Warner Bros. // 2006 // 116 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Ryan Keefer (Retired) // August 10th, 2007
"This is where we hold them! This is where we fight! This is where they die!"
The biggest surprise of the 2007 movie year has to be the several hundred million dollar success of 300. Frank Miller has written and drawn many a comic book throughout the years, and has only experienced recent success in Hollywood with films like Batman Begins and Sin City becoming either broad-based hits or receiving widespread critical or cult followings. So now that it's out on video and in high definition, is 300 the perfect disc?
With the help of Kurt Johnstad, whose notable credit in IMDb has him doing grip work for films like Mr. Destiny, Snyder directs this adaptation of Miller's graphic novel, which is loosely based on historical facts surrounding the Battle of Thermopylae. The Spartan King Leonidas (Gerard Butler, The Phantom of the Opera) receives a message from the Persian King Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro, Love Actually), that he can surrender his freedoms to the king, and receive everything his heart desires, if Leonidas swears an allegiance to Xerxes. Not only does Leonidas refuse, killing the messenger in the process, but he wishes to attack Xerxes' armies. The town's oracle and elders recommend against it, but he goes nevertheless. Not on an attack, but on a stroll, where he's not entirely sure where he'll end up (he does wind up heading North, towards Persia). The balance of the film documents the small Spartan detachment's resiliency against hundreds upon thousands of soldiers, archers and other devices designed to smash the group of eager Spartans once and for all.
I've watched 300 three times in the last week, the last two times being for the purposes of this review. I'm vaguely familiar with the historical events surrounding the 300 Spartans, and I like a good gladiator or empirical epic every so often. The film has admittedly started to grow on me a bit after the third viewing, but overall, after seeing that the film made over $400 million worldwide, despite a March release date where films usually go to perish, I'm left wondering what all the fuss is about. Seriously, has there been a more popular film in recent memory that has had as much flash and possessed less substance?
I'm not knocking the technical aspects of the film at all; in fact, the film's visual impact raises the bar from other technical predecessors, taking Robert Rodriguez' work in Sin City and elevating it to something special. It looks like a great film, but from a storytelling point of view, it seems like you're expected to swoon over the imagery and conveniently forget that the story tells a tale that isn't all that original. King/husband goes off to fight a war with a pittance of troops, while at home, everyone schemes to try and get the queen out of power or tempt her to do evil things to betray her husband. Big whoop. And the actors look pensive or yell (in Butler's case, quite a bit) when reciting dialogue. When it is delivered seriously one has to laugh; when your movie has more slow motion shots in it than any episode of The Bionic Woman, you can't expect to take the high road without some dings in the process.
Technically, this disc is a stunner. The 2.40:1 anamorphic presentation looks fantastic. The look that Snyder is showcasing clearly shines through, and this may be the technical neophyte in me, but I've seen the HD DVD and now I've seen the Blu-ray, I've got to give the visual edge to Blu-ray. If nothing else, the detail is just a little bit finer to my eye. Is it because we're looking at a BD-50 versus a HD-30? I don't know, but I'll keep this next to my HD DVD, just in case. The Blu-ray disc comes with a TrueHD and a PCM track (the HD DVD has just the TrueHD track), and in doing informal comparisons in various scenes, the PCM track possesses a bit wider dynamic range and has a more robust low end than the TrueHD version. God, maybe I'm coming around to the Blu-ray camp after this disc, I don't know.
In terms of bonus material, 300 sure does pile it on, starting with several smaller featurettes under a section called "Behind the Story." "The 300: Fact or Fiction" discusses the historical events and how much of the film is true to said facts. Miller discusses what inspired him to write it, and Snyder throws his additional two cents in as well. At about 25 minutes, it's pretty comprehensive as far as I could tell, providing a good deal of information. "Who Were the Spartans?" is much shorter (about five minutes) and shows the cast and crew's interpretations of the real life characters along with some more historical context. "Preparing for Battle" was some test footage that Snyder used from Miller's book to inspire a greenlit production and how Snyder approached it, managing to get Scott Glenn (The Right Stuff) to do some narration before getting the chance to shoot a scene, which was admittedly pretty cool. The "Frank Miller Tapes" shows Miller's impact within the comic genre with opinion by Snyder and his peers. Along with that, Miller discusses his background and influences for almost 15 minutes, and it's worth watching. The "Making of 300" is just that, albeit in about six minutes, followed by a rapid fire look at the film using stills from the production and in half the time as the last piece. From there, a dozen webisodes follow, with interviews from the cast, not to mention some more looks at the production. Overall, these quick looks total about 40 minutes in length, but these things dive the deepest into the production itself. Maybe there's a longer, larger making of documentary on a future double dip? Still, this is a worthy complement to the "Behind the Story" section. Three minutes of deleted scenes follow, with introduction by Snyder. There's a more robust story arc with Ephialtes, and the giants are shown a bit more, but that's about it.
If there's one extra that was lacking, it's the one I'm about to describe. Snyder, Johnstad and cinematographer Larry Fong join forces for a commentary that, for three people, is remarkably flat in tone and in substance. There's a lot of identifying what was replicated from the book (or as close as possible to it), along with recalling some of the production details. But overall this is very heavy in technical information, discussing what shots were real or how they were turned into the final production. There's also a lot of silence during the track which again for three people, is very disappointing. I was expecting more from this track and didn't get it.
As I mentioned before, it looks like a great film. If you watch the film with the sound turned down/off, which granted, defeats the purpose of the film, you'll notice that things are more geared towards the look of the film, and it plays out more like a comic, nay, graphic novel, than I expected. On the technical side of things, the reason why this isn't as loaded as the HD DVD version is due to technological haranguing by members of the Blu-ray camp. So that's why the HD DVD has got a pretty decent picture-in-picture commentary, web-based content and the like. Snyder's wife (who also served as producer of the film) did recently say that a more elaborate Blu-ray version is being worked on, so buyers beware.
What 300 lacks in, you know, accomplished storytelling, it makes up for in spades with audio and video merits that absolutely make either version worthy of showing off to your friends, and upsetting the beejeezus out of your neighbors. If you want another reason to go towards high definition video, this is it.
Snyder is found guilty of trying to dazzle a bit too much. Warner is acquitted as the technophile community has successfully petitioned to commute the charges.
Review content copyright © 2007 Ryan Keefer; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* PCM 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 116 Minutes
Release Year: 2006
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Commentary with Director Zach Snyder, Screenwriter Kurt Johnstad and Cinematographer Larry Fong
* Deleted Scenes with Optional Commentary
* Making-of Featurette
* "300: Fact or Fiction?" Featurette
* "The Frank Miller Tapes" Featurette
* "Who Were the Spartans" Featurette
* "Making 300 in Images" Featurette
* Test Footage
* Official Site
* The Complete Works of Frank Miller