This week we're going to do something a little different. Instead of reviewing a theatrically-released film we're going to take a look at the DVD release of one of the best, most popular films of the year.
"300," the vivid retelling of the legendary ancient Greek battle of Thermopylae, was a box office smash, making almost $71 million in its opening weekend. The film would go on to gross $456 million worldwide, making it the 71st highest grossing film of all time. (My review of the film itself) Thus, there are a lot of "300" fans ready to snatch up the film now that it's been released DVD.
However, the "300" faithful face a particular challenge when they go to buy their movie: which edition is the right one to purchase? There's a double-disc special edition with a slick cover sleeve that sells for $22-25 depending on where you go. And then there's the single disc edition for $14-16. The question: is the bonus disc worth the additional $8-10?
For almost as long as there have been DVDs there's been the questionable practice of so-called "double dipping." This occurs when a DVD comes out with little or no bonus features. Then, a few months down the line, the powers that be release a special edition loaded with goodies. Buyers of the first DVD then feel as though they've been had. Conversely, this trend also sometimes results in DVD buyers holding off buying a particular title and waiting for a special edition that has yet to come. (I'm thinking of "Kill Bill" in particular.)
Thankfully a solution has been found: the practice of releasing both the bare bones DVD and the special edition double-disc DVD at the same time. Recent films that have been released in this fashion include "V for Vendetta," "The Departed," and "Pan's Labyrinth." I don't know how I feel about this trend since more often than not the special edition will be a bit overpriced. That's incidental, though; I suppose an overpriced special edition is better than no special edition at all.
The bonus features disc for "300" possesses seven specific features ranging in length and quality. In general a DVD's extras fall into one of two camps: engaging and revelatory features that change or enhance one's understanding and appreciation of the film, or puff piece crap. Far too many DVD features are just actors and directors fawning over how wonderful it was to work with so-and-so. Others are just superficial bits of advertising slapped on the DVD to try and trick consumers into thinking the disc has bonus features.
Thankfully the features on "300" are more the former than the latter. The first is the 25-minute "300 Fact or Fiction" which features two experts on classical history and culture. The first is professor and conservative columnist Dr. Victor Davis Hanson, author of the book Carnage and Culture and a regular writer for National Review. I was glad to see Hanson included since I'd enjoyed his writing on the film. (Check out http://victorhanson.com/articles/hanson032807.html.) Also included is Bettany Hughes, a British scholar, author, and presenter of documentaries on classical culture. The two, along with occasional comments from director Zack Snyder, "300" creator Frank Miller, and actor Gerard Butler (who portrayed protagonist Leonidas) go through the film in a kind of chronological order highlighting many key elements and fantastic historical diversions. All kinds of topics are addressed, from the wolf Leonidas slays as a youth (didn't happen,) to the ephors and the oracle, to the betrayer Ephialtes. Hughes and Hanson, while noting the so-called inaccuracies, and basically proponents of the film who support the film as being true in spirit and accurate in the sense of the film as the version which the Spartan soldiers would have told one another, embellishing the details. This is a solid, enlightening feature which will change one's appreciation of the film. It would have been a more compelling, challenging feature had they included classicists who did not embrace the film so enthusiastically. In fact that could have even been another feature itself - addressing the controversy of the movie. A debate or roundtable discussion on the film's philosophical and political themes would have been incredible.
The second feature is similar in its depiction of the historical realities of the film. The warrior culture of Sparta is explored in the 5-minute "Who Were the Spartans?: The Warriors of 300." What the video lacks in length it makes up for in quality.
A totally unexpected yet welcome bonus is "The Frank Miller Tapes," a 15-minute piece exploring Miller's career, influences, and style. Many comics industry insiders and mentors are interviewed. The segment ends on a great note when Miller asks of Snyder and his next project, the grand daddy of all dream comic projects, Alan Moore's legendary "Watchmen." When Miller asks him how he'll adapt that epic Snyder says "very carefully."
The next two short features "Making of 300" and "Making 300 in Images" fall into the category of the quick, cheap, filler-type bonus features.
There are three deleted scenes, each with introductions from Snyder. Most deleted scenes I've encountered on DVDs really suck. Rarely do we get the true gems - scenes cut to satisfy the MPAA or overzealous producers. (Such scenes usually find their way into director's cuts or unrated versions.) With "300" two of the scenes rightfully belonged on the cutting room floor. These involve the Benedict Arnold hunchback Ephialtes. One quick shot really should have been left in, though. It's a creature in one of the battles that Snyder decided was just "too over the top." Yes, it's over the top! It's supposed to be over the top! "This is madness!" "This...is... Sparta!!!!!"
The final extra is set up just as behind-the-scenes features should be. It's a collection of 12 "webisodes," 5-minute mini-documentaries covering various actors and aspects of the film. These include: production design, wardrobe, stunt work, Lena Headey (actress who played Spartan Queen Gorgo,) adapting the graphic novel, Butler, Rodrigo Santoro (who played Persian emperor Xerxes,) training the actors, culture of the Sparta city/state, a glimpse from the set, scene studies, and fantastic characters of 300. Added together you've got an hour's worth of behind-the-scenes documentary in nice, digestible bites.
While the "300" special edition DVD may be far from perfect - they really could have gone much deeper - it's still a valuable supplement to a fantastic film. Verdict: Spring for the double disc.