Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Blu-ray)
Directed by Terry Gilliam
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 1080p AVC codec
Running Time: 119 minutes
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0, 5.1 English
MSRP: $ 39.95
Release Date: April 26, 2011
Review Date: April 24, 2011
Never let it be said that Terry Gilliam isn’t a risk-taking director. He often chooses projects of uncertain commerciality and puts his indelible stamp on them. Sometimes they meet with enthusiastic audience approval (The Fisher King, 12 Monkeys), but oftentimes they’re either openly scorned by the production studio (the infamous Brazil) or met with almost complete audience indifference (The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus). He never makes it easy for himself or his audiences which is why he has such a devoted following and why many of his movies develop enduring cult audiences that far surpass the initial responses to his works. One such film is Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, a film version of Hunter S. Thompson’s counterculture book of the same name. This is one of those films that most viewers either love or hate. For my part, I could appreciate what Gilliam was attempting to do, and while some of it works extremely well, for me it seems an extended fever dream that I didn’t enjoy experiencing very much.
The plot is miniscule. Journalist Raoul Duke (Johnny Depp), the Thompson stand-in, gets an assignment to cover the Mint 400 motocross race in Las Vegas, so he loads a rented convertible (one of the film’s funniest flashbacks) with his attorney-buddy Dr. Gonzo (Benicio Del Toro), fills it full of booze and every drug he can get his hands on, and heads to Vegas to take the longest acid trip of his life. Work becomes immaterial during the week as he trashes hotel rooms, orders thousands of dollars of room service food which gets strewn around the room, careens from one locale to the next, usually oblivious to his whereabouts, and while mostly missing the race he was sent to cover, gets another assignment detailing the National District Attorneys Conference on Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs before his week-long sojourn in Drug Central comes to an end.
Taking place in 1971, the script by director Gilliam and co-writer Tony Grisoni manages to include glimpses of many of that era’s defining social symbols: the flower power generation, peace protestors or all types (including veterans), Vietnam War reports on television, Hari Krishnas, Nixon and his paeans to the Silent Majority, the beginnings of the drug wars plus much of the music of the era from various pop singers and rock bands. Depp as the voice of Hunter S. Thompson narrates the film with constant insights into the culture of the era: sometimes funny, sometimes apt, and sometimes absurd. The adventures of the two drugged out “journalists” quickly wear out their welcome, however, as they literally careen from one set piece to the next, usually making anything from a small mess to a major disaster in the process. Gilliam doesn’t spare us the results of their excesses either as Del Toro takes one of the most disgusting baths in the history of cinema, and we twice see him vomit on camera in what does not appear to be a special effect. Gilliam’s visualizations of Depp’s early drug hallucinations are fascinating to watch (melting floors, facial features stretching in many directions, bleeding furniture, a bat attack), but he doesn’t sustain that level of inventiveness through the entire movie. In the last hour, the film becomes something of a tiresome picaresque as our travelers stumble from one thing to another without accomplishing either laughs or insight. With so little story and the shenanigans less and less inspired as the film continues, the movie feels at least twenty minutes too long. With its relentless satire of the American Dream that was being torn apart by the unrest of the early 1970s, the film doesn’t seem quite on the money coming more than a quarter century after the fact. It might have had more impact and felt more compelling if it could have been produced in or near the era it was depicting. Films like Easy Rider or Five Easy Pieces fairly crackle today with the uneasy electricity of that period. That seems completely missing here in a recreated 1970s America.
Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro certainly dive headlong into the morass of the piece without regard for anything but playing these wildly out-of-control characters to the hilt. Depp, in particular, seems imminently free with anything he’s asked to do and does it with ease and an admirable degree of convincing bravado that’s admirable. As for the remainder of the cast, director Gilliam has recruited friends and former actors he’s worked with to fill out the cameos that make up the additional cast members. Some, like Tobey Maguire as a hitchhiker, Cameron Diaz as a reporter, Lyle Lovett as a roadie, Mark Harmon as a reporter, or Penn Jillette as a barker pop in and out in almost the blink of an eye. Others make a more lasting impression. Particularly effective are Christopher Meloni as a put-upon fey hotel desk clerk who reaches his breaking point, Christina Ricci as a teenager who gets mixed up with Dr. Gonzo, Craig Bierko as a photographer assigned to work with Depp, Michael Jeter as an attorney giving an impassioned speech at the drug convention, and Gary Busey as an overly aggressive highway patrolman.
The film’s theatrical 2.35:1 aspect ratio is faithfully rendered in a 1080p transfer using the AVC codec. Apart from vintage footage used within the movie which appears soft and mushy, the transfer sports solid and striking colors, overly saturated to the breaking point on occasion (deliberately) and with flesh tones which are also sometimes deeply tanned and other times completely natural. The crisp, sharp picture might be too crisp on occasion when images are a bit disgusting, but there should be no complaints otherwise about its quality. Black levels are just fine. The film has been divided into 22 chapters.
