Gladiator Blu-ray Review
Well, at long last, Gladiator gets the hi-def transfer to home video that we always prayed for. And even if the travesty of the Sapphire release from 2009 should never have happened, this does go to show that, sometimes, a studio will listen and actually step up and rectify the matter.
The film is presented in its 2.35:1 aspect and comes courtesy of AVC MPEG-4. It's original grain is fully intact.
Now, asides from the lack of hellish edge enhancement and DNR, and beyond the return of the errant arrows and lightning bolts, this image does have a few new elements that may well cause concern still. These take the form of an altered contrast level and a very different scheme of colour timing. As those keeping up will no doubt recall, I saw this film no less than seven times at the flicks when it first came out, but I am not going to stand (well, sit) here and say to you all that this is how I remember it looking on the big screen. To be honest with you, I don't think for one minute that it is. A film, especially a Ridley Scott film goes through a lot of changes on its way to home video and pretty much over the course of the rest of its life, for that matter. They evolve with each new format, each new screening, each apparent restoration. So, in effect, the new cast to Gladiator could even be a closer reproduction of what Scott originally intended, perhaps even very reflective of what we all saw back in AD 2000, but can any of us recall it? Nope. But it does look a lot different now to how we've seen it over the intervening years. Yet, barring one scene that I actually don't like the new (or old) look of, I think this is visually more splendid, as well as being probably more convincing and natural to the environment that each scene or event is taking place within. The lighting and shadows cast by the desert sun, the incredible frosted glare of the wintry Germania scenes, the warm and earthy glow of the interiors of tents and the sweaty gleam of sandy, grit-filled training grounds, dormitories and the arenas, themselves – this is how the image should look. Flesh has a deeper tan, the sun can blaze white-hot, and the Nazi-esque austerity of Commodus’ return to Rome is even more silver and metallic than before.
But I'm not so sure about the scene outside Marcus Aurelius' tent when Lucilla confronts Maximus for the first time in the film. This has even more of a blue tint and a higher contrast and just, well, doesn't look quite right to me. Jeez, now I'm being as picky as our friends over the Pond who have taken nit-picking of even this remastered edition to an extreme I never thought possible. I mean, yes, the mountains in the background during the moment when Maximus rests up whilst on his journey back home are now blue-tinged and not pink-tinged, but this is probably due to the time of day at which this bit is supposed to be set. You know, this is my favourite film of all-time and even though I watch it as often as I can (which I'm sure can't be healthy for me), I'm not spending that precious time studying the frame pixel-by-pixel to find minuscule clumps of almost invisible compression artefacts, which some of these people have done. I despair sometimes of those who have, throughout this incident, clearly forgotten how to just sit and watch a film without setting aside their scrutinising ways even for one second.
Sadly, this observation does not completely exonerate me from spotting the odd little discrepancy, myself. The print has some small elements of damage – though these are just incredibly small pops and flecks that can only add to the texture of the film-like image in my opinion. There may even be a slight amount of aliasing taking place. Unless this is just down to the playback on the PS3 - the moment when Haken stands up from beside the scribe at tell all the new slaves what they must do in the arena, seemed to reveal this, as well as some other similar movements elsewhere. Sideways panning, and there are a few breathtaking examples of this throughout, is always smooth and utterly free of it, I should add. All of the fast action, snap-taut editing and blink-or-you’ll-miss-‘em frames – the severing of the scribe’s chained hand, for example (which you can plainly see if you slow it down) – are perfectly well captured without judder or visual incoherence. The banding elements are gone, although the billowing burnished title fugue still seems a touch fuzz-layered to me, and the very title, itself – Gladiator – leaves a faint residue in the mist that isn't there on the DVDs.
The colour saturation is sensational. Accurate, vivid, bold and mouth-watering. Primaries are lush, and the density of even the smallest dye pattern, or golden trinket, or trim on a robe is finite and beautifully presented. No matter how packed with activity or commotion or objects the screen it, fidelity is majestic.
