Well, it's better than "The Phantom Menace."
It's difficult to believe that it was just a year ago we -- well, some of us -- were waiting with bated breath for the next installment of "Star Wars," only to have those high hopes dashed on the shoals of George Lucas' dried-up digital effects.
"Gladiator," this summer's first official blockbuster, at least pulses with more life and narrative sense than last year's, albeit not much more.
For all its pumped-up action and epic historical sweep, it still feels like a movie designed to go straight to the small screen. In the era of DVDs and computer games, even event movies like "Gladiator" are instantly forgettable, the better to send young audiences to those ancillary outlets where filmmakers really make their money.
While "Gladiator" doesn't have the feel of an entirely tossed-off afterthought, it does resemble more of a fussily made advertisement than a fully realized movie.
Director Ridley Scott -- who started out his career making television commercials -- certainly knows his way around a production design; "Gladiator" is nothing if not visually opulent.
But finally the film is less about characters and their stories than Scott's strategies as a filmmaker. Rather than getting lost in the world Scott has created on screen, Scott asks filmgoers to marvel at how he created that world, and how smoothly he succeeds in manipulating us.
Russell Crowe plays Maximus, a general defending and expanding the empire of Marcus Aurelius in ancient Rome. "Gladiator" opens as Maximus leads his troops into battle in Germania, a battle with so many fireballs and explosions that it begins to look like a strafing mission in Vietnam.
Watched by the elderly Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris), Maximus is clearly a noble soldier, whose watchwords "strength and honor" aren't just motivational mumbo-jumbo. Indeed, Maximus is such a charismatic and principled leader that Aurelius asks him to protect Rome and its Republican form of government after he dies. When Aurelius' son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) learns that he is not heir to his father's throne, palace intrigue ensues, as well as Maximus' demotion to prisoner and, eventually, slave and gladiator.
Scott and his production team took great care in re-creating ancient Rome (as well as North Africa and rural Italy) in "Gladiator," the centerpiece of which is a dazzling reproduction of the Roman Coliseum. And Scott enlisted a fine cast of players in the enterprise.
Crowe, nominated this year for his role in "The Insider," has physically transformed himself to play a ripplingly well-built soldier who, not surprisingly, harbors a quietly searing grief that motivates him throughout the movie. Oliver Reed makes his rumpled farewell to the screen as the P.T. Barnum of gladiator road shows (he died during the film's production), and supporting players Djimon Honsou, Connie Nielsen and Derek Jacobi all acquit themselves well in supporting roles.
The story of "Gladiator" hews to the formula deployed with such virtuosity by Steven Spielberg. Here, what drives Maximus and his fellow gladiators is the simple desire to go home -- in Maximus' case to seek revenge against the conniving Commodus, but in a more cosmic sense to see his wife and family again.
For all their furious battles and terrifying gladiator matches, what Scott really wants us to see is a bunch of muscular, well-oiled E.T.s.
All of this would seem to add up to the perfect summer movie, the kind of escapist throwback to the days of "Ben Hur" and "Spartacus" that makes B-movies live and breathe again. But rather than fun, "Gladiator" is a grim, self-serious movie, full of visual pretensions and a busy, overcooked filming style.
In the movie's first action scene, a battle between the Romans and the Barbarians in a German forest, Scott does everything but draw directly on the celluloid to create a heightened visual effect. He slows down the action, speeds it up and fragments it into jerky, stop-action animation. The effect isn't the emotional power he was looking for (and that Spielberg himself achieved in "Saving Private Ryan") as much as a distracting, self-conscious attempt at artiness.
Worse than that, he films the action scenes -- especially those in the Coliseum -- so closely, and edits them so quickly, that it's impossible to discern exactly what is going into whom, and where.
At his best, in movies such as "Alien" and "Blade Runner," Scott has had a healthy respect for spatial logic, which is what makes him look like such an elder statesman next to his stylistic heirs (see Michael Bay and "Armageddon"). In "Gladiator" that sense has abandoned him, and filmgoers are left with a violent, meaningless jumble of gestures and aestheticized gore.
Some of the most impressive shots in "Gladiator" are those in which Scott layers his characters against a desaturated backdrop of Roman architecture and military parades, whose evocations of Leni Riefenstahl are no doubt meant to recall fascism's awe for ancient Roman style.
In a funny way, Scott has created his own monumentalist tribute to the entertainment state, ruled by a plutocracy of aesthetes and manipulators.
Scott himself is one of the more effective members of that ruling class, and like them he seems oblivious to what his own hero proves: that the mob can be coerced through appeals to their senses, but they are only truly won through their hearts.
Starring Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen, Oliver Reed, Richard Harris
Directed by Ridley Scott
Rated R (intense graphic combat)
Running time 150 minutes
Released by Dreamworks Pictures and Universal Pictures
Sun score **