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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Spartacus (HD DVD)
Spartacus (HD DVD)
Universal // PG-13 // October 24, 2006 // Region 0
List Price: $29.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Daniel Hirshleifer | posted November 3, 2006 | E-mail the Author
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The Movie:
Over 40 years after its release, Hollywood has yet to make a gladiator film better than Spartacus. Stanley Kubrick's epic film is a strong and exciting story about a slave who becomes a gladiator who makes himself a leader. The film is grandiose and sweeping, full of great performances and memorable lines.

Kirk Douglas stars in the title role, in what was originally a vanity project. Disagreements between Douglas and the director, Anthony Mann, led to Mann being ousted and Kubrick being brought in to replace him. It is a testament to Kubrick's vision that he turned the job for hire into something greater, even with Douglas breathing down his neck the entire time.

Spartacus looks like an old-fashioned film epic in the vein of The Ten Commandments or Ben-Hur. Looking past the surface, one can see that Kubrick has taken his meticulous eye to the material, and the result raises the movie up in a way that a lesser director would have been unable to do. Combine this with a script by Dalton Trumbo that was willing to take chances, and you have a film that stands up to close critical scrutiny even today.

And speaking of taking chances, simply crediting Douglas Trumbo was a huge event in cinema at the time, as it broke the Hollywood blacklist. Other movies had featured scripts by blacklisted writers, but all under false names. Spartacus was the film that took a stand, and as a result, the blacklist faded away.

On a performance level, there are so many treats in this film that it's tough to list them all. Kirk Douglas may seem one-note, but still carries the film well. However, he's not the main draw. Peter Ustinov gives a highly entertaining performance as Lentulus Batiatus, the gladiator trainer with more to him than meets the eye. Laurence Olivier is stunningly sinister as Marcus Licinius Crassus, a senator who would be an Emperor, if it weren't for a certain gladiator. But outshining them all is Charles Laughton as Sempronius Gracchus, the rotund senator whose jovial facade hides a mind of extreme cunning. Even Tony Curtis comes away looking pretty good.

As far as classic Hollywood epics go, Spartacus is one of the best. It paid homage to what came before while paving the way to what would come after (Kubrick's next roadshow epic would my personal vote for greatest film of all time, 2001: A Space Odyssey), and managed to break down several Hollywood taboos in the process.

The HD DVD:

The Image:
Sadly, this first HD DVD edition of Spartacus does very little justice to the sweeping grandeur of the imagery in the film. This transfer was taken from the same 1991 restored edition that served as the basis for the two previous DVD editions, and by now it's looking pretty tired. Detail is shallow, and there's a lot of softness to the image. Some colors seem muted while others bounce glaringly off the screen. Dirt and dust litter the print. In short, it's a mess. For a comparison, I checked it against the Criterion standard definition DVD. They looked almost the same. The HD DVD did have more details, especially in close-ups, and while the colors may be a bit off balance on the HD DVD, the standard DVD seemed to have the colors consistently blown out. Also, I clearly noticed mosquito noise in the Criterion, whereas I was hard pressed to find any artifacting on the HD DVD. In defense of the Criterion, it did have a little less dirt. It's clear that with the improvements in restoration technology in the past 15 years, Spartacus should be a prime candidate for another clean up.

Note: The screenshots in this review are taken from the Criterion Collection DVD and are not representative of the image quality on the HD DVD.

The Audio:
The audio is also directly ported from the previous 5.1 mix. This was an early 5.1 mix, and it shows. It essentially sounds like a mono mix of the film, but with some sounds bleeding to the rears. Sometimes it sounds like the rears are almost being used by accident, that's how little activity they get. I have to wonder if this mix is representative of the original 6 channel mix that the film had in its 70mm run, or if it was just a remix done for the early days of DVD.

The Supplements:
Cue the crickets. This version of Spartacus has no supplements. Zero, zip, nada. If you go into the extras menu, you do get the pleasant surprise of finding out that this disc has the bookmarking feature that Warner has used on several of their HD DVDs. However, that feature on an HD DVD is sure to become the next generation version of "interactive menus" on early standard DVDs, so it's nothing to write home about. Another interesting thing to note is that Universal has also added a little window that pops up when you look at the scene selections that tells you your current chapter and how many minutes and seconds it is into the movie. None of the excellent Criterion extras appear on this disc, which shouldn't be surprising, as Criterion owns those supplements and are surely saving them for their own HD DVD or Blu-ray release.

The Conclusion:
Spartacus is a movie worth enjoying and admiring. It broke a lot of the barriers of the old Hollywood system and paved the way for Stanley Kubrick to make the best movies of his career. Sadly, this HD DVD version only offers a slight visual improvement over the previous DVD versions, and no audio improvement. It's actually a step back in terms of extras, as it has none. For now, the Criterion Collection two DVD set is still the definitive release of the film on home video. Rent It.

Daniel Hirshleifer is the High Definition Editor for DVD Talk.

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