[18 July 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
How do you celebrate a seminal moment in cinema? How to do you mark the instant when the medium changed irrevocably, introducing new artistic rudiments into a mix that seemed mired in a morass of aesthetic sameness for decades? If you are Warner Brothers, you dig deep into your vault of available bonus material, contact director Zack Snyder, and give the boys in blu-ray a call. Like it or not (and there are many who will be displeased with this next statement), 300 stands as such a revelatory event in the motion picture artform. Outside of the parodies and rip-offs, this particularly powerful bottled lightning won’t be recaptured any time soon - isn’t that right, The Spirit? So the studio has decided to give the title an ultimate format refresher - and it is indeed as “complete” as one could wish for.
For those who’ve forgotten 300 centers around the Spartan King Leonidas. When Persian conquerors led by the self-proclaimed “man-god” Xerxes threaten to destroy all of Greece, the concerned royal seeks the sage advice of his Ephors - mystics who rely on the Oracle Pythia to predict the future. When they state unequivocally that Sparta must not go to war, Leonidas defies their legally binding mandate. Gathering 300 of his finest soldiers, he travels to the Hot Gates near the Persian encampment and prepares for battle. Meanwhile his Queen Gorgo pleads for the Council to reconsider and send more help for their leader. As a woman, she holds little sway, so she seeks the aid of influential advisor Theron. While he is plotting his own treachery, a hunchback named Ephialtes is desperate to join the armed uprising. When he is rejected, he finds comfort - and conspiracy - in the Persian camp.
While it easy to ridicule and dismiss 300 as some manner of homoerotic adolescent fantasy, just think of what it could have been. For those of us who are old enough to remember, your typical sword and sandal epic was nothing more than a lame excuse to get a recently dethroned Mr. Universe (or if unavailable, Mr. Olympia) to strut around shirtless while foreign speaking extras offered their poorly dubbed sentiments. The storyline, usually stolen from mythology, added to the air of phony flexed authenticity. Toss in a buxom beauty or two, a set left over from some other historical title, and bathe their entire thing in a cloud of musk machismo so overpowering it would make professional wrestling look like figure skating and you’ve got Peplum 101. In light of the source material, no matter Miller’s pedigree, 300 could have been one of these museum piece mockeries.
Instead, Zack Snyder’s meticulous recreation becomes a kind of entertainment and creative litmus test, a way of measuring why you go to the movies and how fascinating you find the process behind the lens. If you just want your action epic to move along at a quick ADD-like pace, pour on the sensational stuntwork, and accent with bloodshed and bountiful F/X, then 300 should satisfy. It’s ‘all that’ and a bag of delicious decadent CG chips. Yet for some reason, audiences initially rejected director Snyder’s visual overload. They’ll take it from a bunch of second-rate transforming robots, but when it’s offered up in oversized sugary vats of sensational cinematic eye candy, they apparently fall into a commercial coma. While it was a surprise hit in 2006, there are still those who argue over this film’s sense of indulgence. Among the many complaints leveled against the film, the dismissal of “more” seems particularly perturbing, given the brilliant outcome.
The other specious argument centers around the story. Granted, no one is claiming that 300 is a documentary and some poetic license has to be taken with events this far lost in the past. But what, exactly, is wrong with the way Miller and Snyder tell this tale? We get a wonderful flashback foundation, Leonidas’ early lessons by the fist and the lash provided in effective, emphatic displays. We have an emotional core, given the King’s love for his Queen, and there’s even some political intrigue. The battle lines and strategies are easy to follow and the motives of both sides are simple and self-evident. So what exactly is the problem here? Is it too upfront? Do post-modern audiences really want more from their pumped-out power statements than easy exposition and the occasional muscled torso?
Certainly the acting can’t be questioned - even if most of it is done from the neck down. Gerard Butler is almost unrecognizable as Leonidas and he is 300‘s heart and soul. His line readings remind the viewer of just what’s at stake and they give the occasionally outlandish situations a real sense of authority and seriousness. Similarly, Dominic West makes a terrific sleaze ball. His wormy personality, polished with a suave speaking style, makes it easy to understand Theron’s deception. With the added excellence of David Wenham (as narrator and battle participant Dilios) and Lena Headey as Gorgo, this movie has an amazing cast - and that’s not even discussing Rodrigo Santoro’s chilling turn as Xerxes, or the various well-chiseled members of the Spartan contingent. To its benefit, there is never a moment here when we feel that Gold’s Gym was raided for some random beefcake. These are Spartan’s, not centerfolds.
Of course, what 300 really boils down to is the overall effectiveness of the state of the art craftsmanship involved. Unlike Lucas’ Star Wars prequels, Snyder tries to keep things tied to truth, not tech spec computing power - and Warners responds with an amazing Blu-ray package. The 1080p image is outstanding, as good (or better) than its theatrical twin. Similarly, the sound design really shines on the new format, the speakers experiencing the same ambient atmosphere that audiences received the first time around. Some will question whether this digital double dip is worth it. From the audio and video department, the answer is a solid “yes”. But there is another facet to this release that really illustrates how the blu-ray format can be utilized to truly ‘enhance’ your viewing pleasure. It’s also the main reason to pick up this latest version.
Thanks to the new “complete” dynamic, there are three equally intriguing ways to experience 300 all over again. The first finds Frank Miller and the art department discussing the various ways the story’s sequences were envisioned. Always a wealth of insight, the comic’s creator really enjoys sharing his stories of inspiration. Snyder then turns up for version number two, this time explaining the whole “greenscreen” approach to the production and the various tricks used to realize his take on Miller’s vision. Finally, a few scholars settle in to explain the historical accuracy (or in many cases, the lack thereof) of this particular version of the famed battle. As with most movies, there is some obvious fabrication going on. But for the most part, Miller and Snyder stay true to the Spartans’ stand-off against the invading hordes.
As a technical achievement both in theaters and on the new digital domain, 300 is a true artistic triumph. It stands alone among its many motion picture peers, offering an experience as close to ancient canvases come to life as you are likely to see in the cinema - at least, for the next few years. As directors like Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller himself attempt to push the boundaries of such ‘sketch and illustrate’ epics, there will always be this groundbreaking trendsetter to remind everyone of how to do it right. While one can debate the merits of his movie all they want, no one can question the artistry required to bring it to life. Thankfully, this new “Complete Experience” will highlight how hard - and rewarding - such incessantly hard work really is.