Gladiator (Sapphire Series Blu-ray) Studio: Paramount Home Video Rated: Theatrical Cut: R (for intense, graphic combat); Extended Version: Unrated Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 HD Encoding: 1080p HD Video Codec: MPEG-4 AVC Audio: English DTS-MA 5.1; French 5.1 Dolby Digital; Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital Subtitles: English, French, Spanish, Korean; English SDH+ Time: Theatrical Cut: 155 minutes; Extended Cut: 171 minutes Disc Format: 2 SS/DL BD Case Style: Keep case Theatrical Release Date: Theatrical Cut: 2000; Extended Version: 2005 Blu-ray Release Date: September 1, 2009 Paramount debut’s its “Sapphire Series” with director Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (along with Mel Gibson’s Braveheart). Paramount is quite proud of this new label of titles that, “…will capitalize on the pristine picture and sound of the Blu-ray format to present each cinematic gem in the highest quality for the first time in two-disc, high definition sets.” The “Sapphire Series” launched with Gladiator and Braveheart, and I mention this on this review since I am taking issue with Paramount touting Gladiator for its “pristine picture”, yet, as you may have read by now, this may not be the case. This two disc set allows you to choose to watch the Theatrical Version or the Extended Version which added in sixteen minutes of deleted footage. Prior to the beginning of the Extended Edition, you have the option of watching a basically worthless introduction from Scott. Scott was one of the few choices to direct this epic picture, based quite literally on a painting of a Roman gladiator standing over a body while the crowd cheered for blood, and the ultimate decision resting in the hands of the Emperor. The story was set fairly quick, but the script went through developmental hell with numerous writers and producers coming in and out mucking about with what eventually wound up on screen. The story centers around Roman general Maximus Decimus Meridias (Russell Crowe) who has lead Marcus Aurelius Caesar’s (Richard Harris) armies to victory, finally ending a vicious battle in Germania. Maximus wishes only to return home to his wife and son and he is hesitant of an offer from Caesar. Aurelius knows his weak son, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) is not up to the task of leading the empire and has decreed that Maximus will be the new Caesar. Commodus does not take kindly to his father’s wishes and secretly kills him, declares himself emperor and orders Maximus death. Maximus escapes and rushes home through a severe and lengthy journey to find his wife and son brutally killed. Lying on their graves, Maximus is near death himself when he is captured as a slave of Proximo (Oliver Reed), an entertainer who sends his slaves into combat while profiting on the games. Maximus distinguishes himself in battle and is sent to Rome to fight for the emperor. Once there, he fights and wins over seemingly impossible odds and draws the personal attention of Commodus. Once revealed, Maximus swears to kill Commodus for the death of his family and to honor Aurelius’ original wish. Rome is not without its own politics, and Commodus must also deal with his sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen) and her past with Maximus. Commodus is placed out of favor with the Roman citizens while Maximus wins them over causing a great stir in the senate and lack of faith and popularity in Commodus. The scheming begins as more blood is spilled and treachery is uncovered leading each character to a fate for which they may not be prepared. I saw the trailers for Gladiator prior to the film’s release and I remember laughing at them as a reminder of sword and sandal epics of the past which now seemed more suited to their place in history. Upon seeing Gladiator, I was taken by how we were unknowingly given an epic for the new millennium, one that pays homage to its inspirations while using modern day filmmaking methods to produce this picture. There is so much to like in this picture, but it boils down to some of the best performances from Crowe and Phoenix we’ve seen, and reminding us of the powerhouses that were Richard Harris and Oliver Reed. Scott takes us quickly and violently through the story, spending quiet beats with each of the characters building them up in our minds, reminding us “strength and honor” and “what we do here echoes in eternity” is as relevant today as it was thousands of years ago. The scale of the production was massive and we are certainly entertained, but Gladiator succeeds in those emotional moments where we have no problem identifying with the love of one’s leaders, the love of country, and most importantly, the love of family. Movie: ****.5/***** Video: Note: I am watching this title using a Marantz VP 11-S1 DLP projector, which has a native resolution of 1080p. I am using a Sony Playstation 3 Blu-Ray player while a Denon 3808CI does the switching and pass through of the video signal. I am utilizing the HDMI capabilities of each piece of equipment. The Blu-ray disc is encoded in the MPEG-4 AVC codec at 1080p with an aspect ratio of 2.35:1. Paramount has sent a mixed message with their new “Sapphire Series” which touts “pristine picture”. With my just reviewed Braveheart, they affirm this claim with one of the best images I have ever seen for that release in particular and BD in general. Unfortunately, Gladiator, has been subjected to DNR processing giving us an image that damn near shimmers with it’s over processed sharpness, introducing very noticeable edge enhancement and muting the grain. Further, as is the hallmark of DNR, the actors take on a waxy look occasionally