“SPARTACUS: BLOOD AND SAND” was inspired by the actual slave of the Roman Republic, who in 73 BC led a slave revolt that grew to more than 120,000 fighters. Torn from his homeland and the woman he loves, Spartacus (Whitfield), a Thracian warrior captured by Romans, is enslaved into a gladiator training school owned by Batiatus (Hannah) and his wife Lucretia (Lawless). He is forced to fight daily for his life against deadly foes, under the brutal whip of trainer Doctore (Mensah). He is condemned to the brutal world of the arena where blood and death are primetime entertainment. But not all battles are fought upon the sands. Treachery, corruption and the allure of sensual pleasures will constantly test him and his masters.
Against all odds, Spartacus’ rebellious instincts, his intense love for his wife Sura (Erin Cummings) and his powerful fighting skills drive him to win a series of near-impossible battles – setting in motion a revolution against the tyranny of Rome. To survive, he must become more than a man, more than a gladiator. He must become a legend.
Andy Whitfield, star of the gory Starz Roman drama, 'Spartacus: Blood and Sand,' has had to bow out of the role he so boldly embodies. I mention this at the start of this review, because a change like this, involving one of the main actors, never bodes well for a TV series. When Starz first learned of Whitfield's cancer, they made plans to shoot a prequel season called 'Spartacus: Gods of the Arena,' hoping by the time they finished that their star would be feeling better. Sadly, that isn't the case, and while the six-episode prequel is still in production, Starz hasn't announced any plans regarding the continuation of the original series. Such news will surely sadden the show's fans, but may also deter many people from getting invested in a show that may end prematurely due to outside forces. If you were one of those on the fence about 'Spartacus,' and decided to wait for its home video release to get on the wagon, this unfortunate situation may be a deterrent. Luckily, though, 'Spartacus: Blood and Sand,' even with all the uncertainty in its future, still packs a mighty wallop of action and drama in its first season, and that's a factor to be considered by anyone interested.
I reviewed HBO's 'Rome' when it hit Blu-ray, and 'Spartacus' cannot escape the inevitable comparisons. 'Rome' was a fantastic show, one that many would argue also ended prematurely. Have no fear, though, as a lover of 'Rome,' I can still say that if you're interested in a TV show about ancient Rome, then 'Spartacus' is a worthy successor. Whereas 'Rome' focused more on the empire's politics and backdoor dealings, 'Spartacus' is all about the gladiator training, way of life, and bloody battles. And when I say bloody, I mean very bloody!
Taking on the same type of stylizing as '300,' the violence in 'Spartacus' is over-the-top gory, awashing the screen in ultra-slow motion any time a sword cuts into flesh. At times, blood splatters on the camera, making sure we know that even the lens can't escape the heavy volume of spilled blood. It seems every wielding sword, thrusting spear, or heavy punch is delivered 'Matrix' style, as time slows down and bodies float in midair until they come crashing to the ground. Limbs are hacked off and fly through the air whirling around in slow-mo as blood squirts from the end. This show delights in its violence, so much so that there are a few times that the transfer from one scene to another is the 'Spartacus' version of a fade-to-black, which is an entire scene being covered in red dripping goo that slowly fades away.
Spartacus isn't really the lead character's name. We never know his name, we only know he's a Threcian. At the beginning, the soon-to-be Spartacus is convinced by the Romans to join their army. In turn, the Romans will help kill the hoards of barbarian enemies that threaten the Threcian way of life. As Romans so often do in the movies, they become greedy, and the general that agreed with the Threcians to help them with their barbarian problem suddenly decides to attack a completely different army...and expects his new band of Threcians to follow him into war. A revolt ensues and the man we later know as Spartacus flees back to his home to gather up his wife and go into hiding. Only the Romans find him, sell him into gladiator slavery, and take his wife, selling her into slavery, too. That's your set up.
He's given the nickname Spartacus after an ancient Threcian king known for his fighting skills. After besting four trained gladiators in what was to be Spartacus' execution, he gains some notoriety. He's somewhat of a celebrity now. He's owned by a wealthy public figure named Batiatus (John Hannah), who's married to Lucretia (Lucy Lawless). If you ever watched 'Rome,' Lucretia basically fills in the role of Attia, only she's less bitchy.
