Tut (Blu-Ray Review)

Tut thumbIn the nearly 100 years since the uncovering of the tomb of Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun, the young king’s popularity has really never subsided. Though his tomb was small and hidden, it was anything but humble—adorned with gorgeous jewelry and golden trinkets as well as the immediately recognizable sarcophagus. What the creators of Tut, brought to us by Spike Cable Network, have done is try to replicate that feeling of discovering Tutankhamun’s tomb all over again through a dramatic portrayal of the events of his short life. This 3-part miniseries is somewhat small, but it is adorned with lavish costumes, sprawling outdoor locations, and vibrant sets. Though, in a parallel to the life of King Tut himself, will we find that for all its décor this drama is really just a footnote in history?

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Tut invites its viewer to witness a fictionalized tale of the young pharaoh Tutankhamun, played by Avan Jogia (“Victorious”). It begins with a few lessons as a child taught to him by his dying father and follows his quest to serve his people well and be remembered as a great king. Along the way, Tutankhamun finds courage, love, respect, and a very large number of people plotting to betray him. The story is told in three 90 minute parts, each with its own small arc that folds into the one large arc of Tutenkhamun finding a way to be a good king and eventually dying from an infected broken leg. The major influences on his reign come from his vizier, Ay, played by Ben Kingsley (Ghandi, The Love Guru), his wife and half-sister, Ankhesenamun, played by Sibylla Deen (“Tyrant”), General Horemheb, played by Nonso Anozie (“Game of Thrones”), and the high priest of Egypt, Amun, played by Alexander Siddig (“Star Trek: Deep Space Nine”).

Tut feels like Egyptian Game of Thrones. The comparison is unavoidable. In the pre-Game-of-Thrones era of dramatic historical epics, a miniseries like Tut would have subtle forces acting against the main hero as he tries his best to lead while being doomed to fail by dying at an early age. The direction that this modern Tut has taken ends up with nearly every character who is a prominent figure in Tutankhamun’s life plotting openly and giving shifty glances, having PG-13 sex, or delivering sweeping monologues about power, gods, and destiny. This could be fine. Were Tut allowed to run multiple 10-hour seasons to let all of these characters’ plots find a foothold alongside a solid story that shows Tutankhamun growing and changing to avoid or fall prey to all the constant scheming, this show could succeed as Egyptian Game of Thrones. With only 4½ hours to tell the story, what ends up happening here is that each time a character thinks about a scheme, it is almost immediately enacted in the next scene. This makes all the non-love-related dramatic elements seem more like cartoon cut-aways than plots to gain power through clever manipulation and positioning.

Along with the too-quick pace of the events comes a fairly action-laden life for an 18 year-old king who suffered from a birth defect giving him a pronounced limp. Tut’s Tutankhamun shrugs off that limp whenever the story wants him to so he can engage in warfare for the glory of his people. The spattering of action scenes are both a somewhat welcome break from the backstabbing and plotting as well as a good showcase for Tut’s elaborate sets and costumes. What is nice here as well is the use of practical effects and many extras to make battles feel large and impactful. There must have also been a really talented set of make-up effects artists on hand because like everybody in this thing gets their throat slit, with all the gory details one would expect.

The sets are beautiful, the action scenes work well for what they are, and the costumes are top notch, but the acting in Tut is distractingly subpar. The male characters not named Tutankhamen all practically sneer and gleefully rub their palms as they deliver their treatises on power. Ben Kinglsey as Ay is the most egregious offender here as he is always in a position to gain from whomever can topple the current reign. He plays his role with this mix of proper British gentleman (all the characters speak in British accents, as is customary for historical epics for American audiences that take place in foreign countries) and Snidely Whiplash but with less feeling. Avan Jogia as Tutankhamun has two simple expressions throughout the entire affair: consternation and anger. All his dialogue is delivered in this almost comically serious manner and it doesn’t land at all, making the character who is supposed to serve as the driving force of the drama into a joke. Sibylla Deen as Ankhesenamun, who spends most of the runtime flinging wildly between loving her brother-husband and jumping at any opportunity to betray him, is the only standout, acting-wise. While her character is given little to do other than sit in the palace and think up ways to keep herself in favor, she does a great job of walking that line between passion and desperation in her performance.

