Gladiator Review

The Film

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In 2000, the sword and sandal epic was a dead genre. After 2000... well, I’m still not convinced it was in rude health. It did, however, enjoy a brief return to triumph that year in the form of Gladiator, an action-packed, swashbuckling updating of an out of favour formula by Ridley Scott, who had himself fallen on rough times with the less than impressive White Squall and G.I. Jane.

There’s not a great deal to be said about the film that hasn’t been said before: Eamonn McCusker has already covered it most ably in his review of the 2005 Extended Edition DVD release, and I don’t really feel like going up against his insightful write-up. Instead, I’ll simply say that, while it is not my favourite Ridley Scott film by any means (I’m actually more interested in the stories about what went on behind the scenes as regards to both the scattershot writing process and the hurdles faced by the production team following the untimely demise of Oliver Reed), I enjoy it for what it is and consider it a handsome, well-made product with a bit of intelligence behind its gung-ho action romp façade. I suspect I like the film slightly more than Eamonn does (and I feel that it has a little more depth than he suggests in his review), although I do hold the slightly unfashionable opinion that Scott’s later Kingdom of Heaven, at least in its director’s cut form, constitutes a considerably more interesting and complex take on the historical epic, albeit let down by a lead actor who fails to match the charisma of Russell Crowe.

Gladiator is one of those films that I’ll happily watch every once in a while, enjoy it for what it is and then put it away again for another couple of years. That, in my opinion, is no bad thing: it clearly has longevity, and an ability to stand up to repeat viewings is not something to be sniffed at. Ridley Scott may not have created a masterpiece (he’d do that a year later with Hannibal – there I go with my unfashionable opinions again!), but like the organisers of the games in the Coliseum two millennia ago he has created true entertainment for the masses, albeit without resorting to actual bloodshed.

The Fiasco... er, Transfer

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This review arrives hot on the heels of an uproar involving most of the major AV forums on either side of the Atlantic. (The AV Science Forum broke the story first and it has only gathered momentum since.) Back when Gladiator was first announced for release on Blu-ray Disc, it was as part of Paramount’s prestigious new Sapphire Series, a line with a high price tag and a promise that it would “capitalize on the pristine picture and sound of the Blu-ray format to present each cinematic gem in the highest quality”. Strong words indeed – words that it would be unwise to utter if you weren’t planning on living up to them. Unfortunately for Paramount, they haven’t.

I take no pleasure in saying that, from a visual standpoint, Gladiator may be the worst BD I’ve ever seen of a film of this standing. Oh, there have been poorer-looking BDs, to be sure. (Salò, Gangs of New York and Dark City spring to mind, and let’s not forget the standard definition upconverts like Traffic and Escape from New York.) But even so, Gladiator is a special case. It’s one of the big guns – one of a small number of titles that, if released three years earlier, could potentially have helped turn the tide of the Blu-ray/HD DVD format war in either direction. In terms of public clamouring for its release, it’s just about up there with Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings and George Lucas’ Star Wars trilogies. For a major studio to screw up such a high profile release so badly, something must truly be wrong with their quality control, and serious questions should be asked as to how this film could have been treated so abysmally.

Let’s be clear: I’m not one of those people who believes that Film A deserves to be treated better than Film B. All films, regardless of their merits (which are highly subjective anyway), should be handled with equal care. However, the realist in me knows that some films are considered more “important” both by the studios and by the majority of the public, and with this higher “importance” comes higher expectations. The fact is that films like Gladiator sell Blu-ray players. This is not some obscure, niche interest film that only a handful of people are going to buy. People are going to pick up copies of this disc with the expectation that it will look stellar. Furthermore, I suspect that many suppliers, seeking to demonstrate what they assume to be the full capability of the format, will use it for in-store demonstrations in an attempt to shift BD players and HDTVs. Rightly or wrongly, people expect recent Hollywood blockbusters to be the best-looking titles. Ask yourself this: if you had limited knowledge of Blu-ray and saw this being touted as the best the format had to offer (which, incidentally, is precisely what Paramount is doing)...

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...would you really want to see the worst?

