I'll just come out and say it, and let the cinema gods strike me down with a lightning bolt: I think the late Stanley Kubrick is overrated. Yes, I like many of his films, but no, I don't think he was a genius. Almost off of His movies crawl by at a snail's pace, his visual sense is cold and unfeeling, and his narratives are often so obtuse that what is meaningless suddenly becomes meaningful only by virtue of the fact that it makes little logical sense (the old, "I don't understand it so it must be high art" trick). So it's interesting to witness 'Spartacus,' a film he largely disowned later in his career as a "work-for-hire" gig, despite its strong reception both critically and commercially. (Adjusted for inflation, it is certainly Kubrick's biggest box office hit, next to '2001: A Space Odyssey.')
Running a good three hours (the film presented in this HD DVD edition is the uncut version that was painstakingly restored for a 1991 theatrical re-release), 'Spartacus' is the kind of movie with a plot so epic and lengthy that it can, ironically, be reduced to just a few words. And that's not meant as a dig, but rather to suggest that -- as with all of Kubrick's films -- what ultimately happens to the film's characters would seem to be of less importance than the journey they take in meeting their fate. 'Spartacus' tells the story of its titular Roman slave (Kirk Douglas), who toils for the Roman Empire while dreaming, the narrator informs us, "of the death of slavery -- which would not come until 2,000 years later." After being trained at the gladiatorial academy (seriously, they had such things back in the days of Anciet Rome), he wins many battles but remains enraged at his station in life. So he inspires a slave uprising, leading his men into great battles against poorly trained Roman legions, and almost stands on the brink of victory. Alas, eventually Spartacus' troops will finally be caught and outnumbered. And it will not end pretty.
'Spartacus' is certainly an epic. It also is somewhat impersonal, as Kubrick's own disdain for the film might suggest. In hindsight, it is as much representative of Douglas' intentions (he executive produced, as well as starred) as it is Kubrick's, who was only brought on after the dismissal of the original director. Without a doubt, Kubrick gives the film the visual grandeur and scope you would expect, but Douglas' nobility and idealism towards the character and the film's themes seems a bit at odds with the generally more pessimistic and intellectual auteur. Their two sensibilities never really gelled for me in 'Spartacus' -- I still admire the film as a big, battle-worthy spectacle, but its dramatics feel a bit forced. To be fair, this uncut version goes a long way towards restoring some of blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo's original complexity of character, such as restoring the homoeroticism between the bisexual Crassus (Laurence Olivier) and his young slave (Tony Curtis), as well as more honestly portraying the decadence of ancient Rome.
Unfortunately, parts of 'Spartacus' have also aged poorly. Despite its centuries-old setting, the fashions, hairstyles and mannerisms feel right out of a '50s melodrama. The female characters in particular look like fashion models, and the blatant chauvinism on display feels not only representative of the era depicted in the film but also of the filmmakers (again, call me a heretic, but I've always felt that Kubrick, like Alfred Hitchcock, never held his female characters in particularly high regard). And the film's much-discussed, once-shocking approach to male sexuality can hardly rival 'Brokeback Mountain' in terms of compassion or depth. Indeed, much of 'Spartacus' now plays like camp, albeit well-staged and well-shot camp.
I suppose what is most impressive today about 'Spartacus,' over four decades since the film was released, is that it does not conclude with the expected happy ending. Skip this paragraph if you haven't seen the film (or don't know anything about the real-life history of the character), but it was hardly common for leading men like Douglas to be crucified onscreen back in the '60s. Absolutely, the final scenes of 'Spartacus' remain powerful and thought-provoking, which is largely due to Douglas' passion and belief in the character and his ideals. Yet I just can't quite warm to 'Spartacus' as a true classic, as much as I admire its once-revolutionary stance on class, politics and sexuality. Still, don't let that stop you from seeing it, if only for its visual grandeur and sheer majesty of scope.
'Spartacus' comes to HD DVD in a 2.20:1 widescreen, 1080p/VC-1-encoded transfer, but the transition is not a smashing success. I simply expected more from this restoration, and even for a film now forty-odd years old it is hard not to feel as if this shouldn't look considerably better.
It is important to note that 'Spartacus' has been released in two different versions on standard-def DVD, one a movie-only edition via Universal, the other a gargantuan special edition from Criterion. However, while both feature the 196-minute restored cut of the film, they are not minted from the same master. Quite simply, the Criterion version is noticeably superior, with richer colors, better detail and a cleaner print. Unfortunately, this HD DVD version is minted from the same master as the previous Universal release, and it shows.
This is hardly the best catalog release I've seen on HD DVD, but the print is certainly in good shape for a film this old. There are no major defects, such as splice marks, tears, excessive dropouts and the like. However, there is some dirt present (particularly on any effects shot involving mattes and composites) and grain can be heavy. More distracting is a near-constant wavering of contrast and colors; the image just never appears stable. Sharpness is also lacking, with the image appearing flat and largely two-dimensional. Contrast is also a bit on the hot side with whites blooming. The transfer also appears to suffer from what looks like -- shockingly -- analog artifacts, particularly edge enhancement. The image certainly looks artificial at best, and is not the smooth, film-like beauty I expected. However, on the plus side -- and despite the aforementioned wavering -- color saturation is strong and consistent, and fleshtones a nice shade of orange. No, 'Spartacus' does not look absolutely terrible, but it doesn't look particularly great, either.
The Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 surround track (encoded at 1.5mbps) fares better than the video. 'Spartacus' did benefit from a nice sound restoration courtesy of Universal, which helps beef up the original elements considerably. Clean, hefty and fairly aggressive, it's a pleasure to hear decades-old films like 'Spartacus' sounding this good.
Most noticeable is the expansive front soundstage. I was surprised by the sense of separation and depth to the stereo presence. Dialogue is firmly centered, with the score and sound effects nicely separated. Surround use is a bit flatter, and mainly reserved for score bleed and few discrete effects. Battle scenes fare better, with the gladiator fight around the film's one hour mark quite impressive for a film of this vintage.
Still, this is not to suggest that 'Spartacus' sounds like a modern film. Dynamic range is still a bit compressed, especially in the high-end. Mid-range, too, often sounds flat, while the .1 LFE, while again quite strong for a film this old, doesn't really deliver any extensive low-bass frequencies. Still, overall I was quite pleased with this remaster.
'Spartacus' hits HD DVD sans any extras, not even a theatrical trailer. Criterion did release a very deluxe package for the film on standard-def DVD a few years back, so I guess we'll just have to wait until they jump onboard the next-gen bandwagon to see any of those supplements on HD DVD.
'Spartacus' is loved by some, but apparently not its maker, Stanley Kubrick. Largely disowned by the late auteur, I can understand his perspective -- I wasn't captivated by the film myself. Same goes for this HD DVD release -- the transfer is good, but not the sparkling restoration I expected, the sound is solid, and there are no extras on this disc. So, unless you are a diehard 'Spartacus' fan or Kubrick completist, I'd skip this one and wait for the director's other, better works to hit the next-gen formats.