MOVIE REVIEW - 300
Director: Zack Snyder
Writers: Screenplay by Zack Snyder, Kurt Johnstad, and Michael B. Gordon, based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley
Producers: Gianni Nunnari, Mark Canton, Bernie Goldman, Jeffrey Silver
Stars: Gerard Butler, Lena Headey, Dominic West, David Wenham, Vincent Regan, Michael Fassbender, Tom Wisdom, Andrew Pleavin, Andrew Tiernan, Rodrigo Santoro
First a “comic book movie” was Superman – fighting big evil in bold colors. It’s taken more than a generation, but the state of graphic novel adaptations today is rather extraordinary, as filmmakers and the technology at their disposal gradually evolve to meet the fevered visual imaginations of comic artists on their own level. Now Road to Perdition, A History of Violence, and Sin City are “comic book movies”, and they have expanded the story possibilities of that label enough to splinter it as a genre. It now speaks more to a style of filmmaking than to any kind of pre-conceived notion of plot.
300, based on a lesser-known book by Sin City’s Frank Miller (with Lynn Varley), is still, admittedly, about fighting big evil in bold colors. The heroes even wear capes. In this case, though, it’s about the real-life Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C., when King Leonidas of Sparta, along with his personal bodyguard of 300 soldiers, fended off an invading army of tens, possibly hundreds of thousands for a few crucial days to allow the rest of Greece to ready itself for war. Think of it as The Alamo with 10 times worse odds and the free world at stake.
It was a battle fought with Sparta’s legendarily brutal militaristic ethos, and Snyder’s dynamic style makes 300 an initially-bracing experience. Cameras zoom, blood squirts and sprays, epigrams are roared; that Snyder, his cast, and his designers maintain such a unity of volume and posture is itself admirable, and appropriate tribute to its source material. This looks in every detail like one of those hyper-emotive, lovingly-grotesque ink operas. Snyder (who also helmed the better-than-expected Dawn of the Dead remake) knows what movie he wants to make and delivers it to us stirringly and with innovative flair. But his visual gifts do not permanently divert attention from the thin emotional content.
Leonidas (Gerard Butler), we learn, is a kind of first among equals, royally-born and the best product of the punishing education every young Spartan receives. It seems from the moment they are allowed to live (physically-imperfect infants are tossed off a cliff), they are fighting. Constant physical testing is considered the way to purity in word and action; and eventually, a glorious death in battle. As a result, all the adult Spartans we see are superhuman physical specimens, the actors look like they spent their time between takes having their torsos massaged like Kobe beef cattle. You could grind rocks on their abs.
The Persian god-emperor Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) is on the march, intent on bringing the world under his dominion. He’s as fixated on having people kneel before him as General Zod, and he rides on a golden throne, speaks in an androgynous purr, and looks about eight feet tall.
Leonidas refuses to yield, yet the mystics whose approval he must have to march to war deny him. They are secretly allied with a treacherous Senator, Theron (Dominic West), who subverts their ancient religion with money and sex. There is no psychological motive to be found anywhere, those who stand against the Spartan cause in this movie do so either because of a naked woman or a bag of gold coins – let it not be said that the filmmakers don’t know their target audience. Many a teen or preteen boy will glimpse their first naked woman in 300, they’ll also learn something about the history of Western Civilization; so, fair reward. A few might even learn something about themselves from gazing on all those heaving Spartan pectorals.
As a way of threading the ethical needle, Leonidas leaves the Spartan army behind and takes only the force of 300, banking on their ability to hold a narrow pass near the sea called “The Hot Gates”. Since the pass itself is scarcely thirty bodies wide, and there are steep cliffs on the approach, it does quite a bit to neutralize the ominous numerical imbalance.
The action begins quite smashingly well. The picture is shot on film but with primarily digital sets, and a through-and-through color adjustment that gives the whole thing a bronze-by-firelight amber glow. It’s got the look of ancient and awesome down, and when the spears start chucking and the swords start clanging, Snyder unveils a fascinating technique. Intermittent ramps of film speed take the place of straight edits; so long, seemingly unbroken shots can zip around a scene of battle capturing one piece of choreography after another from the most advantageous position. For awhile, shallow emotional content aside, it really does look as if Snyder is going to pull off a movie that can float on its groundbreaking merits.
Sadly, it instead turns exhausting. Although Xerxes has many waves of different types of killer to send forth, it eventually amounts to little more than changes in costume and more limbs to be hacked. In spite of the Spartans’ warrior spirits, and in spite of the efforts of Leonidas’ wife Gorgon (Lena Headey), who is going above and beyond the call of duty to rally the Senate, the outcome seems inevitable.
The movie wheels out a wealth of characters – fathers and sons, friendly rivals, treasonous hunchbacks, iron-clawed giants, and one Spartan, Dilios (David Wenham), who is prized because he can produce sentences more complex than grunty catchphrases, and serves as unofficial tribe storyteller and our narrator. But it’s only Leonidas, whose burden it is to serve his country while essentially defying it, who feels himself destined for this moment like a younger, buffer, crazier General Patton, whose soul resonates with us at all. Much depends on Gerard Butler’s ability to keep his character at the necessary high blaze of intensity while still revealing a little of the torment of a man figuring out what a Spartan would do in a situation where Spartans are very much needed. Truly, it’s difficult to imagine any other actor faring better.
300 is clearly having an effect on audiences, both in terms of the box office and some rather silly attempts to find allegory within the story of an alien and long-dead culture. Those who admire and want to emulate the Spartan way are probably ignoring the heaving-babies-off-cliffs part, and discounting that it arose out of the necessity of facing constant military peril. They should ignore the wish-fulfillment and focus on the great things that are present in this picture.
Then again, too long spent considering the objectives and urges of its characters makes it look, well, juvenile. Like kid’s stuff. “Comic book movies” are allowed to be better than that now.