The disc offers both DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo and 5.1 surround mixes. I sampled both and found not much difference between the two since the 5.1 encode sports only very subtle surround activity apart from the music which plays a major part in the film’s ambiance. From “It’s Not Unusual” to “Somebody to Love” and “Magic Moments,” pop songs get nicely threaded through the sound environment but for all of the noise and mayhem inherent in the movie, the rear channels don’t get much attention. There are some nice bass effects during one of the bad trips Depp goes on later in the picture, but otherwise, the LFE channel doesn’t get much use. Dialogue is well recorded and occupies the center channel.
There are three audio commentaries. The best is director Terry Gilliam’s track as he speaks for the entire length of the film about his goals for the project, his difficulties, many admiring comments about the actors as they appear throughout, and, of course, its eventual disastrous showing at Cannes and ultimate failure at the box-office and along with its later revival of interest (the commentary was recorded for Criterion’s 2002 release of the DVD). The other two commentaries feature producer Laila Nabulsi and actors Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro's edited together comments and a Q&A session with original author Hunter S. Thompson who tends to ramble in his answers or talk about things that weren’t asked of him.
There are three deleted scenes which must be selected individually lasting 1 ¼, 5 ½, and 3 ½ minutes respectively.
Seven of Terry Gilliam’s fanciful storyboards are provided in a step through gallery.
A series of production designer sketches by production designer James Clyne may be stepped through by the viewer.
A stills gallery with both production shots and behind-the-scenes snaps are provided in a step through gallery.
All of the video featurettes are presented in 1080i.
Johnny Depp reads a series of letters written to and from Hunter S. Thompson prior to and during and after production of the movie. This piece runs 14 ¼ minutes.
“Hunter Goes to Hollywood” is a short film directed by Wayne Ewing detailing Hunter Thompson arriving in Los Angeles and visiting the set of the movie during production. It runs 10 ¾ minutes.
“Not the Screenplay” offers an audio discussion of the brouhaha which erupted between original screenwriters Tod Davies and Alex Cox (who was originally going to direct) and Terry Gilliam and Tony Grisoni who wanted sole screenplay credit. Gilliam, Grisoni and producer Laila Nabulsi all contribute to the discussion. It runs 17 minutes. Gilliam also made a short film called A Dress Pattern detailing the squabble in symbolic terms which is included here running 1 ¼ minutes. Gilliam provides an optional commentary with this brief film.
The film’s theatrical trailer runs 2 ¼ minutes which is also provided with optional director commentary. There are also seven spot TV ads which run ½ minute each.
“Oscar Zeta Acosta: Dr. Gonzo” offers three selectable pieces: a biographical photo essay which the viewer may step through, “The Revolt of the Ockroal People” which features Acosta reading a chapter from his book in a 29 ¾-minute excerpt, and “Thompson on Acosta” which is a 7 ½-minute audio tribute to his friend read by Thompson.
An art gallery by noted illustrator Ralph Steadman (many of whose illustrations adorn the booklet in this set) may be stepped through by the viewer.
“Breakdown on Paradise Boulevard” is a 7 ¾-minute audio excerpt from Thompson’s book which involves a scene not filmed for the movie. In the reading, Jim Jarmusch plays Duke, Maury Chaykin plays Gonzo, and Jann Wenner is the narrator.
“Fear and Loathing on the Road to Hollywood” is a 1978 BBC television documentary on Thompson with illustrator Ralph Steadman meeting up with the writer at his Aspen home and the two of them venturing to Las Vegas and then Los Angeles all the while Thompson espouses his views of life in the U.S. quoting passages from various books of his. This featurette, the best and most revealing one on this disc of the man Hunter Thompson, runs for 50 ¼ minutes.
The enclosed 30-page booklet contains cast and crew lists, many amusing illustrations, critic J. Hoberman’s laudatory essay on the film, and two essays by Hunter S. Thompson about his original novel.
The Criterion Blu-rays include a maneuvering tool called “Timeline” which can be pulled up from the menu or by pushing the red button on the remote. It shows you your progress on the disc, the title of the chapter you’re now in, and index markers for the commentaries that go along with the film, all of which can be switched on the fly. Additionally, two other buttons on the remote can place or remove bookmarks if you decide to stop viewing before reaching the end of the film or want to mark specific places for later reference.
3/5 (not an average)
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas has a vocal cult following which finds much to recommend about the film. The Criterion Blu-ray certainly presents the movie and many interesting follow-up features in optimal quality. For those fans, this would seem to be a must-buy. Others unsure if the material will be up their alleys might wish to rent first and purchase later if so inclined.