GLADIATOR – Blu-ray review

If at first you don’t succeed. . .

Responding to consumer concerns that their previous Blu-ray edition of “Gladiator” used too much edge enhancement and noise reduction in the high-def transfer, DreamWorks/Universal have reissued the disc, this time with less processing of the picture. For details about the new PQ and how you might obtain the disc if you already own the earlier BD edition, you can skip on down to the Video section of the review. Otherwise, take your time and read about the movie.

“At my signal, unleash hell.”

With “Gladiator,” it’s déjà vu all over again: “Quo Vadis,” “Demetrius and the Gladiators,” “Ben Hur,” “Spartacus.” I thought we’d left the sword-and-scandal epics behind us forty or fifty years ago, but director Ridley Scott (“Blade Runner,” “Alien,” “Legend,” “Black Hawk Down,” “Robin Hood“) resurrected the genre in 2000 and produced a rousing if less-than-cerebral version of the species for the new millennium. What the film lacks in intellect, historical fact, and common sense, it more than makes up for in action, spectacle, and grandeur. Appropriately, DreamWorks Home Entertainment present it in a Blu-ray set that’s loaded with more extras than would fit in a Roman coliseum.

The story begins in the late second century at the end of a twelve-year campaign by the Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) against some upstart barbarian tribes in Germania. The Emperor’s main man, his general, is Maximus (Russell Crowe), a strong, silent type who wins the war for him. The Romans triumph the way they always did–with superior numbers, superior cavalry, and superior tactics. Thank Maximus for this last turn. At this juncture, Marcus is old and knows he’s coming to the end of his reign, and back in Rome the senators find themselves divided on whether an Emperor should continue to rule or the senate should take over. The old Emperor doesn’t want his son, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), to inherit his title because he recognizes Commodus for what he is–a weak, selfish, sniveling, immature tyrant. In consequence, Marcus tries to hand over his authority to Maximus, naming him in private “Protector of Rome.” But Commodus beats the old man to the punch. Before Maximus can tell anyone about the old Emperor’s plans, the treacherous Commodus murders his father, assumes the emperorship, and orders Maximus executed.

Maximus escapes, only to find that Commodus has had his wife and son murdered and his villa torched. The next thing we know, and don’t ask how or why, slave traders capture Maximus and sell him to a gladiatorial school (shades of “Spartacus”). From there he returns to Rome and confronts the new young Emperor. Thus, we get a plot.

Connie Nielsen is also in the cast, as Lucilla, Commodus’s sister, for whom he continually lusts in a “Caligula” sort of way. Derek Jacobi (remember him from “I, Claudius”?) is Senator Gracchus, an ally of Maximus. And Oliver Reed is the slave owner, Proximo, a role he was unable to finish because he died before the film wrapped, and he had to have some of his work completed digitally. So, look for an imitation Oliver Reed late in the story.

Basically, then, “Gladiator” works as a tried-and-true revenge plot. The bad guy kills the hero’s family, and the hero tries to get even. DreamWorks’s tag line for the film is, “The general who became a slave. The slave who became a gladiator. The gladiator who defied an empire.” That’s about the size of things as the story unfolds over the course of two-and-a-half to nearly three hours, depending on which account of the story you watch, because the BD set contains both the theatrical version at 152 minutes and the extended cut at 171 minutes.

“We who are about to die salute you.”

The movie’s primary claim to fame is its fight scenes, both in and out of the arena. Director Ridley Scott gets a lot of work from his participants, the warfare often reminding one in their energy and violence of the down-and-dirty conflicts on the football fields in Oliver Stone’s “Any Given Sunday.” Indeed, the comparison between the bloody Roman games of the past and the brutal sports of today is apt. In both cases, the combat is hot and heavy, with, naturally, the Romans coming out ahead in the blood-and-gore department. Nor is the film’s R rating undeserved. Indeed, the film glorifies the very thing the Romans so loved and our modern, civilized world outwardly deplores–the spectacle of death and destruction as entertainment. I guess times haven’t changed that much, after all.

