Warner Bros. Pictures (March 9 2007), Warner Home Video (July 31 2007), 2 discs, 116 mins plus supplements, 2.39:1 anamorphic widescreen, Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, Rated R (for graphic battle sequences, sexuality and nudity), Retail: $34.98
Frank Miller’s retelling of the Battle of Thermopylae gets the Sin City treatment, placing live-action characters into the world of 480 BC via seamless CGI effects, depicting the heroic struggle between King Leonidas and his three hundred brave Spartan warriors and invader King Xerxes’ millions-strong Persian army.
The Sweatbox Review:
Following on from the delights of Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow’s digital recreations of 1930s New York, and Sin City’s elaborate realisation of a completely comic book inspired world noir, 300 became the first – and something of a surprise – true blockbuster event of 2007 earlier this year. Again based on a graphic novel by Sin City’s prolific Frank Miller, the film took live/CGI-melded filmmaking one stage further, shooting its characters against a special effects screen and not only dropping in the required backgrounds and fantastical beasts but also touching up and buffing the leads to within an inch of being mistaken for computer generated models themselves.
The result is something of a mixed bag – call it “computer enhanced”, with all the good and not so good that a term like that could suggest. Overall, it’s undoubtedly an expert melding of Miller’s iconic framing, the CG surroundings and human actors – real humans and not mannequin counterparts, which is what really does the movie its justice. Even where such elements as the not completely successful Wolf don’t quite break through their CGI spell, I didn’t feel concerned since these things can be easily overlooked by their amazing designs; this Wolf is particularly scrawny and nasty as a consequence. Later, the giant Warriors feel like extras from Middle Earth, looking every bit as good as in that trilogy.
300 is “epic” writ large…very large. It’s almost like a movie trailer, filled out to feature length, and where such previews usually use up their stock of astonishing shots in two minutes, the inventive framing just keeps on coming. And the best stuff isn’t even in 300’s trailer! Added to the look is a light layer of what can only be described as film grain, bringing an additional – and much needed – level of “realism” and age to the image. While not buried in the dark night of Robert Rodriguez’ movie version of Miller’s Sin City, the blacks have been crushed for a deeply solid light and dark look, a reminder of the HBO series Rome.
Fortunately, 300 sports real life performers and not the dead-eyed zombies of Polar Express or the upcoming Beowulf, and their representations of the characters is what gave the movie its camp reputation on theatrical release. 300 is ultimately like those 1950s Hollywood epics – overblown, overacted and over-glossed, but still somehow deeply compelling. It’s as superficial as its Shakespeare-wannabe dialogue, leaning any emotional pulling it has solely on Tyler Bates’ score, itself in debt to Hans Zimmer’s work for Gladiator, from which 300, as with Troy before it, draws upon to deliver the next generation of amped-up, hyper real theatricals.
Good in his role as Dilios is Lord Of The Rings’s Faramir, David Wenham, though it’s hard to make anyone’s names out in the blood red – and drenched – end credits. Another character that stood out was the Priest – surely on loan from corrupting the universe as The Emperor in the Star Wars movies? In the lead, Gerard Butler is both the film’s greatest asset and its biggest foil – great to look at, wonderful to hear screaming the Sparta warrior cry, but unfortunately devoid of any real screen presence and sporting a bizarre accent somewhere pitched between his native Scot’s English and Sean Connery with a lisp. As with his star-making turn as The Phantom Of The Opera, it’s unfortunately clear that Butler is no Russell Crowe.
But…it’s all lean, mean and economically told, forgoing the marathon length that usually accompanies and drags out such outings to often over three hours (as seen recently with Alexander and Troy’s director’s cuts) to set up its basic plot, get the battle going and dispatch its climatic action in just under two hours. Along the way, the film swallows up the standard larger-than-life clichés and regurgitates them sometimes to unintentional effect – 300 is all surface and gloss, like an R-rated cosmetics ad or those Britney Spears gladiatorial Pepsi commercials – all raunchy, grungy slow-mo featuring just fabulous looking abs! How they fought without a stitch of armour is beyond me!
