The previous Universal DVD only had a 2.0 Dolby Surround track, which I thought was pretty good, though not exceptional (most flaws in the track can be attributed to Gilliam, who admits in the commentary track he’s not very good with sound.) That same track is included here but Criterion has also included new Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 tracks. They are both improvements over the Dolby Surround track, but they both have one glaring flaw that I will get into.
For the two 5.1 tracks, dialogue remains at the fronts mainly (except during little echoes, where they creep to the rears) and sounds crisp, clean and articulate, but only when the characters aren't slurring what they say (not a point against the track, but subtitles do help when watching this film mainly because of the slurring). The DTS track is much crisper and clearer, though. It’s actually pretty interesting jumping from the 2.0 track, to the Dolby Digital track, and then to the DTS track, because the quality does drastically improve through each.
The surrounds on the 5.1 tracks have plenty to do, especially during the "trippy" sequences. There are a lot of creative surround effects, with some decent splits and great subtle effects. Volume on the Dolby Surround 2.0 track is lower, while the other tracks present louder volume. Bass is much more active on the 5.1 tracks, the DTS track making better use of the woofer. For a clear comparison one only needs to go to chapter 17 where Duke starts tripping out on adrenochrome. The 2.0 track doesn’t really deliver much, the Dolby Digital 5.1 track presenting a louder presentation with more noticeable bass, and then the DTS track presents a very loud, thumping sequence, very suiting for the sequence. In terms of sound quality the DTS track is the clear winner.
Unfortunately most may want to stick with the Dolby Surround track because of an error that I can only guess occurred during mastering/mixing the two 5.1 tracks: Audio is missing during a couple of sequences. It’s most apparent during chapter 10, where Duke throws Gonzo into the bathroom, just before Duke’s flashback. On the Dolby Surround track you can hear Gonzo screaming and yelling in the background. But on the two 5.1 tracks those sound effects are missing, so the scene presents Duke reacting to something that can’t be heard. This is very disappointing, especially since the two 5.1 tracks do sound better than the 2.0 track. I’m surprised no one caught this. 6/10
The Criterion Collection has released a rather extensive two-disc special edition for the film, which to me was kind of a surprise. While it is a bigger film, it was financially unsuccessful and its lovers are few and far between. Yet they've seen it fit to not only add the film to the collection but give an excellent special edition.
First up on the first disc are three audio commentaries, the first being one by director Terry Gilliam. And like all the other commentaries I've heard from Gilliam, it's an energetic, funny and insightful commentary that never misses a beat. Gilliam has a lot to talk about, going from production to the themes, the cast, anecdotes and its acceptance (or lack there-of) in some circles. It's a funny, rather informative and entertaining track.
The second commentary by Depp, Del Toro and producer Laila Nabulsi is another excellent track. Depp offers the best bits as he talks a lot about studying to play Thompson, which of course called for basically living with him, while Del Toro talks a lot about his ways of getting into the role (gaining weight) and Naibulsi talks about the hard time she had getting this movie made (which took over a decade). Del Toro doesn’t appear as much unfortunately, but the other two carry it rather nicely. Nabulsi also talks about other interesting choices for actors she had considered to be in the roles over the years, including (but not limited to) Jack Nicholson, John Malkovich, John Cusack, Dan Aykroyd/John Belushi and so on. Another excellent commentary.
I think the most interesting track on here, though, is the audio commentary by Hunter S. Thompson. This is actually a group effort with Thompson in the center. Joining with him is Nabulsi, the commentary editor Michael W. Wiese, and Hunter’s assistant. Basically the three try to keep Hunter on topic. He claims his role during production was to “keep the f---ers in line” and makes some rather rude comments about Gilliam, though it’s hard to know whether he should be taken seriously. He obviously likes the film overall and does throw praise, though isn’t afraid to be honest about what he doesn’t like about it. He has all sorts of anecdotes about getting the movie made, having Depp hang around and study him (which creeped him out,) reflects on the time period and writing the story, expresses his (not so fond) opinions of Tim Leary, as well as his thoughts of his old friend Oscar Acosta. He veers off at times, but he covers everything he can. It’s an excellent track, and quite funny (he speaks his mind) but it is chaotic (the phone even ringing, which Thompson answers.) Also, be prepared for a lot of F bombs, some derogatory comments, screaming, and Thompson snorting God knows what every once in a while followed by a squeal. Probably one of the more “interesting” commentaries I’ve ever heard.
There's also 3 deleted scenes with an optional commentary by Gilliam, also found on the first disc. The scenes themselves, involving an extended bit during the bike race in the tent, another involving a conversation between our two “heroes” and an officer from the convention, and another which looks like an extension to the end, were rightfully cut, more for pacing reasons, but they’re interesting to see here on their own. Gilliam talks about the sequences and why they were eventually cut.
Now we move on to the second dual-layered disc, which is divided into two sections: "The Film" and "The Source".
The section for “The Film” of course goes over the film and its production. The first thing listed is "Storyboards", which takes you into another menu listing about 7 different sequences. The presentation is a simple one, presenting each storyboard individually and using your remote to scan through. You'll also find production design paintings and drawings here presented in the same manner. They’re interesting to look through, show Gilliam’s thought process, but these types of features are pretty common.
