300 (UK - DVD R2)
Chris Gould reviews Zack Snyder's take on Frank Miller's notorious graphic novel
Based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller, 300 recounts the events of the epic Battle of Thermopylae, in which three-hundred Spartan warriors—led by King Leonidas—made a heroic stand against the vast hoards of ‘God King’ Xerxes’ Persian Empire. Facing insurmountable odds and the very real prospect of death, the small band of Spartans stood their ground for three days, sacrificing everything to ensure freedom not only for Sparta, but Greece itself.
I haven’t read the graphic novel on which 300 is based, but by all accounts it presents a highly stylised account of events that plays fast and loose with historical accuracy. This super-realism apparently had its detractors (most notably writer Alan Moore), but there’s no suggestion that the film is an accurate retelling of the Battle of Thermopylae, rather an accurate translation of the graphic novel. As it stands, the film is structured in such a way that the embellishments actually make sense, as events are communicated to the audience by one of the survivors as he tells campfire stories to rally the troops.
Visually the film is quite breathtaking, looking every bit as good as Miller’s Sin City did when it arrived in theatres back in 2005. 300 is like watching a living, breathing comic book, with larger-than-life characters accomplishing superhuman feats in the face of incredible adversity. The live-action elements integrate seamlessly with the digital backdrops in a manner superior to any other film I’ve seen, creating some truly striking imagery that simply would not have been possible utilising conventional methods. It’s a great advertisement for the use of CGI in film, and proves that CGI is not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself when employed correctly.
If action is your thing you certainly won’t be disappointed, as 300 includes more than its fair share of combat. There’s something perversely satisfying about watching a group of stripped-down, oiled-up Spartans committing unspeakable acts of violence against mutant Persians in super slow-mo. Yes, 300 is violent, almost incredibly so for a ‘15’ rated movie. There are decapitations, amputations, impalings and eviscerations galore, often performed concurrently on a single unfortunate soldier. However, as violent as the film is I didn’t find it particularly harrowing, perhaps because I’m somewhat desensitised to such displays, but also because the whole thing has the look of a videogame cut-scene (which, as I’ve already said, isn’t a bad thing).
The cast do a particularly good job with the relatively limited material (let’s face it, the film’s thin on plot and big on action), with Scotsman Gerard Butler ( Dracula 2000, Reign of Fire) putting in a particularly impressive performance as Leonidas. The supporting cast of ‘featured’ Spartans includes David Wenham ( Lord of the Rings), Vincent Regan, Michael Fassbender and Tom Wisdom, who deliver their lines with suitable machismo. Lena Heady steams up the screen as the strong (and delectable) Queen Gorgo, and plays her part in the political subplot opposite Dominic West’s ( Mona Lisa Smile) scheming Theron very well. It’s unfortunate that both Rodrigo Santoro (Xerxes) and Andrew Tiernan (Ephialtes) are afforded so little screen time, but both are able to craft memorable characters nonetheless.
300 arrives on DVD at its theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 2.40:1, complete with anamorphic enhancement. Prior to this review I had read a number of negative comments about the image quality of the region one release, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Many of the negative comments related to excessive grain, and while it’s true that there is a lot of grain on display, it was also present theatrically. It’s hard to criticise the image for remaining faithful to the theatrical experience, but there are one or two moments where it seems that the transfer can’t quite keep up and some minor digital noise is visible. This is only apparent during a handful of scenes, specifically those taking place in daylight, where large patches of earth appear to be moving as if covered by thousands of wriggling worms. The image is also a little on the soft side (again possibly because of the post-processing), and while both are relatively minor issues they are issues all the same.
It’s odd to start a video appraisal with the negatives, but in this case it seemed the most logical choice because, frankly, there’s not a lot else wrong with the transfer. It’s hard to critique the image quality of something that’s been so heavily post-produced, so I’m especially grateful that I managed to catch the film at the cinema (at least I had something to go on). From what I recall the DVD preserves the look of the film extremely well, from the aforementioned grain, to the bleached colours and boosted contrast. The palette is comprised mainly of sepia tones and cold blues, with the occasional (okay frequent) splash of red and solid if not inky black levels, all of which showcases Larry Fong’s wonderful cinematography. While it may not be the best looking DVD transfer I’ve ever seen, it’s a fine effort that more than does justice to the theatrical experience if you can get your head around the amount of visible grain.
As is customary for Warner releases, the main audio track on offer is a Dolby Digital 5.1 affair. As with the movie, things start aggressively before giving way to quieter moments, with a lot of emphasis placed on Tyler Bates’ sweeping, epic score. There are plenty of subtle ambient effects; wind whistles through wheat fields and birds twitter as they flitter about, in a sort of calm before the storm. Of course things liven up again once Leonidas and the boys get stuck into the Persians, with numerous screams, slashing swords, gurgles and the like. There’s ample directionality in the mix, with every channel utilised to bring the battle scenes to life, while the subwoofer pumps out more low frequency rumbles than the footsteps of Xerxes’ huge army. Bates’ score keeps pace with the action, incorporating electric guitar to create a hard-edged sound for the scenes of all-out carnage. Dynamic range is good, and dialogue remains clear throughout, although it is typically mixed at a lower level than the other constituents of the track. The exceptions to this are the Spartan war cries and Leonidas’ rousing speeches, which are as loud as anything you’ll hear.
While not as accomplished as the very best mixes around—and I’m talking about benchmark titles such as the Star Wars and Lord of the Rings trilogies—this is a great effort that makes for an incredibly atmospheric viewing experience that really draws the viewer into the action. The only other audio option on offer is a descriptive track, in which the action is narrated by a very posh sounding Englishman. While not something I personally require, I welcome the inclusion of such tracks for the benefit of the visually impaired.
