The 1960 version of Spartacus stands as one of the great
classics of film, with a star-studded cast, an exciting story, a
fascinating historical setting, and an overall epic feel to the film.
Fast-forward to 2004 and consider this new version of Spartacus,
which is based on the same novel by Howard Fast. We might rightfully
ask: Why was this production made? Why should we watch this instead
of Stanley Kubrick's 1960 epic?
These are very good questions, and ones that I never managed to
answer. Or, to be more specific, I never managed to answer them in a
way that came out favoring the newer adaptation. The 2004 Spartacus
isn't terrible, and in fact it has a reasonable amount of
entertainment value, but the simple fact is that there is really no
reason for it to exist at all. It offers nothing – and I do
mean nothing – that the 1960 Spartacus doesn't offer as
well, and it comes up short in a number of places.
Spartacus actually opens in a very interesting way, with a
voiceover narration from Varinia (Rhona Mitra), and a look back at
how she was thrown into slavery. If the film had continued to present
events from her point of view, it could have worked out extremely
well, offering a fresh, new perspective on the story of Spartacus.
Unfortunately, though, as soon as we meet Spartacus himself, the
story immediately falls into the same structure as the 1960 film...
not just in the larger scope of the story, but even scene by scene.
The story does eventually diverge from the events as depicted in the
1960 version, with the details of the slaves' revolt and Spartacus'
end unfolding a bit differently, but by then it's really too late;
neither Spartacus nor his fellow slaves have turned out to be
particularly interesting characters, and the film hasn't established
enough of its own identity to be intriguing.
So what, exactly, does the 2004 version offer that the 1960 film
doesn't? Not better performances or deeper characters, because
although Goran Visnjic does his best to evoke a quiet, pensive
Spartacus who's unsure of himself as a leader at times, he doesn't
have the acting ability to rise above a mediocre script. (The same
can be said for the supporting characters as well; only Mitra as
Varinia seems to really create a character who's more believable and
interesting than in the original film.) Not a richer, more detailed
story, since even though the 2004 Spartacus was presented as a
television mini-series (in two parts), its three-hour running time is
actually less than that of the 1960 film. Not a greater degree of
historical realism: this Spartacus still sticks with the
Hollywood misconception that most gladiatorial fights ended in the
death of one of the gladiators (in fact, deliberate death in the ring
was rare). It doesn't even manage to sidestep the clunky references
to Christianity that were a flaw in the 1960 Spartacus, and
instead has an even more direct and rather ridiculous Christian
connection through the character of David.
Where the 2004 Spartacus does differ from the 1960 version, it
is usually because it's drawing inspiration from Gladiator
instead. Viewers who have seen Gladiator will instantly
recognize the theme music of Spartacus; the use of short
flashbacks to a character's memories also seems highly influenced by
that film. About the only other thing Spartacus has to offer
over its predecessor is a glossier, somewhat more lavish visual
appearance, but that's not enough: the 1960 Spartacus was no
slouch in either the visuals or the props and costuming departments.
If you think it's unfair that I've been talking about Spartacus
solely in terms of how it compares to other productions, you've
really put your finger on the problem: this version of Spartacus
invites that comparison, because it does not establish its own
identity in the slightest way. By presenting what feels like merely
an update of the 1960 Spartacus, the film loses the
opportunity to cover new territory or explore the material in a more
interesting way. Taken solely on its own merits, the 2004 Spartacus
is certainly watchable, if you're in the mood for some fluffy
historical fun; it's just that there's very little reason to watch
this instead of the 1960 feature film.
Spartacus is a double-sided, dual-layer DVD, with Part 1 on
Side A of the disc and Part 2 on Side B.
Spartacus appears in its original widescreen aspect ratio of
1.85:1, and is anamorphically enhanced. It's a very attractive
transfer, with a clean, bright appearance, good colors, and a nice
level of detail. Some softness is apparent in long-distance shots,
but overall Spartacus is very pleasing to the eye.
The Dolby 5.1 track provides a solid listening experience, with a
reasonable use of the surround channels and a generally clean and
pleasing presentation of dialogue and sound effects. The music is
perhaps a little bit obtrusive at times, but it never interferes with
the other elements of the soundtrack. In addition to the English 5.1
soundtrack, there are also Spanish and French 5.1 tracks, as well as
Spanish and French subtitles and English captions.
The only special features is a 10-minute set of deleted scenes on
Side B. These are presented in non-anamorphic widescreen, and appear
as one long segment, with one deleted scene immediately following the
next. There was nothing that really grabbed my attention here.
light-weight historical epic, the made-for-television two-part
miniseries Spartacus isn't bad. The only problem is that it's
re-using material that's already been very effectively used already,
and it doesn't have anything to offer beyond the merits of looking a
little newer. You're probably better off just watching the 1960
Spartacus and the later film Gladiator instead of this
one. Still, it's not badly done, just not very original, and so could
be worth a rental. Rent it.