300 (2007) / Action-War
MPAA Rated: R for graphic violence, some sexuality and nudity
Running Time: 117 min.
Cast: Gerard Butler, Lena Headey, Dominic West, David Wenham, Vincent Regan, Tom Wisdom, Michael Fassbender, Andrew Pleavin, Andrew Tiernan, Rodrigo Santoro
Director: Zack Snyder
Screenplay: Zack Snyder, Kurt Johnstad, Michael Gordeon (based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley)
Review published March 10, 2007
How should a film reviewer who has a degree in Classics, is a Frank Miller fan, and who has read the mini-series upon which it is based approach a film version without expectations? By reminding himself not to be upset at glaring historical inaccuracies and artistic inconsistencies. After all, this is a Hollywood film adaptation, which generally means, the creative forces behind it will not likely adhere faithfully to source material when they think it might impede their ability to draw in big audiences.
At the risk of riling the more impassioned Frank Miller devotees, while I think his artwork for his comic book is stunningly gorgeous, the story doesn't quite match up to the beautiful artwork for me. My feelings stem from being very familiar with the events (at least as speculatively "recorded" by the historians) of the famous Battle of Thermopylae, where a relatively small faction of Greek soldiers (including the titular 300 Spartans) held off a mighty Persian force of tens of thousands for days. The treatment in the comic occasionally smacks of being simplified, then sensationalized for the purposes of broad mass acceptance. Still, it's to be expected in a medium that isn't exactly known for appealing to hardcore history buffs, and comics are, by and large, not the sort of place where you're likely to find hard realism often. Giving Miller his due, he probably succeeded in presenting about the best mainstream-release depiction of that battle that could be done and not languish in longboxes for eternity, never finding an audience.
As sensationalized as the violence and depictions of battle may be in Miller's Eisner-winning opus, they are quite reserved when compared to the exceedingly over-the-top portrayals in former music video director Zack Snyder's (Dawn of the Dead) loose adaptation of the comic. It does effectively capture Miller's vision in terms of the aesthetic qualities you could find in his art, with many scenes looking like they were torn right from the printed page, However, it's even more egregious an example of being dumbed down in order to gain a broader base of fans that not only would be bored by the actual events as they might have played out from a historical standpoint, but would also find Miller's work to be too dry to keep their interest as well.
The handling of dialogue in comics is often a liability, as space for text is limited, added to the fact that it is sometimes difficult to understand the inflections and emotional importance of the words when there's only a simple hand drawn picture to go on. However, there still manages to be intelligent and thought-provoking comics being released by very talented artists (Miller among them), despite the widely-held belief that comic book stories are on the shallow and superficial side of modern fiction. At their best, these authors can even win honored literary awards that generally go to novels by esteemed authors (Neil Gaiman's winning of the World Fantasy Award for "Sandman", for example), and at their worst, the writing is nothing more than simple, grunt-filled filler meant solely to push forward just enough story to get to the next series of action splash pages. The script for 300 seems to stem more from the latter form.
While the camerawork, CG-enhanced backgrounds and sets (more akin to the textures you'd find in a video game intro than in an honest depiction of the natural environs of ancient Europe), and costumes are all done with eye-arresting flair, it is in the writing department where 300 falls far short. The dialogue in particular (some directly lifted from ancient historical accounts, some from Miller's comic) hinders the mood more often than it helps, and the conversations between people, particularly among warring parties, never rise above the typical exchanges you'd find attached to a professional wrestling showdown. "We're in for one wild night", says King Leonidas before his next wave of battles, bodies tacked high behind his men. "This is where we fight. This is where they die!", he yells out later. "I would kneel down before you, but I seem to have developed a cramp in my leg", he spouts to the Persian god-king, Xerxes, in one of the few attempts at something resembling humor in this very straight-faced film. Are these pep speeches inspired by the style of a Homeric epic poem, or are they extracted from a WCW main event? The grimacing demeanor and snarling attitudes of most of the characters seem to stem more from chronic constipation than deep-seated emotion.
Despite sizable deficiencies from a story and character standpoint, 300 will probably go down favorably for the enthusiasts of ultraviolent, orgiastically bloody action pictures -- the kind of viewers that base their enjoyment of film purely on the ultra-cool, wantonly gory, and copiously bloody ways that people get dismembered or killed. These audiences will no doubt have resolved that the film is a great epic, probably counting it as their all-time favorite, at least until the next over-hyped, gratuitously lurid film comes along to bring them into an absurdly irrational, froth-mouthed frenzy. Those with more sensible minds should be far less enthusiastic, although those inclined to appreciate ancient battles portrayed with visual gusto might still choose to overlook the lack of emotional resonance and gripping plotting in favor of the visceral impact of the bloody carnage and glossy, high energy, rock video stylistics of Snyder's visuals. In a good bit of casting, Gerard Butler (Timeline, Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life) makes for an imposing King Leonidas, though the motley array of thick accents doesn't really jibe well with the close-knit nature of Spartan society.
300 is little more than a barely-passable, grossly hyperbolic, sword-sandal-and-steroid version of a famous wartime stratagem that was, ironically, successful more through the ingenuity of the battle terrain planning than in the god-like physical strength of the Spartan army, who are shown in the film far too often engaging the Persians in open battle to believe they'd be successful in wiping them out for as long as they do. Impressive as they may be. it's very easy to go overboard with praise for the film's visuals; the Best Picture-winning Gladiator had a fantastic visual style in 1998 that seems almost antiquated when compared to that of recent high-tech, CG-enhanced films like 300. However, it still merits watching because it is well-directed and actually has a compelling story to go along with it. We actually care when characters die in that film.
As the main characters die off in 300, there are no pulse rates raised and no tears to wipe away. I suspect that in 10 years, the visual effects of 300 will also start to date, and even the unabashed fanboys will see that underneath the aging computer graphics and overdone camera techniques, there's little more here other than an immoderate amount of noise and energy, thoroughly lacking any emotional or intellectual substance to merit our interest.
©2007 Vince Leo