Some of 300 is quite amazing. Some of it is quite awful: it must be acknowledged that once the movie has found its central trick – basically the small group of Spartans knifing and kicking ten types of **** out of their Persian enemies – it does little more than repeat it six times ’til Sunday, accompanied by a selective voice over narrative that sometimes redundantly describes what’s happening on screen when at other times a more little clarification wouldn’t have gone amiss. Best of all is Dominic West’s dastardly Theron and his implied rape and betrayal of Leonidas’ Queen Gorgo (a solid Lena Headey) which, despite all the blood ‘n’ gory guts, eventually becomes the most disturbing aspect of the plot. Interestingly, this scene was created for the movie and never appeared in Miller’s original comics.
Other than this, 300 doesn’t remotely connect emotionally: even though Sin City was just as superficial, there was much more of a relationship with the characters because they were drawn from stereotypes we had encountered in print and moving picture media many times before. We knew those characters, just as we knew those in Pulp Fiction: there was no need for backstory, and they were all written as rounded as they needed to be. There is an attempt at an exploration of mentor and protégé, father and son relationships but though this might read well on the written and drawn page the depth just isn’t there to engage in a movie context, even one as stylised as this.
So, 300 resolves itself as something of a conundrum…it never outwardly claims to be historically accurate, but borrows heavily from known facts. Certainly as a piece of pedal to the metal filmmaking it ticks all the right boxes and may even have found its audience thanks to its easy, loose history lesson during which one doesn’t really have to think…this is, at the end of the day, a hard modern action movie which happens to take place in ancient times. While it pulls off that stylish visual approach, too many other odd choices from co-writer and director Zack Snyder unfortunately don’t help it be anything more than just that.
Is This Thing Loaded?
The disc kicks into its high octane action with a preview for Trick ’r Treat, for which Warners obviously want to start stirring up fan interest in, as even the cover gets its own sticker announcing the trailer’s inclusion. This slice of Halloween-timed horror hokum looks okay, along the same lines as those Bob Zemeckis-produced Dark Castle pictures, and the curly-haired kid from Bad Santa here pops up and reminded me of the chunky kid in Zemeckis’ Monster House. Additional promos play for the Jodie Foster vigilante thriller The Brave One, the 300 video game and CD score, Superman: Doomsday and the WB online game platform Gametap.
300 is available in multiple configurations, and if I’m not mistaken even the fullscreen and widescreen single discs contain the same material as Disc One here, which includes a hidden introduction, running nearly seven minutes and buried as the icon that appears over the words “Special Features” themselves. This is pretty cool stuff, exploring the direct path from comic to screen, showing a segment of the original promo that was made up from the Frank Miller’s actual panels (narrated by actor Scott Glenn) to pitch the movie, and a very cool special effects test shoot that showed proof of concept.
Oddly for a Warner Brothers release, we’re not treated to the original theatrical trailer, usually a given on all their releases, though we do sit in on a feature-length Audio Commentary with director Zack Snyder, joined by co-writer Kurt Johnstad and director of photography Larry Fong. Multiple participants are always good value since they allow for the conversation to bounce around though there is a fair amount of dead space. However, being a very technical film, we get a lot of good technical details here too. Snyder reveals influences from Miller’s original and other sources, as well as the many crew touches and it’s very clear that the film wasn’t just thrown together, and that a lot of thought went into every decision. Snyder takes the lead here, and it is clear he is a creative gentleman…I look forward to seeing what he comes up with when not tied to essentially using someone else’s graphics for a storyboard.
Disc Two is where the extras really spill their guts. We start off with WB’s new high-definition trailer, which plays up the quality and features of both HD-DVD and Sony’s Blu-Ray Disc, though just throwing together a continuing series of big wide battle shots and explosions doesn’t really begin to describe the step up that these formats provide. Also creating excitement is the first look at Dangerous Days, the extensive documentary footage that’s being included in this fall’s deluxe Blade Runner: 25th Anniversary Edition collectors’ sets, and a promo for National Hockey League programs.
The 300: Fact Or Fiction continues the strange battle between the movie wanting to be both over the top and historical, though it is acknowledged by all that this is “filtered through Frank”, who admits with a glint in his eye that he’s “never been accused of realism”. Nevertheless, this 24-minute documentary attempts to find the truth in the Spartan’s story and customs, and provides both context to Miller’s graphic novel and the film adaptation. Similar is Who Were The Spartans?: The Warriors Of 300, a shorter four-minute piece that concentrates more on the soldiers themselves and expands upon Miller’s interpretation, where he agrees that his version is a “very, very simplified version of a complex historical event”.