"Stills Gallery" presents three different sections called "The Trip", "Las Vegas" and "The Great Magnet". It's a large collection, each section focusing on a different aspect of the film, filled with some decent behind-the-scene and publicity shots.
”Johnny Depp/Hunter S. Thompson Correspondence” presents the correspondence between the actor and author, which Johnny Depp reads on camera. Lasting about 14 minutes, this presents an interesting and quite funny extra, as we get glimpses into their relationship between pre-production and the actual release at Cannes. Depp's presentation of the material is fine, though it would have almost been more suiting if he did it in character. The video has been enhanced for widescreen televisions and runs a little over 14-minutes.
”Hunter Goes to Hollywood” presents a ten-and-a-half minute segment from a documentary by Wayne Ewing on Hunter S. Thompson called Breakfast with Hunter. This segment shows Hunter visiting the set of Gilliam’s film and shows Hunter hanging with cast and crew members, watching the shooting of a sequence, and shows the filming of his cameo in the film. Not only does it offer some great footage of the author but serves as pretty much the only feature on the disc that shows behind-scenes-footage. The feature is presented in 1.33:1.
"Not the Screenplay" is a section devoted to yet another Gilliam scandal, which involved the screenplay credit. Due to a WGA rule Alex Cox and his co-screenwriter, who originally worked on the film but left because of “creative differences”, were to get sole credit because of the screenplay they wrote, despite Gilliam and screenwriter Tony Grisoni rewriting the whole thing. This section includes an audio conversation between Gilliam, Grisoni, and Laila Nabulsi, which plays over an image of Gilliam burning his WGA card. Laila gets more into the problems with Cox (who made Thompson angry) and eventually getting Gilliam while the others talk more about their way of adapting the material and then the actual battle of getting their names on the writing credits. Running 17-mintues it's a great discussion and a great look into the bureaucratic nature of Hollywood. Also included in this section is a 1-minute intro for the movie Gilliam had made while the issues with the WGA were happening, called "Dress Pattern", which is a black and white video (in 5.1 surround, no less) stating that amazingly enough there is no screenwriter associated with the film you are about to watch. Gilliam also provides an audio commentary you can access on the alternate track stating the purpose behind the video. Great stuff!
"A Study in Marketing" presents the theatrical trailer (presented in widescreen but not enhanced for widescreen televisions) and 7 TV Spots. Universal had no idea how to promote the movie, which was being released during the summer, the same week as Godzilla. Gilliam provides a commentary over the trailer explaining the marketing problems and then his vision of what the trailer should be. A nice addition.
And that finishes up that section of the disc. "The Source" focuses more on the book and the people the characters in the book are based on.
Up first is "Oscar Zeta Acosta, Dr. Gonzo", which is a look at the man that inspired Dr. Gonzo (Del Toro's character). The section includes a biography of the man included with photos, and it also presents a 30-minute video of him reading an excerpt from his book "The Revolt of the Cockroach People". While the bio was a nice addition to someone I wasn't too familiar with, the inclusion of the video was the icing on the cake. While I don't think it allowed me to get to know the man more it worked great in seeing how closely I think Del Toro captured him. There is also an audio recording of Thompson reading his own intro to Acosta's book, where he basically praises the man.
”Ralph Steadman Art Gallery” presents Steadman's art based around the story. It includes art from the actual article (providing close-ups in some cases), book covers and even possible posters for the film. I’ve always loved Steadman’s work and having a collection of his artwork here, whether for the article, book, or film version was a nice feature.
"Breakdown on Paradise Boulevard" presents an excerpt from an audio CD released in 1996 for "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" with Jim Jarmusch as Duke, Maury Chaykin as Dr. Gonzo and Harry Dean Stanton as the narrator. It presents a scene from the book not in the movie involving the two at a taco stand. A rather cool little feature that I guess is the next best thing to actually including excerpts from the book and it’s shame not more of this was included.
And finally you get a 50-minute documentary called "Fear and Loathing on the Road to Hollywood". Made in 1978 it follows Thompson and Steadman as they travel from Colorado to Hollywood and going through Las Vegas and focuses mainly on Thompson as the filmmakers obviously try to get a better idea about the man (and it was great seeing a younger Thompson in action.) It’s unfortunately stale in parts, but Thompson livens it up. There’s discussion about the book and ideas on the film. Bill Murray shows up briefly, but I think the best part is the last section where Hunter discusses his ideas for what he wants to happen with his remains after his death (and his wish was fulfilled in August of 2005, a few months after his death) and has Steadman design a monument. Great documentary, primarily for the footage of the man.
And that concludes the extras on the discs. Included with the release is a booklet presenting an essay on the film by J. Hoberman (pretty much the only critic that praised the film on its release.) There’s also an essay by Thompson that reflects back to the novel and writing it, and then it closes with “Rules for Reading Gonzo Journalism.” A nice final touch to the set.
Overall a great collection of supplements that covers a lot, though it would have been interesting if they could have gotten into previous scripts of the film, including Cox’s, or even managed to get Alex Cox to share his side of the story over his original participation (though I guess it’s doubtful that this would have happened as Cox has expressed a certain disdain towards the film and still insists his script is what was used, along with the fact it sounds like both Nabulsi and Gilliam never want to deal with Cox again. As a side note, you can find Cox’s script online.) Still, with what is given to us here, fans of Thompson and/or the film will most surely leave quite happy. An excellent compilation of materials. 10/10