Ridley Scott’s ‘Gladiator’ Leans Heavy on CGI

I’m no budding FX guy, so perhaps my failure to find fascination in the number of megapixels it takes to make a CGI tiger’s left nostril move realistically in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator is my hang-up.

I’m going to be booted from the Film Geek Society for saying this, but there’s such a thing as too much supplemental material on your DVD. Granted, I’m no budding FX guy, so perhaps my failure to find the fascination in knowing how many megapixels it takes to make a CGI tiger’s left nostril move realistically is my hang-up. It takes an awful lot of material to fill three discs, especially when, in the case of Ridley Scott’s Oscar-winning Gladiator, the film has already been packaged twice (a theatrical cut and a “Director’s Signature” cut). That means a lot of filler and by-products that only a rabid completist could enjoy.

The Extended Edition features over three hours of in-depth interviews with many of the cast and crew assembled in a making-of-documentary. Designed to show diverse people coalesced gloriously to reintroduce the historical epic as a viable Hollywood product (Braveheart who?), this feature more often demonstrates how the project succeeded despite them.

Gladiator follows the fall and rise of Maximus (Russell Crowe), general of the legions of the Roman philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris). Looking forward to retirement to his farm and family in Spain, Maximus finds himself first named Protector of Rome, charged with turning the empire over to republican rule, then ordered executed by Marcus’ son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix). Maximus escapes, only to discover his family crucified and burned alive. Taken by slavers and sold to Proximo (Oliver Reed), a master of gladiators, Maximus appears destined to end his days in the Roman equivalent of hick-town cockfighting. This is until he wins glory and a chance to fight in Rome, where he again comes face to face with Commodus.

This would all be rather preposterous – Bruckheimeresque, even – were it not for a concurrent plot by Commodus’ sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen) and leading Senator Gracchus (Derek Jacobi, who fills out a toga as well now as he did in I, Claudius 25 years ago) to use Maximus’ popularity to restore the Republic. They supply the intrigue endemic to any film about ancient Rome, including one vital scene, happily restored to this version of the film, in which it is revealed that Commodus is paying for his spectacles by secretly selling off Rome’s grain supplies. The scene ups the film’s ante considerably, positing that if Commodus is not removed, the people will starve.

In his audio commentary with Crowe, Scott explains that he cut this scene originally, along with two others – one where Maximus visits the maimed and dying among his soldiers in Germania, another where Commodus orders his general to execute a pair of innocent soldiers – because they diverged from the main story. But all three scenes provide the motivation for major events to follow. Their reinsertion expands Maximus and Lucilla’s motives and elevates Commodus’ menace. The latter is sorely needed, as Commodus, who historically was truly nuts (he proclaimed himself the reincarnation of Hercules and tried to rename Rome after himself), comes off in the original release as merely too weak and sniveling to rule the Empire effectively.

Scott’s baffling justification comes on the heels of a lackluster introduction to the Extended Edition, in which he maintains that the present version is not his cut, but the viewer might find the extra scenes of some interest. Throughout the supplementary material, Scott comes off as rather churlish, an attitude shared by writer and producer David Franzoni. His initial script was passed on to John Logan (The Aviator), who introduced a second act and then to William Nicholson, who cleaned it up and added a spiritual element the earlier drafts lacked.

As the “Story Development” segment unfolds, all three writers take turns trashing each other’s versions of the script in their respective interviews until one becomes vaguely embarrassed just watching them. Given the degree to which the film succeeded, artistically and financially, one would expect the creative minds behind it to be as happy with it as producers Douglas Wick and Walter Parkes are — it’s a bad sign for your making-of doc when the most interesting folks to listen to are the studio weasels.

I’m tempted to write off the entire documentary as of interest to only nut-and-bolts geeks, except for the segment devoted to Oliver Reed, who died of a heart attack three weeks before principal filming wrapped, necessitating some CGI trickery to insert him into a crucial final scene of the film. All the interviewees are united in their appraisal of Reed’s elegant and charismatic performance, and their feeling that Gladiator could have been Reed’s comeback film after his legendary temper and bad habits had sidelined him for years. Their shared testimony constitutes a touching and well-deserved tribute to a fallen comrade with real talent.

If the documentary segment on Oliver Reed is a memorial, then Scott and Crowe’s commentary on the late Richard Harris is positively a wake, as they use huge chunks of time to bandy stories about Harris, legendary actor and heroic drinker. Scott comments that Gladiator cast Harris, Reed, and David Hemmings, all notorious partiers on the mid-’60s British celebrity circuit, and that had Scott cast Peter O’Toole, he would have gathered “the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” Scott and Crowe are both loose and funny, especially Crowe, who has an unfortunate reputation for being a humorless sort, and the commentary, usually a hit-or-miss option with most films, is here the most informative feature in the collection.

The Extended Edition poses a conundrum. The first disc contains the definitive version of the film, no matter what Scott says, along with excellent commentary. But to get it, one must pay for all the other stuff. As I said, the supplementary material may interest completists, but it’s becoming hard for the rest of us to get that worked up about yet another seminar on the wonders of CGI.