Detail is terrific. Well, you know it is, don’t you? Even with the waxed version we had last year, you could almost tell what was missing beneath that bland façade because we had the remastered extended scenes intercut, adding imbalance to the already flawed image. We wanted detail and facial texture. We wanted properly defined background figures, structures and landscapes. We wanted objectivity to be fully resolves, un-smeared, un-waxy, un-smoothed and not artificially sharpened. Well, we’ve got what we wanted then. Snowflakes, curling tendrils of smoke from lamps, the dust floating about in light-moats, sheaves of wheat, grains of sand, individual rings of chainmail, pores, spots, crags and stubble on faces, and the more defined instances of blood, sweat and tears all appear now with the type of clarity and vividness that we expected first time around. Armour, weaponry and all the accoutrements of ancient warfare are splendidly rendered against an image that has considerable depth, an almost faultless black level integrity and a terrifically defined three-dimensionality. Gladiator is a film that wants you to look around its expansive vista, it positively demands that you scrutinise the tiers of the Colosseum, the furthest tree-line of Germania, those people climbing up the steps in the mid-background of the big Roman entrances for Commodus and for Proximo’s prized fighters. That flight of birds lifting off from the high archways of the Colosseum – clearer and sharper. The depth and clarity down in the dungeons beneath the arena – same again, the shadows giving up little details in the background, newer faces around the frame, more ominous weaponry on display. We can now see the gaping wound that Max delivers to that Praetorian whose face he diagonally bisects with a lot more clarity, right down to the shattered jaw-bone. Even some of those once-glaring CG shots, not the obvious ones like the flaming arrows and marching Romans in Germania, but things such as Cassius and other dignitaries peering over the balconies with the arena unfolding behind them seem far smoother than they ever appeared before. In short, the image is bolder, better defined, brighter and more colourful. The reappraised colour timing and the altered contrast ensuring that the film is ravishingly opened-up like never before.
I have a couple of absolutely tiny issues with this new look remastered transfer but, you know what, they're nothing to worry about. Nothing. This is Gladiator on Blu-ray and it looks nothing short of spectacular.
This gets a 9 ½ out of 10 from me, folks, although this will inevitably fall back to an official 9. You will not be disappointed with this.
So, how well does Gladiator shape up in the arena of sound now that it has made it to the Colosseum of lossless audio?
Now, in all the controversy over whether we'd finally got the remastered version or not, the one thing that nobody seemed to mention, was the audio transfer. Surely to the Gods, they couldn't muck this element up. I mean, Ridley Scott's movies pride themselves on profoundly intelligent mixing, incorporating intricate and powerful sound designs - Alien, Blade Runner, Black Hawk Down, Kingdom Of Heaven and Robin Hood have all got amazing audio dexterity and class. Gladiator had always stood at the forefront of those other titles with the utterly fantastic DTS 6.1 matrixed track that adorned the SD and Superbit editions. Sadly it dropped the ball when it first came to its Extended Edition release, which, in a bit of a shocker, carried only the (admittedly still very good) DD 5.1 track. But now we get the full Extended cut in lossless DTS-HD MA 5.1. WOW! There is no difference to the mix that we heard last time around, so pretty much everything I said last year still counts.
I complained back then, that this track doesn't sound like much of an upgrade over the old DTS-ES in certain ways. Listening to key sequences today from both this lossless incarnation and the previous 6.1, the older track actually, on occasion, seemed to carry more oomph, more weight and more density. With that one, I think I can feel some of the impacts more. The Battle Of Carthage, with its shunting overturning of the chariot by Maximus' boys, the crash into the arena wall that so excites Commodus and, best of all, the chariot that rockets through the gates and pitches over amid the carnage of toppled horses and attendants - none of this sounded appreciably better, more engulfing or more sub-engaging with the lossless track. The clash of the Romans and the barbarians at the beginning was only as alarmingly fierce, the vast explosion of the hurled fire-pots and the rapid chunk! and thwunk! of Max's two swords first severing a head against a tree and then removing the weapon and the hand of an enemy a little further on maybe even lacked the raw aggression of the older track.
