Like the raw and brutal Sin City a few years before, Frank Miller's 300 stands as one of the most acclaimed graphic novels of the 1990s. Employing the writer and author's testosterone-fueled dialogue and distinct visual style (highlighted further by the bold color palette of Miller's partner, Lynn Varley), 300 was essentially a stylized re-telling of the Battle of Thermopylae, in which a handful of skilled Spartan soldiers and Greeks fought against hordes of Persian invaders. Choosing to take arms and fight as they'd been trained to do since adolescence, the Spartans sought to preserve their ideals despite overwhelming odds.
Focusing solely on the conflict at Thermopylae (known as "The Hot Gates", a narrow passage where the Spartans stood their ground in 480 B.C.), 300 re-introduced us to the legendary Spartan king, Leonidas. Defying the oracle and Spartan council after killing a group of Persian messengers, Leonidas led 300 of his finest warriors north to Thermopylae, a far cry from the thousands that made up Sparta's total army. His defiance essentially destroyed all hope of reinforcements, ensuring that Thermopylae would be their final battle. As foretold by the oracle, either Sparta would burn or it would mourn the loss of its king; from Leonidas' perspective, such a death would be the ultimate accomplishment for any warrior. Unfortunately, the massive Persian army, led by the self-proclaimed god-king Xerxes, seemed to be up to the challenge.
With the arrival of Sin City in cinematic form just a few years ago, the film's technical achievements and structure allowed it to remain alarmingly close to the source material. Zack Snyder's 300 (2007) is almost as perfect a match in its own right, from the carefully-framed compositions to the distinctly stylized color palette. The original books were presented as a series of two-page spreads from start to finish; likewise, the film's 2.35:1 aspect ratio allows for a truly epic atmosphere. Having read both Sin City and 300 in printed form upon their original release, these stories (for better or for worse) have remained largely intact during their transition to the big screen. The non-stop bravado wears a bit thin at times, but it's hard to reject films that try so hard to visually floor the audience.
As much as it's critically unfair to compare the two, 300 isn't quite as impressive as its black-and-white predecessor. Instead of a meaty, multi-part crime drama, 300 is based on a short mini-series that's much lighter in dialogue and detail. The Battle of Thermopylae only lasted roughly three days from start to finish---and though 300 is heavy on action, a few dramatic additions have been added to spice things up. Leonidas (Gerard Butler) and his men are given a few more character moments, but his wife, the unfortunately-named Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey), plays a substantially larger role this time around. These aren't necessarily criticisms, yet the stop-and-start pacing of 300 often keeps things from flowing as they should. The graphic battle sequences, political strategies and rallying speeches may be potent on their own, but their non-stop presentation is fairly exhausting even after just 116 minutes. Had 300 been a three-hour epic like the director's cut of Kingdom of Heaven, we'd likely pass out from over-stimulation.
Still, the film's fierceness and over-the-top battle sequences carry most of the weight. Through extensive CGI work and other post-production trickery, the film's fantastic backdrop really sets 300 apart from the pack. Scenes are often heavily overlaid with a faint golden haze or a steely blue tint, emphasizing the grittiness, arterial spray and deep shadows. The narrative tells most of our story through the perspective of Dilios, a Spartan warrior-turned-messenger who recounts the heroic tale to next year's crop of stubborn soldiers. The beefed-up subplot back home---in which Queen Gorgo attempts to persuade the council to send reinforcements---often slows down the momentum, but it still provides a slight balance to the near-endless slaughter.
All things considered, 300 certainly isn't lightweight viewing despite the relatively thin plot. Blood flows freely among cultural sides represented in a truly black-and-white fashion, creating a heavy-handed "us vs. them" mentality that wears a bit thin. Still, the film's heightened level of atmosphere keeps the machine lumbering along, mixing well with Miller's source material to create a truly stylized action epic. Warner Bros.' two-disc treatment of the film preserves the visuals and sound perfectly, though the extras aren't as well-rounded as one might think.
Video & Audio Quality
Presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio and enhanced for 16x9 displays, 300 looks excellent from start to finish. The film's stylized looks has been preserved faithfully, from the gritty, high-contrast imagery to the atmospheric color palette. Digital problems (such as edge enhancement and pixellation) didn't seem to be on display at all, rounding out the visual presentation nicely.
