DVD - Image B+ Sound A Extras B
BD - Image A Sound A+ Extras B
starring Gerard Butler, Lena Headey, David Wenham, Dominic West
screenplay by Zack Snyder & Kurt Johnstad and Michael B. Gordon, based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller
directed by Zack Snyder
by Walter Chaw There's an idea in the ancient world about a "beautiful death," achievable for the warrior only in mortal, one-on-one wartime combat--an idea that may have contributed to the length of the Trojan siege, and an idea vocalized by one of the captains serving under Spartan King Leonides (Gerard Butler) in Zack Snyder's 300. Based on Frank Miller's graphic novel of the same name, the film betrays a lot of the same macho aesthetic as Robert Rodriguez's adaptation of Miller's Sin City--but rather than content itself with the literally bestial terms of glory in the masculine psyche, it makes a play for allegory and equivocal morality (of all things) in the valorization of Sparta and the romanticization of a crushing military defeat. It's not that Leonides is seen martyred in the end in a tableau explicitly meant to evoke the passion of St. Sebastian, but that he goes out pining for his wife like a lovesick hamster, thus completing 300's devolution from remorseless Spartan militarism into gushy democratic idealism and all manner of liberal maladies. There's little profit in establishing the rules of this universe as uncompromising and brutal (it opens on a field of infant skulls--victims of a Spartan culling ritual of its own kind) if its intentions split time between justifying, in non-chest-beating terms, the decision to pit three-hundred against thousands while denying the Spartans their individual moments of "beautiful death" in favour of some collective date with pyrrhic immortality. History suggests that the Spartans, having exhausted their arms, died scratching and clawing with their bare hands; 300 suggests they died calling for their mothers and wives.
Snyder's background in commercial television--restrained in his Dawn of the Dead remake--eventually contributes to the feeling that 300 is a luxury-car commercial with beheadings. At first arresting, its style is ultimately exhausting, and once it's no longer novel, it's impossible to avoid coming to the conclusion that it's actually ugly, distancing, and distracting. As the battles, hand-cranked into opacity, lack real urgency, the introduction of the occasional cave troll, video-game boss, or general monstrosity elicits feelings more of puzzlement than of anticipatory dread. Shot in almost the same way, the sex scenes lack eroticism, and their function seems to be to differentiate "good" sex (matrimonial) from "evil" sex (everything else): a better case for the film's latent conservative platform than even its uncomfortable death-match pitting European hunks playing ancient Greeks against the catch-all of all of hedonistic Persia. Most of 300's stylized excess would be forgiven, though, had it resisted a desire to turn its band of suicidal Conans into loving fathers, husbands, and defenders of the bedrock of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness--albeit in the form of child abuse, brutal coming-of-age rituals, and a rejection of ideas of social responsibility and stewardship of the weak.
Until the wheels come off, 300 has about it a certain lean, alien quality. Its hatred of deformity (an intolerance that covers any imperfection, in truth), disingenuous hatred of homosexuality (this from a group of Speedo-clad male models in red capes), and lovely moments where its greased-abs army discusses civility from atop a heap of Persian corpses all find purchase in what one wishes was its banner: that this brand of berserker testosterone rage has its own logic, not to mention its own low charm. I'd hazard that it's the only way in our political environment to do a film about a small group of white guys battling a giant horde of Persian guys (led by effete metrosexual Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro, channelling Jay Davidson's Ra from Stargate))--that is, to show war as seductive madness in the service of pointless, hollow rationalization. If 300 had been about bloodlust and the pursuit of beautiful oblivion, then its misogyny and cultural elitism would've made perfect sense; sad that it decides instead to be about gonzo warriors vs. feminine politicians--the mere existence of whom is puzzling given that the picture establishes Sparta as stripped free of male weaklings--and despotic Spartans (err, Athenian democracy), even as Leonides slaughters diplomatic envoys and rejects the notion of deliberation. Though you could make the case that Snyder is going for irony in equating these ancient psychopaths with the politics of modern America, the better case is that 300 is an apology for bellicosity so intent by the end to cast history as hagiography that it quails at every moment of useful truth. I wonder if the simple fact that it's a violent, self-justifying muddle doesn't make it a decent allegory in spite of itself. Originally published: March 9, 2007.
