Well I'm pleased to report that the video is positively sublime, albeit with a couple of caveats. Right from the opening credits, bathed in sepia-yellow tones, the image looks bold and crystal clear. As the picture shifts to Germania, the wintry half-lit battlefield is portrayed with fantastic detail and depth, offering a very cinematic look. Detail on faces and armour is nigh on perfect, with realistic, solid colours - Joaquin Phoenix's armour looked utterly amazing on our large review display.
In fact, as Gladiator moves on the images continue to impress. Some of the Rome scenes contain immense amounts of detail - in particular note the intricate costumes, including the "Battle of Carthage" announcers golden robe - and the long distance shots of the Colosseum are breath-taking. And speaking of the Colosseum, there are moments here at the opening of the Battle Of Carthage that will test your equipment: moiring and shimmering will result if there are any weaknesses present, although it's momentary and barely distracting.
It all sounds good so far, but things aren't perfect. For one there are a couple of instances of noise and grain present on the transfer - when the huge crossbows are being loaded in the Germania section, the sky exhibits noise which is apparent no matter how large or small your screen is, and as Joaquin Phoenix rides off to greet his father after the battle, grain is apparent in some of the mist (after he says to his sister "A kiss?"). Around the 45:50 mark grain and scratches are also noticeable. There is a small amount of edge enhancement present on a couple of occasions - it's not pronounced in any way, and certainly much less noticeable than some of the other recent Region 1 superbit releases, but it's there if you're feeling inclined enough to look. Add in a handful of scratches, and we have a less than perfect transfer, though it's worth noting that this is still close to reference quality.
So how does it compare to the other versions available? I compared this to both the existing 2-disc Region 2 release and the Region 1 release, and my findings it has to be said, have left me a little cynical of the Superbit banner. Why? Because there is no difference in quality.
All transfers hold up almost identically to the critical eye, with the detail, depth and clarity all rating extremely high. All of the print imperfections are present in all three transfers, and I even noticed scratches in the same places. It must be said to get an entirely conclusive view you need 2 identical DVD players/display/cables and switch instantly between the two, but to the naked eye and with gaps for disc switching, there is no discernible difference.
With the original transfers being of such a good standard, it was always going to be difficult for the Superbit to improve upon them, which begs my original question: "Why bother with a Superbit release?" A pertinent question indeed.
Hell indeed if you were on that battlefield, and it almost feels like you are as the surrounds come alive with marching troops, shouting voices and the sounds of war about to commence. When it finally does - and the opening arrow being fired into the sky sounds fantastic - the mix becomes frantic with all channels being used aggressively, including some satisfying LFE action, pin-sharp steering and effective use of the surrounds. Blades clash all around you, along with the sounds of the dying. Without a doubt, the opening is close to reference standard.
This standard is echoed throughout the movie, but this soundtrack shouldn't just be used as demonstration material for its action sequences, as some of the finer joys of this surround mix are to be found in the quieter moments. The soundtrack - both Dolby Digital and DTS - offers a rich multi-layered sound that's full of subtlety. A good example of this is around 40:00, where we hear Maximus' voice, a crackling fire and the buzz of chirping crickets all around. It's perfectly balanced and so enveloping you could imagine yourself being there. Great stuff.
Of the DTS and Dolby Digital mix, there are differences albeit subtle ones. In blind testing, the DTS mix was found to be slightly louder, with a more forward soundstage. So is it just louder? Well no, not quite, and one of the biggest surprises is to be found not during the stirring battle sequences, but in moments between. At 13:00, the "carriage" scene where we meet Joaquin Phoenix and Connie Nielsen is full of ambient surround detail as well as being dialogue heavy. Whilst the dialogue remains identical between DTS and Dolby Digital, the DTS mix sounds more detailed with the creaking of the carriage much more prominent, and the voices and horses hooves adding more ambience in the surround channels.
Altogether however, this is nigh on reference quality, regardless of your choice of sound formats.
It's worth noting that this Superbit titles holds nothing over the standard edition of Gladiator, which offers DTS-ES (matrixed) on the Region 2 edition and DTS-ES (6.1 discrete) on the Region 1 version. Although I only compared the DTS 5.1 soundtracks on all three discs, again I could discern no difference between the mixes. Given the additional sound format support of previous releases, one has to question the value in this Superbit edition.
An epic piece of storytelling, with an excellent picture and sound to match...but is there really any reason to buy this? Even if you don't own Gladiator, you're better off tracking down the previous release for the interesting extras.
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