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300: The Complete Experience

Warner Bros. // R // July 21, 2009
List Price: $39.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Jeffrey Kauffman | posted July 18, 2009 | E-mail the Author
The Movie:
With the impending DVD and BD release of Watchmen coming next week, our friends at Warner, taking a cue from those good folks at Acorn, roll out a repackaging of director Zack Snyder's last graphic novel adaptation, 300, with this new "Complete Experience" soubriquet showing that, unlike Acorn, Warner actually knows when to throw in some new bonuses with re-releases for those completists among us (and we know who we are). I was sorely disappointed with the first BD release of 300, if only for the fact that it left the compelling PIP extra from the HD-DVD release out (but of course it took BD's a while to catch up to what were standard features in the HD-DVD format--not that I'm bitter or anything). The good news is this latest iteration of 300 contains almost everything that was on the previous HD-DVD and BD releases, plus a wealth of new features, not to mention a souvenir book and digital copy. So until the "Really Complete Experience" release comes along, this is probably going to be the 300 BD for the ages, or at least the rest of 2009.

For anyone who has been living under the ruins of the Parthenon for the past three or so years, 300 purports to tell the factual story of King Leonidas, a Spartan with a mere 300 soldiers who managed to fend off, at least for a little while, an invading hoard of attacking Persians. The basic facts of the film made it to celluloid previously in the largely lamentable 1962 "epic" The 300 Spartans, which, if nothing else, sunk into the then young Frank Miller's mind with such ferocity that decades later he decided to revisit the lore and develop his own epic graphic novel from it. Miller's protean work has served as source material for a wide gamut of films, both good and, frankly, execrably bad (including Miller's major misstep as a writer-director, The Spirit), but, along with Sin City, 300 at least had the good sense to try to recreate Miller's very distinctive visual style, leading to one of the most innovative films (at least from an image standpoint) of at least the last decade. Director Zack Snyder filmed virtually the whole production in front of green screens and then animated everything around the actors, giving an ambience that was simultaneously surreal and hyperreal, while evincing a general comic book air (especially with regard to the action sequences) that audiences either loved or hated. There were few who had a middling reaction to 300.

While dramatically 300 tries mightily, with a backstory and supposed emotional resonance provided in abundance for Leonidas (Gerard Butler), the fact is the film frequently comes off as a sort of high-falutin' Hercules epic, with Butler standing in for Steve Reeves. If you can look past the patently silly writing (after all, the film is based on a comic book--er, graphic novel, sorry), 300 provides a consistently fascinating visual experience that not only creates an alternate world, it literally sucks the viewer into it, almost like the hapless Robin Williams character in that other nascent CGI-fest, What Dreams May Come. 300 is a weirdly immersive experience, if for no other reason than you've really seen nothing quite like it before (or at least you hadn't circa 2006, when the film arrived in theaters).

The film's ultra-stylized violence may not be your cup of tea (and/or blood), but Snyder maintains an impressively versatile array of shots and stagings throughout the film that keep the virtually nonstop action sequences from seeming overly repetitive, despite the abundance of splayed and sprayed body parts and fluids. This is certainly no film for the squeamish, though I personally found myself strangely removed from the gore by dint of the fact that it was all so stylized. There may be an "ooh" factor when you see blood shoot across the screen in an almost balletic show of grace, but it's hard to think of it as anything approaching "real."

This is a film that exults in its own "penny dreadful" ethos, down to the gritty, grimy (and very, very processed) visuals. Color has been purposefully drained from the feature, giving 300 an overall amber and brown look that you'll either find riveting or a major yawn. This is also a surprisingly soft looking film, again I'm sure intentionally so, with the CGI backgrounds billowing into nothingness, and some very dark (though well contrasted) scenes that almost look like they were shot through gauze. It all makes for probably the most distinctive visual experience of the last decade at least, more visceral than similar efforts like The Polar Express or Beowulf (yes, I know those were motion captured and didn't feature "live" actors, but they, like 300, created totally artificial worlds built in a computer). Dramatically inert as 300 is, it's still a whiz-bang experience, a sort of high-tech Saturday serial delivered in a breathless style that should get the adrenaline pumping in most males, at least. I guess the women can enjoy the plentiful abs on display, none of which, unlike Beowulf, seem to be computer generated.