The only advertised bonus material on disc one is a commentary track from director Zack Snyder, writer Kurt Johnstad and director of photography Larry Fong. Ordinarily I’d listen to a commentary in its entirety, but I found it very difficult to do so in this case. The track really suffers from ‘pointing out the obvious’ syndrome—specifically relating to the use of CGI—and there are also frequent periods of dead air to contend with. If you like your ‘yak-tracks’ on the dry side you might get a little more enjoyment out of it than I did, but I wouldn’t count on it.
Disc two kicks off with a strange little feature entitled ‘Be 1 of the 300’, in which director Zack Snyder thanks the online community for their help in getting the film off the ground. This short thank you is followed by a scrolling list of names set to music from the film, and runs for around eighty seconds. I found it most odd, but I guess it’s nice that these people got some recognition.
‘300 - Fact or Fiction’ runs for a little under twenty-five minutes and deals with the mythology behind the movie. For me this was probably the most entertaining featurette on the disc, as it examines the various cinematic interpretations of the Battle of Thermopylae that have surfaced over the years. The piece features historians talking about the ancient civilisations depicted in the movie, with particular regard to just how much truth there is to Miller’s work. While they make no secret of the historical inaccuracies, they are eager to point out that this has been a constant throughout history and that the basic facts underpinning the film are sound. Director Zack Snyder and writer Frank Miller are also on hand with their thoughts.
‘Who Were the Spartans?: The Warriors of 300’ is a short (04:24) featurette that examines the factual origins of the Spartans portrayed in the movie, providing superficial insight into their daily lives and social structure. This is really a thematic continuation from the previous piece, but this time the actors are on hand to voice their opinions and discuss their interpretation of the historic events.
‘The Frank Miller Tapes: Unfiltered Conversations with Frank & Friends’ runs for just under fifteen minutes and features interview footage with the artist and a number of his friends, colleagues and collaborators. Those interviewed include comic book author Neal Adams, DC Comics President Paul Levitz and DC Group Editor Bob Schreck (who looks somewhat like his namesake), along with director Zack Snyder. Miller discusses his early years in the business, from his first break in the business (courtesy of Adams) through to his more recent work, but the focus remains on the 300 graphic novel (although Miller jokingly asks Snyder how he intends to pull off Watchmen).
‘The Making of 300’ sounded like it was going to be a thorough examination of the creative process, but actually turned out to be a sub-six-minute featurette. It covers a lot of the same ground as the material that came before it, with footage from the film punctuated by sound-bites from the actors and creative team. This is obviously the sort of featurette that was used to promote the film in between adverts on TV, and as such it’s a bit of a letdown.
‘Making 300 in Images’ is a similarly-themed featurette that uses time-lapse photography to take the viewer behind-the-scenes through the various stages of production. I guess it was moderately entertaining, but everything flew by so quickly I had trouble maintaining interest despite the short (three-minute) running time.
Three deleted scenes introduced by Zack Snyder come next. The first two concern Ephialtes, but really add nothing to the film so I can see why they were excised. The third scene was removed because it pushed the boundaries of believability even for 300, and if I use the words ‘midgets riding giants’ you’ll get the gist of what happens. The fact that the combined running time of these scenes is only a little over three minutes (with the intro) doesn’t really help matters.
The final bonus features on disc two are the ‘Webisodes’, of which there are twelve in total. You can choose to watch them individually, or via a ‘play all’ function, but with a combined running time of just over thirty-eight minutes it’s nice to have the option to watch one or two at a time. The Websisodes concentrate on such things as production design, wardrobe, stunt work, the principal cast, adapting the graphic novel, training the actors, glimpses from the set, scene studies and the fantastic creatures and characters. The webisodes are actually among the most entertaining features on the disc, which is a little disappointing the more I think about it.
In bringing 300 to the screen, Zack Snyder has done a fantastic job of recreating the feel of Miller’s original graphic novel. While it won’t appeal to everyone’s tastes—specifically budding historians or those opposed to brutal, graphic violence—the core of the story remains, and what the film lacks in clever plot twists and dialogue it more than makes up for with sheer style and ‘balls to the wall’ action. This review marked my fifth viewing of 300, and far from becoming tired of the ‘hollow’ action I found that I enjoyed the film on a deeper level this time around. At the end of the day that’s all I can really ask of a movie.
Technically the audio-visual elements of the disc are extremely impressive, but I was somewhat disappointed with the bonus material on offer. Far too much of it is of the light and fluffy variety, with only the webisodes and ‘Fact or Fiction’ and ‘Frank Miller Tapes’ featurettes carrying any weight. Considering this is yet another of Warner’s artificially inflated £24.99 RRP DVD sets, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect more from the extras. With that said, you should be able to pick it up at a reasonable price if you shop around, and the quality of the film is such that I would urge you to give it a rental at the very least. Oh, and before I forget, brush your teeth!
Review by Chris Gould
Suitable only for persons of 15 years and over
Release Date: 1st October 2007
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 Audio English, Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo Audio Descriptive
Subtitles: Arabic, English, Greek, Hebrew, Icelandic
Extras: Audio Commentary with Director Zack Snyder, Writer Kurt Johnstad and Director of Photography Larry Fong, Be 1 of 300, The 300 - Fact or Fiction?, Who Were the Spartans?: The Warriors of 300, The Frank Miller Tapes, The Making of 300, Making 300 in Images, Deleted Scenes with Introduction from Director Zack Snyder, Twelve Webisodes
Easter Egg: Yes
Director: Zack Snyder
Cast: Gerard Butler, Lena Headey, David Wenham, Dominic West, Rodrigo Santoro
Genre: Action, Fantasy and War
Length: 111 minutes
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