Adapting novels for the big screen has always been an imprecise art. Due to inherent differences between the two mediums, inevitably major chunks of the source material get left out, to varying results. Perhaps that's why Hollywood has seen so much success with its adaptations of graphic novels in recent years.
With their thin text, and their bold, image-driven narrative style, even the most niche graphic novels are arguably more camera-ready than your typical best-seller. And with recent advances in CGI, there's no limit to how fantastic the images in these novels may be -- in fact, if box office receipts are any indication, the more outrageous the imagery, the better.
For these reasons alone, in retrospect, it really shouldn't surprise that '300' turned into the sleeper blockbuster of 2007. The original graphic novel, sprung from the mind of wunderkind Frank Miller ('Sin City,' 'The Dark Knight'), was like 'Gladiator' on steroids and seemingly tailor-made to get blown up to mega-screen proportions. Enter director Zack Snyder ('Dawn of the Dead'), whose decision to marry live-action with an intensely graphic visual style was the ideal interpretation of Miller's sensibility. Using every trick of the modern cinema trade to not only bring Miller's comic book panels to life, but to elevate them even further to the level of pop culture myth, Snyder's approach all but assured that the throngs that devoured 'Sin City' would turn out in even more ferocious numbers for '300.'
Working with his co-scenarist Lynn Varley, Miller traded in the pulpy, neo-noir of 'Sin City' for the the blustery, sword clanging majesty of the ancient Battle of Thermopylae. As retold by Miller and Varley, approximately 300 Spartan warriors go up against the vicious hordes of Persian king Xerxes -- all dying valiantly to defend the Greek ideals of freedom and justice. (Feel free to insert your own "For the glory of Rome!" joke here.)
The characters were only thinly sketched-out in the graphic novel, and they're only slightly more embellished in Snyder's vision. King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) is the ostensible hero, who (in very Russell Crowe/Maximus style) has dreamed his entire life of defeating the Persians. He gets his chance after a group of arrogant messengers from the Persian army arrive in Sparta, offering its people the choice between surrender or death. Leonidas has the messengers slaughtered, and decides to amass his 300-strong army at Thermopylae pass, a narrow corridor between the steep cliffs of the Aegean Sea. The plan is to limit the Persians' access, thereby making their massive numbers meaningless. As they come through the pass, Leonidas and his army will clobber them, one by one...
And so the stage is set for '300's almost non-stop second act cavalcade of phantasmagorical violence, bone-crushing gore and CGI wizardry. Miller turned his Persian warriors into a bizarre, surreal stew of iconic archetypes -- from deformed warriors to bizarre African animals, raging wizards to the elite guard of the Immortals (complete with scary death masks right out of a 'Texas Chainsaw Massacre' movie).
Snyder both plays up the fantastical while also stripping the imagery down to its bare essentials. It's all heaving bare flesh, strategically-placed costume details, and bold, digitally drawn-in backgrounds. The result is something like a cross between an Abercrombie & Fitch catalog, 'Ben Hur' and "Grand Theft Auto" -- only ten times as loud.
Upon its theatrical release, reviewers leveled a number of criticisms at '300': some said that it was gratuitously violent; others felt that its characters were paper thin to the point of abstraction; and still others felt that it was either the most homoerotic mainstream movie ever made or the most misogynist. But while each of these concerns are certainly valid, ultimately they all get crushed under the sheer thrill of Snyder and Miller's bombast and spectacle.
Yet as visually dazzling as '300' is (and to be sure, there's not a boring moment in this film), after an overlong 118 minutes a certain sense of overkill begins to dull one's senses. Simply put, Snyder just doesn't seem to know when to quit. After a while, all of the bulging biceps, and the stabbings and the decapitations begin to blur into abstraction -- and even after the story effectively ends, the action keeps going (and going) for little apparent narrative reason.
Still, even if '300' is ultimately little more than an exaggerated pastiche of every sword 'n' sandal convention past and present, it cranks up the volume to such an extreme (and pretties up its pictures so brilliantly) that it matters little that there is little substance beneath such glittering surfaces.
'300' comes to Blu-ray and HD DVD as easily the most anticipated next-gen release of the summer. The surprise $200 million-plus blockbuster is, if nothing else, total CGI spectacle, so expectations are understandably through-the-roof that this will be the demo disc for every self-respecting home theater enthusiast.
Well, I'm going to put on my flame-proof suit and say that because the film has been so intentionally processed and "degraded," its very nature just doesn't lend itself to the kind of truly eye-popping and ultra-realistic high-def that I've come to equate with the term reference quality. Yes, I know that this is the way the film is "supposed to look," but when you're dealing with a source that is so over-contrasted and "crushed down" -- not to mention intensely desaturated and laced with so much video noise that it seems like a swarm of mosquitoes has infested your television -- for me, the "wow!" factor is lessened considerably.