Do be aware that the film may disappoint those viewers looking to find another “Spartacus.” Russell Crowe is a fine actor and does his best with the title role, but the script almost never calls upon him to do much more than look good in a breastplate. In fact, he makes Kirk Douglas, always an underrated actor seem like Laurence Olivier. But, then, Douglas had more to work with, including a script that allowed him some personal feelings to show through. Crowe, on the other hand, appears always to be at a distance, always a degree removed from any real human emotion, which, I suppose, is part and parcel of his character’s personality. “Gladiator” is an action movie above all, and in between the battle sequences the intensity slows down considerably.

In addition to its action, where “Gladiator” scores heavily is in its digital special effects, which will come off as either awesome or phony, depending on how you look at it. A studio no longer has to produce an outer-space, sci-fi adventure anymore to benefit from the miracles of the computer age. Here, the CGI shows us the glories of ancient Rome in vivid, extravagant detail, with all the city’s multitude of people, its grand, imperial buildings, its central Forum, and its spectacular architecture. But will it convince everyone? Some viewers, for instance, will find the Roman coliseum in the film magnificent and persuasive to behold. Yet, the visual-effects folks constructed about three-quarters of it on a monitor screen, which may upset the sensibilities of viewers who find it looks too fake. The new high-definition picture quality will likely only fuel the fires of contention in the matter.

Because some consumers felt that DreamWorks had applied too much edge enhancement and noise filtering to the earlier Blu-ray release of “Gladiator,” the studio made this remaster. Their official statement is as follows: “We are implementing a limited exchange program. This program is only for those consumers that may have preferential issues with some of the technical DVNR (digital video noise reduction) and EE (edge enhancement) choices made in the original source transfer, and so would prefer to exchange it for one that addresses those preferences in a different manner.

While the version that we originally distributed was of the highest quality, some enthusiasts may prefer to view it without the Edge Enhancement and DVNR implemented as standard process in bringing the film to hi-def. This new master resolves those issues.”

You may call Paramount at 323-956-3010 for phone inquiries, and it will also be possible to buy the new version in stores. (The new version in stores will have a yellow barcode so that they can distinguish the difference.)

Now, about that picture quality. As with most of Ridley Scott’s work, “Gladiator” is not only figuratively dark in tone but quite literally dark as well, its colors running high to bluish-greys and dusty browns. Frankly, the film never looked all that good to me in a theater, Scott choosing to shoot most of his scenes either at night or during overcast days, or making it appear that way. On the earlier transfer, DreamWorks used a fairly high amount of DNR and edge enhancement to make the picture cleaner and sharper. In the process, they smoothed over some of the picture’s finer details and added halos around many of the objects. The dynamic noise reduction filtered out some of the film’s natural print grain, while at the same time giving some of the scenes a pasty look that wasn’t entirely realistic. Worse, the edge enhancement created some clearly visible halos, particularly noticeable on very large screens or sitting as close to the TV as I do. At times the picture could be crystal clear, with terrific detail, and at other times it looked faded and washed out. Moreover, it appeared that the video engineers did not apply DNR or edge enhancement consistently; they applied it to select scenes to varying degrees. So depending on what you were watching, the picture could look from good to better to surprisingly mediocre. In terms of edge enhancement in the older transfer, I noticed some evidence of EE in about half the scenes I analyzed. Yet it seemed to be around spears that I noticed it the most. There were times when every spear carried by every soldier positively glowed with halos, as though they were lit up like lightsabers.

So, what’s the deal now? To begin with, the studio still offers the movie on a dual-layer BD50, and they still use an MPEG-4 codec to reproduce the movie in its native aspect ratio, 2.35:1. I compared the two versions by placing them in separate Panasonic Blu-ray players hooked up to almost identical televisions (Sony XBR’s) in separate rooms. (I have both sets adjusted for as near-identical picture quality as possible, with the sets’ sharpness controls and noise reduction turned off.) At that point, I watched through the entire film from the new transfer, and then I compared select scenes (in excerpts and in pause), going back and forth between the two rooms to do so (even if I had both Blu-ray players connected to the same television, the HDMI handshake requires about six or seven seconds to negotiate, about the same time it took me to walk from one room to the other).

Results: The most obvious improvement in the new transfer is the absence of edge enhancement. Where in the old transfer I had found EE in at least half the scenes I watched, I could find none in the new transfer. No more Roman soldiers with lightsabers. Of course, it also means the new picture looks occasionally softer. So be it; there’s no doubt it looks better.

