rhetorical question, but it seems you can indeed throw copious amounts of naked girls, handsome men, and CGI blood and make a great cable show. Who knew?
It's a little lowbrow in its carnal pursuits, but Spartacus: Blood and Sand is undeniably entertaining and compelling television. Not guilty.
Review content copyright © 2010 Adam Arseneau; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 692 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Episode Commentaries
* Trivia Track
* Extended Scenes
* Official Site