Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

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Synopsis

It is 1971, and journalist Raoul Duke barrels toward Las Vegas—accompanied by a trunkful of contraband and his slightly unhinged Samoan attorney, Dr. Gonzo—to cover a motorcycle race. What should be a cut-and-dried journalistic assignment quickly descends into a feverish psychedelic odyssey. Director Terry Gilliam and an all-star cast, headlined by Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro, show no mercy in bringing Hunter S. Thompson’s excoriating dissection of the American way of life to the screen, creating a film both hilarious and savage.

Picture 9/10

Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas gets a stunning 4K UHD upgrade from The Criterion Collection. This 2160p/24hz ultra high-definition presentation is featured on a triple-layer disc with Dolby Vision in a 2.39:1 aspect ratio. The release also includes a standard Blu-ray with a 1080p presentation and all the video features from the 2011 Criterion release, with the only difference being the new disc art.

Despite the existence of Arrow’s and Turbine’s 4K restoration, Criterion has undertaken an all-new one sourced from the 35mm original camera negative. This presentation is significantly cleaner, more film-like, and natural compared to Criterion’s previous high-def Blu-ray release, with a sharper consistency to the film's grain structure, enhancing the finer details. The encode is impressive, with no noticeable issues with compression or macroblocking, even in the highlights. HDR proves effective, particularly in the nighttime shots featuring the bright lights along the Vegas strip. However, the initial wide shot where Duke and Gonzo first arrive still has a murky CGI sheen, which is simply a byproduct of the CGI of the time. The darker scenes are easier to see and less muddy, and smoky interiors and dusty desert race sequences look cleaner and less noisy.

Compared to Arrow’s excellent 4K presentation, Criterion’s holds its own. The encoding and restoration work for both is top-notch and it's really hard to fault either. However, they differ in one surprising area: color grading. Criterion’s version has a yellow-er, teal-like push compared to Arrow’s and previous DVD and Blu-ray releases. This leads to some scenes looking hotter and even cooler in some cases, and the opening, featuring color and black-and-white archival footage, features a sepia tint absent in previous presentations, including Arrow’s. Interestingly, this new color grading isn’t uniformly applied. For instance, a flashback scene in a men’s bathroom, where a man walks in on Flea aggressively licking Johnny Depp’s sleeve, comes off looking more natural here in comparison to the old grading, which is greener.

Somewhat to my surprise, I find myself preferring Criterion’s color grading to Arrow’s and the older look. Unlike the heavy-handed approach of Éclair and Ritrovata, for starters, Criterion’s color grading at least looks like it could be achieved through a photochemical process, and is not simply a matter of pumping greens or sucking out blues. The older color scheme also pushes the reds or magentas, typical of older video masters. When directly comparing the color gradings, the skies are strikingly blue in this presentation while leaning violet in the older ones. Some sequences, like the police convention, were blanketed in blue in the old presentations, and though they now lean teal, other colors, like greens and oranges, are a bit more evident in these shots.

This doesn’t mean Arrow’s color grading is wrong, mind you, and I think their edition still looks fine despite its flaws. Which version is closer to the original theatrical look? It’s hard to say, especially since Gilliam approved both presentations. Still, watching them independently from one another, the colors in each look fine.

Ultimately, it comes down to personal preference regarding the color grading. That said, Criterion’s presentation is rock solid otherwise.

Audio 7/10

As with previous releases, Criterion includes both the 2.0 and 5.1 surround tracks, both presented in DTS-HD MA. I'm not sure as to why both are included, as I'm pretty sure the film was released theatrically in 5.1, but the option is available. Regardless, I find the mix frustrating, possibly due to Gilliam’s admitted weakness in sound design, as he mentions in his commentary.

(I'll point out that the 5.1 soundtrack is still the corrected one. The DVD's 5.1 track was missing some sound effects.)

The film's audio is complex, from the music soundtrack to the chaotic sounds of bad acid trips. The busy Vegas strip, the desert race, and Gonzo's offscreen screams are effectively mixed through the surround channels, immersing the viewer. The lower frequency gets a lot of work, too, particularly during the “adrenochrome” sequence late in the film, though it seems slightly toned down compared to the previous presentations

Where the audio falls short (still) is in the dialogue: it's flat and monotone, making it difficult to hear, even the narration. Depp and Del Toro’s mumbling and blathering don't help, but the issue extends to the sober characters as well, and large portions of dialogue can be incredibly hard to understand.

This has always been a frustration for me with this film (and some of Gilliam’s others), and the fact that it hasn’t improved over 25 years makes me think it’s a permanent issue.

Extras 10/10

Criterion’s 4K edition includes a 4K UHD disc and a standard Blu-ray disc featuring a 1080p presentation of the film. This Blu-ray is the same one Criterion released back in 2011, meaning it uses the old high-def presentation but includes all of the special features.

All video features are only available on the standard Blu-ray, but all three commentaries are found on both discs. Director Terry Gilliam’s commentary is energetic as he recounts the film’s problematic development process, adaptation, and capturing the feeling of being on drugs (despite his claim of never having experienced them). Filled with anecdotes and digressions, it’s one of Gilliam’s more entertaining tracks.

The second commentary by Depp, Del Toro, and producer Laila Nabulsi remains worthwhile. Depp discusses studying Thompson to capture his essence, practically living with him for an extended period. Del Toro, unable to study his character directly (Oscar Zeta Acosta passed away in 1974), talks about gaining weight for the role. Nabulsi discusses the decade-long struggle to get the movie made and mentions other actors considered for the roles over the years, including Jack Nicholson, John Malkovich, John Cusack, and Dan Aykroyd/John Belushi. Though Del Toro’s contributions are fewer, Depp and Nabulsi keep the commentary engaging.

