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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (HD DVD)
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (HD DVD)
Universal // R // September 26, 2006 // Region 0
List Price: $29.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Joshua Zyber | posted November 15, 2006 | E-mail the Author
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"We can't stop here. This is bat country."

The Movie:
Terry Gilliam's film adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson's counter-culture druggie classic Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a funhouse mirror of a movie. Staring into its warped perception of reality can be superficially amusing for a little while, but in very little time at all you start to realize that the picture you see is just ugly, meaningless, and rather boring. At the carnival you can move on after a few minutes and find something more entertaining to waste your time doing, but unfortunately Gilliam's film drags on for an interminable two hours.

Johnny Depp stars as Thompson's not-at-all-disguised alter ego Raoul Duke, a supposed journalist who spends every waking moment, along with his supposed lawyer Dr. Gonzo (Benicio Del Toro), flying high on drugs, drugs, and more drugs, and after that a few other drugs to wash it all down. As the movie starts, Duke takes inventory of the stash in his trunk: "We had two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a saltshaker half-full of cocaine, and a whole multi-colored collection of uppers, downers, laughers, screamers... Also, a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of beer, a pint of raw ether, and two dozen amyls." Like a demented Boy Scout, he believes in coming prepared for the weekend. They are going to Vegas, after all. Sent on assignment to cover a dirt bike motocross in the Nevada desert, the pair spend their time acting like assholes, freaking out at the hallucinations all around them, trashing hotel rooms, and gawking at the straight world that, considering that it's Las Vegas, is sometimes even more freakish than anything their addled minds could conjure up alone.

Through all of this, Thompson/Duke also provides, in a much calmer and reflective tone to contrast his manic behavior on screen, a running voiceover that narrates the proceedings... and narrates... and narrates... and narrates. The film has so much narration smothering every scene, read I would assume verbatim from the book, that it's truly less a movie than an illustrated audio recording of the novel. At times the surreal poetry of Thompson's writing comes through in the voiceover, but for most of the film it's just a monotonous, never-ending drone.

Thompson was a pioneer of so-called "gonzo journalism", which amounts to getting wasted and typing out half-poetic, half-incoherent ramblings about otherwise straightforward events. Fear and Loathing caused quite a sensation when it debuted in 1971. Subsequent generations of teenagers continue to find great meaning and depth in it. Getting high while reading probably helps. Ostensibly a comedy, the book and hence film offer commentary on the absurdity and hypocrisy of the normal world. The problem (and please keep in mind this comes from the perspective of someone with little interest in drug culture) is that all the story really demonstrates is that doing drugs makes you behave like a dangerous idiot, and doing drugs in a freakshow atmosphere like Las Vegas doubly so. Forgive me if I don't find that particularly revelatory.

If anyone could adapt Thompson's unadaptable prose for the screen, you'd think acclaimed fantasist Terry Gilliam would have a good shot at it. The director's skewed visual imagination is an appropriate fit for the novel's gonzo druggy style, and indeed he gets to indulge in all manor of outrageous hallucinatory weirdness here. But it's all just too much. The story, such as it is, amounts to nothing more than an escalating series of nonsensical scenes that wallow in filth and unpleasantness. It's gaudy, incoherent, and after a while just plain wearying to watch. Gilliam is undeniably a talented filmmaker, but he needs to learn to rein in his excesses. Measured doses of weirdness are more effective than the overkill upon overkill here.

Johnny Depp obviously put a lot of work into his impersonation of Hunter Thompson (a living caricature of a human being), mumbling his dialogue past the cigarette holder that never leaves his lips, but his mannerisms, accurate to the man though they may be, grow annoying quickly. The same applies to Del Toro's depiction of the psychotic Dr. Gonzo. Are we meant to laugh at these wacky goofballs, or fear them for their hateful behavior? The movie is intended as a distorted exaggeration of reality, clearly, but it's so exaggerated that all we can do in scene after scene is question how people like this could possibly stand upright, much less function.

