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300 (HD DVD)
Students of military history love to study battles where a small force defeats a significantly larger one. There's the Battle of Agincourt (1415) where roughly 7000 sick and tired English troops defeated a French army of 25000. The Battle of Cannae is notable as the bloodiest day in human history when Hannibal's 45,000 men defeated the largest army the Roman Empire ever raised and killed 50-70,000 of them in the process. The prize for the most lopsided conflict has to go to the Battle of Thermopylae, where a mere 300 Spartan soldiers defended the only road into central Greece from King Xerxes army of over a million men. They held the pass for three days, repulsing several attacks of between 10,000 and 20,000 men each. They only fell after a local resident betrayed them and led Xerxes forces across a goat path that brought them to the Spartan's rear.
In 1998 comic writer and artist Frank Miller (Dark Knight Returns, Daredevil) created a five issue comic series on the battle titled simply 300, That in turn was turned into a movie by director Zack Snyder in 2007. This engrossing big-spectacle film has now been released on HD DVD, and it is a wonderful package. With excellent picture quality and a reference level soundtrack the disc also has some impressive extras, including many that are only available on this disc. This is an all around wonderful package that really makes the most of the new technology.
Spartans were raised to be warriors. Any weak or sickly babies were killed soon after birth, and boys were taken from their mothers at age 7 and sent to a grueling school where they were starved, beaten, and forced to fight. Many died, but those that survived were tough as nails and the best fighters the ancient world had ever seen.
When the Spartan King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) learns that the Persian King Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) has raised an army of over a million men who are marching on Greece, he wants to take the Spartan army to meet them. The Spartans are a very superstitious lot however, and when the Oracle forbids it, the ruling body refuses to allow the troops to go.
Leonidas can't stand back idly while an invasion takes place and has a trusted Captain raise a force of 300 men, all with sons to carry on their names since he knows they won't be coming back. He takes these men, calling them his personal guard, and marches north to meet the Persians. Along the way he picks up about 1000 more Greek fighters, none of whom are professional warriors. Stationing his men in a narrow pass, where the Persians can't surround them and where their numbers will be useless, Leonidas makes his stand. Even though the Persian King has offered him riches and control over all of Greece, the Spartan king would prefer an honorable death, which he knows is inevitable.
Wave after wave of Xerxes men throw themselves against the Spartan shields, and thousands upon thousands die, unable to break the Spartan line. Only treachery could fell the troops where sheer man power couldn't.
This is one of the greatest 'last stand' stories ever told and director Zack Snyder did a fantastic job of bringing Frank Miller's vision to life. It's important to note that Miller wasn't making a history text when he created the graphic novel this was based upon; he was embellishing the story, as story-tellers always have, to make it more exciting and engaging. He did his job well. Both the comic and the movie are every engrossing and will captivate audiences. The film runs nearly two hours in length, but at no time did I feel restless. I didn't even pause the film for a rest room break, though I knew the ultimate ending, I wanted to see how the story unfolded.
Snyder has crafted a very stylized film, and that is part of why this movie works so well while other comic-based productions fail miserably. The entire production was filmed in a studio in front of a blue screen (save for two days worth of location shooting) and the backgrounds were painted in with a computer. There was a lot of digital manipulation of the image. Textures were added, colors adjusted, some parts highlighted with light, while others were artificially put into shadows. One reason they did this was so they could use Lynn Varley's color palate, a gorgeous selection of tones and shades that made the comic version of this story so powerful.
You can see just how much computer fiddling was actually done in the extras section where there is the option of watching the raw footage. At first glance the film does look like it was over-processed, but soon viewers will grow used to the look of the film and realize how impressive the whole production looks.
In addition to this the lighting and color, the speed of the battle scenes were also played with. A man would run at an enemy, only to slow down and even stop just as he attacks, and then speeding up again to attack his next opponent. This gave the film the feel of a comic book. It was like panels from a graphic novel were coming to life and then freezing once again. These frozen actions were all gorgeous to look at; well composed images that had the appeal of a work of art.
The HD DVD Disc:
Wow. I really, really like the way this disc reproduces this movie. The film itself has a unique look with some scenes being washed out and others overly dark, but this was the how the director intended it to be; a sort of moving comic book that recreated Frank Miller's art on film. The movie has a wide range of tones and lighting conditions and the disc reproduces them all wonderfully. Look at the scene where King Leonidas is leaving with his 300 warriors. He says goodbye to his wife in a sun drenched field of wheat and a lot of the colors looked washed out due to the bright Mediterranean sun. Details are still clear though. Individual stalks of wheat are easy to pick out, as are the hairs on Leonidas' neck. Equally stunning is the scene that takes place the night before the first battle where the Spartans are standing in the rain. The rain drops splattering against the king's shield are well defined, and the troops behind him, in the dark, have an excellent amount of detail. When a flash of lightning illuminates the scene for just a split second, everything is bright and clear, but then disappears into darkness. Very impressive.
