“300” is one of those rare movies that I would stop short of calling “good,” but am still sort of glad I saw. The very things that make it worth seeing are also what make it fall under its own weight.
“300” is based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller (“Sin City”) and is directed by Zack Snyder, who also did the recent remake of “Dawn of the Dead,” which I’ve heard good things about, though I haven’t seen it. It tells the story of the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C., which Sparta and other Greek city-states fought against the invading Persians. The armies are led by King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) of Sparta and Xerxes I (Rodrigo Santoro) of Persia.
Snyder uses all the technological toys known to man to create the ancient kingdoms and landscapes of Eastern Europe. In fact, there are apparently no real sets photographed in the film at all. The only real thing you see on the screen are the actors, props and costumes. Say what you will about what this means for the future of filmmaking. Some may find it scary while others may find it exciting. Either way, I don’t think the days of actors performing in real environments and sets are over. I think the choice Snyder made to use all digital landscapes was probably the correct one, given the material. He fully recreates the feeling of a comic book in the same way Robert Rodriguez did with “Sin City” two years ago.
Everything about “300” is grand in a not-quite-real way. When Persian messengers ride toward the city, they GALLOP (all caps). When these Spartans fight, boy, do they ever. I’ll admit that for the first 20 minutes of “300,” I thoroughly enjoyed the over-the-top feel of the whole thing, despite the graphically violent opening in which young boys are trained to become warriors. However, there is a fine line between over-the-top and self-parody, and “300” crosses that line pretty quickly. The overbearing voiceover from the character Dilios (David Wenham of “Lord of the Rings”) doesn’t help. I knew it was over when Leonidas says goodbye to his wife before heading to battle and the voiceover tells us that he didn’t say “I love you,” because a Spartan can show no “softness.” I couldn’t help but crack up with my friends. Uh, yeah, we watched mere children beat each other to a bloody pulp in a Darwinian display of survival-of-the-fittest because, apparently, that’s just what they do in Sparta. I think we get it. These guys are tough!
Some would accuse “300” of glorifying war. It may. I’m not sure if it was Snyder’s intention to do so. Even though the movie certainly sympathizes with the Spartans, it does present their dark side too, and it seemed to be simply telling the story from their point of view. Either way, I’m not sure it’s relevant anyway, because the movie becomes so hard to take seriously. For what it’s worth, the actors do about the best they can with the material, though they are saddled with plenty of atrocious lines. Butler, in particular, does a good job of bringing gravity (if no real humanity) to Leonidas. Don’t go expecting to see any big Hollywood stars, though. The most famous people in the cast are Wenham and Dominic West. Not sure who they are? You won’t be the only ones.
If you’re interested in seeing a movie for the sheer technical audacity of its style, then you should probably see “300” in a theater with really good surround speakers. If you want a historical epic with something resembling real people, you’d better just wait.
“300” is rated R. No one under 17 admitted without a parent or guardian.