|HD DVD Military-War|
|Written by Darren Gross|
|Monday, 01 October 2007|
It’s the year 480 B.C. The Persian empire has spread throughout Asia and parts of Greece, gobbling up territory after territory in a quest for imperial domination. King Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) sends a messenger and escort to King Leonidas of Sparta (Gerard Butler), requesting that he make a token gesture that he will yield to the empire’s mighty power and allow Sparta to become part of the empire and relinquish his sovereignty. Leonidas responds by slaughtering the messenger and his retinue and prepares for war. Unfortunately, the important Carneian Festival is about to begin and the high-priests (called Ephors) that the Spartans look to for guidance will not condone the use of the military on a warlike action. Leonidas, finding a way to circumvent their instructions gathers an army of 300, made up entirely of his personal royal guards to venture to the coastline and there hold off the Persian army at Thermopylae (“The Hot Gates”), a narrow passage through rocky cliffs that is the only way from the coastline into Sparta. A group of Greek citizens from neighboring villages joins Leonidas’s group, which makes a valiant stand against wave after wave of attacking Persians.
Meanwhile back in Sparta, Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) works on finding a way to convince the council to unleash its additional troops to go to the aid of Leonidas’s 300, but traitorous Theron (Dominic West) works against her…
Based on Frank Miller’s graphic novel, “300” is a highly artificial-looking film with a unique visual style. The stylized look of imagery is due to it being “crushed” in post to give it a high contrast look and has been tweaked so that the color palette is severely reduced to tones resembling burnt cork with brownish reds. Blues and greens are mostly absent. It’s an attempt to parallel the look of the original graphic novel, much as “Sin City” which did a similar thing in (mostly) black and white. The comic has a much larger color palette than the film, but the film does restage several high contrast signature images from it; the style takes its cue from those moments, such as the shot of the Spartan group forcing a band of Persians off the cliffs into the sea.
“300” is an impressive work by virtue of its visual style alone. Its design and storytelling are highly cinematic, with moments of evocative beauty and poetic compositions. Sequences like the ride of the Persian messengers (shot with high-speed cameras, giving it the appearance of extremely slow-motion) have tremendous visual sweep, especially when backed by Tyler Bates’s driving music. Much comment has been made of “300” being homophobic in its portrayal of Xerxes or right-wing in its politics. Such assertions, frankly, are laughable. Whatever political and inspirational messages may have been in other tales of the battle of Thermopylae, “300” eschews any of them. It’s a two-hour bash-a-thon, with an army of ubermen defeating battalion after battalion of varied foes. While loaded with carnage, the highly stylized portrayal of death is far from disturbing— there’s a cartoonish quality, due to its amped-up, exaggerated villains and the emotional distance lent by the unreal visuals. If one were to try to read a political parallel in the film, (which I don’t believe is here) then it would most closely be Iraq in reverse, with the 300 as Iraqi insurgents and America as the invading Persians. Such readings just don’t hold any water— the parallels are too vague and the story (both the historical one and Miller’s graphic novel version) too stylized and superficial to yield anything other than visceral visual thrills.
The cast, dealing with an entirely unreal environment, does a fine job. Gerard Butler is a bit too shouty and overdoes it at times, but he’s likable, believable and better in his quieter scenes. “300” was a surprise smash in early 2007, and at the time it was a bit hard to believe that something so artificial in appearance could find such a huge mainstream audience. Ultimately, though “300” by virtue of its design and adrenaline-fueled story gave audiences something they hadn’t seen before. The primary virtue of “300” is its artifice; it’s “something to see,” as the saying goes. As a film, it’s as empty as a drum— it means nothing beyond what is visible on the surface, but for two hours, it’s exciting, entertaining and visually groundbreaking.
The HD DVD release has gotten terrific reviews, and rightfully so. It’s a benchmark release that captures the intended look and texture of the film beautifully. The look of the film is accurately captured in high-def. The limited color palette looks exactly as it should and the imagery is richly detailed and full of pin-sharp detail. The photography has a great deal of grain, a result of all the post-production tweaking, but imagery is always sharp and clean of film dirt or anomalies. Blowing wind, clouds and sand are displayed with strong image stability and an involving level of crispness.
The True HD audio track is an impressive, theatrical-quality replication of a thoroughly involving mix. The mix makes full usage of the entire surround soundscape, cleverly positioning sounds that occur behind the characters into the rear surround channels, placing the audience deeply within the film’s aural environment. The music is very well-presented and is rendered with richness and breadth. The sound is balanced well, with dialogue that is crisp and clear and set at a level that doesn’t place the battle effects at too extreme a level. The battle sequences are vibrant and bass effects are used frequently for the violent clashes to walls of bodies toppling over. It’s a thrilling work of sound design and effects editing.
The disc includes a plethora of bonus features (several in HD), including featurettes that discuss the historical source of the story and offer comment by literate experts on the subject. The “webisodes” and featurettes on the making of the film cover the usual subjects, and offer interesting glimpses at various aspects of this unusual production and the steps director Snyder and co. had to go through in order to successfully sell the idea to Warner Bros. A test film of a battle sequence made as a sample for Warner Bros. is included in its entirety and in HD. Just over 3 minutes of deleted scenes are included, two of which focus on hunchbacked Ephialtes (Andrew Tiernan) and elaborate on his road to treachery. The other deleted scene is a fight sequence featuring a giant that fights with a dwarf on his shoulders. While listed as being in HD on the packaging, the scenes featuring Ephialtes look as if they were upconverted from lower resolution materials, sounding rough and appearing unfinished. The standout bonus feature is the picture-in-picture audio commentary which allows you to see (in a small window inset within the finished film frame) the entire movie as it was originally shot, with blue-screen sections, absent special effects, prior to any of the visual “crush” effects and color tweaking. While one is usually privy to brief shots of scenes before the visual effects are done, this is an unprecedented look behind the curtain, which gives a great insight into what had to be staged on-set, and what the actors had to respond to in order to get the material necessary to create the finished film. It’s also interesting to note how rich and beautifully shot the original material was before it underwent all the timing tweaks and before the digital effects were added.
The commentary is good, but almost by necessity it tends to focus on discussing the differences between the raw and unfinished shots. Apart from the intentions to translate Frank Miller’s comic into a filmic form in the featurettes, there’s very little additional insight into what Snyder’s artistic intentions or metaphoric goals were. It’s more of a discussion on craft along the lines of “to get this, we had to do this.” Unfortunately, no trailers are included.