If I were three years younger, I would probably have enjoyed 300. It’s got everything a 16-year-old could want: swords, ninjas, elephants, naked women and, if you’re into that sort of thing, scantily-clad men. However, as a relatively mature 19-year old, I was disappointed and bored. While the movie mostly conforms to the conventions set out by its source material, the graphic novel of the same name by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley, it does the comic a disservice by contributing nothing worthwhile in the translation to the screen.
300 can be described loosely as a historical epic, though one that emphasizes bad-ass action at the expense of accuracy. Our hero, King Leonidas (Gerard Butler), goes against the direct orders of the Spartan Council, and takes 300 of his soldiers to face the Persian incursion arriving on Greek shores. In a bit of tactical brilliance, he decides to make his stand at Thermopylae, also known as the Hot Gates, forcing the massive Persian force to funnel through the canyon’s narrow corridor, making the greater numbers of the invaders moot.
Back at home, Mrs. Leonidas, Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey), is doing her damndest to force the recalcitrant council to send more troops against the Persians, with little success. These shifts from pitched battle to palace intrigue add nothing to the film, and serve only to disrupt its momentum. Some weighty ideas about freedom and democracy are thrown around, but they fall on the deaf ears of both the council and the audience. No one came to see 300 for its platitudes about the price of freedom and the greatness of democracy. To quote another Frank Miller movie, all we want is “blood for blood and by the gallon,” and that’s largely what we get. So much so, in fact, that this intrepid writer lost count of the different ways people die in this picture. Swords play heavily in most of them, and at least two gentlemen have their heads cut clean off with one neat little slice.
Taking its cues from Sin City, the actors of 300 are largely supported by green screen effects rather than actual sets and these digital backgrounds are more disconcerting than intriguing. While it is clear that the director, Zack Snyder, intends to pay homage to Miller’s work by scrupulously copying it, his method produces uneven results; though there are many arresting images taken straight from the page, other scenes created without the benefit of visual cues are mundane by comparison.
Compounding this disparity is Mr. Taylor’s decision to dramatically slow down every single good shot he’s got. This technique is fine on occasion but becomes a distraction and nuisance once it begins to dominate the film. The battle scenes especially suffer from this need for spastic changes in speed. Watching these segments I could only blame the Wachowski brothers. Ever since the success of The Matrix, over-using this “bullet-time” nonsense has become the technique of choice for movies targeting a certain age cohort. Sadly it doesn’t look cool, just odd and artificial.
Another interesting, and surprising, visual choice concerns Xerxes, God-King of the Persian Empire. With his arched eyebrows and abundant eye-shadow he seems more drag queen than evil emperor. While I have no objection to an effeminate or gay villain, it’s hard to take the heavy seriously when you immediately associate him with RuPaul. By way of contrast, King Leonidas of Sparta firmly occupies the other end of the spectrum of manliness. You can tell this because he bellows a lot of claptrap about killing, dying with honor and other manly things (and because he never once wears lip gloss). Butler does a good job at shouting bellicosely and manages to invest Leonidas with conviction and a gleeful sadism. Sadly, most of the lines he is given fall flat. The strident machismo is overdone, unnecessary and — along with the annoying and redundant narration — breaks one of the cardinal rules of film, which is to show rather than tell the audience what is going on.
300 is a fine example of style over substance (or plot, characterization or any semblance of nuance). The movie sacrifices any sort of real emotion in the quest for grittiness. The sole consolation of this disappointing film is that it’[s by the nature of its ending we can be reasonably certain there won’t be a 300 II.