Dreamworks Home Entertainment
Cast: Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Oliver Reed, Djimon Hounsou, Richard Harris
Extras: Commentary Tracks, Deleted Scenes, Featurettes, Documentary, Galleries, Knowledge Track, Storyboards, Abandoned Sequences and more
Hotly anticipated, the Blu-Ray version of "Gladiator" was controversial weeks before its actual release already. Let me tell you right off the bat however, that all the hoohah about the supposed poor quality of the release is vastly exaggerated and mostly unfounded. Another reason not to believe everything you read on the web since anyone can post just about anything they want on Internet message board no matter how qualified or unqualified the remarks may be. But let us move on a take a look at the actual release or Ridley Scott's monumental spectacle.
"Gladiator" tells the story of Maximus Decimus Meridius (Russell Crowe), a highly decorated general in the Roman army. Maximus is successfully expanding the Roman Empire for Caesar Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris), who has a lot of respect for the young man and treats him almost like a son. But Marcus Aurelius is old and the rightful heir to all his powers would be his own son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), a man who prefers the spoils of war over the actual act of waging it. A coward and calculating conspirator, Commodus is shocked when his father informs him that he plans to make Maximus his successor, and the son kills the aging emperor before word can get out.
But it is too late, Marcus has already told Maximus, who now challenges Commodus for the power. In yet another desperate move, Commodus frames Maximus and commands him executed. But Maximus escapes and returns home where he finds his wife and child killed by Commodus. Completely exhausted, devastated and overwhelmed by sorrow, Maximus passes out and awakes a slave. In his sleep he has been captured by slave traders and is eventually sold to Proximo (Oliver Reed) who sees a lot of potential in the strong man. He makes him a Gladiator and teaches Maximus to fight for his dear life in arenae across the country. All the while, Maximus is fueled by only his wish for revenge. His only hope is that one day he will be able to fight in the Roman Colosseum, in front of the Emperor of Rome – Commodus. That will be the day he will pay back the man who betrayed Rome and killed his family!
"Gladiator" is epic in scope and emotions. Throughout the film we fever with Maximus, hoping his plans will come to fruition. Although we know all along that Maximus will have his revenge, the means by which he gets there, and by which it is finally executed, as well as the political intrigue that become part of it, make "Gladiator" a riveting adventure that is exciting and extremely entertaining. The film boasts an incredible cast that nicely mixes movie legends like Richard Harris, Derek Jacobi, and the late Oliver Reed – who passed away during the production of this movie – with faces that were relatively new at the time, such as Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen and of course Russell Crowe, who is largely responsible for the incredible emotional power of the film. It is easy to see how "Gladiator" has become the defining film in Crowe's career hat catapulted him into the big league of Hollywood A-list actors.
With powerful pictures and stunning vistas, "Gladiator" also conjures up an image of Rome that is alive and reeking with decadence. Although making heavy use of digital image works, the film never feels artificial and always maintains a very natural look and feel that helps root the story. It has to be pointed out however, that technology has developed dramatically over the past years since this film has been made and occasionally the digitally enhanced shots appear slightly artificial to the keen, trained eye. Not since "Quo Vadis" have we seen a gladiatorial spectacle like this, and "Gladiator" easily places itself in the same league as this classic Roman epic.
"Gladiator" features a 1080p high definition transfer of the film in both its theatrical as well as the extended version which runs 16 minutes longer. The transfer is clean and without blemishes, just as you would expect from a Dreamworks release. There has been word that the release features excessive digital video noise reduction. I did not find this so. While the seems to be some DVNR that has been applied there was not a single occurrence where I found it degrading the actual experience – in fact there are numerous shots and scenes in the film where the original film grain is fully intact, showing that care has been taken in the transfer, ensuring not everything is universally smoothed over.
There has also been word of excessive edge enhancement in the presentation. I found no sign of that either. There are a number of shots where extremely hard edges are visible but upon closer inspection, it turned out that those were the digitally created shots surrounding the later Oliver Reed, in which different takes were superimposed to create the illusion of the actor being in those scenes. Digital matting techniques – especially in non-blue and green screen shots – were not nearly as sophisticated then than they are today and these harsh matte lines, with their grating edges do sadly stand out quite a bit. I think it is important to understand however that these are the result of technical limitations of the film during its production and are not by any means shortcomings of the Blu-Ray release. The other thing to remember is that these matte lines were not nearly as noticeable on DVD, of course, due to its comparably low resolution.