The standout commentary, and arguably the “must listen” of the three, is the track recorded by author Hunter S. Thompson. Despite being a group effort with Nabulsi, commentary editor Michael W. Wiese, and Thompson’s assistant trying to keep him on track, it’s filled with hilarious and insightful moments. Thompson shares anecdotes about the production, having Depp study him (which he found creepy), and his reflections on the period he wrote the book. He expresses his opinions on various topics, including his thoughts on Tim Leary and his old friend Oscar Acosta. Despite veering off-topic at times, the commentary is surprisingly cohesive, likely due to careful editing. Recorded in his home, there are distractions like phone calls and Thompson snorting unknown substances. Be prepared for explicit language, derogatory comments, and squealing. If you can handle it, it’s a very funny and insightful track, possibly the best feature on the release.

The remaining supplements, all on the standard Blu-ray, are divided into two sections: “The Film” and “The Source.” “The Film” covers aspects of the movie and its production. It starts with three deleted scenes with optional commentary by Gilliam. These scenes, involving an extended bit in the tent during the bike race, a conversation between the protagonists and a convention officer, and an extension to the ending, were cut for pacing but are interesting to see.

Following this are Storyboards for seven different sequences, presented as a gallery. An artwork gallery showcases the film’s production designs, including drawings and paintings. The Stills Gallery presents a large collection of production photos, followed by Depp-Thompson Correspondence, where Depp reads his correspondence with Thompson. This piece offers a glimpse into their relationship during pre-production all the way through to the film’s premiere at Cannes. Though Depp’s presentation is fine, it’s a bit disappointing that he doesn’t read Thompson’s responses in character.

Hunter Goes to Hollywood features a ten-and-a-half-minute segment from Wayne Ewing’s documentary Breakfast with Hunter. It shows Thompson visiting the set and filming his cameo. ”Not the Screenplay” covers the screenplay credit scandal. Due to a WGA rule, Alex Cox and his co-writer were to receive sole credit, despite Gilliam and Tony Grisoni rewriting the screenplay. This section includes a 17-minute audio conversation between Gilliam, Grisoni, and Nabulsi discussing the issues with Cox and the adaptation process. Also included is a 1-minute intro Gilliam made during the WGA dispute, called "Dress Pattern," with an optional audio commentary explaining its purpose.

A Study in Marketing presents the theatrical trailer and seven TV spots. Gilliam provides a commentary over the trailer, explaining the marketing challenges.

"The Source" starts with Oscar Zeta Acosta: Dr. Gonzo, which includes a biography and a 30-minute video of Acosta reading from his book The Revolt of the Cockroach People. This addition provides context on Acosta and shows how closely Del Toro captured him. An audio recording of Thompson reading a piece about Acosta, running about seven minutes, is also included.

Ralph Steadman Art Gallery presents Steadman's artwork related to the story, including art from the article, book covers, and possible film posters. Breakdown on Paradise Boulevard features an excerpt from an audio CD released in 1996 for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, featuring Jim Jarmusch as Duke, Maury Chaykin as Dr. Gonzo, and Harry Dean Stanton as the narrator. The excerpt presents a scene from the book not in the movie (at least not in whole).

The set concludes with a 50-minute documentary Fear and Loathing on the Road to Hollywood, made in 1978. It follows Thompson and Steadman from Colorado to Hollywood, focusing on Thompson and offering great footage of him in action. Though stale in parts, Thompson’s presence livens it up, discussing the book and film ideas. The highlight is Thompson’s discussion of his wishes for his remains after death, which were fulfilled following his death in 2005. This documentary is arguably the best feature after Thompson’s surreal commentary.

The release includes a booklet with an essay on the film by J. Hoberman, an essay by Thompson reflecting on the novel, and "Rules for Reading Gonzo Journalism." It’s a nice final touch to the set. 

Arrow's edition has a few exclusive features, including an interview with Del Toro, but Criterion's is still about as comprehensive as one could hope. A terrific set of features.

Closing

Criterion's comprehensive special edition receives a solid boost with a new 4K presentation.

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Directed by: Terry Gilliam
Year: 1998
Time: 119 min.
 
Series: The Criterion Collection
Edition #: 175
Licensor: Universal Studios Home Entertainment
Release Date: June 04 2024
MSRP: $49.95
 
4K UHD Blu-ray/Blu-ray
2 Discs | BD-50/UHD-100
2.35:1 ratio
2.39:1 ratio
English 2.0 DTS-HD MA Surround
English 5.1 DTS-HD MA Surround
Subtitles: English
Regions A/None
HDR: HDR10Dolby Vision
 
 Audio commentary by Terry Gilliam   Audio commentary featuring stars Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro, and producer Laila Nabulsi   Audio commentary with author Hunter S. Thompson   Deleted scenes, with optional commentary by Terry Gilliam   Selection of Thompson correspondence, read on camera by Johnny Depp   Hunter Goes to Hollywood, a short documentary   Program about the controversy over the screenwriting credit   Profile of Oscar Zeta Acosta, the inspiration for Dr. Gonzo   Collection of artwork by illustrator Ralph Steadman   Excerpt from the 1996 Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas recording featuring Jim Jarmusch and Maury Chaykin   Documentary from 1978 featuring Hunter S. Thompson and Ralph Steadman   Storyboards, production designs, and stills   Theatrical trailer   An essay by critic J. Hoberman and two pieces by Hunter S. Thompson