As expected, 300's audio presentation is about as enveloping as they come. The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix (presented in English, Spanish and French, as well as English 2.0) is rich and dynamic, utilizing plenty of surround activity and LFE. Dialogue is typically clear and easy to understand, though it's mixed quite a bit lower than the action and sound effects. Overall, those who enjoyed 300 theatrically should appreciate Warner's effort in both technical departments. Optional English and French subtitles---as well as separate English captions for the hearing impaired---have been included during the main feature and most of the bonus material.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging
Seen above, the mildly animated menu designs are basic and easy to navigate. The 116-minute main feature has been divided into roughly two dozen chapters, while no obvious layer change was detected during playback. This two-disc release is housed in a slim black hinged keepcase; a handsome embossed slipcover is included in lieu of any inserts.
Spread over both discs, the extras for 300 prove to be a bit of a mixed bag. The chief offender is a feature-length Audio Commentary with director Zack Snyder, writer Kurt Johnstad and cinematographer Larry Fong; there's plenty of dead space during this track, and most of the information shared isn't particularly enlightening. Snyder does most of the talking here, often pointing out visual similarities to Miller's graphic novel and notes about the film's visual effects and other post-production work. It's not a total loss, but this isn't exactly one of the better commentaries around.
Hidden elsewhere on Disc 1 is an easily-found Featurette in the form of an Easter egg. Essentially, it provides a brief overview of the film's transition from graphic novel to the film, so 300 fans should definitely keep an eye out for it.
Disc 2 is a bit more satisfying, leading off with "300: Fact or Fiction?" (24:32, below left), a short featurette with thoughts from the cast, crew and a few authors and historians. All participants raise good points about the film's dramatic license, reminding us that the film's skeletal structure stays true to the history books. This also sheds a bit more light on the adaptation of Miller's graphic novel, covering the unique visual style and bold compositions that helped to lay the groundwork.
The featurette stands in good contrast with "Who Were the Spartans? - The Warriors of 300" (4:24), a brief addendum that details a bit about Spartan life and their customs. Those looking for an all-encompassing portrait should look elsewhere, but this compact presentation still fits in nicely.
Also here are "The Frank Miller Tapes" (14:30, above right), a collection of clips featuring Miller, DC Comics president Paul Levitz, celebrated comic creator Neal Adams and DC group editor Bob Schreck. Miller sheds some light on his early years in the comics industry, from his first professional gig (courtesy of Adams) to his more recent projects. This is a more personal featurette than anything else on board, lightly touching upon Miller's career while paying plenty of attention to the original 300 mini-series.
Next up is a like-minded pair of extras: a general Making-Of Featurette (5:48) and Making 300 in Images" (3:35). The former is a rather straightforward promotional featurette, while the second is a series of behind-the-scenes images from the generally set-free production. Also tacked on in a separate section are three Deleted Scenes with introductions by Snyder, giving the grotesque Ephialtes more screen time and showing a few more bad guys on the battlefield. They're not incredibly interesting on their own, so Snyder's comments about their removal aren't surprising.
Last but not least is a series of Webisodes (12 clips, 38:21), which originally debuted online and partially made it to Best Buy's promotional DVD. Briefly touching upon the film's visual effects, stunts, training, costumes, creature effects, makeup and more, these featurettes also include a few interviews with members of the cast and crew. A handy "Play All" feature ties everything together nicely, elevating these from a series of promotional clips to a satisfying mini-documentary in its own right.
Presented in a mix of anamorphic and non-enhanced aspect ratios, the bonus features don't always fire on all cylinders. With that in mind, they're well-organized and should please fans of the film, though more participation from Miller and lead cast members would've been more than welcome. Most also feature optional English subtitles.
Aggressive, atmospheric and over-the-top, 300 should please action fans and followers of Frank Miller's work. There's no doubt that history has been modified for dramatic purposes, but it's hard to expect otherwise: this is a re-telling of a re-telling of a re-telling, told in a completely different style than what history buffs may be comfortable with. As with the recent adaptation of Miller's own Sin City, this marathon of brutality and machismo may wear a bit thin for some viewers, though it's hard to deny the energy of sheer visual dynamics and reckless abandon. Warner's two-disc package pairs the film with an excellent technical presentation---and while the extras don't quite satisfy on all counts, there's more than enough here to satisfy fans of 300. Firmly Recommended.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey based in Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance graphic design projects and works in a local gallery. When he's not doing that, he enjoys slacking off, second-guessing himself and writing things in third person.