Chief Justice Michael Stailey is just now getting over his feelings of inadequacy after being surrounded by Spartans at the 300 DVD release party.
Our reviews of 300 (Blu-Ray) (published August 10th, 2007), 300 (HD DVD) (published August 10th, 2007), 300: Limited Collectors Edition (published November 18th, 2008), and 300: The Complete Experience (Blu-Ray) (published July 21st, 2009) are also available.
We are Sparta!
I've been reading comics for as long as I can remember, losing myself in worlds both fantastic and compelling. Marvel, DC, Dark Horse, and other publishers were creating universes far surpassing HARRY POTTER long before JK Rowling ever put pen to paper, and Frank Miller was a hall-of-fame contributor to those creative efforts. His innate ability to transport readers into realms so immersive left echoes of those experiences resonating long after the books had been filed away. Since great films have the same effect, it would seem obvious to use the stories of one medium to feed the other. Unfortunately, few directors (Chris Nolan, Sam Raimi) have understood the medium well enough to make those translations work. That is, until Zack Snyder came along. His adaptation of 300 not only "gets" Miller and Lynn Varley's graphic tale, it amps the intensity ten fold, giving depth to characters and events already well established in historical myth and legend.
Facts of the Case
It's a tale as old as time itself, told throughout the centuries from painted urns through historical text books. King Leonidas (Gerard Butler, Phantom of the Opera), ruler of the warrior Greek-state Sparta, does not take kindly to the subtle threats relayed by the emmisaries of the Persian God-King Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro, Lost). So enraged by these manipulative tactics, Leonidas breaks convention and murders the messengers, thus throwing his countrymen into full-scale war with the largest military in the known world. But this should come as no surprise. This is what the Spartan agoge, the greatest of all warriors, were born to do, were bred to do, were trained to do. It's a David and Goliath tale of brilliant military strategy, and unwavering belief in one's true purpose in life.
Whereas Hollywood has pilfered literature, both written and graphic, for ages, it has always been on their terms. Charles Fries and Michael Anderson's interpretation of Ray Bradbury's Martian Chronicles. Stanley Kubrick's version of Stephen King's The Shining. Michael Nichols' imagining of Joseph Heller's Catch 22. All interesting in their own right, but far from literal translations of their source material. That's where Zack Synder has changed the game. He went into this project wanting nothing more than to breathe life into Miller and Varley's graphic novel. From dialogue and action sequences, to color palette and landscapes, Synder and his team have established a new high water mark for transporting one medium into another—one that bodes well for comic book and scifi lovers everywhere.
It's one thing to cast and dress actors to look like their literary counterparts. Warren Beatty achieved that with much latex and makeup in Dick Tracy. Snyder does that here as well, from the agoge warriors to wave upon wave of Xerxes' Persian hordes. But it's quite another thing to craft a world so striking and familiar, you can't help but feel as if you've been drawn into the pages of the book itself. From the movement of the sky to the blood splatters from each sword strike, it's the perfect blend of both worlds acting in pure harmony with one another; something that has been strived for in the past (see Robert Zemeckis' Who Framed Roger Rabbit? or Ralph Bakshi's Cool World) but never coming close to succeeding.
300 beautifully exists on two levels. First, one can appreciate the artistry of the film. My first viewing of 300 was at PetCo Park in San Diego during the 2007 Comic-Con. This was Warner Home Video's release party for the DVD and the film was being played on the outfield JumboTron, as well as every other monitor in the stadium. Since there was music being pumped in over the festivities (much of which was Tyler Bates pulse pounding score), I truly saw it as a silent film, with little acknowledgement of any dialogue whatsoever. And what a brilliant accident it was. Here I could appreciate Synder's breathtaking work on a performance art level, taking in more of the aesthetic than most movie goers who saw 300 in the theatre. Upon watching the film again on DVD, I gained a whole new appreciation. This time it was the character drama that captivated my attention—the tenacious underdog, drawing upon every experience he's ever had to take down an enemy everyone believed to be indestructible, while at the same time his once proud people are turning on each other, undermining everything he's fighting for. Two completely different interpretations of the same exact film.
My appreciation only grew deeper with the bonus materials included on this two-disc special edition. Snyder's commentary is a wealth of information and entertainment. His passion for the craft and respect for the source material is overwhelming. He's a kid reliving the most exciting Christmas morning every day of his life. If only we could all approach our work and our passions in the same way, what an exciting world this would be. There are some lulls in the conversation, most notably during the rape of Queen Gorgo (Lena Heady, The Sarah Connor Chronicles), and his writing partners—Kurt Johnstad and Michael Gordon—are pretty much non-contributory to the efforts, but for filmmakers and film lovers, the commentary is definitely not to be missed. You can go further down the rabbit hole with Frank Miller himself in several segments, including Who Were the Spartans? and 300 Spartans: Fact or Fiction? (calling upon historical scholars to flesh out the truth of the story), and Frank Miller's Vision Realized on Film (in which the comic book legend talks about what first drew him to the subject matter). Snyder and his team are in full force for a handful of Deleted Scenes and the mini-making of featurettes originally streamed on the web during the film's production. When you look at the minimal number of tools this team had to work with, and the limited size of both the production facility and the film's budget, you can't help but be blown away by what this production team achieved. Compare the video recorded on set with the final product and the transformation will astound you.
Presented in 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen, we are being shown exactly what Zack Snyder and Frank Miller want us to see. While some might criticize bold color choices or the overuse of post-production effects, every frame was meticulously planned out to recreate the graphic novel experience—and again what an amazing job they did. While I cannot vouch for the comparison between this standard definition release and its HD or Blu-ray counterparts, I can only assume the depth of detail is that much more compelling. The three 5.1 Dolby Surround tracks, in English, French, and Spanish, will rock your home theatre system and frighten the neighbors, but don't let that deter you from cranking it up. This is not a presentation to be dumbed down for any reason.
I didn't talk much about the acting performances and that's mainly because they become so seamless to the story. 300 isn't a film that will receive acting nods come award season, but that's not to discredit the efforts of this fine cast. It's merely that they are part of the phalanx that is the film itself, every cog in the machine working beautifully together in unprecedented harmony. From Dilios' (David Wenham) heartwrenching narration and Ephialtes' (Andrew Tiernan) grief-stricken betrayal, to Leonidas' (Butler) unwavering determination and Theron's (Dominic West) skin crawling treachery, each plays their role to its fullest potential, weaving an impressive tapestry that will be remembered as a whole, rather than the sum of its individual pieces.
If you have yet to see 300, do not pass up the opportunity. While some viewers may be squeamish about the blood and death toll, its violence does not play on the same level as other films with high body counts. 300 is an operatic ballet of swordsmanship, in a battle between good and evil. And while evil may temporarily win out, the inspiration provided by those who stood determinably in its path lives on in the hearts and minds of all who are touched by its courage in the face of insurmountable odds, proving once again that nothing is impossible if you truly believe.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary by directory Zack Snyder and co-writers Kurt Johnstad and Michael Gordon
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