For as long as human beings will continue to experiment with mind-altering substances, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas the novel will always have an audience. Gilliam's film as well has developed a cult following, primarily of second-hand fans of the book. It really just doesn't do it for me, personally. In fact, the entire enterprise comes across as a monumental waste of talent. It's certainly not the director's worst film, but definitely is a misfire from the man who brought us the masterpieces Brazil and 12 Monkeys.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas debuts on the HD DVD format courtesy of Universal Studios Home Entertainment.

HD DVD discs are only playable in a compatible HD DVD player. They will not function in a standard DVD player or in a Blu-Ray player. Please note that the star rating scales for video and audio are relative to other High Definition disc content, not to traditional DVD.

The Fear and Loathing HD DVD is encoded on disc in High Definition 1080p format using VC-1 compression. The movie is presented in its theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 with letterbox bars at the top and bottom of the 16:9 frame.

The transfer has an ample amount of both positives and negatives. In its favor, the picture is extremely sharp, clear, and detailed. It has wonderfully vibrant, surreal colors and a terrific sense of depth. There's no denying that this is fine High Definition imagery, a significantly greater improvement over DVD than some of Universal's recent titles like Traffic or Spartacus.

On the downside, the source elements used for the transfer have noticeable dirt and blemishes, including one serious scratch that runs down the entire height of the frame around the 1 hr. 27 min. mark. Edge enhancement halos also unfortunately intrude into a great many scenes, and the opening credits look strangely jaggy, like they'd been vertically filtered. The movie's photography is frequently grainy, which I won't hold against the disc, but in certain scenes the grain takes on an unpleasant noisy texture. All in all, this HD DVD is a mixed bag.

The Fear and Loathing HD DVD is not flagged with an Image Constraint Token and will play in full High Definition quality over an HD DVD player's analog Component Video outputs.

The movie's soundtrack is provided in Dolby Digital Plus or lossless Dolby TrueHD 5.1 formats. Unfortunately, the disc seems to have authoring problems that result in the picture repeatedly freezing, skipping, and losing audio sync when selecting the TrueHD track. This has been reported by numerous viewers and I can confirm having that experience. The problem may be hardware-related as well, but is definitely triggered by something specific to the disc; I've had no such issues with any of the TrueHD tracks on Warner Bros. HD DVDs. As such, I had to give up trying to watch the movie with TrueHD audio and can really only comment on the quality of the DD+ track.

The film has an aggressive surround mix with all sorts of weird noises floating around the entire soundstage during the trippier drug sequences (which make up a good chunk of the movie). The sound design doesn't incorporate a whole lot of bass, however. Fidelity on the DD+ track is decent but not exceptional. What I listened to of the TrueHD track was noticeably richer and fuller. Depp and Del Toro both mumble the majority of their dialogue, which is frequently unintelligible in the mix, requiring you to back up scenes repeatedly to catch what they said.

Subs & Dubs:
Optional subtitles – English captions for the hearing impaired, French, or Spanish.
Alternate language tracks - French or Spanish DD+ 2.0.

The disc's interactive menus are accompanied by annoying beeping sound effects for every selection that can be turned off if you desire (and I recommend it). All of the bonus features on this HD DVD title are recycled from the DVD edition and are presented in Standard Definition video with MPEG2 compression.

All of the supplements from Universal's original, rather sparse DVD release have carried over. Unfortunately, we don't get any of the exclusive features from the more elaborate Criterion Collection DVD.

  • Spotlight on Location (10 min.) – A typical EPK promo piece featuring interviews with Gilliam, Depp, and Del Toro. It's all very fluffy and promotional. Nothing significant can be learned here.
  • Deleted Scenes (11 min.) – Four scenes are presented in rough workprint condition, one with a lengthy stretch without audio. There's a very silly prologue that couldn't ever work. The rest all run too long and were cut for pacing.
  • Theatrical Trailer (2 min.) – The trailer doesn't sell the film well at all.

Final Thoughts:
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a mess of a movie that wastes the talents of Terry Gilliam, Johnny Depp, Benicio Del Toro, and even Hunter S. Thompson. It has its fans, but even after repeated attempts I can't number myself among them. The HD DVD is a mixed bag in terms of picture, sound, and supplements. Those who are fans of the movie will want to hold onto the Criterion Collection DVD for its wealth of superior bonus features. Casual viewers can stick with a rental.

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