About twenty minutes into re-watching 'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas' I realized, "Oh right, this was back when Terry Gilliam movies used to mean something."
If anybody's been forced to suffer through his recent, post-'Fear and Loathing ' films – the listless 'Brothers Grimm,' and the one-two borderline unwatchable punch of 'Tideland' and 'The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus,' they know that this is a director full of lively imagination (responsible for visionary films like 'Brazil' and '12 Monkeys') who has, sadly, wandered astray.
But with 'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas' (a project he inherited, very quickly, from 'Repo Man's' Alex Cox), he was still at the top of his game. Working from 'new journalism' pioneer Hunter S. Thompson's somewhat nonfiction book, he crafted a phantasmagorical, drug-soaked alternate history, in which Vietnam was the ultimate bad trip and Las Vegas was a candy-coated mirage, neon and glitter on one side, nightmarish underworld on the other. It remains one of the director's greatest and most affecting cinematic highs.
Johnny Depp, back when his unstoppable mugging actually worked, plays Thompson stand-in Raoul Duke, a renegade journalist ostensibly on the way to Las Vegas to cover a huge motorcycle desert race. He is joined by his friend/accomplice/lawyer Dr. Gonzo (Benicio del Toro), his character a stand-in for Oscar Carlos Acosta, a crazy Thompson cohort. In one hilarious scene, the two are dining at the Beverly Hills Hilton where Gonzo legally advises Duke that he should go along on the journey. They then leave Los Angeles for Las Vegas with guns, drugs, and a reckless sense of open-ended adventure.
The movie doesn't have a plot, per se, but rather a series of interlocking scenes that more or less make up an entire narrative arc. (The arc being that the drugs they take become worse and worse and they become more and more horrible – paranoid shut-ins distrustful of everyone and even reality itself.) What's nice about this vignette structure is that it allows for a lot of great cameo appearances, with brief supporting turns by Tobey Maguire (playing a young hippie), Christina Ricci, Ellen Barkin, Gary Busey, Cameron Diaz, and many more.
Since the movie is from the point of view of a couple of drug-crazed insane men, Gilliam employs every conceivable visual and auditory trick, from the glorious '60's soundtrack to a room full of giant lizard people, to the way he manipulates the various sets as they decay with the character's psychological states. The movie starts off like the characters – fun, breezy, with an open road ahead of them, but by the time it reaches its conclusion, everything has gotten quite dark and disturbing, claustrophobic even.
Depp and del Toro are absolutely flawless, both of them oscillating between character study and cartoon with great ease, and helping to define a generation that was genuinely pissed off and confused about the world deteriorating around them, so the only chance for escape, salvation, even rebirth, was through copious amounts of drugs and firing off guns in the desert.
And while the movie has achieved a cult status for its trippy visuals and indulgence in drug culture, it's a much more powerful time capsule, I think. In terms of a Vietnam artifact, it's a breathtaking work, one in which a director with boundless creativity actually, you know, made a movie about something.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
The 50GB Blu-ray disc is Region "Free," starts automatically but halts at the menu page, is BD-Live and (I find this so bizarre) D-Box equipped. Yes, that's right, if you have rumbly chairs at home, you can watch 'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas' and shake. SO WEIRD.
Universal's VC-1 1080p transfer (2.35:1 aspect ratio) is a marked improvement over previous home video versions of the film, but is still nothing to write home about.
First, the good: the movie mostly looks great. The candy-colored Las Vegas conjured forth in the film absolutely pops, like it's on Pandora. Or drugs. (However, Some of the visual effects shot, using admittedly cheap computer graphics, stand out as outrageously phony.) Blacks are deep and inky. Texture and detail have been improved significantly, retaining much of the period authenticity. Also adding to the period authenticity is the thin layer of filmic grain. And skin tones really do look nice and natural. Digital noise is not apparent.
