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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Spartacus (2004)
Spartacus (2004)
Universal // Unrated // October 26, 2004
List Price: $27.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Holly E. Ordway | posted November 15, 2004 | E-mail the Author
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The movie

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.

The DVD

Spartacus is a double-sided, dual-layer DVD, with Part 1 on Side A of the disc and Part 2 on Side B.

Video

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.

Audio

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.

Extras

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.

Final thoughts

For a 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.

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