Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas

Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas (1998)
Universal Home Video
Cast: Johnny Depp, Benicio Del Toro, Cameron Diaz
Extras: Deleted Scenes, Featurette

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

It's been 10 years since Universal first released the DVD version of Terry Gilliam's "Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas" and I was eager to see has this film would turn out in high definition, as it is an exceptional movie experience in so many ways. "Exceptional" might actually be the wrong word "singular" might be a better choice. Since this is a Terry Gilliam film, you always should expect a film that is different from the standard mold, and in the case of "Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas" the director certainly doesn't disappoint. Gilliam is notorious for his quirky, visionary, sometimes weird films, and was also responsible for the unique look of the classic "Monty Python" films and television series. Gilliam was part of this comic troupe for many years and put is his signature on all of their releases, both visually and comically, so it's a good bet that "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" isn't your standard comedy.

Based on Hunter S. Thompson's novel of the same name, the film presents us with a freakish, frantic couple: the journalist Raoul Duke (Johnny Depp) and his attorney Dr. Gonzo ( Benicio Del Toro). Within the first few seconds as soon as the off-screen voice-over of Johnny Depp starts recollecting the events of the past day – the film establishes a completely singular mood. Within minutes, it is clear that "Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas" is one of the most radical, subversive, and traumatic films ever made about two hippies who missed the jump off the flower power train. They clearly know about the trouble they're in, and yet decide it is better to get stoned than to face the reality of 1971, a time when "Love and Peace" had turned into "Satanism and Hate". The characters are looking for the American Dream and all they find is Nixon, the Vietnam War and an endless series of horror trips.

Set in 1971, the film lets us participate in these two characters' chaotic lives as they go on a "trip" to Las Vegas in a bombardment of surreal pictures. Their main objective in Las Vegas is to cover the events of the "Mint 400", a local off-road motorcycle race in the desert, but the tour quickly turns into a series of manic horror trips when both of them have bad trips and frightening flashbacks. It seems as if any drug will do to get them high, and we watch the two go from pot and mescaline to cocaine, LSD, to ether and worse. After they have completely re-arranged their hotel room and are unable to pay for their stay, the two escape from the hotel just as the next assignment comes in: coverage of a local District Attorney Convention about drug abuse in Las Vegas. Halfway back to California they return to Las Vegas, and settle in a different hotel, which they turn into a lair of destruction and hallucination.

"Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas" is exceptional in a number of ways. Although we have seen far too many pot-high characters, such as Cheech and Chong, director Terry Gilliam manages to give the whole scenario a different twist. The film has no real plot and yet it is more accessible to viewers than many other psychedelic, experimental films. The film actually manages to keep the events and the characters interesting enough so that the viewer feels for them and wants to follow their riot through a series of Las Vegas hotels. Unlike other films depicting the era, "Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas" is still very psychedelic, but never to the point that it turns into endless orgiastic, flashy, unwatchable kaleidoscopes. It is a film only Terry Gilliam could have made, and it exhibits a great deal of artistic integrity integrity that does not conform with the typical Hollywood blockbuster mentality.

It isn't just the direction and the visuals that make this movie so distinctive. The performance of Johnny Depp as Duke is both mesmerizing and appalling. Depp and Del Toro personify a duo of schizoid, brain-numbed drugsters, characterization that far exceeds what you may have seen on screen before. Their lines are delivered in a way that will make you both laugh and cry. They rapidly build tension and explode in uncontrollable spastic laughter, mumbling of spaced-out visions of aliens from Mars. Those guys are such sad characters that they become interesting again. The path of their rampage through Las Vegas is remarkable, especially because the film uses violence only in its subtext. There is no real on-screen violence, although the frenzied trips oftentimes turn into nightmarish, fast-edited, phantasmagoric picture orgies that seem like a violent caricature of a comic strip.

Universal Home Video is giving us "Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas" in a 1080p high definition transfer in its original widescreen aspect ratio. However it can be noted right away that they seem to have struck this transfer from the same master as the DVD some ten years ago, as the print is riddled with speckles and dust. Clearly a remastering with a clean-up pass or two would have gone a long way here, creating a first impression that is worse that it really should be. Apart from that the transfer is looking fine with sharp edges and good definition, bringing out many of the details in the intricate photography. The film makes a lot of use of deliberate color palettes and palette distortion to create the psychedelic images and it is great to see that Blu-Ray's capabilities are put to good use here by bringing these colors to life almost frivolously. Hues are very strong and saturated, creating a flowing and surreal experience with no noise or pixelation.

The disc features a DTS 5.1 HD Master Audio track that is every bit as marvelous as you'd expect. Reproducing the original experience of the film, this track is aggressive and dynamic making use of the split surround channels not only for natural use, but also for sound and mind-bending "alternate reality" effects, so to speak. It is simply awesome and adds tremendously to the enjoyment of the film as a whole.

The release is notably thin on extras. On the one hand it is disappointing as Criterion has issued a feature-rich DVD version years ago. It is understandable on the other hand because Criterion is not Universal and as such Universal has no immediate access to the bonus materials created by Criterion.

With that in mind the only bonus materials included on his release are a whole lot of deleted scenes and the old "Spotlight on Location" featurette from the DVD.

"Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas" is a difficult film and clearly not for everyone's taste. It might even appear monotonous at times due to its lack of climactic plot points. Nevertheless I found this completely exaggerated acid ride very enjoyable, mostly because the beautiful cinematography, the pointed portrayals and the bizarre visuals create a world that is both menacing and hilarious. Agreed, the film doesn't make much sense and with its 120 minutes running length, it is a little long for that it does not have anything to say, but somehow I could not escape queer world of those two gonzos. It is clearly the weirdest film I have seen in a long time and if you want to see something completely tripped-out for a change, give this film a look. If you believe it is politically incorrect to deliver a film that caricatures drug abuse so blatantly and openly, it might be a good idea to skip it, but you will certainly miss out on a hell of a "safe" trip.