300 – Blu-ray review

“Spartans! Prepare for glory!”

And the rest of you, get in line for the newest edition of “300.”

Since Warner Bros. had already released “300” in widescreen and full-screen single-disc DVD editions, a Two-Disc DVD Special Edition, an HD DVD Combo edition, a regular Blu-ray edition, a combination DVD edition with “Alexander,” and a three-disc DVD “Limited Collector’s Edition” boxed set, I suppose it was only inevitable that the studio should offer it once again, this time in a Blu-ray Book called “The Complete Experience” that offers the best of everything that went before, plus all-new bonus content. I tell you what: It surely offers value for the dollar, and it features some of the most-beautiful packaging for any disc of any kind to date.

That in only a few years since a movie’s release a studio should lavish this much attention on it is remarkable, but especially in this case. You see, the 2006 film adaptation of Frank Miller and Lynn Varley’s graphic novel is something of an audience splitter. Many people loved “300”; many other people, like myself, enjoyed the look of the film but longed for more substance; and still other folks, like the movie buddy with whom I went to see it in a theater, positively hated it.

First, let me admit that when I first went to see “300” I wasn’t exactly sure what I was getting into. I suppose I was looking forward to another “Sin City” type rendering of a comic book to the screen. In that regard, I got exactly what I was looking for. The movie definitely has a comic-book appearance.

(Incidentally, I still see graphic novels as essentially comic books, no matter that they’re usually more serious and often in black-and-white. As a former English teacher, it’s hard for me to see something that is mostly a series of illustrations as a “novel,” with so little prose narrative involved. If there were no words at all, just pictures, would it still be a novel? Is a movie a novel? Not by traditional standards. And why am I going off on this tangent? Because the movie “300” takes a rather a nontraditional approach to filmmaking, just as the graphic novel takes a nonstandard approach to writing. Things are seldom black-and-white, even in the graphic-novel comic-book trade.)

Anyway, the film’s plot is basically one long battle sequence between a relatively small force of ancient Greeks from Sparta and about a gazillion invading Persians, a highly stylized account of the real-life battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C.; but that’s not important, so I’ll just toss out a few random thoughts about the movie in general.

I suspect that one’s appreciation for this film will depend on one’s tolerance for hack-and-slash. A good part of the story deals with fighting, with huge armies clashing in combat, with people slicing off one another’s heads and limbs, and with a great deal of posturing from everybody involved. It’s all really quite remarkable to look at, different from anything you may have seen before, and in that regard it is fascinating to watch, the battle scenes grotesquely balletic. But for how long can one watch? The movie is 116 minutes, and it seems like about 115 of those minutes involve fighting. I suppose if you have grown up with violent video games, you’ll love it; otherwise, it may become tiring.

Yes, I found it hard not to like the film’s appearance. It’s meant to look like the Frank Miller graphic novel on which it’s based, and it does. Done up a lot in the style of “Sin City,” in that the filmmakers make it appear like black-and-white even though it’s in color, “300” even stops and freezes a shot from time to time in order to remind one of the still frames in a comic book. It’s quite effective the first few times you see it done, but add to that a healthy dose of slow-motion blood, splatter, and gore and, like much of the movie, it can get old fast.

Speaking of framing, the filmmakers also make sure that they block most of the shots the way Miller set them up in the graphic novel. We get reams of close-ups, usually with full, head-on sightings, and any number of carefully arranged group shots, usually with each frame meticulously staged and dressed for maximum symmetry.

What’s more, as you know, the filmmakers created practically the whole film on a soundstage, using blue screens behind the actors, the backgrounds filled in later with computer graphics, electronic matte paintings, and such. It’s the same technique that worked successfully in movies like “Sin City” and “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.” It works successfully here, too, allowing a fairly small number of actors to portray all three-hundred Spartans and probably a few more actors to represent the limitless Persian army. There is never any genuine sense of reality to it, everything being rather flat and stagey, so just keep in mind that the filmmakers meant it to look like a flat, stagey comic book. The three-hundred Spartans marching off through the fields reminded me of Dorothy and her friends heading toward the Emerald City. Don’t expect anything in “300” like the location shooting we find in Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings,” despite the plethora of CGI effects in both movies.

