May 3, 2000 at 12:00 am

Special effects in movies have become increasingly wedded to science fiction, but in the glorious spectacle Gladiator, director Ridley Scott uses this technology to re-create – with a startling physicality and immediacy – the Roman Empire which once blanketed most of Europe.

Scott, who helped establish our current sci-fi lexicon with Alien and Blade Runner, has always been an expert at using high-tech tools for low-tech visceral impact. The battle scenes which open Gladiator, where the Roman general Maximus (a perfect Russell Crowe) leads his adroit army against a defiant band of holdouts in Germania, are intense and bloody displays of combat in the pre-firearms era. The violence is intimate and relentless, ending only in the vanquishing of rivals – and that, in a nutshell, is the paradigm played out among gladiators.

As a general, Maximus is both a respected battlefield strategist and a warrior unafraid to enter the fray. But he’s woefully unprepared when it comes to politics. So when the son of dying Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris), the petulant and needy Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), stages a coup, Maximus is stripped of everything that means anything to him. A shell of his former self, with only his ability to kill keeping him alive, he becomes one of the star attractions of gladiator games run by Proximo (the formidable Oliver Reed).

David Franzoni, John Logan and William Nicholson incorporate a lot into their smart script: the conflict between democracy and totalitarianism (which Scott emphasizes by staging Commodus’ return to Rome as a Leni Riefenstahl celebration of goose-stepping, absolute power); the idea that sports – particularly the hollow loyalties and ritualization of winning – distract societies from their collective misery; and the fact that a woman, Lucilla (Connie Nielsen), might have made a better emperor than her younger brother.

Even though the film carries a strong whiff of machismo, the battle between Maximus and Commodus isn’t just to see who can be Biggus Dickus. It’s about honor and fidelity to the ideals expressed in the founding of the empire, not the corrupt society which grew overly enamored with triumph and the ability to dominate the world. Which makes Gladiator about much more than ancient Rome.

Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected].