Frank Miller has certainly become an icon over the years as his visionary graphic novels have found their way to the big screen, and "300" is probably the most ambitious one yet. This is a cutting edge piece of work, and filmed in such a unique style that it is impossible to look away. The plot, though historic in nature, follows the graphic novel by Frank Miller quite strikingly and is truly an impressive technical and artistic vision. Originally I was hesitant to even be curious, because, honestly, I'm just not very interested in these types of films. I'm referring to sword and sandal epics. I never even watched "Rome" to be honest, and still have yet to watch "I, Claudius". I truly loathed "Troy" and have never even seen "Ben Hur" or "Spartacus", nor have any pressing urge to do so. Still, maybe some day I will get around to these others, for now let's discuss the merits of "300" and why it really won me over in the end. Because it is truly a spectacle in every sense of the word.
The film's director, Zack Snyder (the recent "Dawn Of The Dead" remake, which I loved), has succeeded in capturing the graphic novel's intensity, and I'm impressed that he is set to direct my favorite graphic novel ever, Allan Moore and Dave Gibbon's "Watchmen". I am now sure he is perfect for the job. I'm not really sure why critics are so divided over this trailblazing and utterly fantastic film. Maybe it's because they think it is style over substance, but really if you want a historically accurate film filled with excellent dialogue and plot twists, you've come to the wrong place. This is a comic book movie, underneath all of the history.
Originally I thought this film catered to the video game culture and was simply an expensive music video, which was my impression from the trailer. What we have here is a beautifully shot, special effects driven fight movie that is quite simply a pleasure to watch. A guilty pleasure? I think not, every detail is so exquisitely defined and the panoramic landscapes so well rendered and the fight scenes so clever and over the top, we have a different type of art here. One filled with visual splendor, very much like a "Heavy Metal" magazine cover come to life, at times.
The film centers around the story of a great leader and warrior of Sparta, King Leonidas (Gerard Butler), as he decides to lead a small and ferocious band of fighters against an entire invading force of thousands of Persians led by a charismatic cult leader named Xerxes (played flamboyantly by Rodrigo Santoro). Their passionate and intense battles lead to some very impressive victories, and each battle scene is more intense as the last. The visuals are stunning to say the least, and the fight scenes are just as ambitious in scope and sheer outlandish savagery as to compare to even Peter Jackson's famous battle scenes in the epic "The Lord Of The Rings" trilogy.
Along the bloody path we meet a cast of virtually unknown actors who all turn in wonderful performances, even under all of the pressure of the bluescreen. This includes almost all men in loincloth, but also the beautiful Lena Headey as Queen Gorgo. We also have Dominic West (McNulty from the excellent HBO series "The Wire") as Theron, who conspires to change the course of the revolt using whatever political means necessary. It is difficult to put into words how well filmed and choreographed the fight scenes are, they really pull everything out of the hat for this one.
In addition, the makeup and costumes in this film are so wonderful and over the top you have to see them to believe them, especially Xerxes, whose jewelry adorns every part of his body - and wait until you see how he travels! What an exotic entourage.
The film is high on visuals and short on dialogue, but the visuals truly tell a wonderful story, filled with scenes that are quite epic in their intensity and sheer audacity. I went in hesitantly, but came out blown away by the breathtaking technological achievements, inventive special effects and action packed scenes.
This film is very violent and extremely intense. My suggestion is sit back and enjoy the ride, this is not a National Geographic documentary (and I love those too, by the way).
Since this has become the bestselling high definition release so far, selling upwards of 250,000 titles (formats combined), the video quality is very important.
This film is so experimental with its color tones and focusing, its use of grain and other manipulations have actually made it difficult for some reviewers to contemplate. Not me, I found it utterly fascinating that I could actually experience every minute detail exactly as the filmmakers intended.
I know we live in a culture that is still catching on to calibration and contrast levels and a whole myriad of seemingly complex terms like video noise reduction and such, but let me say I find it interesting that the filmmakers used so many different filming techniques to tell this story, you see it's not all about the special effects. It's about shadows and black levels, skin tone, and lighting. And this film has such a startling range of effects. The hazy blurring nature of some of the shots is intentional, and the very apparent grain (and there is a lot of it) is intentional, and the flickering silent movie quality in the features of some of the warriors during battle is not only evident but striking.
They manipulate so much in this film, you simply have to see it in high definition, it is the window into all of the gritty imperfections these filmmakers created to bring this graphic novel to the screen. This is an outstanding disc visually; one of the best in that it truly represents the filmmakers intention so well, it blurs the line between reality and fantasy by confusing the conventions of old and new film technique to tell a story based in the past using every technological tool of the future to look... rusted. And rust never sleeps. In the end, you will be so taken aback by the imagery; you will forget what flaws or perfections you were looking for anyway. This film looks great on HD DVD.
As for the sound, well if you are one of those put off by the intentional sepia/gold/muted colors of the transfer then I can assure you we don't hear any hiss or crackle in the sound department. In fact we have a Dolby True HD track that will simply astound you. All six of your speakers will remain constantly active and the subwoofer response is very pronounced. The directional effects are also dead on, and the voices come through very clearly. This sonic experience is so utterly detailed and complete that you have got to hear it. The horses hooves thundering across the battlefield, the directional swoosh of the swords, the howling of the cold winter wind, the violent sounds of crushing bone and pierced flesh and the spilling of blood, the crunching sound of armor, the hollow tortured screams of enemies screams echoing through the bloody evening mist. It's all here, ladies and gentlemen, and it appears we have entered new territory, because this is easily one of, if not the best, sounding films I have ever screened in my living room.
The music by Tyler Bates is extremely satisfying, and sounds excellent, this film doesn't simply rely on traditional orchestra, it actually gets quite progressive at times, and is as unpredictable and spectacular as this visual feast deserves.
Either way, this HD-DVD version of "300" bears some seriously striking differences to its Blu-Ray counterpart. It contains a few HD-DVD exclusive extras that are quite exciting, and if you are lucky enough to be format neutral and/or have a combo player then that makes it an easy choice to make because the HD-DVD Combo is definitely the better of the two, and for some strange reason, I own both.
Definitely the most fascinating special feature that is exclusive is the wonderful and groundbreaking 'Bluescreen Picture In Picture Version' which is something I've always wanted. It portrays a blood spatter (Ralph Steadmanesque) framed widescreen image of the entire feature in the lower left corner, and shows us the entire film without its special effects or any of the digital alterations they eventually used in the final cut. This is exciting stuff for a special feature, and I am no real fan of special features, especially picture in picture type commentaries, (they always seemed kind of boring), but this one reveals for the first time what can actually be done with this type of feature, and I for one am very impressed. It's fascinating to watch the rough cut play at the same time as the final cut, especially when combined with the fascinating insight from the director. Not to be missed, I love this feature and it is a major elevation in added value over its Blu-ray nemesis. I learned a lot. Also, you have the ability to turn it on or off during the movie. I had to just watch most of it all the way through. It is so strikingly different than the final version, wow.
The next HD-DVD exclusive is a fun little game in the style of Risk called 'Vengeance And Valor' in which you command the troops who arrive after Leonidas' 300 soldiers. Interesting gimmick. Also, you can 'Pick Your Favorite Scenes', a new type of feature that grows old pretty quick. I mean, why would you want to re-edit a film and show it to your friends online? Get a life. Where is the feature where you can add classic rock tracks?
Also, a web enabled feature that allows you to use an internet connection to buy wallpaper and ringtones for your cellphone. There is something just wrong with even advertising that as a special feature, I mean, if I want to purchase useless things, I don't need to do it from my HD-DVD player, and please don't make me pay $30 for the privilege to be hammered by advertising. Advertising has its place but not in a paid product.
Another HD-DVD exclusive is something I used to not understand but that grew on me. You see, it has a DVD version on the other side, and not only do I find it handy to compare the versions for reviewing purposes, but I find it convenient to be able to play the film in any player in the house, or the car, or whatever. I would say the kids' rooms, but this one isn't for the kids. But the family friendly titles I recognize the added value for the combo units, per se. Either way, it's something the Blu ray doesn't have. Along with the commentary from the director Zack Snyder, D.O.P. Larry Fong and a writer named Kurt Johnstad.
Next, we have some special features under the heading 'Behind The Story', and some are actually presented in high definition. The first one is the best: '300 – Fact or Fiction?' – presented in high definition - in which historians, authors, and filmmakers talk about what parts of the film are true and which parts are artistic interpretation. 'Who Were The Spartans: The Warriors of 300'is another featurette in high definition which further explores Spartan culture and aims to define the essence of what it means to be Spartan. 'Preparing For Battle: The Original Test Footage' is an interesting featurette in which the director talks about all of the pieces he had to prepare in order to convince the studios to make the film, and shows the video montage and fight scene tests he prepared. 'Frank Miller Tapes' is a short high def featurette in which Frank Miller talks about his love for making comics and graphic novels since he was a young child up to the making of "300." 'Making of 300' is a very short featurette which shows us briefly the people on set filming; and 'Making of 300 in Images' is a fast montage of photo after photo of set after set. It's actually pretty original the way they made it into a special feature. Let's not forget we have some additional scenes in high def also, they are definitely worth checking out. They also contain introductions from the director.
The real Making of 300 is in the Webisodes, where we get a much longer, segmented set of featurettes that go much deeper into the production of the movie. It includes twelve different segments that fill in any gaps you may think need filled.
In a world filled with choices, Warner Brothers has made this one a little easier. This HD-DVD Combo is the definitive version of this high profile release, you will not be disappointed. Just make sure to turn off you brain and allow the movie to splatter over you, dazzle you before you resurface to reality, perhaps wondering why a movie so shallow can actually be enjoyable.