The action is, as I’ve said, all highly stylized in “300,” the actors forever striking poses, and the sword strokes looking both real and unreal at the same time. The characters must, after all, remind one of comic-book creations, not actual, flesh-and-blood people. For that reason, every bare-chested Spartan seems to be wearing the same sort of breastplate and makeup that Ricardo Montalban wore in “The Wrath of Khan.” They might as well have named the film “300: Men in Makeup” or “300: Men in Short Skirts,” leading wags to comment on the homoerotic aspects of the production.

Which brings us to the film’s lead, Gerard Butler, as the Spartan King Leonidas. Was there ever an actor to star in such a string of high-profile pictures with audiences still not being able to recognize his face? I’m willing to bet that even after his doing “Reign of Fire,” “Lara Croft: The Cradle of Life,” “The Phantom of the Opera,” “Beowulf & Grendel,” “P.S. I Love You,” “Nim’s Island,” “RocknRolla,” and “300,” most movie buffs probably still wouldn’t recognize Butler’s countenance from a studio still. Not that he isn’t a good actor; he proved that to my satisfaction in the little Scottish film “Dear Frankie.” No, in “300” he mainly gets to do what most of the other actors in the film do–flex his considerable muscles. But because the actor plays a character with no discernable personality and because the actor wears a full beard throughout the film, who would know it was Gerard Butler? Incidentally, in several scenes the actor’s Scottish accent shows through more prominently than in others, reminding one of Sean Connery and the fact that producers had considered Butler for the role of the newest James Bond.

In the end, I’d rate the movie’s appearance, graphics, and sound a 9 or 10/10, its action a 7/10, its plot a 5/10, and its characters a 4/10, rounding out to maybe a 6/10 score for its film value as a whole.

“Our arrows,” says a Persian, “will blot out the sun.”
“Then,” responds a Spartan, “we will fight in the shade.”

Needless to say, it’s a little hard to evaluate the picture quality of a film whose image the filmmakers purposely distorted for effect. The filmmakers admit they drained the color, dulled the pallette, increased the highlights, and increased the shadow areas to near blackness for maximum contrast. The result from this Blu-ray, BD50, high-definition transfer looks much as I remember it from a movie theater, maybe better, and, of course, captures the movie’s original theatrical ratio of 2.40:1.

The colors are mainly sepia, gold, and silver-blue in alternating scenes, with splashes of red for dramatic effect. I found most of the hues forceful in conveying the feeling of the graphic novel in all its grainy effusiveness. Certainly, the high-definition picture improves the slightly soft, blurred, overly contrasted nature of the images over standard def, but high def doesn’t help the grain; in fact, HD only intensifies it. Nevertheless, the grain provides the film with its grittily realistic atmosphere, so it’s nothing we’d want to eliminate.

Happily, the Blu-ray definition is so good, you probably won’t care much about the print grain or even notice it. The 1080p, VC-1 transfer is excellent, the picture looking even sharper than I remember it from a theater. The screen is remarkably clean, too, despite the grain, and you can see every strand of hair in every beard, every ripple in every muscle, and every contour of every priestess and dancing girl, if that’s your idea of a good time. Frankly, I enjoyed watching this one in high-def.

The regular Dolby Digital 5.1 audio was already in the demonstration class, thundering from the outset of the film and never letting up until the end. But if that’s good, the BD’s accompanying Dolby TrueHD 5.1 is even better. There are enormous bass and dynamics involved, precise localization of information in the surrounds, as well as ambient, room-filling acoustics all the way around, with the TrueHD track improving upon the regular DD track with its added firmness, clarity, range, and impact. Since this is an action film to the nth degree, expect all six channels to flex their muscles in practically every shot. (Be aware, however, that WB made the regular Dolby Digital track the default, so if you have the capability to play back TrueHD, switch to it as the movie starts.)

