Spartacus: Gods of the Arena

| September 12, 2011

The Starz original miniseries, Spartacus: Gods of the Arena, will be arriving on Blu-ray and DVD tomorrow, with all of its over-the-top sex and even more over-the-top violence included and rendered in exquisitely high quality. Spartacus: Gods of the Arena was originally created as a prequel to Spartacus: Blood and Sand, which aired on Starz the previous year starring Andy Whitfield as Spartacus. In March of 2010, Whitfield was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, delaying production of a second season. Spartacus: Gods of the Arena was then conceived of as a way to continue exploring the story while also giving Whitfield time to recover for a projected 2011 return to filming. Sadly, a year and a half after the initial diagnosis, Whitfield died yesterday, which will force Starz to move ahead with production of a second season with Australian actor Liam McIntyre in the role of Spartacus.
While Spartacus: Blood and Sand followed the same basic storyline featured in the beginning portion of Stanley Kubrick’s brilliant 1960 epic, which saw Kirk Douglas’ initial enslavement as a gladiator in the house of Batiatus and his subsequent revolt, Spartacus: Gods of the Arena takes the storyline back to uncharted territory, concerning itself with the rise of Batiatus and the development of his gladiatorial school. Batiatus is played by John Hannah, who is summarily upstaged by his cunning and lascivious wife, Lucretia, played by the always great Lucy Lawless. Also stealing much of the show is the champion gladiator, Gannicus, played by Dustin Clare.
The greatest feature of this series is undoubtedly the changed dynamic of the gladiator school. In Kubrick’s film, it is very much a slave labor camp, with the gladiators treated terribly and forced to become better killers for the sake of good entertainment. In Spartacus: Gods of the Arena, on the other hand, it is more like a training camp, with camaraderie between the gladiators, respect between Batiatus and the gladiators, and an ambition in the premiere gladiators to win glory in the arena and be the best they can be. It is more of a sporting environment than pure slave labor, with the inevitable revolt caused by Batiatus’ corruption as opposed to something intrinsically wrong with the system.
Despite featuring intriguing storylines and the promise of an intelligent treatment, the poor choice of style is the show’s downfall. The aesthetic takes no inspiration from Kubrick’s film or even Ridley Scott’s more recent Gladiator, instead creating a visual space more in line with the silly and fantastical 300 aesthetic. And rather than featuring heavy melodrama and grittily filmed action, the series is little more than a laughably gratuitous, video game-styled action fest with enough sex and nudity to make Cinemax jealous. If that’s your bag, this series most certainly delivers, and springing for the Blu-ray would definitely be a smart decision considering the stunning image quality and the exclusive Blu-ray features (the best being audio commentaries on every episode), but for my money, I’d rather just play a video game, where I get to have an active role in creating the carnage, or just watch porn.
Spartacus: Gods of the Arena is the worst of both worlds, unfortunately resulting in a series that is nothing more than wasted potential.

About the Author:

Kyle Barrowman is a graduate of the Cinema Studies program at Columbia College in Chicago. In addition to his work for Film Monthly, he has previously published essays for Cashiers du Cinemart, Offscreen, and The International Journal of Žižek Studies, on subjects ranging from film noir to Alfred Hitchcock, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Bruce Lee.
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