Zack Snyder's 300 is an incredibly hyper-stylized retelling of the Battle of Thermopylae. However, if you're aware going in that it's not going to be your history professor's account of what happened in 480 BC, you'll enjoy it a lot more. The movie isn't really shooting for the realism of, say, Alexander, and it embraces its graphic novel origins. It does a great job of hyping up the most famous elements of the legendary historical event while keeping the audience visually entertained with fantastic cinematography; even if you're not a fan of the storyline, as a film fan you'll appreciate the originality of how the movie looks on screen.
Let's go through the standard stuff before we get to the meat of this review. Gerard Butler (the titular character from 2004's Phantom of the Opera) portrays King Leonidas of Sparta, a warrior leader who defies his government and takes 300 of his best soldiers to fight against the oncoming attack of the Persians. The character of Leonidas is not necessarily an overly complex one: half of him is a battle-hungry Spartan, while the other half is a sentimental husband and father looking out for the safety of his home country. Since the film is based on a graphic novel (with much of the film taken frame by frame from Frank Miller's work), you can't really fault Butler or the character for being one-dimensional. He does a good job bellowing war cries and showing pity for his fellow warriors in their times of need, but aside from that it was a pretty average performance on his part. Rodrigo Santoro plays the Persian King Xerxes, a skinny, gold-covered, multi-pierced, self-proclaimed god who demands that the Spartans and their army stand down. His deep voice doesn't match up with his emaciated body (reminds me of the lead singer for The Calling: remember them?), and he remains off the battlefield rolling in his decadence while he sends his soldiers and slaves off to fight. This provides a stark contrast to Leonidas, who leads the charge against the enemy and battles alongside his men on the field. Lena Headey (The Merlin TV mini-series and The Brothers Grimm) is Queen Gorgo, wife of Leonidas. Once again, the character is pretty one-dimensional, but she does a decent job of not showing too much emotion (Spartans don't show weakness) at her husband's departure; she also fights a legal battle in the council to send the entire army out to support Leonidas' decision.
For those of you who don't know, my minor is Classical Studies, a.k.a. Greek and Roman civilization and mythology. I've spent the last two years taking classes about the societies of Greece and Rome and learning the in's and out's of stories like this one. Although 300 is obviously not aiming for realism, they did manage to get a surprising number of facts correct about the legendary event and the societal aspects of the time. The opening shots to the film describe the training process for young Spartan boys, and these depictions were as accurate as Steve Kerr's three-point shot.* There were some key phrases in the "mythology" of the event (keep in mind, these have been documented by historians as actual fact) that were used in the film accurately as well. Some of these include:
1.When Xerxes asked the Spartans to surrender their arms and was answered with the infamous Spartan response: "Come take them." (Today, this phrase is the emblem of the Greek Army.)
2. Dienekes' dialogue with a Persian messenger regarding the "arrows that will blot out the sun" and the Spartans will "fight in the shade."
3. The narrator of the film utters another famous line toward the end of the film. This line is emblazoned on the burial mound of the Spartans at Thermopylae today, and reads "Go tell the Spartans, passerby, that here, by Spartan law, we lie."
4. The scene toward the beginning of the film in which the Persian emissary arrives in Sparta demanding an offering of "earth and water" from Leonidas and his people as a sign of submission. Historically, Leonidas replied "dig it out for yourself" and threw him into a well in the city.
Quotes aside, I thought 300 did a great job of mixing historical integrity with a comic over-exaggeration of events; it wasn't perfect, but it was fun. Another really cool aspect of the film that I'm grateful for was the way the filmmakers showed (more importantly, didn't show) the distance from Sparta to the battlefield. There weren't unnecessarily long scenes of the soldiers trekking across the mountains to reach their destination or any drawn out set-up devices that took forever to get the plot going (see Alexander, Gladiator and even Troy, to some extent). The beginning of the film wasn't exactly a Bond opening, but it wasn't slow, per se. There was a good balance to the pacing which I appreciated as a moviegoer, and I never checked my watch during the 117 minutes I was in the theater.
