Every so often, an idea for a movie, mini-series or TV show becomes so hot that multiple projects are given the green-light, even though the subject matter is very similar. Remember Dante’s Peak and Volcano in 1997? Murder at 1600 and Absolute Power the same year? Deep Impact and Armageddon in 1998?
Now comes ABC’s mini-series, Empire and HBO’s on-going series, Rome. Both were high budgeted, epic projects about ancient Rome, and both networks strived …o get on the air first. ABC eventually won, airing Empire over the summer of 2005. However, HBO had the last laugh as Rome gained momentum in its fall 2005 run and was rewarded with a second season to be aired sometime in 2007.
That’s not to say that ABC’s Empire wasn’t a quality product. For a mini-series, it’s quite good – and while I wouldn’t put it up there with the best of its kind (Roots, From the Earth to the Moon, and Band of Brothers) it does deliver a good time with a little educational history thrown into the mix, like a good mini-series should.
Whereas the first season of HBO’s Rome dealt with the plot leading up to Julius Caesar’s murder by the Roman Senate, Empire is more interested in what happened after Caesar’s murder and the quest of his heir, Octavius.
Enter gladiator Tyrannus (Jonathan Cake), a former soldier in Caesar’s army. When Caesar (Colm Feore) asks Tyrannus to be his bodyguard in Rome, and promises Tyrannus his freedom, Tyrannus cannot refuse. But then Caeser is murdered by the power hungry Senate. When Tyrannus finds Caesar on the Senate floor, taking in his last breaths, Caesar asks Tyrannus to protect his heir, Octavius (Santiago Cabrera) who will be surely be sought out by the Senate and killed as well. Meanwhile, Marc Antony (Vincent Regan) fumes over not being named Caesar’s heir, and contemplates which side to align himself with.
Empire sets up the plot very well within the first two episodes, and in the middle of its 6 episode run, it almost becomes an equal to HBO’s superior Rome. But as the mini-series progresses into its second half, the story becomes tired, and the series stumbles towards it’s conclusion.
This may be to blame on the massive budget, which caused ABC to trim the series from 8 episodes down to 6. However, Empire ultimately suffers because it offers viewers a neutered vision of ancient Rome, while HBO’s Rome is free to show us a more accurate Rome, complete with the violence and sex that its infamous for. While Empire does have it’s share of violence and sex, it is usually skimmed over in favor of suggestive sexual situations and relatively bloodless battles. And while I’ll be the first to tell you that violence and sex don’t make a project good, or even better – when it comes to ancient Rome, glossing over these characteristics can grow distracting.
Where Empire does succeed, is with its cast. As Tyrannus, Jonathan Cake gives us the series’ most complete character, a world weary gladiator who is loyal to his mission but loves his family and only counts down the days until he can be reunited with them. If this sounds a lot like Maximus from Gladiator, then you’re correct. The writers are wise to place a fictional character at the center of the series, as it gives them more freedom in an era with an abundance of strict detail. But one can’t help to be reminded of Russel Crowe’s now-famous portrayal of a similar character.
Vincent Regan is also solid as Marc Antony, but cannot equal the snide cunning of James Purfoy’s version of Antony on HBO’s Rome. Santiago Cabrera as Octavius is perhaps the weakest of the main cast, showing a limited range of emotions. His paint-by-color performance doesn’t hinder the series much, but a more animated actor with a better range could have really breathed some life into the role.
And in a very limited amount of time, Colm Feore is able to create an image of Julius Caesar that would make Cirian Hinds smile. Feore’s Caesar is felt throughout the rest of the series like a ghost who haunts each character.
If my comparisons to HBO’s Rome are annoying or unwanted, I apologize. But when two projects such as these are released within only a few weeks of one another, the comparisons become unavoidable. ABC may have gotten on the scoreboard early with Empire, but HBO rallied late and won the game. That said, Empire is satisfactory entertainment and at times can be very good. However, this remains a network mini-series and cannot compare to the historical accuracy, no matter how graphic it may be, that other movies and shows can offer.
Empire is presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen. There are no major flaws throughout the 4 hour runtime. While some grain does pop up in places, especially darker scenes, the image is feels like a movie more than a television mini-series. While some of the computer generated effects don’t compare to what’s in big budget films nowadays, most of what is presented blends in well with the real landscape, and the sun-drenched scenery is one of the series’ strong points.
With a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, Empire will burst through your home theater. I was very surprised at how well this disc sounded. I am used to the somewhat muted soundtracks that television DVD’s usually offer, and I noticed this when watching 24 and Alias on DVD. Not Empire.
Scenes with horses galloping really thump through the subwoofer and the surrounds come to life in scenes with large crowds. The music is also movie quality, free of any cheesy television musical score, and sounds excellent. All of the dialogue is crystal clear and there is no cracking or hissing. Kudos to ABC for really putting together a technically well made television DVD.
- Rebuilding an Empire – Here the writers, directors and producers discuss how Empire came to be and how they went about creating it for television. We learn that the series was shot on location in Rome, Italy and it shows. Many of the series’ sets are real and the landscapes are mostly authentic with some CGI for historical detail.The filmmakers state several times that they wanted to do something on television that had never been done before, and while HBO had been able to do similar things with Band of Brothers, I would say that Empire is one of the most impressive projects ever aired on network television.
- Empire: Before and After – this step-by-step featurette shows us how the filmmakers added CGI to sets and landscapes to create an authentic ancient Rome.
No matter how much the fimmakers wanted to create a movie quality mini-series, Empire ultimately feels more like television than anything else. Yes the sets and CGI are impressive and yes the actors all turn in competent performances, but in the end, this is Disney’s version of ancient Rome. While the disc is put together fairly well with a nice looking video, a surprisingly powerful audio track, and some nice extras, the whole experience pales in comparison to HBO’s more accurate and overall better Rome series.
However, as far as network mini-series’ go, Empire is very good and can be an enjoyable time for the entire family. But for those wanting a more realistic recreation of ancient Rome, well, if you’ve read my review this far, you’ll know where to find it.
Special Features List
- Rebuilding an Empire
- Empire: Before & After