Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
could easily have been a candidate for Cinematical's Shelf Life series, and I contemplated using it for this week's entry. After some consideration, however, I came to the realization that anyone who liked Terry Gilliam's Hunter S. Thompson adaptation in 1998, or ever, quite frankly, would probably still like it today, and anyone who didn't, well, wouldn't. (For the record, I've always been a huge fan of the film, and remain one today.) As such, it seemed more appropriate to let those fans know whether Universal's recent Blu-ray release was worth the money they would be taking away from their drug habits.

What's Already Available: Universal Studios Home Entertainment first released an anamorphic widescreen DVD of Fear and Loathing in November of 1998. The bonus content was limited to deleted scenes and a "spotlight on location" featurette. On February 18, 2003, Criterion Collection produced a two-disc DVD that boasted an enormous slate of extras as well as enhanced presentation.

The contents of that set included: a new digital transfer supervised by the director and new Dolby sound mixes; three commentary tracks – one with director Terry Gilliam, one with stars Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro and producer Laila Nabulsi, and one with author Hunter S. Thompson; deleted scenes with commentary by Gilliam; a collection of storyboards and production designs; a collection of original artwork by famed illustrator Ralph Steadman; Fear and Loathing on the Road to Hollywood: A BBC feature documentary with Hunter S. Thompson and Ralph Steadman; Hunter Goes to Hollywood, a short documentary video by Wayne Ewing; a look at the controversy over the screenwriting credit; a selection of Hunter S. Thompson's correspondence read on-camera by Johnny Depp; rare material on Oscar Zeta Acosta, the attorney on whom the character Dr. Gonzo is based; an excerpt from the 1996 audio CD; trailer and stills galleries; and a booklet featuring an essay by J. Hoberman and two pieces by Hunter S. Thompson.

What's In The New Set: High definition presentation of the film, deleted scenes, and a "spotlight on location" featurette.

What's The Difference In The Movie Itself: Nothing. Without a high-definition copy of the Criterion transfer it's hard to tell whether this is an upgrade or remastering of that version, or the original 1998 transfer. However, for the most part, the picture quality is clear, clean and bright, fully bringing the dynamic images in Gilliam's directorial palette to life.

What's The Difference In Everything Else: Somewhat obviously, the only bonus features are those from the original, Universal release, which means that the wealth of behind the scenes and background information is completely absent. Despite their willingness to sell or provide Criterion with the licenses to some of their films, including this one and Dazed and Confused, there seems to be an adversarial relationship where distribution and duplication of rights is concerned: specifically, I haven't seen any of the extras on Criterion releases appear on subsequent Universal editions.

What precisely this means for the future of those big-studio Criterion releases remains to be seen, but in the interim it appears as if fans of these films won't get anything but the films and/or the extra content Universal commissioned for its own releases. In this case, that's particularly disappointing, since like many of Gilliam's films, the production history was an epic saga of conflicts and changes, and is absolutely of interest to anyone who is a fan.

What's The Final Grade: D. As much as Fear and Loathing is a must-have release for all Gilliam fans and folks who appreciate its oddball, operatic visual style, even a solid and satisfying high-definition transfer does not do justice to the legacy of the film, especially since so much of it has already been chronicled and cataloged on home video. If you're really hurting for this film, I recommend either watching your well-worn copy of the Criterion DVD on an up-scaling player, or renting this disc rather than buying it.