Directed by Zack Snyder
Studio: Warner Bros.
Aspect Ratio: 2.40:1 anamorphic
Running Time: 116 minutes
Audio: PCM 5.1, Dolby True HD, Dolby Digital 5.1 English, French, Spanish
Subtitles: SDH, French, Spanish
Release Date: July 31, 2007
Review Date: August 10, 2007
The annuls of history are riddled by heroic last stands (the Charge of the Light Brigade, the Little Big Horn, the Alamo), and the ancient Battle of Thermopylae in which three hundred Spartan soldiers made a courageous stand against an invading army of 250,000 Persians ranks as one of history’s most legendary encounters. Like the other previously mentioned routs, the movies have often depicted the events of these legendary encounters, and the Battle of Thermopylae is no different having previously shown up on-screen in the cheesy, forgettable 1962 film The 300 Spartans. Zack Snyder’s film ‘300’ rights that wrong by presenting an astounding visual account of the war in all its glory, majesty, and power.
The film’s screenplay by director Zack Snyder, Kurt Johnstad, and Michael B. Gordon was based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller, the same Frank Miller responsible for the offbeat and thoroughly entertaining neo-noir Sin City (and co-director of its film incarnation). Miller’s graphic take on this famous three day standoff in 480 B.C. has been captured by director Snyder and his crew with astonishing fidelity to the look and tone of the original artwork and dialogue. I’d venture to say that ‘300’ is quite possibly the greatest achievement yet in combining live action with computer backgrounds on the screen. Once one buys into the look, sound, and spirit of this world, it is quite easy to get lost in it so hypnotic is the spell that is cast by the stylized visuals and by a pitch perfect cast.
Gerard Butler stars as Spartan king Leonidas, the very embodiment of the no-nonsense Spartan warrior with a herculean physique, a lion’s heart, and a fearless, cocksure demeanor. This is not a man to be tested or challenged for the words “surrender” and “defeat” are not in his vocabulary, and the model he sets for his men seems to have carried over to every last one of his soldiers. His queen is Gorgo played by Lena Headey. Another model of Spartan strength and possessing a fierce will, she is more than a match for her husband and one of the real joys of this production (though she stays in Sparta with their son when her husband goes off to battle, she has her own hands full dealing with an insidious politician played by Dominic West, another great asset to the movie). Leonidas’ Persian enemy, the man-god Xerxes, is effectively played as a menacing effete by Rodrigo Santoro.
The choreographed majesty of the battle scenes is particularly impressive in the early-going as the crafty Greeks position themselves in a narrow pass and manage to ward off advance after advance with their own seemingly invincible strategies. Though not a particular fan of war films (with the occasional exception), I was dazzled by the effectiveness of the Greeks’ moves and countermoves, frustrating the Persians who had hoped that their victory would be assured by their sheer numbers and the advance word on their bottomless bag of tricks, all of which the Greeks find ready solutions for much to the dismay of the Persians.
If the film has weaknesses, they’re mainly due to some less than convincing CGI creatures and the close-to-unending battle footage. As things become desperate and the combat turns from team playing to individual combat, the hackings and slashings begin to become just a bit tiresome and repetitive. Beautifully rendered they are from beginning to end (and the CGI backdrops throughout the entire film are breathtaking to watch), but the final squirmishes which show individual audience favorites going to their inevitable deaths might have come just a bit sooner.
The Panavision 2.40:1 aspect ratio is faithfully rendered on this Blu-ray disc in 1080p using the VC-1 codec. To capture the look of the original graphic novel, there is grain, contrast has been heightened, and blacks occasionally go so deep as to be crushed. But those aren’t defects or problems: that was the original intended look of the film, and the Blu-ray disc presents the exact experience I had at the theater while now sitting in my own home. In its own way, this is a reference quality high definition disc, but only if you know what the look of the film was intended to be from the outset. The film has been divided into 30 chapters.
The Blu-ray disc offers three English soundtracks. I selected the PCM 5.1 track which is reference quality by any standard. The sound is bold, brassy, and yet startlingly distinct with almost constant use of all available channels with both music and sound effects and tremendously powerful LFE. It’s a completely immersive experience and one of the great soundtracks currently available on any format.
The Blu-ray comes with plentiful extras and only a few of them not worth a look and a listen.
The audio commentary is by director Zack Snyder, scripter Kurt Johnstad, and director of photography Larry Fong. It’s mostly Synder’s show, and his enthusiasm for the project and his knowledge of the myriad technical details in making the picture are an interesting listen especially if one is curious about what was real on the set and what was created in a computer. His two fellow commentators don’t add much to the track, unfortunately.
“300 Spartans – Fact or Fiction?” is an entertaining high definition history lesson concerning how much is actually true and how much is Frank Miller hyperbole insofar as the story for the film is concerned. This informative and entertaining featurette runs about 24½ minutes.
“Who Were the Spartans?” is a 4½-minute high definition quickie about the people of the city state Sparta and how they were reflected by the actors in the film. This could certainly have been longer and in more detail.
“Preparing for Battle” runs 6:43 and is a fascinating “pitch reel” for Warner execs to give them the look and feel of the projected project. I quite enjoyed seeing the tone of the film set this early in the filmmaking process.
“The Frank Miller Tapes” is another excellent background piece on the author of the original graphic novel. Tracing his interest in art, discussing the pivotal people in his professional life, and his interests in crime dramas, this piece runs not quite 15 minutes.
Two featurettes not in high definition are also two of the weaker entries in the bonus section: “The Making of ‘300’” and “Making ‘300’ in Images.” The latter is a rapid fire 4-minute collage of still images put together in dizzying succession showing the construction and filming in total. The former is a 6-minute piece of fluff that seems insignificant after the much richer featurettes which have preceded it.
The disc offers twelve Webisodes (all in standard definition), brief featurettes dealing with people involved both before and behind the camera. Gerard Butler’s segment is the most interesting of the actors presented (watching him doing arm curls to help get into shape is very impressive) while from the production team, I most appreciated the segments featuring art director James Bissell and costume designer Michael Wilkinson as they talked about the incredible amount of detailed work needed to get the film in its final form. The other segments involve actors Lena Headey and Rodrigo Santoro and segments on training the actors, the stunt work involved in the film, the adaptation of the novel to the screen, the culture of Sparta, some scene studies, and a look at some of the fantastic characters in the film. All of these featurettes which run anywhere from 2 to 5 minutes in length, are worth viewing.
The bonus features conclude with four minutes of deleted footage (three scenes) with introductory commentary by director Zack Snyder. The scenes are certainly valuable records of what might have found their way into the movie, but clearly none of them were absolutely necessary for the finished film.
‘300’ makes something monumental (and monumentally entertaining) out of one of history’s most notorious standoffs, and the story now has a film version fitting to its importance in the history of Greece. The Blu-ray disc is an exceptional high definition rendering of this very entertaining and moving story.