"Drug movies" straddle a very fine line. They have to represent the insanity, the madness, and -- yes -- the fun of drug-induced states accurately, or risk becoming just another laughable, didactic public service announcement. Conversely, if they glamorize drug addiction, or fail to realistically portray the severe physical and mental consequences that come with the lifestyle, they can be a dangerous incitement to reckless behavior.
Then there are movies like 'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,' which seems to take no position at all, instead simply depicting a few days in the life of two very, very fucked-up individuals, and letting us decide what to make of it.
"He who makes a beast of himself, gets rid of the pain of being a man," is the quote that opens 'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.' And Raoul Duke (Johnny Depp) and Oscar Z. Acosta (Benicio Del Toro) would seem to be two very pained beasts. It's 1971, and the pair are on their way to Las Vegas to cover the events of the "Mint 400", a local off-road motorcycle race in the desert. But Duke and Acosta's road trek soon degenerates into a manic, feverish drug-fueled odyssey of bad trips and frightening hallucinations. Perhaps escalating from pot to cocaine to LSD to even worse is not the brightest idea in the world?
'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas' is, of course, based on the famous book by the late Hunter S. Thompson -- a literary work long thought unfilmable. But as adapted to the screen and directed by Terry ('Brazil,' '12 Monkeys') Gilliam, it is a visual tour de force that has few rivals in mainstream moviemaking. Like the cinema of David Lynch, Gilliam's work is a love-it or hate-it proposition -- there seems to be little middle ground. I can only imagine arch-conservatives and anti-drug activists clutching their chests through most of the scenes in 'Fear and Loathing,' as much as Cheech & Chong fans will cheer every moment, as the film grows more and more outlandish.
Oddly enough, I had no extreme reaction to 'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.' That Gilliam doesn't really take a moral position on the proceedings did not offend me. Instead, it left me feeling detached from the proceedings. In fact, as visually mesmerizing as this film is, its lack of viewpoint provides little room for satire or cultural commentary. I guess expected a 'Traffic,' 'Easy Rider' or even a 'Sid & Nancy' -- a film that defines a time and place so specifically it matters little how we view the issue of drugs. Those films have become crucial to our understanding of drug culture, the drug war and how they have shaped our politics. They are indispensable.
Alas, 'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,' for all of Thompson's incendiary politics, ends up feeling like nothing more than a lark movie. And the performances don't help much -- both Depp and Del Toro play their roles far too affably (especially Depp, who I found hammy), and I'm not a fan of big star cameos in movies (Hey, look! It's Cameron Diaz! Tobey Maguire! Christina Ricci!) Everyone seems to be having such a good time that it polishes off all of the rough edges to the material. Surprisingly, as much as I wanted to be shocked and outraged and turned on by what was happening, somehow it all seemed... innocuous. I don't know enough about Thompson to say with genuine certainty, but I'm guessing that Gilliam's finished work wasn't exactly what he had in mind.
At first glance, 'Fear and the Loathing in Las Vegas' may seem a strange choice to hit HD DVD so soon after the format's launch -- it's not a new release, it wasn't a box office blockbuster, nor is it a spectacle-laden action extravaganza. However, it has become Criterion's best-selling DVD release ever, and it also did quite well on video for Universal. And visually, it is quite an outlandish film -- almost orgiastic in its stylistic excesses. All of which makes it a fine candidate for the high-def treatment.
In fact, presented in 2.35:1 widescreen and 1080p/VC-1, 'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas' turns out to be great HD DVD demo material. This is a very impressive presentation. The source material is in terrific shape, with no blemishes, dirt or scratches. Surprising is the lack of film grain visible -- 'Fear and Loathing' was shot in the Super35 process, which can sometimes exacerbate grain, but this transfer is wonderfully clean and smooth. But by far the most distinguishing feature is color reproduction. Hues are incredibly vibrant and literally pop off the screen. Reds, greens and blues are especially rich, with fleshtones an almost impossibly-real shade of orange.
Detail is also excellent, with even the film's many dark interiors and night scenes boasting above-average shadow delineation and depth. Also improved over the standard-def releases is sharpness -- the previous DVDs, though quite good, sometimes looked a bit soft due to the intense color saturation, and also exhibited a slight bit of edge enhancement. That's not a problem here, as even the most over-the-top sequences always look razor-sharp.
Another surprise is the inclusion of a new Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack. Like the video, you might not immediately peg 'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas' as obvious HD DVD demo material, but again you'd be wrong. The film's sound design is quite elaborate, and makes a great case for why lossless audio tracks should not be reserved solely for action films and big-budget Hollywood spectacles.
Though dialogue drives 'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas' (particularly Johnny Depp's incessant narration), it is also filled with many sublime aural flourishes and far from a front-heavy mix. Surround use can be quite active, with various discrete sound effects deployed to the rears to heighten the fever-dream-like quality. The score is also quite frenetic at times, filling up the full 360-degree soundfield nicely. I was also impressed with how forceful the .1 LFE could be -- the "Adrenochrome" sequence in particular delivers the kind of deep, rumbling bass usually associated with action films. Panning between channels is also far more prominent that I expected. Just check out Benecio Del Toro's "bathtub freakout" moment, which boasts some pretty wacky imaging across all five speakers. Is 'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas' in Dolby TrueHD a huge upgrade over the Dolby Digital and DTS tracks on the previous standard-def DVDs? No. But are differences present and noticeable? Definitely.
No match for the far more elaborate Criterion Collection DVD edition (which was filled with commentaries, tons of documentary material, storyboards and plenty more), Universal's version of 'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas' includes little in the way of meaningful supplements.
The only major extra of note is a collection of three deleted scenes that were included on both the old Universal DVD as well as the Criterion edition. None are particularly revelatory, though "The DA from GA" (while far too long) does have its moments as it tells a story about satan worshippers cutting the head off a girl in McDonalds... maybe you just have to watch it for yourself.
Even stranger to me is the "Spotlight on Location." This 10-minute EPK is so incongruous, attempting to distill the essence of Hunter S. Thompson for the masses as if he were the latest 'X-Men' flick. Even the filmmakers and cast look somewhat uncomfortable during the press junket interviews, though Gilliam's chat is memorable if only because he's wearing the ugliest shirt ever to grace the planet.
Rounding out the supplements is the film's theatrical trailer. Though presented in 1080i video, it's windowboxed and the quality is mediocre at best.
'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas' continues to be a divisive film. Just as with the work of Hunter S. Thompson and the films of Terry Gilliam, I suspect you'll either love it or you'll hate it. As for this HD DVD, it is a perfectly fine effort -- a nice transfer and the surprising inclusion of a Dolby TrueHD track almost make up for the pithy extras, which are no match for the far more deluxe Criterion DVD edition. Bottom line, unless you're willing to wait for something more elaborate in the future, this is worth picking up if you're a fan of the film, or merely curious.