Warner presents both the Blu-ray and HD DVD versions with identical 1080p/VC-1 encodes in the film's original 2.40:1 projected aspect ratio, and if nothing else, this is a very accurate reproduction of the theatrical experience of '300' (at least the one I saw projected digitally at a flagship theater here in Los Angeles).
As director Zack Snyder makes abundantly clear in the included supplements, he intended to jack up the film's contrast and burn down the blacks to better approximate the look of the graphic novel. As such, this high-def presentation of '300' is predictably flat, with most detail drained from the shadows and highlights lost in a blaze of hot whites. Even exaggerated textures (such as extreme close-ups of flesh, rocky surfaces, etc.) look soft and indistinct.
Colors, as well, are intentionally muted, with an almost sepia-toned hue that turns fleshtones into copper and eliminates much of the color spectrum except for deeper blues and browns. Adding to the film's 2-D feel is the fact that the majority of the backgrounds are animated, with the live action shot in front of a blue screen. Finally, a computer-generated "film grain" has been added to the mix, which gives the image a final coating of jumpiness, with obvious noise in every shot.
Yet, despite all this intentional degradation, there is also an undeniable beauty to the rough grandeur of '300's visuals. Sort of like a Pixar flick on steroids (without the talking animals), the crushed look Snyder intended gives many of the shots great power because they are so simple -- exactly like comic book panels come to life. The obvious computer-generated landscapes his digital artists have created also give it that dazzling, pixilated eye-candy look of the coolest videogames.
All things considered, I still found watching '300' an often less-than thrilling experience on a purely subjective level of wanting to enjoy a good-looking, awe-inspiring high-def image. But as a representation of the film's style, there's no debating that this Blu-ray edition of '300' delivers -- so much so that even for high-def purist like myself, it's possible to ignore the film's intentionally degraded visual design and just enjoy the ride.
Unlike the video, I have absolutely no reservations about the audio on this disc. '300' is a real high-resolution scorcher. This is the kind of film that has such barn-stormin' sound design that any caveats I might have are washed away by the sheer bombastic thrill of it all.
Warner has supplied both next-gen editions with matching Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround tracks (48kHz/16-bit), but this Blu-ray is also graced with an additional PCM 5.1 surround option (48kHz/16-bit/4.6mbps). Right upfront, the PCM sounded a bit louder, but after some level matching, a direct A/B comparison of several scenes revealed only slight differences. Although I'm sure this disc will stir up the whole TrueHD vs PCM debate, either way you slice it, the action scenes in '300' deliver the kind of demo-worthy audio that should be pure nirvana for any home theater enthusiast.
Dynamics are incredibly aggressive, with heart-stopping low bass that gave my subwoofer as good a workout as any next-gen disc I've ever heard. Since the majority of '300's soundtrack was created entirely in the studio, the cleanliness and clarity of the entire frequency range is startlingly lifelike and real. The "wall of sound" effect is in full force, with discrete effects in the rears wonderfully immersive and sustained. Imaging between channels is seamless, so crank up the volume and you'll be treated to the kind of rare, in-your-face 360-degree home theater soundfield that's second only to what you'll find in the actual cinema. Dialogue is also perfectly balanced -- again, no surprise given that almost the entire movie was looped.
Okay, I'll admit that I have certainly heard better sustained mood on other next-gen discs -- the quieter moments (mostly during the first half) definitely could have used a bit more oomph in the rears. But sonically speaking, a movie like '300' isn't about people talking to each other -- it's about aural spectacle, and when those swords start clashing, this one knocks it totally out of the park.
'300' comes to all three home entertainment disc formats (Blu-ray, HD DVD and standard-def DVD) day-and-date, and although the HD DVD edition boasts a clutch of exclusives not available on any other version, the standard suite of extras that grace all three releases would probably be enough to please any fan, so it's not as if this Blu-ray is feature-starved.
A six-part "Behind the Story" documentary is the centerpiece of the standard supplements. Running about an hour total, it quickly becomes clear that director Zack Snyder was thinking about the video release during the production of '300.' Not only is the guy all over each of the extras on this disc, but it looks like he had a camera crew filming every day on the set, too. As a result, there is considerable behind-the-scenes footage here and (thankfully) less of the chatty, often lame on-set interview fluff one usually gets on these things. Add to that the fact that Warner has encoded all of this material in full 1080i/MPEG-2 video, and you have one very good-looking doc that generally doesn't sacrifice substance for style (unlike, arguably, the movie itself).