muting what should have been much better detail (although there is SOME nice detail present); while you can imagine just how good the image could have looked, we are left with one that doesn’t quite do it. One of the other frustrations is that the processing almost seems inconsistent from scene to scene, jumping out at you in one then being more restrained in the next. I noticed the sharpening most when I was looking at the actor’s hair, specifically Phoenix, as it seems like it is about to sizzle off of him, while Crowe’s sweaty cut looked more natural. Another example is during the Germania scene where the spikes, lances and flag poles are horribly ringed with edge enhancement. One of the complaints I’ve seen online is that the flaming arrows from that same scene were erased, but the moving image is not that bad. It has been brought up online that the deleted scenes in the Extended Edition looked better than the rest of the picture. They do look slightly better, but they still exhibit edge enhancement that is not as obtrusive as the Theatrical Cut footage. In preparing for this review, I emailed HTF’s Adam Gregorich to see if he had heard any word from Paramount on the issues with the transfer. He reported back that conversations he had with Paramount the week of the release, as well as conversations he had with Universal last year, have told him this is a new transfer and it has been approved by Scott. This post and discussion on HTF can be found here. I’ll let the forum hash out that one. The image still maintains a colorful palate throughout showing a wide range of tones and hues in the desert scenes as well as the Roman sunsets. Scott and his DP John Mathieson put some scenes into high contrast and they look good. Detail in the costumes is quite nice but you can still see some smudging in the fabrics where they should be more delineated. Black levels were generally good, but sometimes seemed to be crushing in the darker scenes leaving shadows detail murky and undefined. While the image is not a home run, it is not a complete loss. The BD is an improvement over the previous DVD releases, giving us a more clear picture free of any print dirt or debris. This release also improves upon the depth-of-field. Video: ***/***** Audio: The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack was attained by the HDMI connection of the PS3 to the Denon 3808CI. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is very exciting and immersive and clearly benefits from the HD upgrade. The battle sequences, of course, stand out with their constant activity so well placed among the channels to put us right in the middle of it. The Germania battle is almost painful in its intensity, and I mean that in a really good way! While we’re there, we are quick to jump when the arrows or spears fly and duck as we hear the air being split by the slash of swords. Even in the quiet moments we are treated to subtle environmental effects in the surrounds while the voices remain primarily in the center channel. LFE’s are bold and direct and rumble with intensity, especially during the arena scenes. Dynamic range is excellent showing smooth transitions from the highs to the lows. Panning effects blend seamlessly with one another conveying a great soundstage. The track is clean and clear and free from any distortion. Hans Zimmer’s score is one of my favorites and it is beautifully reproduced along with a much more open vocal from Lisa Gerard. Zimmer’s score really comes to life during the Rome flyover as Commodus returns home, transcending the movie and standing on its own as a beautiful composition. One of the things that has been left by the wayside as DVD gained popularity was the option of isolated audio tracks; I’d kill to have a DTS-MA 5.1 music track to listen to here. Audio: ****.5/***** Bonus Material: all of this is in HD unless otherwise noted. All of the special features from the previous DVD incarnations are presented in this edition. Disc One: Commentary by Director Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe on the Extended Edition and Commentary by Scott, Mathieson and Editor Pietro Scalia on the Theatrical Cut: Scott and Crowe enjoy a very good working relationship and that is clearly evident on this commentary. The two bounce off of each other in their discussions of the story, the shoot, the actors or the themes. Each is very respectful to the other and they infuse their passion for the project in the track. The Theatrical Cut commentary is much more technical with Scott commenting on some of the more specific themes and plot points, and Scalia and Mathieson discussing the mechanical aspects of the film. While both are good commentaries, they may have both benefitted by being combined to really tighten them up. The Scrolls of Knowledge: using the “Are You Not Entertained?” trivia track from the 2005 Extended Edition DVD, this piece is enhanced with focus points allowing viewers to access a series of new behind-the-scenes featurettes exploring key scenes and how they relate to the historical accuracy depicted in the film. The extended version of the film also includes a deleted scene marker. Once you choose a topic, it takes you from the film and goes to a related video piece. You can mark topics from the Production Scroll and add them to the Visions from Elysium Topic Portal on Disc Two. Once the movie begins, there is a History box and a Production box and you make your choices from there. This is actually kind of a fun, in an ADD way, to watch the film and get a lot of the background information in context of the movie. There is also the option of seeing a list of all the “Historical Pods” and choosing them individually