Renaissance genius Leonardo da Vinci visits the New World!?
Screenwriter David S. Goyer is mostly known for his connection to superheroes. Some of his biggest credits include writing for Blade and Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. Goyer as creator has taken renowned historical figure Leonardo da Vinci and turned him into the freewheeling action star of Da Vinci’s Demons. The adventure series on Starz is only loosely based in historical veracity, introducing fantasy elements into the familiar Renaissance setting of Leonardo da Vinci’s life. Season two continues Leonardo’s quest for the fabled Book of Leaves in a bigger, bolder framework than season one as he crosses the oceans to the New World. This is definitely not a show for those into historical accuracy.
Everyone has heard of Leonardo da Vinci (Tom Riley), a talented inventor centuries ahead of his time and artist behind the Mona Lisa. This series turns the Italian genius into a swashbuckling hero with a flair for the dramatic, often using his wild inventions to save himself and his allies from constant peril. Leonardo is searching for the Book of Leaves, a tome purported to give nearly limitless power to its owner. The eccentric genius hopes to defend his beloved Florence with its power and protect it from the Church. Standing in his way is Count Girolamo Riario (Blake Ritson), nephew to the thoroughly corrupt Pope Sixtus IV (James Faulkner).
Season two is really about those two men and their dueling conflict for the Book of Leaves. Count Riario is a similar character to Leonardo except he plays for the opposite side. Count Riario is an agent of Rome and its unholy forces, while Leonardo is the war engineer charged with defending Florence by the Medici family. Did I mention how Leonardo is guided by mystic visions all season towards the book?
The season opens with a short teaser of events that doesn’t get fully explained until much later in the season. Count Riario and Leonardo are being held prisoners together… by the Incas in the New World!? It’s a shocking and unexplained opener that teases some wild plot developments. Last we had seen them, the Medici family were under attack by the Pazzi conspiracy to topple them from power in Florence.
Da Vinci’s Demons quickly returns to normal as the setting flashes back to Florence, picking up right where season one had ended. Leonardo saves Lorenzo de Medici, the leader of Florence and his benefactor, by inventing blood transfusions. Taking a cue from the BBC’s popular show Sherlock, Da Vinci’s Demons likes to visualize Leonardo’s inventive process in flashy sequences of his imagination drawing the designs. It is one of this show’s quirks that makes it more fantasy than simple historical adventure. Wait until you see Leonardo invent a submarine and then use it to save the day.
… the plot becomes fairly plodding until midway through the season.
… the plot becomes fairly plodding until midway through the season.
Other returning characters continue to play their own role in the drama, though the characters are spread out and separated for much of the season. Clarice Orsini (wife of Lorenzo de Medici) has to run the Medici Bank and assume the leadership vacuum when Lorenzo is called away on urgent business. Her status as a woman leading the Bank draws her into a power struggle with backroom machinations and political intrigue. Lucrezia Donati (Laura Haddock) returns as an agent working against Pope Sixtus IV with her own aims in mind. Season two is far more expansive in its scope, taking the cast all over the world from Rome to the New World.
The plot becomes fairly plodding until midway through the season. Stuck mostly in Florence for the first few episodes, the show takes a dramatic turn with fresh energy when new characters show up in the New World. Da Vinci’s Demons lacks the intricate and well-planned plotting of a series like Game of Thrones. That leads to the occasionally tedious scene of dramatic exposition, which is a no-no in a lightweight adventure series like this one. The fantasy elements are welcome but one gets the feeling they are mere ornamentation most of the time, introduced when things are getting slow. Like most other productions intended for Starz, there are copious amounts of gratuitous sex and violence.
Da Vinci’s Demons is not a show for everyone. Despite the Renaissance period setting, this is a little smarter version of Indiana Jones that ignores actual history for its story. It is mindless adventure fun that occasionally becomes predictable over the ten episodes of season two.