The idea of this Blu-ray Book edition is that it includes most of the extras found on previous disc versions of the movie, plus a brand-new interactive feature, “The Complete 300: A Comprehensive Immersion.” If you select this new option, you’re taken to a screen that offers you three different picture-in-picture, focus point, and trivia paths to follow during the movie. The first path, selected with the remote’s green button, is called “Creating a Legend,” wherein we learn more about how creator Frank Miller and director Zack Snyder interpreted the classic story. The second path, selected with the blue button, is called “Bringing a Legend to Life,” wherein we learn more about how the filmmakers built a world from a comic. And the third path, selected with the yellow button, is called “The History Behind the Myth,” wherein we learn more about the real story of the battle of Thermopylae. You can also switch among these paths during the film, thanks to a set of animated icons at the top of the screen.

However, despite the booklet declaring that the whole operation is “simple and intuitive,” it can also be more than a bit daunting, and it took me a few minutes to get up to speed. The main navigation screen is like looking for the first time at the control panel of a B-52, with about 800 lines and buttons and symbols and insets and colors and whatnot stretching up, down, and across the display. Still, you’ll get used to it quickly enough, especially if you’re an inveterate button twiddler. Just remember that you might have to turn on your BD player’s secondary audio for the various narrations.

Next, you get a more-conventional set of bonus items. These begin with the documentary featurette “300 Spartans: Fact or Fiction?” It’s about twenty-four minutes long, with historians, filmmakers, and author Frank Miller discussing this new interpretation of the real-life battle. After that is a brief, four-minute featurette, “Who Were the Spartans?: The Warriors of 300,” with the same people who were in the documentary, so it’s more or less a continuation. Following that is “Preparing for Battle: The Original Test Footage,” about seven minutes, followed by the “Frank Miller Tapes: Unfiltered Conversations with Frank and Friends,” about fourteen minutes with the writer of the graphic novel. Then, there’s another featurette on the topic, “The Making of 300,” over five minutes, and yet another featurette, “Making 300 in Images,” over three sped-up minutes on the staging, blue screens, etc. By the time you get through all of these things, you may find the subject getting tiresome. But it’s not over yet.

There’s a “Bluescreen Picture-in-Picture” feature: While the movie is playing you can overlay a smaller widescreen picture of the same scene that contains none of the CGI special effects, color enhancements, and such, as director Zack Snyder explains why and how they filled in the details. That’s followed by a traditional audio commentary by the director, writer Kurt Johnstad, and director of photography Larry Fong. I listened to part of this commentary on the previous editions and found these fellows concentrating almost entirely on behind-the-scenes filmmaking techniques, most of which are fascinating, but there is not a lot about the real history of Thermopylae, about the actors, or about any of the backstage hijinks you sometimes hear about in these things. Which may come as a relief.

Additionally, we get three deleted scenes, introduced by director Snyder, and then about thirty-eight minutes of Webisodes. These Webisodes are twelve little segments, most of them three or four minutes each, with self-explanatory titles: “Production Design,” “Wardrobe,” Stunt Work,” “Lena Headey,” “Adapting the Graphic Novel,” “Gerard Butler,” “Rodrigo Santoro,” “Training the Actors,” “Culture of the Sparta City/State,” “A Glimpse from the Set,” “Scene Studies,” and “Fantastic Characters of 300.”

Things conclude with thirty scene selections; BD-Live access; a bonus digital copy disc; a trailer for “Watchmen” at start-up; pop-up menus; an indicator of elapsed time; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; French and Spanish subtitles; English captions for the hearing impaired; and one of the most elegant Blu-ray Books that anyone has yet produced. It’s a hardcover book that not only holds the disc on the back cover but contains over forty pages of information, text, and pictures, the front adorned by a handsomely embossed picture of Leonidas in silver foil. It’s so attractive, I’d buy this edition for the packaging alone.

Parting Thoughts:
One could argue that the movie version of “300” is relentless in its attempt to recreate the graphic novel’s vision of the Thermopylae carnage. In this regard, the movie succeeds convincingly, and for many viewers, it will be more than enough. As for me, however, if the movie could have found a little more heart and soul, it might have had a better chance of maintaining my interest throughout. Instead, I found the film visually striking but repetitious and only intermittently rewarding. Nevertheless, the Blu-ray Book, with its myriad of bonus features, should further spice things up for the dedicated “300” fan, and I have to admit that the high-definition picture and sound did a lot to kept my attention.

“Spartans never retreat! Spartans never surrender!” — Leonidas