outside the context of the movie almost giving us one more documentary. Visions from Elysium: Topic Marker: this feature allows you to tag moments of interest throughout either version of the film to create a list topics to explore further. Thanks to the player’s memory, the topics will automatically be loaded when Disc 2 is inserted giving you immediate access to featurettes and galleries of interest. Once you have tagged all the topics, you can choose this option to ensure what you wanted to know more about is ready to go once you pop in Disc Two. I tried it out on several scenes and it works just fine, although I was unable to get it to Select All the pieces I had tagged. Disc Two: “Strength and Honor: Creating the World of Gladiator” (197 minutes, SD): with a movie as epic as Gladiator, you need a doc of equal size, and Charles de Lauzirika does not disappoint! Scott, Crowe, writers, the producers and historians, and numerous other members of the production describe the influences and inspirations for the move and how it was made. We start with the rather rocky road the picture took to get made. This was due to numerous writers working on various drafts of the script and the producers trying to keep track of it all. Next is an in depth look at the weapons and their usage, the costuming, stunts (featuring great detail on the filming of the Germania battle), locations, production design, the grandeur of Rome, the logistics of such a massive production, tiger wrangling and more. One of the best features is the one spotlighting Oliver Reed and the issues that were caused with his death during filming. Reed finally puts Scott in his place and it’s a pleasure to watch Reed enjoy himself and his legacy leading up to this project. We also get to see Editor Pietro Scalia at work, using bits and pieces of footage to finish Reed’s performance. We move on to the CGI that helped complete the illusion of what is seen on film. Finally the principal players in the production discuss its release and the impact of the film. You can also choose to watch the doc in the Enhanced Viewing Mode, which allows you to view it with links to related footage created exclusively for this BD release. If you enjoyed de Lauzirika’s extensive documentary for Blade Runner, you will love this one. Image & Design (approximately 34 minutes of footage in SD): this section has several pieces on the storyboards, production design, costumes, two photo galleries and a weapons primer with Simon Atherton (5:03). For the production design (9:34), Arthur Max discusses the aesthetic and inspirations behind the film, and then the disc directs you to two production design galleries covering geographical locations and other production illustrations, conceptual art, and interiors and exteriors. A storyboard demo (13:37) is next with Sylvain Despretz along with multi-angel comparisons of three scenes (5:59) and storyboard archives. The Costume Design Gallery covers the costumes for the primary characters and some of the generic types, such as gladiators and citizens. Abandoned Sequences & Deleted Scenes (in SD): featured here is the “Alternate Title Design” (9:16), where the title designer Nick Livesey explains the process used for the original title sequence, along with alternate takes; “Blood Vision” (2:16) shows the storyboards for an abandoned sequence with optional commentary from Scott; “Rhino Fight” (4:14) has Despretz walking us through the storyboards and some early CG of the abandoned rhino sequence (turns out you can’t train them!); “Choose Your Weapon” (:48) is a deleted scene not even in the Extended Edition and is segues into “Treasure Chest” (7:12), a montage of unused, leftover shots and sequences assembled by Scalia. The rest of the Bonus Material, all of it legacy pieces from the previous DVD releases falls under the header “The Aurelian Archives’ and it is all in SD. The Making of Gladiator (25:03) and Gladiator Games: The Roman Bloodsport (50:04) are the HBO First Look piece and a Learning Channel special, respectively. The first one really only gives you a taste of what is covered in much more depth in the “Strength and Honor” doc. The second piece is a historical documentary of the gladiator games and the culture of Rome of that period. Hans Zimmer: Scoring Gladiator (20:42): Zimmer finally gets his own piece where he goes into detail of how the score emphasizes the emotional themes of the movie. An Evening with Russell Crowe (27:15) has Crowe answering questions from the press after a screening of the movie. Maximus Uncut: Between Takes with Russell Crowe (8:00) has outtakes with Crowe joking around on set. My Gladiator Journal by Spencer Treat Clark: this is the personal diary of Clark who plays young Lucius. You can view the pages by jumping through the static images. This is a pretty time consuming read but it provides an interesting perspective to the production. VFX Explorations: Germania & Rome (23:50): shot deconstruction of the two scenes with the visual effects artists. This is a somewhat dry piece and we’ve seen this type of material over and over again on just about any other disc that uses CG. Two Theatrical Trailers and twenty TV Spots finish up the set. Bonus Material: *****/***** Conclusions: This incredible and epic picture of one man’s strength and honor reminds us of just how exciting and passionate films can be. While the Blu-ray soars with its DTS-MA audio and exhaustive extras, it is diminished by a video presentation that has been over processed. Is this enough to tell you not to buy the disc? No, as we may not see another release with improved video for some time, and the BD is an improvement over the previous DVD releases.