Da Vinci’s Demons is a co-production between premium cable channel Starz and the BBC. Much of it is filmed on RED cameras in razor-sharp definition. Like many modern shows, each featured locale gets its own specific color grading for mood and tone. In Florence and the Vatican, blacks levels are dense and there is a slight teal push to the palette. More brilliant digital cinematography is found as the setting shifts to South America. The palette expands to include brighter greens and reds. While lacking the incredible picture quality of other shows broadcast on Starz like the immaculate-looking Black Sails, Da Vinci’s Demons has consistently pleasing video.
The ten episodes of season two are spread over three BD-50s in AVC encodes. The season runs over 540 minutes in length, a typical episode runs nearly an hour. Its solid AVC encoding usually averages 20 Mbps or more, quite sufficient to cleanly replicate the relatively pristine series without artifacts. Distributor Anchor Bay/Starz does a fine job handling this show on Blu-ray, flawlessly reproducing the show from its digital intermediate without introducing problems.
The presentation itself is in crisp 1080P resolution framed at a 1.78:1 aspect ratio. For a show heavily reliant on CGI and green-screen work, there are no obvious signs giving them away in the excellent video. The transfer has been left untouched, free of sharpening and filtering. Close-ups have extremely fine detail in crystal-clear definition. Longer shots do lack that level of intense resolution, preferring a slightly softer appearance. The dark setting of Florence is often featured in light-starved interiors, leading to black levels that get very close to crushing shadow detail. It appears to be an intended effect for storytelling reasons rather than sloppy cinematography.
Da Vinci’s Demons has picture quality on the darker side of modern video with a limited palette at times, especially for television. Despite that emphasis it retains immense depth and occasionally pops with spectacular projection. No one will come away dissatisfied with this Blu-ray set’s bold video.
The included 5.1 Dolby TrueHD soundtrack is great for a television production nearing 600 minutes of content over the season. Scored by renowned composer Bear McCreary, the atmospheric mix is constantly engaging the surround channels with a mixture of believable effects. It is a powerful, sweeping sound that never gets overbearing. Dialogue remains intelligible throughout the season, never getting lost between the massive dynamics of the music and sound cues. I should not forget the impressive LFE channel; your subwoofer should get a workout with some regularity.
Television sound design rarely compares to film but Da Vinci’s Demons’ audio is nearly on par with them. It is a sonic experience that rates even higher than its picture quality. Optional English SDH and Spanish subtitles display in a large white font. A 2.0 Spanish Dolby Digital soundtrack at 192 kbps is the only dub option.
Some retailers had listed this set coming with an UltraViolet digital copy. I can confirm those reports were erroneous, as the only included piece of paper is an insert advertising Outlander. Starz packages season two in a sturdy, smart design lacking a separate episode guide. The three Blu-rays sit in a thick holder that folds out, encased in a shiny sleeve that holds everything together. It is a design that should take a lot of damage without a sweat.
The special features are not particularly extensive. These are all short featurettes made for EPK material. They include interviews and clips with the cast. They also include creator David Goyer and other production members in brief snippets. What they lack are any outside authorities to shine a light on this show’s historical relevance and proper context.
The Journey Begins: Season 1 Recap (04:15 in HD) – If you wanted to watch season two without jumping into season one first, this is a good summation of the major events that have already transpired.
A Closer Look (10:50 in HD) – A cursory featurette that skims the surface of season two, including Tom Riley and David Goyer. Topics including set design, costumes, and a look at Bear McCreary composing its music are covered in light depth.
Creating the New World (03:41 in HD) – Brief insight into how location photography combined with CGI helped create the final appearance of the tropical New World on this show.
New Sets (04:30 in HD) – Over 20 sets were built for season two, far more than the number required in season one. We get a glimpse of how they built the ship and the Pope’s enormous hall.
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Click on the images below for full resolution screen captures taken directly from the Blu-ray. Images have not been altered in any way during the process.