But, before you go thinking that this track is inferior in any way, or not quite pulling its weight, this is really because the old DTS 6.1 was already stunning to begin with. This track just refines that quality, sharpens it, stretches and carries it with perhaps more dexterity, cleaning-up the barbarity of the mix and developing a wider and clearer soundfield in the process. Thus the track is, of course, a definite improvement. Offering a magnificent presentation of steerage, positioning, clarity, range, depth and all-round immersion, this is what home cinema is all about. The bass levels, so dominant in the past, now have to contend with a richer all-round environment that allows for other effects to shine through even the deepest shock-wave that they can conjure. They are still powerful enough to jaw-drop, foundation tremble and window rattle, so don't expect anything less than profound despite my apparent misgivings … and selfishly unrealistic craving for more.
So, on to even more good stuff … and there’s plenty of it.
The whip-around immersion of the arrow and fireball bombardment is pretty much awesome. The reach of the explosions across the front is terrific, the crash of bodies and the passage of horses around the set-up remarkably vivid and precise. Surround ambience is often fantastic, with voices convincingly emanating from all around with natural depth and distancing. The Romans' victory celebration, the musicians and the hubbub from each corner of the regal marquee is authentic, and the birdsong, the creaking of twigs and boughs during the sequence when Maximus is about to be executed widely dispersed and sounding perfectly natural. I will use these moments as key standards for much of the less bombastic scenes that follow. The Moroccan and Roman scenes all offer an equal complexity, warmth and range for dialogue and ambience. Voices have distinction and the sense of scale in some of the larger chambers is palpable. Even the odd taunting voice from the crowd is delivered with firm directionality and distancing. One voice, of an associate of Proximo's that taunts him with the line “You don't have a chance!” as he moves to the window to watch the “massacre” of Carthage doesn't sound as clear in this mix, but then the whole environment is re-prioritised, with emphasis slightly shifted.
No worries about the surround usage, though, as it is supreme. The sounds emanating from above, as the gladiators sit below ground awaiting their fights, certainly fool you into thinking that your house has been surrounded. Other stand-outs abound. Maximus hurling his sword at a cantering Praetorian immaculately whups its way towards its target from over your right shoulder. The swinging of that face-pulping mace that takes out Mr. Spiky Hair is equally glorious. Carthage hurls arrows, spears and tumbling wood, horses and bodies from all around us with dazzling intensity. We have a chariot thundering around the back of us, rear left to rear right. The tigers roar across the lounge so realistically that you may find yourself checking for rips in the carpet. The clanging of swords is sharp, acute and full of authentic-sounding heft. The variety in these metal-on-metal clashes is also wide and diverse. When Tigris (Arnie's long-time muscle-buddy, Sven-Ole Thorsen) suddenly lunges at Max, after he has been distracted by the attendants yanking on some suspicious chains, the litany of different clangs and clouts, as well as the realistic scuffle of kicked sand, definitely puts you right in the chopping-line. Maximus battling Commodus at the end produces some excellent sound effects, too. In fact this scene actually contains two of my favourite impact-sounds - the solid echoing sword bash that really resonates with wrist-jangling clout during the top-down shot of the pair circling each other, and the teeth-splintering bone crunch when Max slams his knee into the Emperor's poncy mush (God, I love that bit!). The roar of the crowd is always reassuringly deep and encompassing, too. Occasionally, I think the way that the rears deliver the general sounds of the mob may be a trifle reserved, possibly a touch too obviously “contained” within the mix but, overall, you get a full-bodied and energetic wraparound effect.
So the lossless track delivers where it counts.
But the other vital ingredient that has to truly shine is Zimmer's score, which is, thankfully, rich and full-bodied and flows effortlessly around the speakers, allowing for a fine appreciation of all those weird and wonderful ethnic instruments he unleashes. One thing that I did notice was that during the Battle Of Carthage, the metallic percussion that he uses, particularly during the moment when Maximus orders his men into “Single column! Single column!” is a little bit more pronounced. Detail in the score, across the high ends and the mid-range, is also smoother and a little more pleasing, stretching out to all the speakers with ease. Lisa Gerrard's haunting vocals simmer and then soar, her amazing voice able to drop and float with an uncanny precision that this track keeps pace with.
