May 152011
 
Title: Spartacus: Blood and Sand
Genre: Drama
Starring: Andy Whitfield,
John Hannah,
Manu Bennett,
Lucy Lawless,
Jai Courtney,
Certificate: US: Not Rated
UK: 18
Picture: 1.78:1
Audio Format: Dolby Digital 5.1
Subtitles: English
Runtime: 13 Episodes,
10 Hours 33 mins
Extras: Making of,
Gag-reel,
Audio commentaries,
Featurettes
Studio: Starz,
Anchor Bay
Release Date: USA: Sep 21 2010
UK: May 16 2011
See If You Like: 300,
Gladiator.

Everyone knows the story of Spartacus, or at least the Kirk Douglas version of Spartacus; about the slave who fought as a gladiator, and led a rebel uprising against his Roman oppressors, but few know the story of Spartacus’ gladiator years; something Starz have attempted to address with their latest series; Spartacus: Blood and Sand.

Blood and Sand chronicles the fall and rise of Spartacus (Andy Whitfield, Gabriel); an unknown Thracian warrior who is betrayed by a Roman officer named Claudius Glaber (Craig Parker, The Fellowship of the Ring) at the start of the series, and witnesses his wife sold into slavery as he is sentenced to execution in the arena; a fate from which he narrowly escapes.

After escaping his execution (by single-handedly besting a number of armed men in a fight to the death), Spartacus is then purchased by Batiatus (John Hannah, The Mummy); a man who places him into gladiator school, and hopes to make a name for himself upon the Thracian’s successes in the arena; of which there will undoubtedly be many.

We then sit back and watch as Spartacus, unwillingly at first, rises through the ranks of the gladiator school; hoping to stay alive just long enough to see his wife once more; wins a number of victories, and evens suffers a handful of defeats, in the arena and at home, and becomes involved with the politics of the Roman social elite.

Aside from the often exceedingly brutal fight scenes, and the frequent nudity, and gratuitous sex scenes that pad each episode and provide all manner of titillation, it’s the politics that become the main draw, and keeps people watching the series; as watching a man get his head chopped off can only stay interesting for so long, whereas the subtle, and often knife-edged, politics that surround the social elite (their affairs, their attempts to climb the social ladder, their mistakes, murders, religion, and attempts to best one another) provide truly compelling viewing, and give Blood and Sand just enough of a Shakespearian edge to keep it engaging.

Batiatus and his wife Lucretia (Lucy Lawless, Xena: Warrior Princess) provide the most intrigue, with numerous subplots that wouldn’t fail to draw any viewers attention; with her conducting an affair with gladiator champion Crixus (Manu Bennett, The Condemned) and attempting to get pregnant, him struggling for money and fighting with prominent public figures, as her best friend Ilithyia (Viva Bianca, Accidents Happen) hints at helping to elevate them, but lives to see Spartacus fall (as it was her husband whom first betrayed him), and the gladiator who sleeps with Lucretia begins a secret affair with her most trusted slave (played by Diplomatic Immunity’s Lesley-Ann Brandt).

There’s also plenty going on inside the gladiator school to keep your attention focussed; as bitter rivalries are formed (the most prominent being between the champion Crixus, and up-and-comer Spartacus), men learn of family troubles on the outside and long for their freedom, and the prospect of becoming the champion of the arena not only keeps the men focussed, but Spartacus cleaving heads, as he tries valiantly to survive long enough to see his wife returned to him.; aside from the numerous fight scenes that litter practically every episode.

However one of the most off-putting things about the whole series is the style of the show; something that makes itself much more apparent during the slow-motion riddled fight sequences; as so much of it was filmed on a green screen that there’s masses of CGI trickery is on display, and slow-motion hacks, slashes, jumps, and throws, are used way too often, and there’s a crazily unrealistic amount of CGI blood on display; all things that will undoubtedly appeal to some viewers (particularly fans of 300, as the show’s creators were aiming for; and successfully hit; the same type of moving graphic novel style), but is not accessible to everyone, and does take a fair bit of getting into if it’s not your sort of thing.