The decreased use of DNR (Dynamic Noise Reduction) on the latest transfer, however, is not quite so easy to appreciate. The new PQ does look slightly grainier, with faces more lined and detail bolder, but it’s probably not enough to make an irrefutable case for everyone. What did stand out to me is that the colors on the new transfer appear stronger, more intense. I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s a result of not applying as much noise filtering this time, or perhaps the video engineers decided to enhance the film’s appearance. The hues, especially facial tones, yellows, and blues, are definitely deeper. I’m not sure they are any more lifelike (people now look as though they have darker tans), but I suppose it’s a matter of taste, because if I hadn’t had the two versions to compare, I would have said the new transfer displays fine, rich, vivid colors. Which it does.

The problem for me, as I say, is that I didn’t care much for Ridley Scott’s original vision for the movie’s appearance in a theater, thinking it too dusky dull and drab. On this remastered Blu-ray disc the images show up more plushly, more opulently than I remember them from a theater. Do I like what I see, and do I think the new BD mastering is an improvement over the older one? Yes and yes. The absence of edge enhancement and DNR and the more-intense colors are obvious improvements, but you’ll have to decide for yourself if you prefer the new version over what you may remember from a theater. For me, I like what I see here.

Although the video will remain in question for some viewers, the audio is quite good, the English track coming to us via DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. In DTS Master Audio, the audience can hear catapult launchings, arrows flaming, swords clanging, and heads rolling from all directions, truly a vigorous “surround” sound. Equally important, there are strong impacts involved and a wide dynamic range. In fact, the dynamic range–the difference in sound level between the softest and loudest passages–may be so wide that it will give more than a few listeners fits. If you turn the volume up high enough to hear the dialogue, you’re likely to be knocked out of your chair when a louder noise pops up. Keep it in mind.

My only serious reservations with the audio are, first, with the bass, which, while certainly loud, isn’t really as deep as I would have expected. It’s not exactly room-rumbling as some soundtracks can be. And, second, the dialogue, even turned up, is not always as clearly rendered as it could be, and on a few occasions I had to replay a line or two to hear what the characters were saying. Still, these are not serious concerns in a soundtrack that otherwise comes off quite impressively.

Disc one of this two-disc Blu-ray set includes the feature film in both its theatrical and extended editions; twenty-eight scene selections; bookmarks; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages;
English, French, Spanish, and Korean subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.

Additionally, disc one contains an audio commentary by director Ridley Scott and star Russell Crowe; “The Scrolls of Knowledge,” a trivia track newly enhanced with focal points and featurettes, plus for the extended version a deleted scene marker; “Visions from Elysium: Topic Marker,” during which you may mark items of interest for viewing on disc two; and a very brief, thirty-second introduction to the movie’s extended version by director Ridley Scott. Interestingly, Scott tells us that the extended version is not the Director’s Cut; that is the theatrical version.

Disc two contains the bulk of the bonus items, and they are remarkably plentiful. “Visions from Elysium” contains eleven pages full of short featurette choices, hundreds of them altogether, with an option to save your choices. That’s followed by the documentary series “Strength and Honor: Creating the World of Gladiator,” which covers over three-and-a-quarter hours and eight chapters. Whew! Then there’s “Image and Design,” which includes chapters on original storyboards, conceptual art, production notes, weapons, and still galleries. Next, we find five abandoned sequences and deleted scenes. And, finally, there is “The Aurelian Archives,” which includes featurettes on “The Making of Gladiator,” “Gladiator Games: Roman Blood Sport,” “Hans Zimmer: Scoring Gladiator,” “VFX Explorations: Germania and Rome,” theatrical trailers and TV spots, and more. In all, there are hours and hours of extras, which combined with the two versions of the movie must set a record for sheer time and numbers involved. An attractively embossed slipcover encloses the double Blu-ray case and ties everything together.

Parting Thoughts:
To conclude, I would advise the viewer to enjoy and have fun with “Gladiator” but not to rely too heavily on Hollywood for real-life history. This is a movie, after all, and the filmmakers meant it to be fun. That it is, with stirring action, good performances, and a plethora of visual delights. Even if you still have concerns with the high-definition video (and let’s face it: no transfer is going to satisfy everyone), “Gladiator” is an entertaining ride from beginning to end.

“Go, and die with honor.”