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Blu-ray Review: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

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Realism has never much interested Terry Gilliam. It's fascinating to consider that Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the drug-fueled mind-bender based on Hunter S. Thompson's seminal book, is also likely his most realistic piece of filmmaking. The book was Thompson's tour-de-force of "Gonzo journalism," a style he helped define by trying to make journalism that was as in the moment, uncensored, and  subjectively and emotionally true as possible. Both Gilliam and Thompson hold that "realism" and "objectivity" are false and useless constructs, so it makes sense that sooner or later the two should join.

Fear and LoathingFear and Loathing in Las Vegas, like most Gilliam films, had a troubled history. Many had tried to get the project off the ground in the past, and it had eventually become known as one of those unfilmable properties, projects so bizarre and idiosyncratic that someone would have to be mad to attempt it. Multiple writers tried their hands at adaptations, but eventually Gilliam threw them all out and worked off the cuff with writer Tony Grisoni, which led to a battle for writing credits with the WGA. On its initial release, the film was a critical dud and tanked financially.

And yet, it lives. It has become a cult film, passed around from person to person, quoted and reenacted by mutual appreciators, vehemently defended in late night bar conversations. In its failure it has become, to many, a very personal film.

Which makes a review of this standard Blu-ray somewhat difficult. As far as what Blu-ray is known for, extraordinary visual and audio quality, the disc is a total winner. The film, awash in the garishness of Vegas, the dust-covered grit of the motorcycle race and the psychedelic hallucinations of the near-constant drug binges, looks absolutely astounding.

Visualizing a drug trip is a dangerous thing to attempt on film. All kinds of drugs affect all kinds of people in all kinds of ways. Choose one way, and risk everyone who has had a different experience calling you disingenuous and wrong. Gilliam wisely focuses the drug scenes as reactions against the environments in which Johnny Depp's Raoul Duke and Benicio Del Toro's Dr. Gonzo find themselves. The drugs are not used to escape the reality around the characters, but to accentuate it into grotesqueness and reveal its hidden truths.

Within both the book and the film Thompson's surrogate, Raoul Duke, makes it his thesis to discover what happened to the American Dream. The '60s had just ended, and the idealism and push for social change and progress had begun to fall into disillusionment, despair, and confusion. The film uses occasional newsreel footage and songs from the period to evoke this shifting essence, summed up beautifully in the famous "wave" speech. The movie cunningly makes its points throughout not by making pat statements or treading on tired cliches, but through Gilliam's masterful use of tone. The film's meaning is so ever-present, yet also so subtly and naturally engaged, that many critics mistakenly panned the movie as being "pointless."

The issue with this disc comes in questioning exactly what you want from it. If all you want is a gorgeous transfer, great sound, and a couple of special features (a standard "Spotlight on Location" special made before the film premiered and a couple of rough deleted scenes), this Blu-ray is precisely what you're looking for. The film is presented in its proper 2.35:1 ratio, which hasn't always been so with releases of Gilliam's films (some of us are STILL waiting for a proper Tideland release). The colors, as mentioned, are eye-popping, gorgeously rendered. The sound is DTS-HD Master Audio, which comes through particularly well with the film's fantastic soundtrack. Some of the dialog is a bit muffled and occasionally distorted, but this is playfulness on Gilliam's part, no defect with the disc.

However, if you're one of those people who cling to this film as a triumphant and unjustly ignored paean to the possibilities of cinema, it's hard to ignore the brilliant and exhaustive Criterion DVD that contains such incredible information about the film, including one of the greatest film commentaries ever recorded by the inestimable Dr. Thompson himself. Criterion is only just beginning to get into the Blu-ray game, so it may take a while for them to get around to Fear and Loathing. Therefore, if you want your lounge lizards, Bazooko Circus, and adrenochrome trips in beautiful high definition, and you want them now, this disc will certainly soothe your savage burn.

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About Jake Thomas

  • Announced today there’s quite a few classics Criterion is losing as studios see the market and demand.

    Expect a Blu double-dip of FLLV to tie in when Rum Diary opens. I am almost sure of it. Maybe it will have more extras

  • That’s a massive bummer. I suppose that’s another vote for picking this up. The big fans already have the Criterion, so this can be for just watching the movie, the Criterion can be for hearing Hunter S. Thompson screech across a commentary and watch him get cantankerous with British journalists back in the day.

    It’s kind of weird that there’s not anything on this Blu-ray that addresses the passing of Thompson. He doesn’t even make an appearance in the Spotlight on Location feature. Bummer, indeed.

  • “it may take a while for them”

    Universal took back the rights so don’t expect anything from Criterion unless there’s a new deal in place.