Gladiator: Extended Special Edition Review
Nestled squarely between the disaster that was G.I. Jane and the masterpiece that was Hannibal, Gladiator is one of Ridley Scott's most conventional, mainstream-friendly efforts and unsurprisingly one of his biggest box office successes. Resurrecting the celebrated "swords and sandals" sub-genre with the help of modern technology and a decidedly MTV-inspired editing sensibility, Gladiator is a slick piece of popcorn entertainment which is perhaps a little too pompous for its own good but remains a thoroughly enjoyable spectacle. So much has been written about the film by now that any attempt to discuss it in detail would simply be treading over dead ground, so permit me instead to move on, without further ado, to the main points of interest of this new release - namely: how does the extended cut compare to the theatrical version, and are the bonus materials in this three-disc set the extras to end all extras?
The Extended Cut
Upon hitting "Play" on the first disc, we are greeted to a tepid introduction from Ridley Scott. The good man is scarcely able to conceal his contempt as he dryly informs us that the version we are about to watch is not the "director's cut" but rather a version with some bits added in that we "might find interesting". Oh boy.
It quickly becomes apparent that the majority of the material reinserted into the film is the same footage that was previously included on the original 2-disc release in the form of deleted scenes. As such, there really isn't much here that those who owned that version will not have already seen, although granted having it reintegrated into the film itself does provide a slightly different experience. Ridley Scott does admit, however, on the audio commenary, that a number of the scenes hurt the pacing, with a handful of asides (Commodus' execution of the soldiers who failed to do away with Maximus, for example) distracting from the main narrative.
One thing I found rather distracting was that it did not appear that any new music had been composed for the extended cut, which means that the score in the new scenes is comprised of pieces copied and pasted from other parts of the film. This wouldn't have been all that bad had the music editors been judicious and picked a variety of different cues but - I kid you not - I heard the opening piece, which plays over the company logos and text crawl at the very start, in at least four different scenes. This might not sound like a big deal, but it quickly becomes very distracting and is yet another reminder that, in comparison with the extended editions of the likes of The Lord of the Rings, this is really nothing but a gimmick.
That said, a number of scenes that have been added back in alter the film in subtle ways. In particular, the additional scenes that delve into the political intrigue of Rome do help to round the film out and provide a glimpse at a level of depth that perhaps was not present in the theatrical cut. The extended cut certainly does not transform the film into something that it previously was not, but equally well the added scenes definitely don't suddenly cripple it and cause it to collapse under its own weight. Gladiator was an enjoyable film in its theatrical form, and it remains enjoyable in this new format, but at the same time I certainly don't think that the extended edition is something that everyone must see.
One final note regarding the new cut which I must point out is that, while the US DVD actually allows you to also watch the theatrical version of the film, via seamless branching, this option has been removed from the UK release - a shame, because for fans of the film, any notion of selling on the previous release is more or less quashed.
Allow me a brief interlude of non-professionalism while I go on a rant. People, paying good money for this release, are going to be greeted, every single time they insert the disc, by a loud, annoying and non-skippable advert telling them that piracy is evil. That, to me, is completely ridiculous. I don't need to be told, every single time I want to watch this DVD, that pirating a movie is the same as stealing a car, and other such half-baked nonsense. The irony being, of course, that a pirate copy would probably have had the aforementioned warning removed. This is yet another example of the studios punishing those who have bought legitimate copies instead of going after the real troublemakers.
With that little outburst out of the way, on to the real meat and potatoes.
Those who already own the 2-disc release of Gladiator will know what to expect in terms of image quality. Presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.39:1, anamorphically of course, the film looks almost identical to its original release - which is to say very good, but hardly reference quality. Completely watchable throughout, with great colour reproduction and no visible compression artefacts, the transfer is let down by some fairly prominent horizontal edge enhancement and a slight softness in wide shots. Close-ups look excellent, as they tend to do on all but the worst releases. It would have been nice if Universal had struck a new master instead of seemingly just recycling the same old one, but most people will probably have nothing to complain about.
In terms of audio, this release starts looking a little impressive. The original release featured Dolby Digital and DTS mixes, the latter of which was rightfully praised to the heavens and was one of the very first DTS tracks to appear on DVD in the UK. (US customers had it even better, benefiting from a DTS-ES 6.1 track instead of the more familiar 5.1.) For the extended release, the DTS track has been given the chop, leaving only the significantly less impressive Dolby track. It's by no means a bad track, but it pales in comparison to its meatier stablemate, and the fact that only 7.01 GB (out of an available 9) have been used suggests that there would still have been adequate room for DTS audio, if Universal could have been bothered.
To their credit, Universal have provided English subtitles not only for the film itself but also for all of the bonus features (although if you want to watch the movie with the fact track enabled, all other subtitles will naturally have to be disabled). Subtitles in a multitude of different languages have also been provided for the extras on discs 2 and 3.