The acting from everyone involved (with the possible exception of John Hannah; who raises himself above the crowd somewhat) is average at best, the dialogue is consistently corny and often laughable, yet the sex, violence, political intrigue, and backstabbing, as well as the fantastic fight scenes, keep the series entertaining throughout; it’s a difficult series to get into, but should you persevere through the first few episodes (after which the quality drastically improves) you will be thoroughly rewarded with a number of cleaved heads, and a few stand-out episodes that are truly gripping (the final two, and an episode in which Lucretia and Ilithyia’s tiff comes to a violent clash, are fantastic), and make the entire series a worthwhile watch.

Picture:

Although the graphic novel style may not be for everyone, and can actually be quite off-putting, there’s no denying that Spartacus: Blood and Sand looks simply stunning on DVD (and should look similarly strong on Blu-ray); sporting an exceptional level of fine detail, truly striking colour representation which is accompanied by great contrast, solid black levels, and no real noticeable transfer errors; the video does look rather glossy and airbrushed, and often features some cartoon-style blood effects, but this transfer is exactly how Spartacus was meant to be seen, provides a truly breathtaking spectacle, and remains a fine example of just how a DVD should look.

Audio:

Similarly the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track that has been awarded to the DVD is also fairly strong, and similarly stylized, coming to DVD with resounding and powerful bass, clear, and well positioned dialogue, some nice directionality, smooth pans, and even a decent amount of ambient effects that keep the surround channels fairly busy throughout; creating a strong and enveloping that that maybe stylized like the show, and have a touch too much volume, but is sure to please its fans.

Extras:

Fans will also be pleased with the wealth of bonus content available on the Spartacus: Blood and Sand DVD; which aside from the fairly average audio commentaries that accompany selected episodes, also contains a short yet easily watchable making of, a gag reel, and numerous featurettes covering everything from specific make-up processes and re-writing history to be more entertaining, to the level of sex on display in the show, shooting specific scenes, and the difficulties/benefits of working against a giant green screen; which do an excellent job of keeping fans interested, explaining some of what goes on behind the scenes, and entertaining anyone who likes the show for that little bit extra.

The Bottom Line:

Spartacus: Blood and Sand clearly isn’t a series for everyone, it’s nowhere near as good as HBO’s Rome in terms of quality or plot, and should you generally find Roman series/movies dull then this isn’t likely to change your mind (unless soft-core porn and regular dismemberment do it for you), but if you don’t mind the odd historical romp, enjoy not only epic films like Gladiator, but highly stylized affairs like 300 and Sin City, then you’re sure to get a great deal out of Spartacus: Blood and Sand; a highly stylized, moving graphic novel, that brings the excitement of the arena, and the bedroom, to the small screen in a terrifically bloody manner.

Spartacus also comes to DVD via an exemplary disc; which features stunning video, superb audio, and a wealth of extras that will undoubtedly satisfy any fans extra desire for blood; and provides a great case for not only purchasing the DVD, but possibly the Blu-ray (which judging by this release, should look suitably impressive).

Andy Whitfield is no Kirk Douglas, but then Blood and Sand isn’t the Spartacus of old, or the legend we’re used to; it’s a new telling of the tale, before the slave led the war; examining the Thracian’s rise to glory in the arena, via some grippingly brutal fight scenes, which successfully mix corny dialogue and a graphic novel style to create a show that’s much more entertaining than it should be (if you make it past the first few episodes), and easily worth a purchase on DVD or Blu-ray.

Matt Wheeldon@TheMattWheeldon.

Series:
Ratings 06 Buy from Amazon.co.uk Buy from Amazon.com
Video:
Ratings 10
Audio:
Ratings 09
Extras:
Ratings 08
Overall:
Ratings 07