The new Starz drama “Spartacus: Blood & Sand” is an orgiastic tidal wave of ludicrousness.
It’s a no-punches-pulled landslide of viscera, softcore sexuality, salty language, historical anachronisms and masculine posturing. And, as such, some people are going to love the heck out of “Spartacus: Blood & Sand.”
For other viewers, the headache will set in within five minutes and never subside, but at least “Spartacus” doesn’t aim for delayed reactions. The Roman gonzo-trashiness starts early and carries on with an admirable persistence.
One thing is for sure: You’ve never seen anything like “Spartacus: Blood & Sand” before, unless you’ve seen “300,” Stanley Kubrick’s “Spartacus” and “Caligula” all in the same night and had horrifying dreams making a mash-up of those three films. If you’ve done that, then you know exactly what to expect from “Spartacus: Blood & Sand.”
Full review of “Spartacus: Blood & Sand” after the break…
Newcomer (to these shores at least) Andy Whitfield plays Spartacus, except he isn’t actually Spartacus (he has a different name that nobody seems to want to call him), he’s actually a soldier sentenced to death in the gladiatorial arena for defying a prissy Roman legate. When that death fails to take, Spartacus is sold to Batiatus (John Hannah), a down-on-his-luck Ludus (gladiatorial school) owner married to Lucretia (Lucy Lawless), who happens to be sexing up the Ludus’ top gladiator Crixus (Manu Bennett), the Undefeated Gaul.
Spartacus is driven by his love for his wife, who was sold into slavery and treated rather poorly. He yearns only of reconnecting with her. Oh and also revenge. He totally dreams of revenge.
Created by Steven S. DeKnight, “Spartacus” manages to be simultaneously chaotic and non-stop action, while moving the plot along at a glacial pace. Because of the Kubrick movie, viewers know where the narrative of “Spartacus: Blood & Sand” is eventually going, but we’re a long way from seeing our hero evolve into a revolutionary leader-of-men. Instead, Spartacus has some growing up to do as an individual, some growing up that can only be done with almost three hours of gladiatorial training montages. I’d say that “Spartacus: Blood & Sand” was Roman history as imagined by John Milius, but John Milius already tackled this subject matter in “Rome” and did it with far more nuance.
“Spartacus” is shot “300”-style with virtual backgrounds and speed ramping, which means that people are constantly flying through the air in slow motion and that non-existent blood is also gushing everywhere, bathing characters, soaking the sand and covering the camera in a non-existent crimson film. If you found “300” to be the most awesomest, adrenaline pumping-est thrill-ride EVER, imagine 26 hours of that (since Starz has already ordered a second season). If you found “300” to be initially innovative and interesting, but ultimately hollow and tiresome, imagine 26 hours of that.
For me, I began experiencing aesthetic fatigue within 15 minutes of the start of “300” and “Spartacus” suffered a similar fate. For a while, the effects really are stunning and hardly diminished at all from the “300” quality, showing how quickly that technology has progressed. But it all becomes hollow, literally, in fact.
Because “Spartacus” was all done on a stage and then the sound was ADRed and foleyed and tinkered, there’s no authentic tone to any of the environments and everything was added via foley. The effect is that it *sounds* like a radio play. I can’t say how much of that will be fixed between the cuts that were sent to critics last month, how much is an unavoidable technical weakness and now much is shoddy sound work from this particular production, but whenever the score isn’t blaring, all is hollow.
It’s not like there aren’t ample distractions to any technical failings. The violence is heightened and intentionally cartoonish, saving the really gory stuff for moments that are supposed to carry emotional weight. The sex is graphic and equally cartoonish, spreading the nudity around over many actresses and actors and basically draining the thrusting and humping of even the slightest eroticism. Instead of getting turned on, or even pondering at the character motivations behind the various acts, you find yourself pondering body types and wondering about styles of pubic grooming in Ancient Rome.
And if you aren’t amused by the sex and the violence, you get dialogue like Batiatus’ description of a well-connected rival: “That man has fingers in all the proper a******s. He wiggles them and everyone s***s gold.” That’s the way everybody talks in “Spartacus,” coarsely and without filters.
What “Spartacus: Blood & Sand” lacks as a distraction is the kind of acting that can elevate the tawdriness from pulp to pulp-art.
In the lead, Whitfield looks fine with his shirt off, but either lacks the necessary charisma or has chosen to downplay the charisma that would offer early hints on why Spartacus is eventually going to be able to lead a revolution. It’s possible that it’s the latter, but in the early episodes, Spartacus often becomes indistinguishable from the rest of his buff, dirty gladiatorial colleagues. Whitfield also has the disadvantage of looking like a half-dozen better known actors and in more monotonous scenes, I just tried figured out who he most closely resembles. The best comparison I could come up with was “New Amsterdam” star Nikolaj Coster-Waldau after a few months at the gym.
Lawless and Hannah are positioned as the acting heavyweights in the cast and certainly Hannah has fun spitting out the show’s purple prose, while Lawless plays up her character’s physicality. Neither, though, is of the stature that the show requires as an anchor. It’s an absolute necessity that material like this secures a Knight or a Dame, that it lands one person from the “Gosford Park” cast or one Noted British Thespian worthy of sitting on the faculty at Hogwarts. Somebody has to be on hand to class up the joint and as good as they can be, neither Lawless or Hannah is up to the challenge. That should probably be the first goal for Season Two: Cast Derek Jacobi or Alan Bates or Eileen Atkins. It doesn’t even matter if they just show up in a toga and declaim for two minutes per episode, because the entire production would benefit.
Despite feeling like I’d been bludgeoned for four hours, the “Spartacus” episodes I’ve seen left me curious about how deliberately the narrative is going to go for the rest of the season. I don’t want to watch and yet I fear what I might miss if I don’t tune in. Who knows what limbs might be severed, what appendages removed in the weeks to come? Who knows what that gladiator with the vintage William Katt blonde-fro will next be asked to have sex with a slave girl in front of the appreciative upper classes? Who can imagine what sorts of homoerotic humiliation loom for Spartacus as his gladiatorial training advances to the next level? And when Spartacus finally gets to take his revenge on the Roman who separated him from his wife, how many hours of pure torture porn will viewers be treated to?
The mind boggles! And that’s the reaction you’re probably supposed to get from “Spartacus: CGI Blood & CGI Sand,” where the line between “awful” and “awfully entertaining” is sometimes as imaginary as the backgrounds and the butchery.
“Spartacus: Blood & Sand” premieres on Starz at 10 p.m. on Friday, January 22.