It should also be noted that "Gladiator" had a very processed and silky look in theaters already and that this is integral part of the presentation and the director's vision. Whether that was due to technical limitations at the time or a real artistic decision may be debated, but the fact of the matter is that "Gladiator" never had a real film-like look.
I did notice, however, a strange banding effect in the smoke shots of the film's opening titles. It was rather severe and extremely noticeable but fortunately went away the moment the actual film began.
With all that out of the way, "Gladiator" looks wonderfully rich and detailed in high definition and there is absolutely no reason why you should not upgrade your DVD version for this high definition transfer.
The release features a DTS HD Master Audio track that presents the original uncompressed audio of the movie in all its glory. With a wide spatial integration, the audio is extremely immersive and creates a breathing, living ambiance for this epic story. Whether it is the opening battlefield – with phenomenal directional effects that also make the best of the added rear center channel – or the gladiatorial scenes in the various arenas, the sound field is always highly dynamic and directional. The front sound stage is very wide, yet tight in quality, and balanced, firmly rooting the film. The surrounds are very active throughout furthering the experience to the nth degree. With a great bass extension, the audio also makes good use of the LFE channel to help boost a large number of sound effects. Natural sounding and free of distortion, the dialogues are very clear and have been integrated to be always understandable.
The music score that accompanies the film further adds to the experience. Hans Zimmer contributed the score and for the first time – at least in my book – he delivered a score that convinced on all fronts. Epic, masterful, sensitive, emotional, bleak, aggressive, dominant and heroic are all adjectives that can be used to describe the score at any one time, and Zimmer always manages to find the right tone for any given scene without giving away clues and developments – a problem some of his previous scores often had. Nicely presented in an engaging mix that makes full use of the multi-channel presentation, the score is enveloping and adds immensely to the film.
You will find virtually all the bonus materials from the previous Special Edition DVD release on this Blu-Ray Disc, starting out with the audio commentary track featuring director Ridley Scott and actor Russell Crowe that was part of the extended release of the movie. The track is as entertaining as it is informative as the two touch upon countless subjects and exchange interesting tidbits and anecdotes. Also included is the commentary track for the theatrical version, featuring Scott along with director of photography John Mathison, and editor Pietro Scalia. The commentary track is engaging and offers a wealth of information on the production of the film. In the best tradition of offering a "filmschool" of disc, this commentary becomes a little dry and technical at times, but at the same time, the level of information and detail that is conveyed will be absolutely mesmerizing for fans of the movie. It explores many areas that are not obvious by simply observing the film, revealing thoughts, subtext, as well as technical issues that lead to certain creative decisions.
"The Scrolls Of Knowledge" is kind of a trivia track on steroids, in which scroll show up on screen that allow you to dig into aspects of the film's moment in more detail with additional clips, featurettes etc. Unlike video commentaries it is less intrusive while viewing the feature film, yet much more detailed and in-depth than traditional trivia tracks.
"Visions From Elysium: Topic Portal" is an extension of this knowledge track, by giving you access to each of the hundreds of tidbits in a portal form without having to view the film.
Of course the release also includes Deleted Scenes – with optional commentary by Ridley Scott – as well as a number of featurettes and a full-length documentary detailing all the aspects of the film's production.
There have also been a number of scenes that were originally planned for the movie but abandoned for various reasons. In the form of storyboard and animatics, you can watch these scenes on this release also.
A remarkable number of image galleries are also included on the disc, covering costumes, storyboards, production stills and any other imaginable things fro mthe making of the movie.
In "The Aurelian Archives" you will find most of the DVD featurettes, such as "Gladiator Games," the segment on Hans Zimmer's music, the "Gladiator Journal" and many other little gems.
Running almost 3 hours, "Gladiator" is a spectacle from beginning to end and I am happy to report that the badmouthing of the Blu-Ray version is practically unfounded. This is a very cool release, stuffed with extras – though it would have been great to see them presented in high definition – and with a feature film that is presented in both its theatrical and its extended cut. Add to it the beautiful high picture and the incredible audio and you have a winner on your hands. There is truly no reason why you should not upgrade your DVD version!