Although I haven't seen any TV specials on the making of the film, someone told me that there was some sort of innovative new camera system that Zack Snyder set up for a couple of the fight scenes in the movie. Those of you who have seen it will know exactly what I'm talking about when I describe it, and those who haven't probably won't get it, but bear with me. During the aforementioned fight scenes, apparently Snyder attached three different zoom lenses on the end of the camera set-up so he could cycle through them at will. When we actually see it on screen, it looks like a very fast zoom (almost a jump cut) to a closer or further away picture, but in fact, the lens is just being rotated so another one comes into focus. Once again, I personally haven't stumbled across this or been able to confirm it, but it sounds pretty cool to me. It definitely worked for the scenes in which it was used, especially in tandem with some slow motion effects to make everything more epic.
Overall, the cinematography appears pretty innovative. I can't remember seeing a film that LOOKS quite like 300 does. Frank Miller's Sin City film adaptation had a little of the same vibe coming from it, with the outstanding use of black and white with splashes of color, but this movie doesn't rely on color for a gimmick. Don't get me wrong, color undoubtedly adds to the feel of different scenes throughout 300 (neutral colors contribute to the natural, earthy feel of the flick), but it doesn't have near the effect that it does in the stark contrast of Sin City. It seems like every third time I mention cinematography I say something like "this film has a gritty feel to it," but 300 utilizes this aspect more than any other film in recent memory. There is a grainy quality about the film stock used (or it was added in post-production, either way) that psychologically informs the viewer that they are seeing something that happened in an era long past.
(Semi-spoilers ahead. You should pretty much know what happens since this is a historical event we're talking about. I'm not really ruining the ending for you. It's like telling you the end of Titanic is that the boat sinks.)
I heard from Jared that there was an uproar about whether this film supported President Bush or bashed him, and I decided to just see it for myself and see what I thought the film represented politically. Apparently the creators deny the fact that there are political undertones to the film, which I'm going to go ahead and say is a bunch of BS. There's no way that you can make a movie about war in America today and NOT be making some sort of commentary about the current war that our country is fighting. My thoughts on the film's political stance are more balanced today than they would have been a couple of years ago, and keep in mind that I currently don't associate myself with any political party and I'm extremely apathetic when it comes to politics. I think the main meat of the movie was in support of President Bush and his decision to go to war. The parallels of 1. Leonidas rallying his troops to stop an invasion before it happens, running into trouble with the council and the bureaucratic resistance that follows, leading the charge against the ultimate enemy who sits back reveling in his hordes of stolen goods and sending his soldiers out to fight (but staying hidden himself), and protecting the ideals of democracy and 2. President Bush doing the basically the same thing in his War on Terror can't be ignored. However, I also think that the movie attempts to tell us that the current war is futile. I say this for one main reason: the Spartans lose the battle. They stand up for what they believe in and fight for democracy, but they do it without the support of the government and the Spartans just don't have enough power to take down the seemingly endless onslaught from an enemy that, for all intents and purposes, has a never ending flow of soldiers heading right for them. Ultimately of course, the Greeks end up winning the war against Xerxes, but the filmmakers don't SHOW that part of the story. Granted, they allude to it at the very very end, but they stop the action pretty much right after the last Spartan falls on the battlefield. This leads me to think that they feel like the battle against terrorism is a never-ending one that has no clear winner when it's all said and done. Lives are lost on both sides, and there are such massive amounts of terrorist sects that it's nigh impossible to eradicate them all (who gave the U.S. that job, anyway?). Those were the initial feelings I got from the film; maybe on a second viewing I'll get a different vibe. Only time will tell.
300 is an action movie, to be sure, but there are more compelling issues in the plot besides the kill count. You just have to dig deep enough through the Persian corpses to find them. Until next time...
*Steve Kerr's career three-point percentage was .454, the best in NBA history. For the purposes of my simile, however, this percentage seems slightly low. In hindsight, the film was about 90% accurate when it came to the training scenes.