Rather than striking a new master for this “A” title, Paramount and their European distribution partners at Universal (the latter party, it would seem, has control of the film elements) opted to regurgitate the same master that was used for the original 2001 DVD release. (In fact, if you choose to believe the rumours, a new and vastly superior transfer does exist but was passed over, presumably to save a buck or two.)

The results are not pretty. Gladiator is plagued almost from beginning to end by a lack of definition. The image appears blurred and smudged, with facial textures taking on the consistency of wax and the sets and locations faring no better. Details are to a degree improved over the DVD, but they should have been so much better. This material may have cut the mustard in standard definition, but in HD it is little more than an embarrassment. Worse still, presumably in an attempt to compensate for the low detail the image has, the BD been subjected to an inordinate amount of edge enhancement, resulting in some of the worst haloing I have ever seen on an HD release. Soldiers now appear to be protected by force fields rather than regular armour, spears and trees literally glow, and, during Commodus’ triumphant return to Rome, literally every single poppy fluttering through the air has a defined white outline several pixels wide. In addition to that, there is a heavy presence of the sort of unnatural, clumpy grain that gives grain a bad name among non-cinephiles.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, someone had the bright idea of applying a DVNR (Digital Video Noise Reduction) pass to the entire film. Designed to eradicate specks of dirt and print damage, the process was left unchecked and ended up erasing things that it shouldn’t have, including flaming arrows and fireballs during the opening battle in Germania. Few things demonstrate a lack of quality control quite like slip-ups of this level. Colours also appear noticeably more saturated in comparison to both the prior DVD releases and high definition broadcasts like the one shown on Channel 4 – another crude attempt to spice up an underwhelming master?

Furthermore, in a bizarre twist, the scenes added to the film for the 2005 extended cut (both versions are available on this disc via seamless branching) look nigh on perfect. These scenes, which were transferred at a later date, show all the detail, rich texture and lack of digital manipulation that one would hope for and indeed expect from a release like this. Ironically, the presence of this excellent-looking material only adds insult to injury, showing just how good the BD could have looked had those responsible for it put in the effort:

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Gladiator on BD truly looks abysmal, and both Paramount and Universal should be ashamed for allowing a disc looking like this to be released at all, let alone on their prestigious Sapphire line. Bill Hunt of The Digital Bits has already called on Paramount to immediately recall the discs and reissue the film with a new transfer, and I wholeheartedly agree with him in this endeavour. In the meantime, I suggest that those considering picking up the BD hold off and stick to their standard definition DVDs, which in some respects actually look superior (this is particularly true of the PAL Superbit release, which is less filtered horizontally than its counterparts). Oh, and lest those planning on picking up the UK release believe that they will fare any better, I have it on good authority, direct from Universal themselves, that they are using the same master as the Paramount release.

You can find many more captures on my web site.

The Audio

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I assume it must be easier for studios to handle audio properly than video, given that, for all the DVD and BD releases out their suffering from moderate to severe image quality problems, far fewer have major sound issues. Gladiator is no exception, and there is something slightly incongruous about seeing such disappointing video lined up with such a thunderingly good audio presentation. The main track is a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 affair, and there is little to complain about. The bass is deep and satisfying (listen to those barbarian war cries and the thundering of horses’ hooves at the begin of the battle in Germania), and sound effects in the rears provide a nice sense of ambience almost throughout. The clarity of the dialogue is faultless, and my overall impression of the mix was that it was deeply satisfying.

If there is room for complaint, it is in Paramount’s decision not to include the matrixed 6.1 mix that accompanied the original DVD release. I only have a 5.1 setup so was unable to compare the 5.1 and 6.1 flavours, so I’ve no idea to what extent the quality of the audio presentation is affected by this oversight.

French and Spanish dubs (in Dolby Digital 5.1, at 640 Kbps) are also provided, along with English, English SDH, French, Spanish and Korean subtitles. With the exception of the commentaries, all of the extras are also subtitled.

The Extras

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Paramount have provided a plethora of bonus features, throwing in everything of substance from both the original 2-disc release from 2001 and the later 3-disc extended edition from 2005, as well as some new materials unique to the BD.

