Judge Clark Douglas believes what we review in life echoes in eternity.
Our review of Gladiator, published December 19th, 2000, is also available.
"There was once a dream that was Rome. You could only whisper it. Anything more than a whisper and it would vanish…it was so fragile. And I fear that it will not survive the winter."
So, by this point you've probably heard the negative buzz surrounding the Blu-ray transfer of Gladiator. How much is exaggerated hype and how much do you really need to be concerned about? We'll tackle that in a moment, but first, a few words about the most important element of this Blu-ray disc: the actual film.
Facts of the Case
The year is 180 A.D. General Maximus Decimus Meridias (Russell Crowe, The Insider) has just won a great victory for the empire of Rome. Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets) is dying, and determines that he is going to hand over control of Rome to his noble general. However, the emperor's diabolical son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix, Two Lovers) determines to secure Rome for himself, murdering his father before any announcements can be made. Maximus' family is slaughtered, and the general himself is sentenced to death. Maximus escapes his execution only to be captured by a slave trader (Oliver Reed, Tommy) who trains his slaves as gladiators. Maximus initially refuses to even participate in such barbarous games, but soon sees his new fate as an opportunity to have his revenge upon the evil Commodus.
Gladiator is one of those films that comes up every time movie buffs start talking about films that undeservedly won Best Picture Academy Awards. Was it the best film of 2000? Nah, I don't think so. But I must say, Gladiator is still one hell of a good film and a magnificent piece of testosterone-fueled entertainment. Ridley Scott stages this operatic take on history with confident flair, creating what is arguably his best work outside the classic one-two punch of Alien and Blade Runner. Even with a running time of over 2 and half hours (nearly three hours if you watch the equally good extended version that is also included with this set), there isn't a moment that feels dull or disposable. It stands head and shoulders above many blood-and-guts epics aimed at the young male crowd because it doesn't allow its undeniable macho appeal to get in the way of nuanced characterization and complex storytelling.
Much of the credit for the success of Gladiator goes to the cast, which is excellent from top to bottom. Crowe's performance may be less challenging than his work in The Insider or A Beautiful Mind, but he brings a combination of raw fury and deep thoughtfulness to what could have been an incredibly simplistic character. Joaquin Phoenix offers one of his better performances as the gleefully wicked Commodus, creating a sniveling villain you truly love to hate. Connie Nielson and Djimon Hounsou are both turning up a bit less frequently these days, but for a few years their strong turns in Gladiator deservedly earned them quite a bit of high-profile Hollywood work. Old pros like Richard Harris, Oliver Reed (who passed away during the film's production), and Derek Jacobi also excel in smaller roles.
Now, let's move on to the much talked-about transfer. Just before Gladiator was released on Blu-ray, a mighty howl of anguish was heard from the hi-def fans around the world. It claimed that special effects were missing from the transfer, that the image was grimy and filthy, and that the picture was afflicted with unprecedented boatloads of DNR, edge enhancement, banding, and every other problem known to man. Of course, most folks were basing this opinion on a handful of screenshots, but it certainly seemed that Gladiator was not up to snuff visually. Having just witnessed the entire thing from start to finish on Blu-ray, I can assure that it's not as bad as all that. Yes, there are a couple of minor special effects missing here and there, but (brace yourself) they really aren't essential. Yes, the image does look a bit dirtier than it should, but it's far cleaner and more vibrant than any DVD transfer. Yes, edge enhancement is in abundance and there is some evidence of DNR, but I've seen much worse.
Gladiator is a prestigious film that truly deserved a magnificent transfer, and I'm disappointed it doesn't get that. Even so, I think the idea of holding off on upgrading simply because this disc isn't a top-tier knock-out is a bit absurd. Removing the basic 1080p vs. 480p factor, it's clear that this transfer is dramatically superior to anything we've seen in standard-def. Blacks are rich and deep throughout, the daytime scenes often manage to seem exceptionally immersive, and that level of detail is satisfactory if not quite jaw-dropping. The worst sequence is perhaps the early battle scene, which does indeed seem rather murky and muddy, but the image hits it stride around the 45-minute mark and managed to keep me pretty satisfied from that point onward.
Thankfully, no one should have any problems with the audio. This is a very strong track, as the battle scenes rumble and shake with vigorous energy. One striking aspect of the audio is just how successfully the sound design interacts with the Oscar-nominated score by Hans Zimmer and Lisa Gerard. There are moments when the music and sound effects seem to join forces to create a rhythmic sense of propulsion. This is particularly surprising when one considers how frequently Scott has butchered various film scores over the years. Anyway, it all sounds terrific, and you'll never need to adjust your remote during the quiet dialogue scenes despite the ferocious intensity of the battle sequences.
The supplemental package is nothing short of awesome, reprising all of the special features from previous DVD editions and adding a couple of new hi-def exclusives. Disc one kicks off with two audio commentaries. The better of the two tracks is the discussion between Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe on the extended edition of the film, which surprisingly manages to remain compelling for the entire 171 minute running time. Those interested in a more nuts-and-bolts commentary should check out the track on the theatrical edition, featuring Scott, editor Pietro Scalia, and cinematographer John Mathieson. The first disc also includes a Blu-ray exclusive called "The Scrolls of Knowledge," an interactive viewing option which offers a combination of trivia, original featurettes about the history of Rome, production info, and oodles of other assorted goodies. This ranges from compelling to trivial, but unlike some similar "U-Control" options on other discs, this one keeps you busy the entire time. There's also an option to look at the many special features on disc two by clicking on the "Visions from Elysium Topic Portal." Scroll through the hundreds (!) of supplemental bits and pieces, click the ones you want to watch, save them, and then disc two will cue them up and play them automatically when you insert it.
Or, you could just put in disc two, which houses the majority of the supplemental material. The biggest and best item is the massive 197-minute documentary "Strength and Honor: Creating the World of Gladiator," an in-depth piece that rivals the similarly impressive docs made for other Scott films like Alien, Blade Runner, and Kingdom of Heaven. It covers pretty much every aspect of the production you could possibly want to know about, and is a really engaging experience. This documentary contains the second Blu-ray exclusive, an "enhanced" viewing option that allows you to dive into tons of new video production pods as you're watching the doc. You also have the option to watch the content from these pods separately. Wow, this thing is thorough.
Oh, but wait, there's still so much more. The "Image and Design" section offers photo galleries, storyboards, costume design galleries, and three featurettes: "Storyboarding," "Production Design Primer: Arthur Max," and "Weapons Primer: Simon Atherton." "The Aurelian Archives" offers additional featurettes and documentaries, running over two and a half hours combined: "The Making of Gladiator," "Gladiator Games: The Roman Bloodsport," "Hans Zimmer: Scoring Gladiator," "An Evening with Russell Crowe," "Maximus Uncut: Between Takes with Russell Crowe," "My Gladiator Journal by Spencer Clark Treat," and "VFX Explorations: Germania and Rome." Finally, you get some 23 minutes of "Abandoned Sequences and Deleted Scenes," which offers a combination of storyboards and filmed footage. This section includes an interesting main title sequence that was abandoned.
In short, this is about as strong a batch of supplements as you're likely to find anywhere. Don't even think about complaining about the fact that there are only two new items added to this Blu-ray disc, because I honestly can't think of anything else that we actually need.
Gladiator is a terrific film with a terrific supplemental package and top-drawer audio. While the merely average transfer is a significant let-down, I still have no hesitations about recommending an upgrade.
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