Given the stylized look of the film, grain was even added in some scenes to create a mood; I can see where some people will be put off at first. Just sit back and let the disc play and you'll be treated to a fine looking movie.
Like the video, the audio presentation is simply astounding. This HD DVD has a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track along with DD+ 5.1 tracks in English, Spanish and French. While the DD+ sounded great, the TrueHD track was awesome. From the low rumble of the Persian army approaching to the high pitched whine of arrows flying through the air, this disc had a wide range of sounds and all of them were reproduced faithfully. The full soundstage is used to good effect with some very nice directionality. During the battle scenes it sounds like you're right next to the doomed Spartans with swords clanging, footsteps pounding, and people screaming all around. The subwoofer got a really good workout too with lots of low level effects that really made the film sound impressive. This is one of the best sounding HD DVD or Blu-ray discs I've ever heard, a true reference quality disc.
This disc is truly packed. It starts out with an HD DVD exclusive bonus, the game Vengance and Valor. This isn't your ordinary multiple choice trivia game that's usually found on DVD's. This is a strategy game where you have a certain number of Greek troops who need to hold off Xerxes army. You can tell your troops where to advance, what types of weapons to use, and whether to defend or attack. I played through it a couple of times and it was fun, though there was a bit of a lag between entering a command and having it acted out on the screen. This doesn't affect the gameplay luckily. A very advance game for a video disc, and one I'll probably play again.
Next up is another bonus item you won't find on the Blu-ray or SD DVD versions of the film, a Bluescreen Picture-in-Picture version of the film. When I first saw this, I thought it would be really lame, similar to the storyboard to final film comparisons that are often found on SD DVDs and are generally interesting for about 2 minutes. How wrong I was. This option lets you see the film in a new light and gives viewers an appreciation of how much work went into the coloring of the film and how much texture was added. The 'raw' footage looks totally different from the finished film and it's truly amazing how they were able to create a feeling with tone and shading. This version is accompanied by an audio commentary by director Zack Snyder which is fairly interesting and never boring.
Another HD DVD exclusive is the Pick Your Favorite Scenes option, which I was underwhelmed by. This allows viewers to select their favorite parts of the movie and in effect reedit the film if you like. You can share these edits with friends if you have your machine hooked up to the Internet via an Ethernet cable. I can't see myself doing this or watching anyone else's version of the film, but it certainly in an interesting feature.
Moving on to the standard extras (all of which are presented in HD), there are six Behind the Story featurettes that are all interesting and fun. It starts off with a great documentary that runs nearly half an hour The 300 - Fact or Fiction. A couple of scholars as well as Frank Miller and Zack Snyder talk about what really happened and what's conjecture or just fabrication. Miller starts off by stating that he never claimed that his comic was accurate, and that he was trying to tell an exciting tale. Who Were the Spartans (4½ minutes) is a nice companion piece to the previous extra covering some of the same topics but mainly making the case for filming a movie that isn't based on the latest scholarly evidence, rather based on an interpretation of ancient events. They are pretty successful with their argument too.
Preparing for Battle: The Original Test footage is a very cool bonus item that isn't very long but well worth watching. Zack Snyder had to really convince the studio heads that this was a project worth doing, and to do that he created a short battle scene. This is that preliminary tape that earned Snyder a green light. The Frank Miller Tapes is a 14 minute interview with Miller, Snyder and such comic legendaries as Neal Adams and Paul Levitz. Being a comic geek, I really enjoyed this, especially hearing Miller talk about this work. Making of 300 (6 minutes) shows how the movie was filmed on a blue screen stage, and Making 300 in Images (4 minutes) is a set of stills taken on the first day of shooting that are presented in time-lapse fashion with one image coming after another almost too fast to see.
There are three deleted scenes, two involving the traitor Ephialtes and one an additional battle scene that was cut because it was too over the top. None of these really add anything to the film, but they were fun to see.
If that wasn't enough there are twelve webisodes of behind the scenes information that run a little over 38 minutes all together. These aren't presented in HD since they were made to be viewed on the web, but it's nice that they included them here.
Rounding out the bonus features is a first for a video disc: the ability to buy wallpapers and ringtones. If your player is hooked up to the 'net, you can enter your cell phone number and download content. Normal text messaging rates apply.
Warners gets kudos for putting together a great package. Not only is there a lot of content, but nearly all of it is in HD, and there are bonus items that are only available on HD DVD. This is the sort of thing that will convince people to upgrade their systems.
This is a fantastic package. This HD DVD boasts a thrilling, exciting movie with an absolutely gorgeous transfer and a powerful yet accurate soundtrack. On top of that there are copious extras. Not fluffy HBO behind-the-scenes pieces but substantial featurettes that explain how the film was made, look into the historical background of the story, and reveal what the creators were trying to accomplish. This is one of the best releases so far in 2007 and easily gets a DVDTalk Collector Series rating.
Note: The images in this review are not from the HD DVD and do not necessarily represent the image quality on the disc.