So, whilst this DTS-HD MA 5.1 track doesn't exactly demolish the earlier DTS-ES 6.1 incarnation as far as some elements go, it doesn't make a single mistake and delivers all-out immersive atmospherics with detail, depth and dynamism, providing a wonderfully exhilarating experience. All things considered, this remains one of the most impressive tracks out there. And since the video side of things now matches up, Glad-fans can have their own three-hour slice of AV-Elysium whenever they desire.
Another unofficial 9 ½ out of 10, folks ... but a 9 on the official score card.
The remastered disc contained in this double-pack with Robin Hood hails from the same 2-disc set that we had before. We get the addition of Pocket-Blu functionality, but nothing is missed off this edition, so all that I said previously regarding the extensive package of special features still stands.
This is what I said last time we went around the arena …
Well, if you thought the film was epic. Cop a load of what's on offer here. Everything from the earlier Expanded Edition has been shipped over on to this 2-disc platter. And, here, folks, there is absolutely no room for complaint, as that already outstanding collection of bonuses has actually been added to with fresh goodies.
Disc 1 contains both the theatrical and the extended cut of the movie with a small introduction from Ridley Scott (which can be viewed separately, as well) for the longer version in which he explains that it is not a Director's Cut ... just a longer one. We get the two older Commentary Tracks, the best one adorning the Extended Cut with Scott and Russell Crowe, which is worth its weight in gold as far as I am concerned, and the one from Scott and Editor Pietro Scalia and Cinematographer John Mathieson for the Theatrical. Both commentaries are fine and worth listening to. The theatrical is drier and more technical, but solid and very informative, whilst the chat over the top of the Extended cut is fast, fun and ribald, with neither holding back with their language or choice of anecdote. But, as entertaining as it is, the track is also immensely infuriating. For me, this was a chance for Crowe, the man, to somehow redeem himself with regards to his attitude - but he still comes across as overly arrogant and big-headed. He even finds the time to tell a story of witnessing a drunken Oliver Reed punching everybody within reach on the streets of Malta. “So sad,” he intones. That's rich, coming from the world's most notable celebrity-thug! There is much talk of the filmmaking “Process” and the “Journey” of the character, which is nice, but it is dealt with in stuttering, only half-completed movie-speak, never quite revealing enough, or reaching a satisfactory conclusion. Still, it is wonderful to have the pair give some insight into the movie and the character of Maximus. I'd love to hear Scott's full thoughts on the mind-boggling concepts of the Nic Cave penned sequel, though. All we get in reality is the disappointing Woodland Maximus action figure of Robin Hood.
Disc 1 also contains the Scrolls Of Knowledge U-Controlled function, which applies pop-up trivia and behind-the-scenes featurettes to both versions of the film, but with the Extended Cut having a more comprehensive selection. Another little gimmick for this disc is the ability to select and bookmark a vast array of further featurettes that can be found over on the Disc 2, under the banner of Visions Of Elysium, which your player will remember for when you insert that disc.
So, what do we have in this second legion of extras?
