300: Special Edition
As the capabilities for better, more detailed, more technically intricate computer graphic work are applied to motion pictures, directors are finding a wide range of uses for that technology as they bring their artistic visions to full-motion life. As with any artistic medium, especially one still in its infancy, some of those choices are positively painful to have to sit through. Robert Zemeckis' freakish motion-capture kids' flick The Polar Express, for example, was populated by characters who looked like they'd been embalmed, covered in latex, and then painted by slave laborers in a third-world sweatshop (his upcoming Beowulf adaptation looks to be more aesthetically pleasing, although it does beg the question of why he felt the need for hyper-realistically animated versions of Anthony Hopkins and Angelina Jolie when he could have just, you know, filmed the real thing.) But some directors have found that advanced CGI techniques allow them to create worlds that would otherwise be impossible (or financially prohibitive) to film using actual actors, props, and locations most viewers wouldn't have imagined that the primeval jungles of Peter Jackson's King Kong (2005) were almost all created in a computer, with the actors working in front of green-screens on a sound stage. The most exciting work, however, is being done by directors who are literally rewriting the way that stories are told on film as they look at CGI not as a way to merely build virtual backdrops and monsters, but as a tool that's as vitally important as the motion-picture camera itself. Just as filmmakers in the early days of cinema invented the language of film as they went along, directors like Robert Rodriguez (Spy Kids, Sin City), Kerry Conran (Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow), and Enki Bilal (Immortel) are transforming cinematic storytelling from the ground up, taking visuals, editing, and sound in directions that audiences have never seen before. With 300 (2007), director Zack Snyder took Frank Miller's epic, blood-drenched graphic-novel vision of the legend of the 300 Spartans into a soundstage, added CGI elements, tweaked the perspective, and drained out the color, and he ended up with an audacious adventure story that retells the legend in a manner that sets a high bar for future action flicks.
There's risk in playing around with legends, and 300 takes a lot of risks. The story of the 300 Spartans is a tale that's been passed down, retold, and rewritten so many times that it already plays fast and loose with historical accuracy. Even allowing Miller and Snyder plenty of room for interpretation, 300 still leaves itself wide open to nitpicking by history wonks not that this is an issue for most moviegoers. Gerard Butler, best remembered as a wholly inadequate Phantom of the Opera, is magnificent as King Leonidas, the proud leader of Sparta who kills Xerxes' messenger upon receiving the Persians' initial request for surrender. Denied permission from the state council to go to war, Leonidas instead announces his intention of taking a casual stroll with 300 armed-and-ready soldiers to a secluded mountain pass. There, he knows, the Persians' "numbers will mean nothing" and his men can defend all of free Greece, even if it's unlikely that they'll win. The bulk of the film is devoted to the battle, so it's worth noting that those who find cinematic representations of severed legs, decapitations, and gushing spurts of blood distasteful won't embrace 300, and purists who can't take the leap of faith to appreciate an action flick told in an utterly unique style may grumble about the film's artiness. But for everyone else, there's a lot to love here. Snyder, director of the superb remake of Dawn of the Dead (2004) pays faithful homage to Miller's novel, often staging sequences that are flat-out representations of the original static artwork while adding new elements that are so right they seem to have come from the source material. Leonidas' wife, Gorgo (Lena Headey) is given a larger role as she attempts to still the political waters at home, and the additions to the mind-bogglingly large Persian army are in keeping with Miller's sensibility of celebrating the violent, the beautiful, and the grotesque. Admittedly, there are a few flaws, like the jarringly bad overdubbing of Xerxes' (Rodrigo Santoro) dialogue, a few instances where the sight lines of actors in their one-shots don't match up, and a really bad latex-and-makeup job on the traitorous hunchback Ephialtes (Andrew Tiernan). These are small let-downs, however, in a film that offers such rich rewards stunning action sequences in which CGI objects and actors blend seamlessly, a totally fresh storytelling aesthetic, Tyler Bates' gladiator epic-meets-heavy metal musical score, and (for those so inclined) the acres of buffed, oiled, and mostly naked beefcake on display. Ultimately, this is an action film boiled down to its very essence the fight scenes and then turned on its ear, offering a testosterone-drenched piece of fanboy art that's brutally lovely, erotically charged, and a technological marvel.
* * *
Warner's two-disc DVD release of 300 offers a spectacular anamorphic transfer (2.40:1) that beautifully delivers the artistically distorted, high-contrast visuals of the theatrical release. The full, rich DD 5.1 audio (English, French or Spanish with optional subtitles in those languages) is excellent, with ambient sounds and effects delivered via multiple channels and booming bass notes underlining the non-stop action. Disc One features the movie, plus an optional commentary track by director Zack Snyder, writer Kurt Johnstad, and director of photography Larry Fong that concentrates almost exclusively on the technical aspects of the production. Disc Two is packed with extras, starting with the historical featurette "The 300 Fact or Fiction?", an examination of how Miller and Snyder interpreted the legendary story (24 min.). Also on board is the ultra-short "Who Were the Spartans?", which is just a much-shorter featurette covering the same ground as the previous one (4 min.); "Frank Miller Tapes: Unfiltered Conversations with Frank and Friends," a Miller-focused featurette (14 min.); "The Making of 300," yet another promotional piece which offers little that's different from the first two (6 min.); "Making of 300 in Images," a super-edited, fast-motion behind-the-scenes featurette (3 min.); three deleted scenes with an introduction by Snyder; and 12 behind-the-scenes webisodes, totaling about 38 minutes. Dual-DVD slimline keep-case.