Zack Snyder’s film version of the graphic novel by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley may look like the greatest music video ever made; whether or not it is a decent feature film is another question altogether. Snyder makes wonderful use of computer-generated imagery, combined with beautiful live-action photography, to create a unique sepia-toned looked that presumably stands in for the images from the source material. But as a director, Snyder is so enamored of the imagery that he lets it drag the film to a deadly standstill, time after time. For all its calls to glory and brutal bloodshed, 300 never works up a head of steam that comes close to matching GLADIATOR or BRAVEHEART. For a film so desperate to prove its manly muscle, it ends up feeling flaccid and weak, unable to sustain itself, erupting in small spurts here and there until it finally just sputters to a halt.
The basic idea is pretty simple: The Persian Empire wants to conquer Sparta, but the soldierly Spartans have been taught since birth to never surrender, never retreat. So King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) leads 300 of his finest troops to lure the Persian army into a narrow gorge where the superior numbers of the enemy will be of no advantage. Meanwhile, traitors back home are trying to undermine this desperate attempt to maintain Sparta’s independence, but in the end the legend and the glory of Leonidas and his men will unite all of Greece in the battle against the invaders…
Turning Spartans into heroes that will click for a 21st Century audience is a bit of a trick. 300 tries to do this by having them make some lip service statements about freedom, as if they were fighting for some kind of modern democratic ideals, but the rhetoric rings hollow, as it is terribly clear that the Spartan soldiers simply enjoy warfare for its own sake and think that killing the enemy in the name of loyalty to their country is the highest form of honor and glory. The fact that this mindset could so easily be put to evil purposes goes unexplored; the script simply takes the Spartans at their word, cries havoc, and lets slip the dogs of war.
Obviously, the real appeal of the flick is seeing the eye-gouging, throat-slashing, head-chopping action, which is carefully choreographed to make battles seem like a really cool dance number, except instead of embracing your partner you impale him with a spear. The visuals are stylized enough to take the sting out of the bloodshed, so the impact of the various severed heads is never quite enough to disturb the audience; it’s all way too far out for that. Which inevitably undermines the movie’s impact: after two or three severed heads have rolled across the screen or flown through the air, it is quite literally impossible to work up any emotional response when one of the Spartan soldiers sees his son decapitated on screen: it’s not a dramatic moment; it’s just another piece of mayhem, lost in the deluge.
Gerard Butler does his best in the title role, but his native brogue occasionally rings through his dialogue, and it sounds rather strange coming out of the mouth of a supposedly Greek character. In one of the film’s low points, he stands around waiting for a proclamation for a beautiful female oracle who, for some reason, needs to float around with her wispy veil fluttering in the CGI breeze. The imagery is beautiful, but it looks like something out of a perfume commercial, and you can just see Butler looking as if he is wondering whether he wandered onto the wrong set.
The rest of the cast strive mightily to appear as something more than cartoon characters. To some extent they even succeed, but the script doesn’t help by serving up battle cries at regular intervals: “Tonight we dine in Hell!” – “Give them nothing – take from them everything!” “Prepare for Glory!” – etc. The repetition underlines the fact that we are witnessing an episodic series of action scenes that never building to a climax but just stretch out the film further and further.
On a thematic level, the story would be highly questionable if one were to take it at all seriously, with its not so subtle racism and favorable attitude toward primitive eugenics. It’s not bad enough that the whole story features the light-skinned Greeks battling off the dark-skinned Persian hordes; the film actually endorses the Spartan practice of killing off weak male babes in order to maintain the strength of the warrior gene pool. The one physically imperfect Spartan (a hunchbacked character whose mother fled Sparta in order to keep him alive) turns out to be a trailer who sells out Leonidas to the enemy. It never occurs to the filmmakers that maybe one of those sickly babes might have grown up to be a brilliant military strategist who could have saved the kingdom; in the ethos of 300, might makes right.
At times, 300 is visually impressive enough to work as the gut-level entertainment, with pretentious overtones, that it strives to be. One probably should not take it at all seriously. But the mindless militarism is off-putting, and the joy the film takes in showing squishy blood shoot across the screen reaches ridiculous levels. In the end, the film is not about defense of freedom or honor or glory. It’s about man-on-man bodily contact with spurts of red blood standing in for other bodily fluids. Someday soon, this film will take its place in the pantheon of Hollywood Closet Classics.
300 (2007). Directed by Zack Snyder. Screenplay by Zack Snyder & Kurt Johnstad and Michael Gordon, from the graphic novel by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley. Cast: Gerard Butler, Lena Headey, Dominc West, David Wenham, Vincent Regan, Michael Fassbender, Tom Wisdom