Well, besides the bewildering plethora of featurettes in Visions Of Elysium, Disc 2 houses the epic making-of documentary Strength and Honour: Creating the World of Gladiator. Running for a staggering three hours and sixteen minutes (you can choose to watch individual chapters) this is the kind of thorough, in-depth and fully comprehensive appreciation that you wish all your favourite movies could have. Folks, this stuff is simply mesmerising in its wealth of detail and information. A veritable treasure-trove of story development, raw footage, interviews, behind-the-scenes gubbins and tremendous retrospect from an army of participants. Literally leaving no stone unturned, we are introduced to the producers, the writers, the historians, the fight co-ordinators, the actors and the director, himself, who all help to steer this monolithic chronicle across the sea of time. Some of the clips are like extended or alternate versions of information and interviews we've seen already on the original DVD from 2001 - but, don't feel short changed - this is the real deal, warts and all! Full of anecdote, frank and honest, the documentary hides nothing - from the actor/director spats and script turmoil of committee writing to the construction of weapons, costumes and visual effects - and conclusively proves that Rome wasn't built in a day. If I even began to divulge some of the meaty stuff examined and revealed herein, I'd possibly never stop. So, take my word for it, this is excellent. My one slight gripe is that Russell Crowe only appears in the interviews taken from the film's production whilst everybody else, except the big three thesps that are sadly no longer with us - Reed, Harris and the wonderfully eyebrow-tweaking David Hemmings - all appear keen to reminisce. What's especially nice to see is the aftermath of the film's global success and the multiple award-winning that it achieved and the effect all this adulation had upon the cast and crew - particularly costume designer Janty Yates, who still looks over-awed by it all. Top class. Well done to all involved.
And, guess what? This gargantuan documentary just got bigger! This has now been equipped with 64 exclusive PiP featurettes (small but good and extremely wide-ranging) that can be accessed separately or via U-Control. Taken as little extra asides to the themes explored in the main feature, this is just Gladiator Elysium, folks!
To be honest, there is so much stuff here that I haven't noticed if the previous version's Easter Egg regarding the very tantalising prospect of Gladiator 2: The Blood Of The Empire is here or not. Don't laugh or dismiss it - all the key players were involved in this and the scripts do exist. But bizarrely, no-one is ruling out some kind of return for Maximus. God, I hope not. Despite my unadulterated admiration for the character and the story, I just don't think his coming back would ever work, apart from in a prequel - Maximus: Rise To Glory! And the makers dutifully dismiss that option. Besides, I don't think I could go through this entire obsession again. Not to mention the important fact that the wife wouldn't be too happy, either.
Under the title of Aurelian Archives, we get the promotional material that fans will all be familiar with from the earlier SD editions. There are the Making Of Gladiator (25 mins), ace historical doc, Gladiator Games: The Roman Bloodsport (50 mins), Hans Zimmer on Scoring Gladiator (21 mins), a few minutes with Crowe between takes and Spencer Treat Clark's text and photo Journal of the production. We get hundreds of images, stills and conceptual work for the film. Every single element from costume to weapons, furnishings to the Colosseum is detailed in close scrutiny - we meet the principal movers and shakers and are treated to lavish galleries of their work. Production Designer Arthur Max talks about scale, the differing locations - England, Malta, Morocco - and the pure logistics of it all. The original paintings, such as the pivotal Pollice Verso by Jean-Leon Gerome that kick-started the whole project, receive the respect they are due for their themes, imagery and use of lighting - all so integral to the look and style of the finished movie.
Storyboarding is covered with Conceptual Artist Sylvain Despretz and alongside his gallery we get multi-angle comparisons of storyboard-to-film, Ridley Scott's own doodlings and an in-depth section dedicated to Janty Yates' celebrated costume illustrations. Some of the promotional portraits are a hoot - check out some of Russell Crowe's naff heroic poses.
There are the Abandoned Sequences and Deleted Scenes. We get the Alternate Title Design with a featurette all about this beautiful, striking but ultimately too long and elaborate take on the opening credits. Blood Vision which, with a mixture of storyboard and outtake (with optional commentary from Scott) details Maximus' vision of the murder of his wife and child. I love this scene - it also plays in the Treasure Chest montage of unused footage that is a holdover from the first SD releases - and I find it amazingly moving and visually haunting. The infamous Rhino Fight is covered with storyboard and CGI test footage and carries an optional commentary from Sylvain Despretz. This would have been immensely cool to have seen, but would have the dragged the movie into marathon running time. Incidentally, Hans Zimmer actually provided music for this sequence that is a great mixture of familiar heroic stuff as well as some startling new material. Next up is a newly-discovered Deleted Scene called Choose Your Weapon which runs for 49 seconds and, in all honesty, adds absolutely nothing, being merely a few inserts between Maximus and Juba during the pre-chain-fight sequence.
