Remember what it was like in the summer of 2000, with everyone walking around saying “Are you not entertained?!” and “That vexes me. I am terribly vexed” all the time? Those were the days. Gladiator was the fourth-highest-grossing film of the year, and it won Best Picture at the Oscars, too — a combination of popular success and Academy acclaim that is rarer than you might think.
I was among the majority of critics who gave Gladiator a positive review when it opened, on May 5, 2000. I put it on my top 10 list for the year (No. 8) and bought the DVD. And yet I never got around to watching it a second time. I’ve had that DVD for 11 years and never put it in the DVD player until now.
What I said then:
“The film is so enthralling — so gosh-darned ENTERTAINING, to use an old-fashioned, non-film-critic word — that 2 1/2 hours seems like nothing. It’s a classic-style epic story of heroism, loyalty and bravery, with Russell Crowe delivering a stand-up-and-cheer performance…. The film is visually arresting…. More important are the great performances from Crowe and Phoenix…. Maximus’s journey from general to slave to gladiator to hero makes for a wonderfully moving film. Action movies and gladiator movies have not garnered much respect before, but Gladiator‘s depth and humanity make the whole thing seem legit.” Grade: A [complete review]
The reason widescreen movies were invented in the first place was to lure people away from their TVs by giving something they couldn’t get at home. This became a problem when VCRs showed up, because suddenly people were trying to watch, on their TVs, movies that were specifically meant NOT to be watched on TVs.
The situation has improved since the days of giant, clunky VCRs, and even since the dawn of the digital era (which wasn’t all that long ago). The picture quality on the products themselves is better, and TVs are shaped like movie screens, the better to hold the wide, rectangular images. But while we like to claim that our home entertainment systems are every bit as good as a movie theater, that’s not actually true for the vast majority of us. You’ll notice the difference on the rare occasion that you go to a theater with a giant screen, a state-of-the-art sound system, and top-notch projection. You can approximate that at home, but you can’t duplicate it exactly, not unless your home can accommodate a 50-foot screen.
I think Gladiator might be the type of film that suffers from being scaled down. Even on the ol’ 46-inch plasma flatscreen accompanied by DTS Digital Surround Sound, it’s not as grand, not as epic as it was in the theater. I think this, in turn, is because the story’s emotional core — the human side — is superficial. When the bells and whistles that bolster it are diminished, that lack of depth becomes more noticeable.
It is a rousing tale, though. Everything is set up for maximum satisfaction. Maximus’ wife and son are not just murdered but brutally murdered; Commodus is not just villainous but an incestuous coward to boot; Maximus is very good at killing people but only does so when he is absolutely obligated. The film is very much like the gladiator contests it depicts: you give the audience a simple narrative with clear heroes and villains, and make sure the good guys win while delivering plenty of blood.
I was intrigued this time by the film’s commentary on what makes a good gladiator: It’s not just killing your opponent; it’s killing him in a manner that will entertain the audience. Maximus complains that he’s a prisoner, “with the power only to amuse a mob.” Lucilla (Connie Nielsen) replies: “That IS power.” And she has a point. Whoever can entertain the rowdy masses can wield tremendous influence. Just ask Michael Bay.
Do I still love this movie?
I think “like” is a more appropriate term. It’s a perfectly good adrenaline-pumping rah-rah adventure, and fine popcorn fodder. And there’s nothing wrong with that! But it doesn’t do much to transcend the genre into the realm of true greatness. Grade: B+