Anchor Bay // 2011 // 347 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge David Johnson // September 1st, 2011
Subtlety, put to the sword.
True, the over-the-top Starz original series Spartacus isn't known for understatement, but at least it entertains. The prequel series arrives to fill in some back story and keep the bloodletting and debauchery in the public conscious before Season 2 rolls out.
Spartacus: Gods of the Arena chronicles the rise to gladiatorial prominence by the power-mad and conniving Batiatus (John Hannah, The Mummy) and his just-as-conniving wife, Lucretia (Lucy Lawless, Battlestar Galactica). Years before Spartacus walked through the door, Batiatus was scrambling to get his fighters enrolled in some decent events. His largely mediocre stable is headlined by one stud, Gannicus (Dustin Clare), a free-wheeling, hard-drinking bad-ass who just might be the ticket to fame and fortune.
There's a lot more to this six-episode miniseries than my synopsis reveals but I'd be doing a disservice by braking down the plot any further. Gods of the Arena is very much like Spartacus: Blood and Sand: everything is blasted up to the extreme, be it the violence or the fornication or the storyline. The writers pack each hour-long with as much craziness as possible and big plot changing happenings are regular occurrences. Main characters bite it, allegiances are switched, relationships transform; all set against the backdrop of a hyper-stylized vision of ancient Capua as a sinew strewn, sex-crazed metropolis.
The story behind the prequel: Season Two was set to film, but Blood and Sand star Andy Whitfield tragically found himself battling cancer and the producers need to reset the casting process. In the meanwhile, building on the success of the first season, the creators opted to expand the mythos and milk the Batiatus/Lucretia storyline. Aside from Spartacus himself, this power couple was the most magnetic in Blood and Sand and it made sense to devote some runtime to their pre-Spartacus misadventures.
The result is a wild and woolly sprint that will most definitely appeal to Spartacus fans -- though I would stop short of recommending it to a rookie audience. For those new to the series, take Blood and Sand for a spin first, because a) you can decide if the blood/nudity is just too much, b) Gods of the Arena is spoiler-packed, and c) the first season is just plain good.
As a fan I enjoyed the hat tips and call backs to the first season, as we see Crixus and Doctore rise to prominence. As a stand-alone tale, Gods of the Arena is just as engaging, with Gannicus filling in as a solid Alpha dog who's given a satisfying arc. Plot twists are just as neck-snapping and the dialogue, as ham-fisted as it may be (what do these people have against indefinite articles?!) is delivered with record amounts of gusto; these folks really get into the show.
But...maybe it's my advanced years, because I'm starting to think extreme amounts of gore and sleaze has become a detriment to the genuinely engrossing storytelling. The violence is voluminous and CGI-enhanced and the nudity is ripped from the slow-mo, pay cable handbook (except with a larger number of prosthetic wangs employed). Call me a prude, but when the carnal shenanigans are lathered on this thick -- and it is more provocative than Blood and Sand -- the show becomes cartoonish and the plots are taken less seriously. Also, it sets up the writers to constantly one-up themselves in their pursuit of pushing the envelope.
On the other hand, that dude totally gets his jaw ripped off his face at the end there!
Anchor Bay's two-disc Blu-ray set is a homerun, featuring absolutely gorgeous 1.78:1, 1080p transfers for each episode. The resolution is magnificent, the deep, rich color leaping off the screen and the visual effects popping with insane clarity. Audio booms from an aggressive, pounding Dolby TrueHD 5.1 mix and joins the high-end visual fidelity to deliver some of the best HD content you'll see. Extras include Blu-ray exclusive extended episodes, all-episode commentary and a 3D version of the climactic battle scene, a blooper reel, and a host of featurettes:
* Starz Studios: Gods of the Arena
* Weapons of Mass Disruption
* Battle Royale: Anatomy of a Scene
* On Set with Lucy Lawless
* 10 Easy Steps to Dismemberment
* Post Production: The Final Execution
* Enter The Arena: Production Design
* Dressed to Kill
* Convention Panel
The segments are fairly brief, but they're all worth checking out, and kudos to Lawless for letting a camera follow her around even though she's not wearing any makeup. What a cool celebrity.
Spartacus: Gods of the Arena is the guiltiest of guilty pleasures, but underneath the X-rated tomfoolery beats the heart of a compelling story. The Blu-ray is kingly.
He lives! (crowd erupts in applause, peasant woman shows her breasts)
Review content copyright © 2011 David Johnson; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 347 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* 3D Sequence
* Gag Reel