That Tresure Chest montage crops up here, too. Set to Zimmer's score, we get dialogue-less shots, ruminations and additional footage from the opening battle (more carnage here) to the various gladiatorial bouts (more carnage here, too) to Rome and Commodus' revenge against those who denounce him. It climaxes with that Blood Vision moment. Awesome.
And there's more. VFX Explorations: Germania and Rome is a nuts and bolts breakdown of the CG work pioneered to create the vast armies and the seamless reality of the Colosseum from quietly-spoken computer-boffins. Running for 23.48 mins, it is surprising just how easy it all looks!
One new thing that I loved about this was the freshly unearthed featurette, An Evening With Russell Crowe, that lasts for about 27 minutes and just has the star on amazingly charismatic and fun-loving form in front of a clearly agog audience, fielding questions like a pro and having a right old time of it. Yep, he is arrogant and inescapably up himself, but he is also one of the finest, most intense actors around and this little promo showcase from the post-release press junket is something he does spectacularly well - when he is in the right mood, that is.
And finally, we get the incredible Trailers - the Theatrical Teaser cut to Basil Poledouris' awesome score for Conan The Barbarian is by far the best - and a whopping 20 (yes 20!) TV Spots that have individual titles and themes. I still love that Coming 2000 AD slogan.
Folks, this set of bonuses reveals a passion and a dedication that it is only paralleled by The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy of extended editions. It is remarkable, vital and all-engrossing. No matter what your feelings towards double, triple, or quadruple-dipping, this package is absolutely essential for die-hard fans of the film, even considering any qualms regarding its troublesome transfer. Oh, and the menus are exquisite too.
How you could give this unbelievable roster of features anything less than the top score is beyond me.
As far as I am concerned, justice has been done. The image does not look the same as on previous editions, but this is, without any shred of a doubt, the best that Gladiator has ever looked on home video. The detail is fantastic, the new colour timing is fresh and, I’ll wager, a bit more naturalistic, and the resulting image is very film-like. Honestly, those of you that can (and there may still be a fair few of you who haven’t gone down the disc exchange route yet) just spin that last BD and see the massive difference. With its EE, DNR, banding and other anomalies it looks like a SD DVD in comparison to this. Whether or not we can claim this as a victory for AV-enthusiast power over the studios is debatable, of course. Although I believe forum-badgering has played a large part in this very subdued turnaround (Joe Public still remains blissfully unaware of the entire debacle, of course), I would still suspect that Ridley Scott has had a few things to say about it in the appropriate ears.
With its epic collection of special features remaining one of the most comprehensive, well designed and utterly fascinating packages to grace a movie, Gladiator's new hi-def incarnation is virtually impossible to fault.
As you can see, the film means a lot to me, and I apologise for what many could justifiably hail as a completely biased and self-indulgent review. Scott's epic has plenty of flaws, of course, and I will never pretend that it doesn't. But when we talk about films possessing some form of inner magic, something that captures the imagination and stirs the heart and goes beyond mere escapism and entertainment and actually climbs out of the fanciful realm of fiction to become almost tangible as a cultural cornerstone – the true timeless classics that reinvent the form, revitalise a genre or influence a generation of other movie-makers – then Gladiator cuts its way almost to the top with strength and honour. And the type of genuine testosterone that not even a dozen Stallones, Stathams, Seagals, Van Dammes or Schwarzeneggers could ever summon. Russell Crowe owns Gladiator. Not many films actually transport you into their world as completely as this. Scott and Crowe have not managed to recapture the spell that they wove with this triumphant first pairing … but then, realistically, how could they? Gladiator was lightning in a bottle and, somehow, you just know that this unique formula has now been lost in time. Like Maximus, its journey has turned full circle, and now it stands as a cinematic titan, copied, adored and emulated … but never equalled.
If you've managed to stick with me throughout this gargantuan review them, readers, I salute you.
There was a dream that was Gladiator on Blu-ray. It has been realised.
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