300 is proof that we are living in a bold new era of filmmaking. An era where, thanks to the prevalence of technology, movie directors can have an almost godlike control over nearly every facet of their movie — right down to the very last strand of hair, bead of sweat, and, in the case of 300, drop of blood. A director’s vision can now be captured and delivered on the silver screen to an extent that would’ve been inconceivable even five years ago.
Of course, even with that unbelievable level of power and technology, some truths of the artform remain the same. All of that control is worthless if there isn’t a story lying somewhere at the heart of the astounding visuals, if those visuals aren’t populated by compelling characters. And in the case of 300, that is painfully obvious from almost the very first frame.
Based on Frank Miller’s graphic novel take on the Battle of Thermopylae, 300 presents an über-mythological take on the legendary battle. It is the year 480 B.C., and Leonidas (Gerard Butler), the king of Sparta, has received a disturbing message. Xerxes, the king of Persia and the mightiest ruler in the world, has set his eyes on Greece. His emissaries bear messages of doom and gloom, promising annhilation to those who resist Xerxes’ god-like power. Leonidas, being the proud Spartan that he is, promptly kicks Xerxes’ messenger down the well, all but sealing his country’s fate.
Leonidas is confident that his warriors, considered the finest in all of Greece, will be able to hold their own against Xerxes’ armada. Unfortunately, a slight scheduling conflict with a religious festival means Leonidas has no army with which to battle Xerxes. Defying the religious leaders and Sparta’s ruling council, he assembles 300 of his best warriors and leads them from Sparta in a seemingly hopeless attempt to stave off the Persian army.
Their plan is to trap the Persians in a narrow pass, thus forcing the Persians to come at them a few at a time, eliminating the Persians’ numerical advantage. And at first, it works. The Spartans’ superior fighting skills and impenetrable position actually begin to make dents in the Persian army, despite the myriad forces — foot soldiers, cavalry, giant mutants, armored rhinos, magicians, ninjas(!) — that Xerxes throws at them. Meanwhile, Leonidas’ queen, Gorgo (Lena Headey), does her best to persuade the council to send more troops to her husband’s aid. However, it’s only a matter of time before the 300 are worn down, before Greece falls under Xerxes’ barbaric rule.
Most of the praise being heaped on 300 is due primarily to the film’s visuals. Shot almost entirely against a bluescreen that allowed director Zack Snyder to craft any number of backdrops and effects that the actors could then be inserted into seamlessly, the film is certainly striking. The entire film has been given a golden, patina-like sheen from which the Spartans’ crimson cloaks and considerable amount of onscreen blood leap out.
The look is quite fitting, since the film is less interested in being a historically accurate rendition of the battle — I’m no expert in ancient history, but I don’t think the Persian army was led by a eight foot tall man covered in gold chains, or had four hundred pound mutants with sawblades for arms, or had ninjas — and more interested in capturing a mythological version of the events, the way that 5th century Greeks might remember the Spartans’ bravery and the Persians’ horrors.
Furthermore, Snyder does everything he can to make the battles as impressive and massive as possible. The film’s many conflicts are choreographed to within an inch of their life, transforming the actors’ movements into a virtual ballet of shields, spears, swords, showers of blood, and dismembered limbs. The film speed and editing is jockeyed back and forth from hyper-kinetic to glacially slow, the camera spinning around in dizzying patterns, all to ensure that the viewer catches every bone-crunching, flesh-slicing moment in gruesome, intricate detail.
But the film’s considerable visual prowess comes at a price. The film’s look is so hyper-realistic, so stylized, that it ends up feeling sterile and artificial, appreciable only on a technical level but actually robbing 300 of any truly visceral impact — ironic considering the amount of blood spilt in nearly every frame.
It also doesn’t help that the visuals come at the cost of any meaningful character development or depth. Despite the considerable death and carnage dealt throughout the film, I challenge anyone to find a single moment where they felt any significant emotion for any of the characters, for good or ill. The people in the film are less characters and more cannon fodder, existing only to dismember and be dismembered.
The film’s attempts to flesh out the characters, to make them more human, fall short. The passionate sex scene between Leonidas and Gorgo on the eve of battle is more humorous than passionate, especially when they start working their way through various positions. Or when it’s revealed that two of the soldiers in Leonidas’ group are father and son, it does little in humanizing the soldiers. It just means that you know one of them is going to be dispatched in a particularly gruesome manner. Thus, there’s no feeling of tragedy or loss when one of the Spartans falls in combat, since we’ve never been able to care of them. Instead, we’re given an excuse to feel bloodlust, to cheer when someone — anyone — gets mowed down, be they friend or foe.
Some might argue that I’m expecting too much from the movie, that I should have simply shut off my brain and enjoyed the endless rivers of blood for what they were worth. After all, the trailers, posters, etc. make it perfectly clear that 300 isn’t intending to win any awards for performances. So why not simply enjoy the film for what is: a fantastical, bloodsoaked, visually lavish hack n’ slash period piece? Well, I honestly wish I could have done just that. Except that 300 itself constantly tries to pass itself off as something deeper, something more serious than some mere hack n’ slash period piece with its heart on its sleeve and its tongue planted firmly in its cheek.
If the film hadn’t taken itself so seriously, if instead it just revelled in the carnage and mindblowing action, I could perhaps respect and possibly even enjoy it on that simple, visceral level. But instead, we get a film full of portentous, chest-thumping speeches about honor, dignity, sacrifice, and glory. For as much time as Leonidas and his men spend disembowling their enemies, they spend just about as much time exchanging “meaningful” glances and rousing eachother with one impassioned-yet-clunky speech about honor and duty after another.
All of the speeches about honor and glory also begin ringing hollow once you remember that the Spartans themselves aren’t too honorable and glorious when you come right down to it. They may not throw the lavish, decadent orgies that Xerxes throws — which we see in all of their splendor, right down to the limbless transsexual strippers — but then again, Spartans practice infanticide, child abuse, and brainwashing — things the film makes clear, and even states with pride, within the very first frames.
If the film had dealt with the discrepancy between the Spartans’ claims of glory and their brutality as a culture, that would’ve been something interesting and serious. But it’s not, and so all of the Spartans’ talk comes off as mere jingoism and blind patriotism, words to pass the time until the next Persian assault, the next opportunity for decaptitations and dismemberings.
I say this only because I’ve read so many comments about people praising this film as one that celebrates honor, freedom, standing up to tyranny, and so on. And yet, looking back on the film, I find it difficult to see that unless it’s with a very healthy dose of irony.
Zack Snyder’s next planned film is an adaptation of another comic book, this time Watchmen, which is about as seminal and important a book as they come. I have no doubt that Snyder will nail the book’s visuals, from Dr. Manhattan’s Martian fortress to the climactic scenes of devastation. I’m less convinced, however, based on 300’s bluntness, that he’ll be able to do justice to The Watchmen’s labyrinthine, multi-layered plot and complex, troubled characters.