by Bill Chambers How does 300 measure up on DVD? That's difficult to say, since the image was digitally tweaked to within an inch of its life in post. The 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer of the Two-Disc Special Edition appears to serve the Frank Miller aesthetic as intended--the 'hot' whites, soupy shadows, muted palette, and harsh grain (which sometimes comes off more like video noise, as is wont to happen when you slather it on digitally) are definitely all of a piece. Starting next month, FILM FREAK CENTRAL will review the Blu-ray editions of select titles, but although I'm bummed that we just missed the cut-off for checking out 300 in HiDef, in all honesty I can't imagine the added resolution doing anything other than cheapening the film by intensifying its artificiality. Less likely to spark debate is the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio, which isn't afraid to pummel the viewer but maintains a transparency that's at least as impressive as the aggro use of the LFE channel. In addition to startup previews for Trick 'r Treat (Anna Paquin + Little Red Riding Hood costume = Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread), The Brave One, Superman: Doomsday, the GameTap service, and a couple of 300 tie-ins, the first disc features an optionally-subtitled commentary track with director Zack Snyder, co-screenwriter Kurt Johnstad, and Larry Fong that quickly degenerates into a deadening "that's real/that's CGI" rhythm. Imagine someone annotating the marshmallows in a bowl of Lucky Charms for 116 minutes and you'll have a vague idea of this yakker's awesome banality.
The second platter's extras are a marked improvement, not that Snyder & co. set the bar very high. "The 300 - Fact or Fiction" (25 mins.) finds scholars Bettany Hughes and Dr. Victor Davis Hanson comparing and contrasting the film's/graphic novel's account of the Battle of Thermopylae with history's own. Surprise surprise, Miller took a lot of liberties (most hilariously, by depicting the Oracle as a fashion model in heat), but then so did Herodotus, and neither Hanson nor Hughes seem to have much quarrel with poetic license. (Probably because they're no strangers to conjecture themselves.) If the piece is a bit dry, it's at least better for you than "Who Were the Spartans? The Warriors of 300" (4 mins.), in which cast members pretend to be authorities on their historical counterparts. Shifting focus from the art to the artist, "Frank Miller Tapes" (15 mins.) touches on Miller's early days in the comics industry under the tutelage of Neal Adams before declaring him a cinematic saviour--albeit while conveniently omitting RoboCop 2 from his resume. When Miller wonders aloud how Snyder is going to handle Alan Moore's The Watchmen ("Very carefully"), it suggests an admission on Miller's part that his two-tone concepts are easy enough to codify for the silver screen as to make the achievements of Snyder and Robert Rodriguez dubious at best.
"Making of 300" (6 mins.) is predictably disposable and not nearly as engaging as "Making 300 in Images" (4 mins.), a soup-to-nuts overview of the production essentially told in time-lapse. A 3-minute block of "Deleted Scenes" with built-in Snyder intros includes Ephialtes's hilariously-failed suicide attempt and its immediate aftermath as well as more uniquely-unconvincing footage of the quote-unquote midget archers. Rounding out the special features are twelve "webisodes"-- "Production Design," "Wardrobe," "Stunt Work," "Lena Headey," "Adapting the Graphic Novel," "Gerard Butler," "Rodrigo Santoro," "Training Actors," "A Glimpse from the Set: Making 300 the Movie," "Scene Studies from 300," "Fantastic Characters of 300"--totalling 38 minutes. They're by and large promotainment, though the penultimate segment takes a fascinating look at the forced-perspective techniques used to exaggerate Xerxes's height. Commercials touting the two next-gen formats, the upcoming Blade Runner: The Final Cut megaset (love the Harrison Ford punchline), and NHL DVDs cue up automatically upon insertion of the platter. Originally published: July 30, 2007.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers Disregard what I speculated about the BD release of 300: I didn't think it would look better, just more artificial--but what the added resolution actually does is clarify the details beneath the sandstorm of grain, giving the image greater depth and a more persuasive celluloid texture. Thanks to its utter fidelity to 300's coarse aesthetic, this is a terrible demo disc for the format but an optimal showcase for the film. As for the multitude of audio options, since my hoary receiver automatically downmixes 5.1 uncompressed PCM to 2-channel stereo and can't decode Dolby TrueHD, I was stuck listening to the DD 5.1 track. In any event, even with only a minor uptick in bitrate (from 448 kbps to 640 kbps), 300 sounds bigger, badder, and clearer on Blu-ray, the whole discrete soundstage boasting improved transparency. There are no BD-exclusive bonus features, but all the supplements of the Two-Disc Special Edition resurface here in 1080i save the webisodes, which are still 480p. Originally published: September 25, 2007.