Kicking off the multi-part doc are arguably its two weakest sections: the "Making-Of Featurette" (6 minutes) and "Making 300 in Images" (4 minutes). The unimaginatively-titled "Making Of" is the usual extended commercial. The second vignette appears to be culled from the same material but at least it's better focused, providing a nice opener for all of the extensive tech talk to come.
Much better is "The Frank Miller Tapes" (15 minutes). This one provides some much-needed background on the original graphic novel, and features new interviews with Miller, DC Comics president Paul Levitz and other assorted DC luminaries. Though Miller has been known to be "touchy" when it comes to past adaptations of his work, he seems to have nothing but enthusiasm for '300' -- both his original graphic novel and Snyder's daring visual reinterpretation. A very nice background piece.
The next part of the doc is "300: Fact or Fiction?" (25 minutes). Finally, the cast and key crew are introduced, and they -- along with Snyder and Miller (and a few historians) -- give us a sort of guided tour of Spartan movies past and present up on the big screen. This may seem like a recipe for disaster, but the piece is so well edited that it ends up tracing quite a comprehensible through-line all the way from the original Greek myths through Miller's decidedly myth-making redux. Although this seems clearly shot before the film hit theaters (when it came under fire for its "historical accuracy"), Snyder makes a strong case for artistic license and what he chose to leave out (or embellish/fabricate) and why. As a nice addendum, there's also "Who Were the Spartans" (6 minutes), which features all of the main actors (including Gerald Butler) discussing their historical counterpart, and how he/she re-interpreted them to fit Miller and Snyder's vision.
Finally, "Preparing For Battle: The Test Footage" (6 minutes) is included as an easter egg on the DVD version of '300,' but on the next-gen versions is easily accessed from the bonus features menu. In any case, it's very cool. Apparently Snyder really had to pitch Warner on the idea of turning '300' into a movie, and "Preparing for Battle" documents the huge hoops he jumped through -- even going so far as to create a "mini-film" comprised of rough animation, digital imagery and narration from actor Scott Glenn(!). Needless to say, it worked.
Next we have a collection of Deleted Scenes arranged as a single montage running nearly 4 minutes (with commentary by Snyder interspersed througout). Sort of a "greatest hits" of lost moments (not all complete), little here stands out as essential, although big-time '300' junkies are sure to enjoy the excised "Persian Giant" sequence, which Snyder apparently sniped mainly because it was too over the top, as well as being narratively unnecessary. Still, it alone makes the deleted scenes worth a watch.
More fun can be had with a series of twelve Webisodes. Each runs 5 minutes, and together, they form a nice and compact one-hour doc. (Granted, this is the only video extra not presented in 1080i, but since it was produced for the internet, poor video quality is to be expected.) Nothing here particularly stands out versus what we get with the other bonus features, but it's still a nice inclusion, if not comprehensive in touching on all of . The twelve segments are: "A Glimpse from the Set," "Production Design," "Wardrobe," "Lena Headey," "Gerald Butler," "Rodrigo Santoro," "Training the Actors," "Stunt Work," "Adapting the Graphic Novel," "Culture of Sparta City/State," "Scene Studies from '300'" and "Fantastic Characters of '300.'"
Last but not least in this impressive-in-its-own-right assortment of supplements is a screen-specific audio commentary with Snyder, screenwriter Kurt Johnstad and cinematographer Larry Fong. Note that this is not just an audio version of the picture-in-picture video commentary found only on the HD DVD exclusives, although much of the material Snyder covers is the same.
Unfortunately, I found this track a bit too technical and bland without all the pre-effects footage Snyder refers to (which we do get to see in the HD DVD's picture-in-picture version). Meanwhile, Johnstad and Fong just don't offer much insight aside from a few random, interspersed comments. Not a terrible track by any means, but quite frankly I quickly got bored.
Oddly, given this mountain of material, Warner has not included the film's original Theatrical Trailer as part of this package. What, was space a problem!?
'300' is all CGI sturm and drang, a piece of Greek myth-making so bold, in-your-face and pummeling one is reminded of that famous line from 'Gladiator' -- "are you not entertained!?" For me, '300' has about as much heart as the Tin Man, but as far as CGI action-porn goes, it just doesn't get any better than this.
This is also a very fine Blu-ray release. The video is solid, the audio is simply kick ass, and although this Blu-ray doesn't boast all the whiz-bang high-def extras included on its HD DVD counterpart, there are still more than enough standard supplements included here to earn the special edition label.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.