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300 (2007)

Warner Home Video
DVD Released: 7/31/2007

All Ratings out of

Review by Mike Long, Posted on 7/29/2007

History, that is the remembering and retelling of important events, surely began in the oral tradition. With the advent of writing, historians captured memories in book and papers. In the 20th century, film became a new way of documenting history, both by capturing events on film and by dramatizing famous people and happenings. Over the years, we've seen thousands of historical dramas and it's not surprising that filmmakers would try to find new ways to tell these stories. Thus, we get the technical wizardry behind the recent hit 300.

300, based on a graphic novel by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley, opens in ancient Sparta, where we meet King Leonidas (Gerard Butler), a brave and fair man who rules this warrior society. Leonidas receives word that the Persian ruler Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) is leading his army to invade all of Greece, including Sparta. Leonidas goes to the Spartan oracles to ask their permission to go to war, but he is denied. Thus, he decides to take 300 of his finest warriors to intercept Xerxes' forces at the sea. Leonidas' army marches to the coast and creates a barrier so that the Persian army will have to travel through a narrow pass. There, a standoff begins, as the 300 warrior, joined by a handful of fighters from Arcadia, attempt to fend off thousands of Persian fighters. Meanwhile, Leonidas' wife, Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey), attempt to convince the Spartan forum to allow the entire Spartan army to join her husband in battle.

300 became a surprise hit earlier this year when it opened at #1 at the box office and went on to gross over $200 million. I can only imagine that seeing the film in the theater must be an engrossing experience, because the movie that I watched on DVD wasn't very good. 300 is an overlong, underwritten exercise in style over substance which left me very bored at times.

As with Sin City, which was also based on a work by Frank Miller, 300 was shot almost entirely on soundstages, using digital created "sets" and backgrounds. This gives the film a very unique and exciting look. Director Zack Snyder, who brought us 2004's wickedly entertaining remake of Dawn of the Dead, fills the screen with impressive visuals, as the battle scenes are a quilt of quick cuts and slow-motion shots. In a unique twist, Snyder has chosen to us CG blood, which spurts from the wounded and slowly travels through the air. The entire film is bathed in a desaturated brown and beige look, which makes the red capes of the Spartans (and the red blood) really stand out.

But once you get beyond the visuals in 300, there isn't much left. The story is very shallow and incredibly episodic. At first, things seem OK as we are presented with a premise which is easy to grasp: Leonidas feels that his land is being threatened and takes a group of soldiers to defend it. But, once the battles begin, the film turns into one battle sequence after another. This is like watching a defensive-minded football game, where there is a lot of pushing, but no big plays. These scenes are then intercut with moments in which Queen Gorgo attempts to persuade the treacherous Theron (Dominic West) to allow her to speak to the forum. These scenes are woefully boring and disrupt the momentum created by the battle sequences.

And then Xerxes arrives. Why is he like 8 feet tall? Is this historically accurate? I'm only kidding about that, as I get the fact that Snyder is giving us a visual representation of the way in which Xerxes was viewed by his followers. But, it also seems incredibly ludicrous in a film which, for those of us who aren't scholars of ancient Sparta, felt somewhat accurate up until that point. From there, we get elephants, rhinos, and something that looks like the killer from the "An Incident on and off a Mountain Road" episode of Masters of Horror. And I found myself hoping that there were no school teachers who took their students to see this historical drama when the lesbian sex scene occurred. There is nothing wrong with taken poetic license when retelling a story, but it's very disconcerting how 300 goes from fact to fantasy so quickly.

The acting in 300 also takes a backseat to the visuals. When the film hit theaters, I heard a lot of buzz about Gerard Butler, but I wasn't impressed with his performance. When his accent wasn't wavering between faux-British to deep Scottish, he was simply bearing his teeth and yelling. His constant roar reminded me of Prince Vultan from 1980's Flash Gordon. The rest of the Spartan's simply get lost in the mix as they are indistinguishable in their helmets. The only actor who stands out in any way (besides the tall Xerxes...what, he's that guy from Lost?) is Dominic West, who is utterly convincing as the sleazy Theron.

Given all that I'd heard about the film, I was psyched to see 300, but the movie was a major letdown. About halfway through the film, I turned to my wife, who looked quite bored, and said, "This isn't what I thought it was going to be." There's no denying the fact that the first battle scene is exciting and the photography and visual effects are interesting, but once that sense of awe passes, the movie is plodding and poorly-paced. Following Dawn of the Dead, I'd expected great things from Zack Snyder and maybe he'll do better next time.

300 marches onto DVD courtesy of Warner Home Video. The film has come to DVD in three separate releases, a full-screen version, a widescreen version, and a 2-disc widescreen version. For the purposes of this review, only the full-screen version was viewed. For this transfer, the film has been cropped from its 2.35:1 aspect ratio to 1.33:1. I've had to endure several fullscreen transfers recently, but this was by far the worst for pan and scan. It's clear that Snyder made use of the widescreen image when shooting the film, because there were several noticeable instances when the image would suddenly shift from a character on one side of the screen to a character on the other side. The image also shows a notable amount of grain. I'm not sure if this is a by-product of the cropped image, or a by-product of the process to alter the colors of the film. Either way, there's grain. The colors look fine, again as those reds stand out from the beiges. The DVD offers a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track which sounds great during the battle sequences. The surround sound and stereo speakers are filled with the sounds of the marauding hordes and every bone-jarring hit resounds in the subwoofer. Unfortunately, when the film then cuts back to Queen Gorgo's story, the dialogue is far too soft, so I found myself adjusting the volume quite a bit.

The only extra included on this version of the 300 DVD is an AUDIO COMMENTARY with director Zach Snyder, screenwriter Kurt Johnstad, and director of photography Larry Fong. Snyder does most of the talking here, but there are still long pauses. The commentary focuses mainly on the technical aspects of the shoot and Snyder does a good job of letting us know which elements of the set are real, and which are CG. He also acknowledges which images were taken from the Frank Miller graphic novel. However, there isn't much discussion about the story or the actors.  The 2-disc edition does contain many more extras.

Review Copyright 2007 by Mike Long