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In 180 AD, General Maximus Decimus Meridius lead the Roman army to victory against Germanic tribes. Maximus is ready to head home so he can finally dirty his hands with soil instead of blood, but Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who loves Maximus like a son, has other plans. He's called for separate meetings with Maximus and Commodus, the latter being his biological son and next in line to rule. However, Maximus is told that he's been chosen to lead Rome instead, and when Commodus hears of this, he murders his father and frames Maximus for it before sentencing him to death. A cunning strategist and survivalist, Maximus gets the better of his captors and escapes, only to return home to find his family had been slain. He doesn't get much time to say goodbye, as he passes out from a previously inflicted wound.
He wakes up and finds himself being transported by captors once again, but this time as a slave. He's been sold for the purpose of fighting as a gladiator in the Colosseum. As the new Emperor, Commodus sits front and center to enjoy the games, and Maximus decides to bide his time until he has an opportunity to exact his revenge and bring Marcus' final wishes to fruition. When those loyal to Maximus learn he's still alive, it sets a series of events in motion that cannot be stopped.
There's a lot of backroom politics which is inherently tied to the plot, but unlike most films, the politics of emperor vs. the senate are easily digestible and the film still squarely focuses on Maximus' tale, which is of the ‘protagonist gets knocked back to square one and has to build himself up again' variety. It's certainly been done countless times before, but rarely as well as this.
Roger Ebert believed this film's characters were dull, acting dark and moody to disguise how uninteresting they were. I think it's true that Gladiator doesn't have the same substantial character arcs we're used to raving about in cinema, but then again, the plot doesn't really call for it. Commodus is a thoroughly evil man, and Joaquin Phoenix does an amazing job of making him one of the most unnerving villains mainstream filmgoers have ever seen. The character is a bit on the whiny side, but that just causes him to unravel all the more. Russell Crowe serves as the perfect contrast, a man who would rather die by the sword as long as it means holding on to his honor and principles. Connie Nielsen has to act increasingly afraid of Commodus throughout the film, and her fear is almost palpable. There's no slouch across the film's primary cast, and their roles in concert are what propels things along. It may sound crazy, but characters don't always need to change drastically in order to be interesting. In this case, the villain is so vile and the protagonist has such an incredibly tall mountain to climb, that you still manage to root for the good guys.
Even if you're not a fan of the performances, Gladiator has so much going for it otherwise. The pacing of the film is marvelous, the score can be beautiful, majestic and even cause a bit of nail biting, the cinematography is great, and last but not least, the action… it's worth the price of admission alone; everything from the opening battle against Germanic tribes to the final face-off in the Colosseum as rose petals fall through the air and carpet the sand. You'll get a feel for what it's like to be in Maximus' shoes too, as you'll feel the clang against every sword and shield and the slice against every bit of flesh. Plot and characterization aside, it's quite the ride.
It's amazing how masterful this film is, actually. Russell Crowe had once said that the script was ‘substantially underdone', and recalled that shooting began with only 32 pages of script at the ready. How Ridley Scott managed to pull everything into such a tight package truly speaks to his talent (as well as the script writers who undoubtedly worked day and night to make sure they had something to shoot more than a couple/few weeks out). Then again, that's Hollywood for you. The films that are never suspected to become huge hits do, and the reasons for that usually boil down to ‘things just miraculously happened to fall into the right place'. Nearly two decades on, and Gladiator is still one of Scott's best films. If you haven't seen it yet, you should set aside the time to do so as soon as possible. After all, what better excuse is there than a brand new 4K presentation? Read on to hear more about that.
Gladiator makes its 4K debut with a remarkable transfer that utilizes the HEVC codec at an aspect ratio of 2.35:1.
Prior to its retail release, people across various circles on the internet had wondered if this would be a worthwhile upgrade. It's certainly not difficult to understand why, as Gladiator had a troubled history on Blu-ray… well, at least in North America. The initial release was a DNR'd mess, with not just fine detail being obliterated, but literal detail as well. A famous error was when the scratch removal algorithm removed some of the flaming arrows near the beginning of the film as they flew towards Germanic tribes. Overseas however, an immaculate version of the film without all the DNR existed. Eventually, the proper version of the film was silently released in North America. It was no slouch, either.
But there's nothing to worry about with this 4K presentation. It's solid, with grain appearing natural and not overbearing, a nice uptick in detail, an improvement in contrast, and wonderful implementation of color and HDR.
The detail is splendid most of the time. There's a couple of odd shots that have a noticeably softer touch, but otherwise, the film is sharp and things look more refined than ever before. You'll notice everything from armor to sand looking better. Compression is excellent, although the opening title shows some banding. That's the only part of the film that shows any sign of worry though.
As far as contrast is concerned, there's a very wide range of blacks. There's a lot of brightly lit shots in this film (natural and otherwise), so black will have more of a natural look than inky most of the time, but when the film calls for it, blacks indeed run deep.
But HDR and color are the real stars of the show. Color is somehow both more natural and vibrant at the same time, and I was astonished at just how much better it was than on the Blu-ray. Marcus' purple robe, flames on the battlefield, red flags waving in the sun, the grassy green fields by Maximus' home, and the red in ‘blood alley' made me ‘wow', and those aren't all the instances where that happened either. Skin tones are also improved. Highlights also lend a hand in making Gladiator a marked improvement over the Blu-ray, as they give a natural shine to everything under the sun, literally, which happens to be a good chunk of the movie.
In short, Gladiator's 4K presentation just further cements the fact that catalog really does have a place on this format, and if you're a fan of this film you absolutely should not hesitate to buy it.
This release comes with a brand new DTS:X encode, but my Sony DN1070 falls an iterative model short of supporting it. Even so, the 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track I can pull from it is undoubtedly the best experience I've ever had while watching Gladiator. The opening battle envelopes more than ever, as do the crowds in the Colosseum. When the audience roars, you really feel like you're at center stage, and when there's a number of gladiators being surrounded in battle, you hear the sounds of chariots and clangs from weapons from every which angle. Dialogue is always well prioritized… there's some moments where they seem a tad weak in the mix, but that seems to be intentional (makes sense, since the Colosseum is inherently a loud place). The score is one of my favorite parts of the film sonically, and it too has never sounded better. When things quiet down a bit, environmental ambience is also on point.
Another solid reason to upgrade!
-Commentary with Director Ridley Scott and Editor Pietro Scalia and Cinematographer John Matheison (Theatrical Cut / On UHD disc)
-Commentary with Director Ridley Scott and Actor Russell Crowe (Extended Cut / On UHD disc)
-Visions from Elysium - Topic Portal
-Strength and Honor - Creating the World of Gladiator
-Image and Design
-Abandoned Sequences & Deleted Scenes
-The Aurellian Archives
Some may think I'm trying to oversell it, but Gladiator is the kind of film that only comes along once every generation. That's not to say other historical epics haven't done well, but even Ridley Scott had a difficult time capturing that ‘something special' with ones he's made since. But if you're reading this 4K review, chances are you've already seen it and merely want to know if this is a worthwhile upgrade. The answer is a definitive yes, as this film will never look or sound better than it does here. Couple that with two excellent commentaries and other decent supplements, and this very well may be the first 4K disc I give the coveted DVDTalk Collector Series rating to!
-About the Author- Michael Zupan is primarily a film guy, but has a variety of places where you can enjoy his work otherwise. Check Bytesizeimpressions.com for video game op-ed pieces and podcasts, and be sure to check out the sister site, Byte-Size Cinema, linked up top. This writer also contributes significantly to in-print magazines such as Minecraft Explorer and Fortnite Explorer!