Disc 1 contains two commentaries, one for the theatrical cut and one for the extended, and both featuring Ridley Scott, joined by different participants. On the theatrical commentary, he is joined by cinematographer John Mathieson and editor Pietro Scalia, and they provide a slightly dry discussion of the film. It’s a good track, and listeners are rewarded with an insightful discussion of the film’s technical aspects. Less interesting is the extended cut’s commentary, for which Scott teams up with Russell Crowe, the two men adopting a more anecdotal approach, reminiscing about shooting the film and pointing out the differences between the theatrical and extended cuts.

Also included on the first disc are the Scrolls of Knowledge, which combine pop-up trivia with branching featurettes. These pertain both to the theatrical and extended cuts, although viewing the latter gives you access to substantially more material. Additionally, a “topic marker” is provided whereby viewers are shown a list of featurettes included on the second disc and can “bookmark” them to be played upon its insertion. Popping in Disc 2 opens up a rather overwhelming array of options, beginning with Visions of Elysium, a “topic portal” which serves as a list of the aforementioned featurettes on the disc and lets you queue up as many or as few as you like, rather than forcing you to navigate through a labyrinthine series of menus and select each one manually. There is page and pages of material here, and my advice to anyone planning on working their way through all of it is “Best of luck to you.”

More substantial, and ultimately more satisfying, is “Strength and Honor: Creating the World of Gladiator”, an in-depth and probing documentary put together by Charles de Lauzirika, one of best documentarians in the field of DVD bonus features. Split into seven segments, it covers a wide range of topics, ranging from the story genesis and the tortuous scriptwriting process, to the use of CGI and other assorted trickery to complete Oliver Reed’s performance after his dead, to the film’s release and its Oscar glory. The interviewees, who include Scott, Crowe, writers David Franzoni and William Nicholson, most of the core cast and just about all of the key crew members, are refreshingly frank about the problems that faced the production, although certain issues are unsurprisingly glossed over, such as the fact that a third screenwriter, John Logan, was ultimately fired because Crowe didn’t like the dialogue he was writing for him (this subject was covered much more candidly in Phil Day’s excellent 2001 documentary The Hollywood Machine). It’s a solid piece and well worth watching.

Further material, pertaining specifically to the visual aspects of the film, are collected under the “Image and Design” banner, and cover production design, storyboarding and the weaponry seen in the film. This section also includes two extensive galleries, divided into costume design and on-set photographs. A selection of abandoned sequences and deleted scenes is also provided, some actually filmed, some only at the conceptual stage. Also included are “The Aurelian Archives”, which consists of the bonus content from the original 2-disc release. These have more of a promotional quality but still succeed in covering a lot of ground, ranging from the generic “The Making of Gladiator” to a documentary about the Roman games. This section also archives a variety of trailers and TV spots.


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The frustrating thing about Paramount’s BD release of Gladiator is that, in all but one respect, it is an excellent package. The film itself is a fine piece of entertainment, the audio is satisfying and there are more extras than you can shake a stick at. The poor image quality is what lets it down, and while some might argue that the set makes up for this deficiency via its other strengths, I would like to make the following analogy. Let’s say you go to the most upmarket restaurant in town and order the most expensive dish on the menu. It arrives. The steak is tender and juicy, the vegetables are cooked to perfection and the wine is excellent. Unfortunately, the whole thing has been smothered in the most revolting gravy you’ve ever tasted. Regardless of the individual components, the fact is that you can’t possibly ignore the overarching problem.

The Blu-ray format, to me, is supposed to be about experiencing films in a state that is as close to perfection as is realistically possible. Perfection is, of course, an unattainable ideal, but the fact remains that, with regard to its picture quality, Gladiator doesn’t even come close. We know it can look better: the extended scenes confirm this, so it’s not as if the unattainable is being demanded. Yes, if I detach myself and break the set down to its individual elements, I can find much to praise in the audio mix and the quality of the bonus features, but when I watch a film I want to get sucked into it, enjoying it as a whole and forgetting that I’m watching a digital reproduction on an optical disc rather than the film itself. With Paramount’s release of Gladiator, that simply is not possible. This disc is a colossal mistake on the studio’s part and one that damages the reputations of both their own supposedly prestigious Sapphire Series label and the format as a whole.

I end this review by repeating my call to Paramount to immediately recall this set, re-release it with a new transfer and offer a trade-in programme for those who have already been hoodwinked.

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out of 10
Category Blu-Ray Review

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