Don’t you just hate it when a film falls just that little bit short of expectations? It happens maybe a couple of times each year - the build up lasts months, the trailers are glorious and everyone is talking about it. This past spring all eyes were on 300, adapted from the graphic novel by Frank Miller. Looking like Gladiator by way of Sin City, nothing like it had really been seen before. Then we saw it and it was just, well, pretty good. Some will say it’s very good, if not excellent, and that’s fine (a $400 million worldwide gross shows it clearly had plenty of love), but did it deliver everything it promised?
King Leonidas (Butler) is the leader of Sparta and their famed warriors, circa 480 BC. They’ve been trained and taught from birth to never retreat, never surrender – that death on the battlefield is the greatest honour a Spartan can have. Faced with the million-strong might of the armies of Persian invader Xerxes (Santoro), Leonidas calls upon three hundred of his bravest warriors to make a stand against tyranny and keep Sparta free. With enough tactical know-how and good use of the terrain at the coastal pass at Thermopylae, they intend to put up a good fight for freedom or die trying.
As a blood soaked action extravaganza, there’s really nothing out there to rival 300. It’s only when the plot gets in the way that things start to go wrong. Back in Sparta, there’s a lot of blah-blah over whether they should send the armies to help, with West’s scheming politico battling Headey’s queen for the ear of the council. It all gets a little bit ‘People’s Front of Judea’ at times and serves as a major distraction from the mayhem.
When the action bursts happen (and for a concentrated spell in the middle, it’s almost non-stop carnage) it’s little short of breathtaking. Poetic, beautiful bloodletting underscores some of the most adrenalised fantasy violence ever put on screen, as wave after wave of Persian war machine, each more dangerous than the last, pour down on the 300. And the beauty is, it doesn’t become wearisome – the more fodder that gets thrown in, and the more bizarre the beasties, the better it gets.
And it’s truly, eye-wateringly gorgeous, with backdrops and landscapes created entirely by CGI aiding the stunning production design. The Spartan warriors themselves are a fearsome sight, with pecs that would have your eye out and abs you could grate cheese on. Butler is a magnificent presence, looking like he could take you out with just the point of his beard. It’s a commanding performance, and he’s equally comfortable whether delivering pithy comebacks or barking rousing commands in his best Sean Connery voice.
But true satisfaction remains elusive. Character motivations are murky and the Spartans are an anomalous bunch - heroic they may be, but are they also a bunch of egotistical narcissists who just wanted to get their name in the paper? Historical accuracy is, in the immortal words of Joey Tribbiani, a moo point, a cow’s opinion. Ultimately, 300 is a hell of a lot of fun, and if it had had the courage to completely embrace its pulp origins and not aspire to any depth or meaning with its distracting political asides, it could have been a classic.
Simply stunning is as good a way as any to describe the quality of the transfer. Blacks are strong and deep while colours are rich and striking, from the blood reds of the Spartans’ uniforms to the cool blues of some early scenes, while blemishes are completely absent. A little grain is evident in some of the more sepia tinged scenes, but this is likely a deliberate decision to imbue proceedings with some atmosphere and texture, and for the most part the picture is beautifully sharp and clear and full of fine detail.
The audio quality is no less stunning than the picture, with the DD5.1 track delivering a wonderfully immersive experience. As you might expect, the battle scenes are the main draw, with aggressive use of all the speakers throughout. Metal clangs against metal with authority and arrows whiz around the room, while the sub offers plenty of hefty backup. The pounding rock score also comes across a winner, while dialogue is bold and always audible against the mayhem.
The only extra on the first disc is a commentary by director Snyder, cinematographer Larry Fong and screenwriter Kurt Johnstad, which is a little slow to start and punctuated by too many quiet stretches. It’s also quite repetitive, taking the approach of describing, more or less scene by scene, how and where they were shot. There’s some useful info (probably the most interesting of which is Snyder’s opening revelation that the music at the very start of the film is an adaptation of As Time Goes By), but your time would be better spent with the many featurettes on the second disc….
The 300 – Fact or Fiction? (24 mins) is a solid look at whether the story had any basis in fact. Utilising interview clips with various historians, if proffers the sound argument that the story was based on hundreds of years of oral tradition before it was ever written down, so it’s perfectly legitimate for Miller and Snyder (who also feature) to adapt it for dramatic resonance.
Who Were The Spartans? The Warriors of 300 (4 mins) This brief piece could easily have been incorporated in the fact or fiction doc as it covers more or less the same ground.
Frank Miller Tapes (14 mins) Part love-in for Miller, part rundown of his early career, this sees the graphic novel legend discuss his heroes and mentors and his inspiration for telling the story of the 300.
Making of 300 (6 mins) Somewhat stretching the definition of ‘making of’, this EPK waste of space plays mostly as an extended trailer.
Making 300 In Images (4 mins) A thoroughly pointless rattle through various stages of filming that’s really just a series of time lapse images with no narration or context.
Deleted Scenes (3 mins) Snyder introduces a couple of rather stodgy and unmissed scenes featuring the hunchback character, Ephialtes. Much more fun are the giants carrying midget archers on their backs, which Snyder cut because it was just too crazy.
Webisodes (38 mins) The closest thing to a proper making of, these 12 short featurettes focus on various aspects of production. Highlights include a look at the brutal training regime that the actors had to go through, the creature effects, visual effects and stunt work, all featuring plenty behind the scenes footage and blue screen action. A couple of the actors (Butler, Headey, Santoro) also get bits to themselves to discuss their characters and their feelings on the film. There’s some good stuff in here, making this easily the strongest extra on the disc.