There’s more emphasis on the artist in The Frank Miller Tapes: Unfiltered Conversations With Frank & Friends, an excellent primer for those who have been unaware of Miller’s background and amazing influence. Though I’m not sure where the “unfiltered” comes into play since this is your standard soundbite collection of talking heads praising the comics icon, it’s a sketchy, 14-minute journey through Frank’s career, from early days under the tutelage of Neal Adams and inspiration from Will Eisner (whose The Spirit itself is in the works as a motion picture to be directed by Miller), to the development of 300, of course, on which this most concentrates and compares to the completed movie.
Making Of 300 sounds like we’re really about to get into the production, but it’s just a six minute tease that covers the bases in EPK tradition and little more, leaving a wider look to be found in Making 300 In Images, a three-and-a-half minute view taken from stills and video presented in silent montage form to music. What’s annoying is that we don’t get a proper stills gallery…the stills move too fast to appreciate while using the pause option takes forever to work through the longer video shots – not pleasant, and I eventually gave up. Providing a little more meat are Three Deleted Scenes With Introductions From Director Zack Snyder, a trio of short scene trims that add up to little more than three minutes of pre-final effects footage in total.
Best of the bunch are a comprehensive collection of behind-the-scenes Webisodes that do more than anything to delve into the making of 300. Running almost 40 minutes combined, I presume these three-to-four minute clips were originally made to promote the shoot on the film’s website, but they do a good job here of covering everything from the Production Design and Wardrobe, spots on the leading cast members and their intense workout training, to realising the more fantastic characters. Those who caught these online might feel cheated out of seeing anything new, but it’s nice to have such things collated handily and they run as good as any lengthy documentary would have done.
Many of the extras here are presented in 16×9 anamorphic widescreen from hi-def masters. The simultaneously released Blu-Ray Disc features most, if not all, of these extras in full 1080p high resolution, while the HD-DVD edition adds a very cool feature: a picture-in-picture version of the entire movie showing the original blue/green screen shoot pre-CGI visual effect touches.
While the single disc edition featured the theatrical poster art everyone wanted, this 2-disc sleeve still packs a violent punch. The highlight is an embossed slipcover that makes that sword really feel like it’s coming at’cha! The only minus point is a character giveaway: just as the soundtrack for Star Wars: The Phantom Menace revealed the death of Qui-Gon Jinn, an additional scene listing here makes reference to the “traitorous hunchback”…a plot point that, while predictable in the film, I’d have rather not had spoilt for me before spinning the disc. And that logo still looks like it reads 309!
Ink And Paint:
Digitally created, and also available in both hi-def formats, 300 looks simply, jaw-droppingly awesome even in this standard definition presentation. Delivered in its original 2.35:1 aspect, what’s really nice here is the soft level of grain introduced into the image, wiping the overly video processed look away and adding a bit of grunge, more than in keeping with the stylistic tone of the movie. The image is perhaps a little overly dark, but that seems an intentional choice, so otherwise this is perfect.
Adding to the impressive image is an absolutely PUMPING soundtrack. At times I must confess to having to strain to hear some dialogue in the quieter moments, requiring a little playing with the volume control but in the film’s peaks this is rumbling stuff. It doesn’t quite warrant top marks due to a couple of ADR moments sounding like they were recorded in a box (Dilios’ otherwise final rousing speech unfortunately sounds most flat). English, French and Spanish all get 5.1 Dolby mixes and you can almost feel the spit on your face every time someone yells out “Sparta!”
300 is soundbite history opera…fragments of story linked together by opulent visuals that really do their job by carrying the movie. Though the sepia process, as with The World Of Tomorrow disguises the fact that none of this, at the end of the day, is remotely real, the Hollywood costume role playing and sheer verve generates enough visceral excitement to pull it through. Though this doesn’t touch the depths of a Spartacus, Gladiator or even Troy, it doesn’t really attempt to go that route, choosing spectacle over accuracy. If you can sit your brain on a shelf, excuse the occasions when the special effects are a little too clearly faked and take this as history-lite, 300 might well serve for a robust night in.