Hercules makes for an excellent Blu-ray but a mediocre movie


By Jim Bray
November 6, 2014

There are movies that are rip-roarin' adventures, there are movies that try to be, and there are movies that offer such incredible video and audio performance that they belong in everyone's home theater. The ideal for home theater buffs, of course, is to have the first and last points covered.

Alas, Hercules, the new Brett Ratner/Dwayne Johnson "sword and sandal" epic, falls clearly into the second and third categories. It tries to be a fantastic cinematic spectacle - and in many ways succeeds - but in the end it's more an opportunity to showcase just how great your home theater can be when you give it the best source possible - as long as you don't pay too much attention to what's actually happening on screen.

Technically, then, it's fantastic. It's definitely one of the best movies I've seen on Blu-ray from an audio and video standpoint, but it almost seems as if the producers were so intent on giving us form that they forgot substance. In other words, Jason and the Argonauts this ain't. It's too bad.

Maybe I went in suffering from the Harryhausen syndrome. I am a big fan of the late producer/special effects master who died not too long ago. To me, his Jason and the Argonauts - followed quite closely by The Golden Voyage of Sinbad - was the pinnacle of monster/mythology movies. Harryhausen's influence was such that he also inspired many of today's makers of effects-laden films - such guys as one named Spielberg, another named Landis, and many, many others whose names are known only to the nerd segment of fandom - guys at such places as Industrial Light and Magic and other effects houses.

Hercules, the character, appeared in Harryhausen's "Jason" - played by Nigel Green - and though he wasn't in the movie past the encounter with the giant statue Talos, his influence was felt out of proportion to his screen time. There was humor in that film, and much wonder. In this Hercules, there are attempts at humor, mostly via Ian McShane's character of Amphiaraus, and attempts at wonder that boiled down to "let's see what computer-enhanced wonder they're going to throw at us this time."

Perhaps it's that we've had so much CG wonder thrown at us over the past couple of decades that it starts to roll off us like water off a digital duck's back. I don't know.

Here, we have plenty of great looking settings and action, but unlike Jason or Harryhausen's other such films, where the action raged fairly briefly and then the story moved on, in Hercules it almost seems as if the effort has gone into bigger and supposedly better battle scenes where we get to see innumerable different ways for people to kill each other, then (seemingly) a short respite for plot before the next big CG battle. Sure, I love special effects and have been guilty of seeking out movies simply because I wanted to see what they did with them, but I'm always disappointed when the budget is given more over to effects and action than in hiring a good screenwriter.

This was one of those times; I didn't really expect much but I was curious to see how they'd do the monsters etc. Alas, most of the CG seems to have gone to make the film look bigger than it was when shot live; there are monsters all right, but they're brief and fleeting - whereas the cast of thousands of "digital dragoons" is much more in evidence, over and over and over.

It isn't the cast's fault. Johnson, who I don't remember having seen in a film before, does a decent job in the title role and he's backed up by some good actors - such as John Hurt, Rufus Sewell, Joseph Fiennes and the abovementioned McShane. And it isn't the effects or the production values, which are first rate. And it isn't the music.

That leaves the script and/or the direction, unless I'm missing something. And the result is a lot of Lord of the Rings, some Star Wars with some Harryhausen thrown in for good measure - in other words, pretty derivative and not particularly original, though I suppose you could argue that it's tough to be original when you're dealing with a classic tale that's been told (and ripped off) many times over the centuries.

The film introduces the mighty Hercules and outlines the labors he went through, showing us quick glimpses of the hydra (Harryhausen's was better) and a couple of other of his achievements, but the story really follows him and his merry band as they hire themselves out to the Thracians, training their forces so they have a better chance to prevail against that little monkey Rheseus. Ah, but there's more than meets the eye in this task - but you've seen it all before, just wearing different digital duds.

The film really excels as a Blu-ray, though. The picture, 1080p of course, in glorious widescreen, is easily reference quality - and one of the best I've seen. I watched the movie twice (someone had to!), once on a 50 inch plasma and once via a projector throwing its image onto a 106 inch screen and both times the picture knocked off my socks.

Regardless of whether it's character's hair (digital or "real"), textures of surfaces, facial lines, whatever - it's all rendered beautifully with a sharpness and clarity that makes one wonder why you'd even consider going to 4K (not that I wouldn't love to watch this on a 4K TV, except that I'd have to sit through it again).  If only all Blu-rays looked this good!

The audio is no slouch, either. Presented in a DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 lossless soundtrack (I listened in 5.1), the sound design is spectacular. Staging is fine, the music sweeps epically atop it, and there's excellent use of all the channels including the low frequency effects one. Fine details (arrows flying through the air, wood creaks, etc.) are very much in evidence and it's easy to make out every word of the dialogue, even the unfortunately-chosen profanity that doesn't improve the movie and doesn't really belong here. I mean, "f-ing centaurs?" Give me a break!

You also get a good selection of extras, including a DVD and digital download on the version Paramount sent us (a 3D version is also available). There's an audio commentary with director Ratner and producer Beau Flynn, but only on the theatrical cut (there's also an extended version that's about three minutes more excruciating).

"Brett Ratner and Dwayne Johnson: An Introduction" is a short HD feature in which the director and star talk about their passion for the character, as well as an injury Johnson had suffered and how it threatened to derail production (but no! They had to go ahead anyway!). "Hercules and His Mercenaries" takes a look into some of the main characters and the actors who played them, while "Weapons" is just what you'd expect. "The Bessi Battle" shines its light on one of the big battle sequences, including the location, actor prep and the choreography of the action, while "the Effects of Hercules" is a decent look at just how much CG stuff is actually in this film (lots!).  There are also some deleted and/or extended scenes and an alternate ending.

I suppose Hercules is worth a rental if you don't care about having this spectacular audio and video presentation in your library. I'm glad I have it so I can use it when reviewing video equipment, but you can bet I'll merely be choosing a few of the more spectacular scenes and not actually sitting though this version again. Ever.

Copyright 2014 Jim Bray

Jim Bray's columns are available from the TechnoFile Syndicate.

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