In addition to the aforementioned introduction by Ridley Scott, the first disc contains a new Audio Commentary featuring Scott and Russell Crowe. Recorded together, the two basically indulge in a low-key and informal chinwag, reminiscing about the making of the film and commenting on the events on screen as they take place. It's not a bad commentary, but it is remarkably lacking in solid information, which makes it a damn shame that the superior commentary from the first release, featuring Scott, director of photography John Mathieson and editor Pietro Scalia, was not ported over (although due to the differences in running time between the theatrical cut and extended edition, this would probably not have been possible).
A subtitle-based Fact Track is also included, which is actually fairly informative, but to be honest this has never been my favourite way of conveying information, generally because the material provided tends to be very "bitty" and almost always ends up packing in trivia that has little or nothing to do with the film in question.
The second disc's extras take the form of over three hours' worth of documentary materials, covering a wide range of different aspects of the film's production. Discussing every single feature in exhaustive detail would probably be an exercise in futility, as the word count would no doubt run into quadruple figures and would be tedious both to write and to read. Instead, I'll focus purely on the most interesting elements - which is by no means an indictment of the materials not discussed here, as the bonus materials in this set are, on the whole, superb.
The Tale of the Scribes covers the development of Gladiator's script, explaining why it passed through the hands of three different writers. Two of the trio, David Franzoni and William Nicholson, are interviewed, and both deliver commendably honest accounts of the failings of the various different drafts, as well as their own personal strengths and weaknesses as writers. Lamentably, Nicholson's extremely revealing account of Russell Crowe's reaction to his rewrite of the infamous "I will have my vengeance" speech, recounted in full a few years ago in the BBC documentary The Hollywood Machine, is not touched upon - a great shame, because it served as something of an eye-opener regarding the egos that can develop in the acting business.
Shadows and Dust: Resurrecting Proximo deals with the untimely passing of Oliver Reed and the lengths the crew went to in order to complete the film using incomplete footage of his character. The results, achieved mainly through a combination of re-ordered scenes, re-used footage and the use of doubles in long shots, are fairly noticeable when pointed out (especially the scene of Proximo's death, which feels incredibly disjointed due to the fact that it is comprised of a few seconds of footage of Reed from an earlier scene followed by a long shot of a double being stabbed), but even so this represents an immense achievement. Particularly interesting is William Nicholson's explanation of the wrangling required in order to change the script while still working with the footage that was available to them. This feature also includes a great deal of interview footage with Reed, conducted on the set of the film.
Echoes in Eternity: Release and Impact covers the film's release and the audience and critical reaction. This is a nice little retrospective piece, and also includes a brief discussion of the scenes reintegrated into the extended cut.
The third disc is significantly more bitty in terms of content than the second disc. There are two basic categories, Image and Design and Supplement Archive, each of which is divided into its own sub-sections.
Image and Design is features four different areas, each focusing on a different aspect of the production: Production Design, Storyboarding, Costume Design, and Photos. The first two contain featurettes interviewing the relevant crew members (the Storyboarding section also features storyboard to film comparisons of three key scenes, with optional commentary by artist Sylvain Despretz), in addition to featuring an extensive array of still galleries, whereas the latter two are comprised only of galleries. I'll be perfectly honest and confess that I didn't make my way through every single image: there is a vast amount of material in here, which would take several hours to explore in its entirety. As someone who occasionally dallies with storyboarding myself, I personally found the featurette focusing on that particular aspect to be absolutely fascinating, not least because it includes an actual 'live' demonstration by Sylvain Despretz drawing two frames specially for the camera and showing the level of work that goes into creating a professional movie storyboard.
Supplement Archive contains three sections:
Abandoned Sequences and Deleted Scenes is comprised of four different sequences, not included as part of the deleted scenes section in the previous 2-disc release, for materials that never made it into either version of the film. One, an abandoned concept involving a fight with a rhinosceros, is provided entirely in storyboard form, with optional commentary by Sylvain Despretz. Another, "Blood Vision", features a combination of storyboards and outtake footage, with optional commentary by Ridley Scott. "Choose Your Weapon", meanwhile, is comprised entirely of actual footage. Finally, there is an exploration of an abandoned variant of the opening titles, comprised of a featurette and the title sequence itself. The sequence itself, by the way, is intriguing, but ultimately not very functional.
VFX Explorations: Germania and Rome is a 23-minute featurette demonstrating the process of augmenting the locations with CGI and matte paintings. This is a pretty nice technical exploration, with interesting demonstrations of various stages of the process.
Finally, Trailer and TV Spots contains the theatrical teaser, theatrical trailer and a whopping 20 TV commercials.
All told, this is a whopping array of extras, covering an impressive breadth of material, the vast majority of it well worth watching at least once and providing an illuminating window into the production process itself. However, the fact that the commentary provided is inferior to the version included on the film's original release means that I have opted not to give it a full 10/10 score. It's very close, but a nice, informative commentary track would have rounded the package out nicely.
Universal have delivered an excellent selection of extras for this 3-disc re-release of Gladiator. While the extended cut may not improve the film in any significant way, those with an interest in its production will no doubt still wish to pick up a copy so they can dive into its lavish array of bonus features.