That said, there are still nagging problems with this transfer. Starting with the transfer itself, which looks like a print that has been beat to hell on its long journey from cinema to cinema. In the opening scenes, where there's nothing but their speeding car and miles of open road (and clear blue sky), you can see the amount of grain, dirt and actual damage to the source film, that mars an otherwise lovely image. This wasn't as much of a bummer since it kind of keeps with the period authenticity of this being some beat-up relic, but it doesn't make it any less distracting. Technical issues like edge enhancements, aliasing, and artifacts also pop up from time to time (enough for them to be noticeable).
Had they really put the time and attention into getting the transfer right, then this would have easily been a 'must own' disc, and been recommendable over the Criterion DVD just for the transfer alone. As it stands, it's a marked improvement which just as many pluses as minuses.
The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track that Universal has provided for the 'Fear and Loathing' Blu-ray is very true to its original source, which isn't exactly a home theater owner's dream come true, but does replicate the original intent nicely.
To explain: a lot of the movie has a flat, two-dimensional sound field. This is especially true of Johnny Depp's dry narration and much of the cartoonish sound effects. (It should surprise no one that Ralph Bakshi tried for many years to make an animated version of 'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas' using Ralph Steadman's original illustrations as the basis for the film's look.) Additionally, much of the dialogue is mumbled and hard to understand, a result of their copious drug consumption and not something that could be "cleaned up" for the Blu-ray. All of this stuff sounds really good on the disc, and I found the sound design to be even more jarringly strange than I did in the theaters.
That said, there's not a whole lot to love about this mix besides the faithfulness to the original source. If you're looking for something to blow the doors off your surround system, look elsewhere. It's mostly front and center, with some atmospheric ambience but not a lot in the way of rear-channel activity. Depp and del Toro smash into a lot of stuff, which sounds great, as does the wonderful 1960's soundtrack.
But those looking for a muscular audio upgrade are going to be disappointed. Maybe it'd help if you were stoned?
There's another mix on the track, a French DTS 5.1 number, as well as subtitles in English SDH, French, Spanish, Swedish, Danish, Finnish, and Norwegian.
In its infinite wisdom (and keeping in mind complicated legal and licensing matters), Universal has issued the Blu-ray of Terry Gilliam's 'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas' without the following special features, previously seen on the two-disc Criterion affair: three commentary tracks with Terry Gilliam, Johnny Depp and Benicio del Toro and producer Laila Nabulsi, and Hunter S. Thompson; deleted scenes with commentary by Terry Gilliam; collection of storyboards and production designs; stills gallery; a selection of Hunter S. Thompson correspondence read on-camera by Johnny Depp; 'Hunter Goes to Hollywood,' a short documentary video by Wayne Ewing; a look at the controversy over the screenwriting credit; original trailer and TV spots; rare materials on Oscar Zeta Acosta, the inspiration for Dr. Gonzo; collection of artwork by illustrator Ralph Steadman; excerpt from 1996 'Fear and Loathing' audio CD with Mary Chaykin, Jim Jarmusch and Harry Dean Staton; 'Fear and Loathing on the Road to Hollywood' a 1978 BBC documentary with Thompson and Steadman and a booklet featuring an essay by Village Voice critic J. Hoberman and two pieces by Hunter S. Thompson. Yeah, because, really, who needs this stuff?
Deleted Scenes (SD, 11:39) These are negligible and lack context. They can be easily skipped. Watching how paltry these features are makes you really long for the Criterion set. I think the booklet in the packaging had more oomph than the stuff here.
Terry Gilliam's 'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas' has become a cult favorite in the years since its release for dubious reasons, but one thing is undeniable – it's a great movie, made by a master filmmaker before he went off the deep end. The audio and video on this disc are marked improvements from previous editions, but far from anything to write home about, and without the wealth of supplementary materials present on the Criterion DVD set, I give this one a cautious recommendation. *Just don't trade in your Criterion set juuuuuuust yet.