I remember that when I first saw the trailer for 300, I was floored, simply put. It was such a striking visual, something visually fresh and inventive, I simultaneously couldn't wait to see it and had no idea how they were going to market this to a mass audience. If I recall correctly, Warner Brothers was hoping for a box office gross in the neighborhood of Sin City, which made $74 million. The film ended up making nearly that much in its opening weekend on its way to a total tally north of $200 million. It deserves every penny. Now that it is on DVD, it is time for even more people to enter the beautifully violent stylized world of the Battle of Thermopylae.
300 is the next step in cinema style, the gorgeous union of live action and computer generated surroundings. It is not the first of this style, but it is the first one to be an unabashed popular success. Zack Snyder has delivered a visionary film that will grab you by the eye sockets and demand your full attention for two hours. Beyond the technique, the story is the stuff of myth and legend. It is based on Frank Miller's graphic novel which is not, nor was it meant to be, a historical document. If you go into this thinking that you will be seeing a true life historical epic, you are sure to be disappointed, and possibly even offended by the oft times cartoonish portrayals. There may be some elements of fact blended into the fiction, but it is not the other way around.
300 plays out a grand tragedy, a tale of heroism, fighting in the face of insurmountable odds for what you believe in. It never falters, it never wavers, it knows what it wants to do and it runs headlong into the breach. It was a fight to defend a way of life. This is the way legend begins, with exaggerated storytelling used for dramatic effect, both for the audience and for those who are listening to the story unfold within the film.
King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) was not about to let his people be taken into a life of slavery or worse under Persian rule, so he did the only thing he could. He took the bravest of his warriors and led them into a glorious battle, a valiant, yet futile, attempt to hold back King Xerxes' horde. A fight to the death, despite the ruling class's desire to surrender, and the oracle's denial of a battle order, Leonidas knew that he could not abide by their decision. He was the King of a proud people, and he knew that heading off to battle was the right thing to do.
Zack Snyder has infused great vision and bloody delicious style into every frame. The film was shot almost entirely on sound stages, in front of green and blue screens. There is such care put into each and every frame, it is dynamic, it is larger than life, and it is violent. This is a film that is pure cinema, it is something that could not be done on practical locations, yet I never found the look distracting — in fact, quite the opposite. The film started, the title card flashed and I was thrust into this other world, a world where the right were just, the bad were bad. There was a lot going on in the look, and the surface of the story is simple, yet do not be tricked into thinking that this a simple story. It is laced with emotion and political subtext.
The movie plays out like a grand myth — this is how legends are born. The stories of heroes are told, passed down, and used as a point of inspiration for the people. It could be seen as a form of propaganda — that's what these passed down tales of heroism boil down to, don't they? This story is no different, it's an actual event that is blown up to gigantic proportions, exaggerated to the point of the grand effect of inspiration. It is in that where everything falls into place.
At the start of the film, we are provided with a voiceover narration telling us of Leonidas' rise to power, from his trials as a child through to his grand leadership. The story is being told around a campfire to a group of Spartan warriors. This provides the framework for the fantastic tale of bravery that was to follow. The narration returns at many points throughout, never letting us forget that we are being told a story, as opposed to watching the events unfold in real time. This story is exaggerated, it is turned into a grand campaign, and is used as a tool to get the men pumped up for battle. It is this that allows for much of the fantastic elements that appear throughout the film. It is not a point-for-point retelling of the events, it is the start of the legend of King Leonidas.
This is a movie that is filled with macho posturing, sword-swinging action, and is not afraid of letting a little blood fly. Everything takes place in a wonderfully realized alternate world, where every element is highly stylized. Snyder and his director of photography, Larry Fong, have created a world that is as convincing as it is unreal.
Add to that the larger than life performances of the leads, in particular Gerard Butler. Butler takes the role of Leonidas in his teeth and never lets go. He brings depth to the overblown character. There is a lot going on behind the eyes of the warrior king, and Butler doesn't let you forget it. There is also a strong performance from Lena Headey as Queen Gorgo; she has a powerful turn, giving us a strong female character with a very satisfying arc. Then there is the hunchback Ethialtes, played by Andrew Tiernan, a pathetic creature with a pivotal role. Not to be forgotten is Tyler Yates, whose score was wonderful and as experimental as the film.
In the end, this is quite simply an amazing film. It has style, energy, violence, emotion, it is hard to tear your eyes away from the screen. It is this magical blend of visual style and deceptive emotional depth. I hope to see more films of this style.
Audio/Video. This standard definition DVD looks great, it looks even better than I remember it on the big screen. It is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen and has a great level of detail and is free of any defects. It is one of the better disks I have seen lately. The audio is Dolby Digital 5.1, and is filled with dynamics to match the stunning visuals. Technically, there is nothing to complain about on this disk.
Extras. This two disk set is filled with a nice complement of extra features.
- Disk 1:
- Commentary with Director Zack Snyder, DP Larry Fong, and writer Kurt Johnstad. The track is very interesting with lots of anecdotes about shooting, where the effects start and the real stuff ends, the reuse of props, and more. This is a very listenable track with Snyder doing most of the talking.
- Easter Egg. In addition to the commentary, there is a bonus bit that you can find by going to the Special Features menu and pressing up to highlight the blood splatter over th page title. It is a brief bit on the adaptation and the proposal, how Frank Miller didn't want his work filmed, how they animated the graphic novel pages with voiceover by Scott Glenn. It is actually pretty cool. There is some cool pre-viz work shown, showing what they hoped to make. (7 minutes)
- Disk 2:
- The 300 – Fact or Fiction? Interesting featurette with interviews with Miller, Snyder, and historians comparing what is presented with factual history. There is actually a good amount of truth to the film, blended with a healthy dose of exaggeration. It is a look at how this is the growth of myth and legend. (24:00)
- Who Were the Spartans?: The Warriors of 300. More information on Miller's adaptation of the historical tale, and how this was likely the version filmed because it was the simplest take. It tells of how Spartans were different from other Greeks and their culture of being soldiers. The original badasses. (4:30)
- Frank Miller Tapes. Conversations with and about Frank Miller, his inspirations, his ideas, and just how much he means to the medium. It is rather interesting look into his creative process. It ends with Miller asking Snyder: "I'm wondering how the hell you're going to do Watchmen?" That is another Miller creation that Snyder is also adapting.(14:30)
- The Making of 300. This is slightly fluffy, but still worth watching. I still cannot believe this was all on a blue screen. (6:00)
- Making 300 in Images. A series of stills and some video of the different permutations of the set, and everyone going about their job. Kind of a neat extra. (3:30)
- Deleted Scenes with Introduction by Director Zack Snyder. Three scenes, the first two focusing on Ethialtes, and the third introducing the never seen midget archers on the backs of giants. (3:20)
- Webisodes. Six episodes (Production Design, Wardrobe, Stunt Work, Lena Headey, Adapting the Novel, Gerard Butler). These are all pretty interesting giving a look into the production during the production. (38:00)
Bottom line. This is a rather nice set for an amazing movie. It seems to get a little better with successive viewings. It is violent, it is over the top, and it is absolutely gorgeous. There is no reason not to have this movie in your collection.