'Spartacus: Blood and Sand' is packed full of violence, sex, and the overall debauchery of the Roman Empire. Somewhere in there, though, is the story of a man who has lost everything and is trying to gain it back through fighting in the arenas. Following a lot of the same storylines as 'Gladiator,' 'Spartacus' is still able to come across as a fresh take on the Roman tale. Maybe it's the stylized violence, unique editing, or unwavering and relentless depictions of gore. All I know is I like the series and even though, as of right now, the entire production languishes in uncertainty, visiting the first (and possibly only) season of 'Spartacus' is a treat.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Spartacus' comes packed in a nice looking, but cumbersome book-like package. The artwork and embossing are top-notch, but like so many other book style packages this on only has enveloped sleeves for the discs to be slid in and out of. For people that don't like their discs touching or sliding against other surfaces (me) this is a huge disappointment and a bother. A nice clear slipcover has been added to provide protection to the book that holds the discs.
The show comes on four BD-50s, and is coded region A.
Even though 'Spartacus' features green screen effects in almost every scene, in order to get that '300' stylized look, the 1080p transfer surprisingly doesn't make it look fake or cheap. For a TV show that would never have the budget of a huge Hollywood blockbuster, this show looks stellar in HD.
The 1080p picture only adds to the stylized vision of Rome the series strives to portray. This transfer does just about everything right. Detail is rich and splendid, whether you're looking at the tired and battle-worn face of Spartacus, or the oiled shiny mass of pectoral muscles that is Crixus. Pores and facial stubble are always clearly visible. The blood is just about the only thing that looks sort of silly in high definition. In the first episode, when Spartacus hacks an arm from an opposing gladiator, it flies off end over end, spurting blood that looks very CG. While that's part of the show's point, I couldn't help but feel like looking at that blood in that way took me out of the scene. Everything else, though, looks tremendous. Even scenes where the arena crowd has been green screened in the background look real and genuine.
You know magic is being worked on fine detail when you can not only make out individual rocks, but also tiny grains of sand and small specks of mud and dirt on the faces of the gladiators. The colors are something else. From the deep burgundy of the Roman officer uniforms, to the greens, blacks and reds worn by the noble people, the hues here are very strong and effervescent. Black levels are sturdy, offering a detailed portrait even under the cover of nightfall. Stark shadows cast across the image help, rather than hurt, fine detail.
As far as technical anomalies go, the one and only thing I did notice was banding here and there, mostly in the stylized sky backgrounds. Other than that, the entire season is clear from any annoying source noise that might hamper your viewing experience. 'Spartacus: Season One' on Blu-ray is going to be a video presentation that anyone will be able to enjoy, but fans of the show will be ecstatic.
For a show about ancient Rome, I never thought I'd be watching one of the most bass-laden soundtracks I've ever heard on Blu-ray. This is due in most part to the slow-mo battle scenes that feature bodies flying around the screen while grandiose "swooshes" and "thuds" pound through the subwoofer any time a sword finds its mark or a fist connects with a cheekbone. Just like the video, the sound for this series is just as stylized. Think about the whooshing bullets flying past Neo in 'The Matrix' and you know what to expect here.
The 5.1 Dolby TrueHD presentation is something to behold. It might even be mixed a bit too loud, because, even at default setting, this track booms. Dialogue is nicely placed in the front speakers, but directionality works perfectly as characters talk off screen or action is happening where we can't readily see it. Pans are smooth, as horses gallop from one end to the other or as the camera swoops over the cheering crowds of people watching the gladiator battles.
The surrounds are always alive, providing a deep, immersive atmosphere. Whether it be a quiet party affair in a senator's home with guests milling about, or the roar from the crowd as a gladiator is run through with a sword, the surrounds work perfectly to create an expansive listening environment.
Like I said, the mix may be pumped up just a tad too loud, but that's to be expected for a show that delights in violence and carnage as much as this one does.
There's quite a few special features on this set, and there are features on all four discs, so I'm dividing them up that way.
If I told you that a TV show took the story of 'Gladiator' and the style of '300' and added in the softcore sex of an after-hours Cinemax movie, would you be excited or apprehensive? I must say I was apprehensive. Even after the first couple episodes, I wondered if this show really had much of its own merit to ride on. It seemed like it was borrowing far too much from other films and shows that had gone on before. Yet before I knew it, the show grew on me. Whitfield (who will be missed) is great as Spartacus, and about four or five episodes in, the show finds its own voice and continues on throughout the rest of the season with an energy-filled tenacity. The video is gorgeous, the sound is thumping. The special features, with the numerous audio commentaries and extended episodes, seem tailored for the show's fans.
It's hard to give this series an overall recommendation that everyone should go out and buy it, because we're still unsure whether or not it will continue, due to Whitfield's departure. This is definitely a must own for fans, but for everyone else out there who is curious to see this Roman drama, rent 'Spartacus: Blood and Sand' first, and make your choice from there.