The Blu-ray

300's new edition sports the same VC-1, 2.40:1 transfer of the first BD release. If you take the film on its own visual terms, meaning an extremely desaturated, purposefully soft and grainy look, you'll be mightily impressed by the BD's detail. The artificial surroundings, as gauzy as they may be, nonetheless arrive with amazing definition, whether it be snowflakes floating in an auburn sky, or the shadow of a wolf getting its head split open by Leonidas' spear. Colors aren't "natural" by any stretch of the imagination, but they perfectly reproduce the theatrical version of the film and Snyder's distinctive personal vision. What you won't get here are an eye-popping Speed Racer-esque palette, or even an impressive depth of field (the film, mimicking the graphic novel, seems decidedly two dimensional most of the time).

Both the Dolby TrueHD and DD 5.1 mixes are brilliant, bringing some aural bombast to a film that maintains a decidedly muted visual approach. The film offers a surprising variety of immersive experiences, from the quiet, dreamlike sounds of wheat wafting in the breeze, to the fury of some of the most explosive battle sequences ever to make it to film and/or a computer processor. Surround channels are very smartly utilized in the action segments, nonetheless never forsaking the often grunted battle commands, usually kept front and center. Strangely the uncompressed PCM 5.1 mix from the previous BD and HD-DVD releases is missing. Also on tap are French and Spanish DD 5.1 mixes, with subtitles available in all the soundtrack languages.

In looking over my previously released HD-DVD and BD versions of 300, the only extra I see missing is the HD-DVD's battle game, "Vengeance and Valor." That means the returning bonuses from either/both of the previous releases include the excellent PIP bluescreen version of the film with Snyder's commentary; deleted scenes; Frank Miller's Tapes, detailing the conversion of the graphic novel into film terms; "300 Spartans--Fact or Fiction?"; "Who Were the Spartans?"; Webisodes, the brief online featurettes used to promote the film; and Snyder's audio commentary. The new bonuses are a treasure trove of PIP data separated into three color coded "paths" (as Snyder describes them in a brief introductory comment)--Creating a Legend (green), Bringing the Legend to Life (blue), and The History Behind the Myth (yellow). If you enter this "immersive" aspect of the BD, when appropriate content is available, one or more of the colors will "wiggle" in the upper left side of your screen, and you can then access the content by pressing that colored button on your remote. Despite Snyder's assertion that "you're going to have to pick one path in a moment," I found I could easily toggle between the colors as I moved through the film, picking and choosing exactly what I wanted to watch. I personally found the yellow, historical data to be the most consistently interesting. One caveat--it's a bit of a chore to get out of this "immersive" element. Pressing your Pop Up Menu button takes you back to the graphical display of all the color-coded content available (and it's a mother-lode, believe me). You then need to navigate up through several strata of individual extras and look for the "return arrow" icon to get you back to the basic "Special Features" menu. Pressing the "X" icon, exits you out of the Immersive Contents and takes you back to the film. Forewarned is forearmed.

Rounding out the extras are a beautiful hardback book sewn into the case with production photos and data, as well as biographies of cast and crew, and a digital SD-DVD copy disc, contained in an envelope glued to the back of the case.

Final Thoughts:
Some found 300 overly pretentious, and I'm really not going to argue that. However, the film is so audacious visually that I personally found it easy to forgive it its hyperbolic flaws. This is eye candy of the highest order, wrapped around at least a semblance of historical truth, containing some knockout (literally) battle sequences. Silly, yes. But fascinating to watch in a way few other sword and sandal epics ever have been. This BD re-release finally pulls together enough bonus content to make the overall package Highly recommended.

"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet

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Highly Recommended

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