In the end, Tut turns out to be too long and predictable to be truly engaging and too short and poorly paced to be intriguing. It tries to be a throwback to the older large-scale historical epics, but it is a victim of the trend toward plotlines full of double-crossing treachery and explosions. The costumes and sets are wondrous to behold and the gorgeous quality of this Blu-ray release brings the dyes and paints to life. If one is a fan of good set design, this release might be worthwhile, but be ready for some slit throats and decapitations in the mix as well.

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Encoding: MPEG-4  AVC

Resolution: 1080p

Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1

Clarity/Detail: Crystal clear HD visuals in this release. The excellent costumes, sets, and landscapes pop sharply on the screen.

Depth: From large outdoor sets to grand battle scenes the viewer is frequently treated to excellent, deep images all throughout the 270 minute runtime. There is a good three dimensional quality to everything, without the need for it to be filmed in 3D.

Black Levels: Black levels are solid and consistent. Darker scenes inside the palace are still well detailed.

Color Reproduction: The sandy desert setting forces the scenes toward a natural, brownish palette, but the inclusion of the painted sets and colorful costumes allow for many vibrant hues to come through clearly and vibrantly.

Flesh Tones: Flesh is reproduced accurately. Whether the people of ancient Egypt looked like they are portrayed in this miniseries is a debate for a different forum.

Noise/Artifacts: Clean, problem-free video production.

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Audio Format(s): Dolby TrueHD 5.1, Dolby Digital 2.0

Subtitles: English SDH

Dynamics: Sounds are all over and clear throughout. Dialogue about betrayal, explosions, battle scenes with people screaming and horses riding. Quite dynamic.

Low Frequency Extension: There is a good amount of subwoofer use here. The musical score, the aforementioned battles, and scenes of burning down a district of Thebes to quarantine an illness encourage the lower channels to get going.

Surround Sound Presentation: Arrows whiz by, crowds chatter, and shots swoop around the battles to show off some fun surround treats.

Dialogue Reproduction: You will believe that you were there helping to plot the downfall of Tutankhamen along with all the other Egyptians and Mitanni.

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A disappointing selection of extras for what looks to have been a long and elaborate production. Though, this is sometimes the difference between television production and film production.

  • The Costumes of Tut (HD, 3:31) –This was really fun. The very personable costume designer talks about the importance of using costumes that are time-appropriate and how even the soldier 800 meters away from the camera will get a costume as accurate and detailed as the main character up front in full view. With the costumes really being one of the more impressive components of this miniseries, this short view into their production and implementation was appreciated.
  • History Revealed: An examination of Egypt’s famous boy king (HD, 6:49) –This mostly consists of an historian from UCLA, some of the cast, and a few production crew members talking about how we don’t really know the actual events of the like of King Tut. This eventually leads to them all just exclaiming what they put into this miniseries could have occurred. For some reason, I doubt clubfooted, malaria-ridden Tutankhamen spent any time sneaking into his enemy’s base of operations and climbing stairs after getting his leg broken to shove a knife through the back of an undefended king’s skull. But, I am no UCLA historian.
  • The Making of Tut (HD, 23:43) –Some interviews with cast and crew. This was not really as informative about the production as it seems like it could have been. It rehashes the interviews from the other two special features, shows some clips from the miniseries itself, and has some interviews with the cast talking about what their characters are. If you have already watched the miniseries, you already know who all the characters are and having their actors describe them brings nothing new.

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Despite having good audio and video quality, the lack of engaging extras doesn’t bring this Blu-ray into the realm of being quite worth the time. The production is competent but the miniseries is bogged down by some strangely paced scenes which limit the effect of the dramatic tension. The costumes are beautiful. If you love ancient Egypt, are looking for something that wants to be “Game of Thrones,” and don’t mind that it has some less-than-ideal performances and overt scheming, it would still be difficult to recommend that you sit through over 4 hours of this. With all of the hilariously cartoony villainy afoot, it would have been a welcome addition to have an HD version of Steve Martin performing “King Tut,” with exaggerated dance moves and all, as a stinger after the end credits. King Tut, how’d you get so funky?

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