With Ridley Scott pulling a fast one and making a movie people unanimously enjoy once again, let us return to the last movie he directed that people seem to unambiguously appraise. Who’d a thought that I wouldn’t like it very much…
How fitting that a film that stole the Saving Private Ryan stylistic thunder wholesale turns out to be Saving Private Ryan, only more-so. With all of its shrill, personality-free glumness and the depressingly literal-minded symbolism and sermonizing, all Gladiator is lacking is the carefully calibrated mechanical craft that occasionally saved Ryan from the abject misery of its narrative histrionics. The screenplay for Gladiator, by David Franzoni, John Logan, and William Nicholson, is as dry and cloying as that of any other cinematic Roman epic – take any number of glorified potboilers from the heyday of the early 1960s – but what is missing is the zest. Gladiator is gilded, but it never pops. The screenplay calls for proselytizing, but director Ridley Scott seems parsimoniously bored with the production. He comes alive occasionally – the opening battle, where the desaturation can’t hide Scott’s desire to light it with the fires of hell. But for the most part, Gladiator is a soporific, deadened motion picture convinced of its portentous pregnancy with ideas, but the script is as hollow as the antiseptic digital cinematography that strips it of its personality. Like Ryan, it seems strangely torn between old-fashioned Romanticism and modernist realism, and the two impulses neutralize one another.
Gladiator is the progeny of any number of cinematic epics, but it falters in quoting most liberally from WWII cinema – be it the longitudinal symmetry of Triumph of the Will or the suffocating brownness of Saving Private Ryan – rather than the drippy, droopily amusing pop-epics it nominally aspires to be. Compared to, say, Spartacus, Gladiator is a grisly affair, a work of morose ultra-seriousness as Roman soldier Maxiums Decimus Meridius (Russell Crowe) is ousted from power by Emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix, the only person who seems to understand the cartoon origins of the material correctly) – who despises Maximum for earning Commodus’ father’s love over Commodus himself. Maximus is sold into slavery and takes up the mantle of a revolutionary Spartacus himself, marrying Kirk Douglas’ masculine dimple to a softer, more aching internal core suffering from the death (murder, at Commodus’ hands) of his wife and child. Maximus is forced to fight for his freedom in the hectic heyday of gladiatorial combat, all while plotting his revenge on Commodus.
This skeletal structure might serve the benefit of a Shakespearean tragedy or a slice of glorious cinematic escapism, but Gladiator wishes to be both, and thus neither. Well-modulated cinematic majesty abounds, as in a handful of sterling, if personality-free, combat sequences, but the rest of Gladiator is a leaden, self-serious, hazy affair convinced of its own profundity. The disastrously over-bearing, hyperbolic score and the often sleepy editing do nothing to make Gladiator seem lithe, feline, or fleet of foot; it is a film prone to bouts of clinical depression, a work that is stultifyingly serious and, ultimately, ponderously pretentious in its insistence on its own self-worth. Nothing about the material ought to be pitched at a dramatic level above, say, Star Wars, but Scott and company seem absolutely convinced that their production is the New Testament of grand cinematic tragedy. Rather than enhance the stakes, it simply saps the material of any liveliness, any fight, any spontaneity. There is nothing less appealing than a B-movie pretending to be an A-picture, and Gladiator never overcomes its ego.
There’s delicious pop fluff somewhere in the loins of Gladiator’s production (the hypothetical sequel screenplay by Nick Cave, designed partially to troll Hollywood, also earnestly embodies the high-spirited, slippery silliness that a production like this ought to entail). Yet it is drowned out in modern cinematic demagoguery, the chief rule-set being that populist cinema must react to its populism with shame and disdain. Inaugurated by the likes of Saving Private Ryan and ensured its permanence in the zeitgeist by Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, the creed of the modern blockbuster dictates that cinema must prey to the gods of high drama. Without a capable, culpable screenplay, it must lie about the depth of its themes, dousing itself in greys and browns and harsh, staccato editing and crisp, bloody, brooding violence to invalidate its fluffy cotton-candy origins and win a new, adult audience as a serious-minded production.
There is nothing innately offensive about a serious-minded production, but the echelon must be earned. Gladiator, with its dime-store revenge plot line and corporate filmmaking sans Ridley Scott’s usual stylistic quirks, lacks legitimate dramatic weight. Blockbusters do not require consequence. They do not necessitate drama or weight. But a film that spends every ounce of its energy convincing its audience of its own gravid respectability is nothing more than pretentious sandstone drivel, as immovable and unmalleable as a pile of bricks and about as entertaining. Watching Gladiator is like walking up against a stone wall for two hours.
Compared to its most obvious touchstone – Mel Gibson’s Braveheart – Gladiator lacks even the consolation of joie de vivre. At the very least with Braveheart, or even Titanic to name another late ’90s blockbuster touchstone, there was a palpable cinematic sense that the cast and crew actually enjoyed making the film they were releasing. They may be cinemas of bellicose, overzealous adolescence, but at least they approach their adolescence with an appropriately outsized sense of unapologetic childlike glee. In comparison, Gladiator is serious cinema for people who are afraid to admit they wouldn’t know serious cinema if it bit them in the arm. As thrusting, strutting action cinema, Gladiator might thrill, but it refuses to admit that a little thrust, a pinch of strut, or a smidgen of funk, might actually be fun. You expect pop to raise the dead, yet Gladiator seems hellbent on joining them.