Yesterday afternoon as the temperature dropped 20 degrees and a storm front bulled into the area, I went back in time to watch King Leonidas stand against the Persian hordes of Xerxes.
Or, I would have gone back in time had the film 300 allowed it. But it doesn’t. The film depicts an epic battle 25 centuries past but keeps the viewer firmly in the 21st century through an overuse of Matrix-esque special effects, monstrous makeup and masks and in its overall sensibility and construction. It’s heavy metal meets Herodotus. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, I guess.
300 is a very strange film, and in places its strangeness works. The Persians’ grotesque combat giants, the bizarre monstrosity of the Immortals in their frightening Japanese-style metal masks, and Xerxes’ own unnatural height and voice, all lend the Spartans’ enemies an otherworldly, evil quality that makes it obvious that you’re not supposed to root for them. They’re decadent, they’re slaves, they’re a mass of inhumanity that slaughters villagers by the dozen, and they’re just plain weird–they’re bad news. Go Sparta!
But the film’s slashing editing style left me so far outside the story that, in the middle of one of the many, many battle scenes, I nearly fell asleep. Seeing the film for the first time, I’d already seen it all before. That’s a shame, because the setting — the battle of Thermopylae — is one of the most heroic stories in Western culture. The film makers had a lot to work with, but chose to keep the film closer to cartoon than reality. That makes sense given 300’s origins as a Frank Miller graphic novel, but the treatment kept me far removed from the action. You’re not watching heroes battle. You’re watching a technogeek’s version of watching heroes battle. It’s kinetic but flat. And I’m talking more about technique than story exposition. In 300 you don’t get a Saving Private Ryan battle that sounds so real you’d swear that last bullet just whizzed by your cranium. You don’t get a Helm’s Deep fight so huge and complex that you can’t take it all in. The action in 300 is on that scale, but the storytelling isn’t. In 300 you get spun around swordplay depicted in a way that keeps the action up there on the screen, not right in your lap where it should be. The effects, while cool to watch, kept tossing me out of the story. In that way, this film feels too much like the Geonosis execution scene from Attack of the Clones — beautiful to look at from a technological point of view but ultimately without much spirit or soul.
None of which is to say that 300 is a bad film. It’s not. The performances are all convincing to the extent that the actors are allowed to act, and the burnished bronze look and the comic book composition of most of the scenes make 300 an amazing thing to watch. We’re in an age now when movies can look like anything the director and designers can dream up and then pay to render, and in making 300 they must have done a lot of dreaming and rendering. I just wish they’d done more writing. A little more set-up on why the Persians of antiquity were so evil from the Greek point of view would have done wonders. A little more story to make the major characters more three-dimensional would have been welcome. I’m not asking for a Lifetime disease-of-the-week treatment here, just a little bit more sinew to hold the whole thing together.
300 obviously isn’t a family film. It isn’t supposed to be. It’s bloody and graphic and rough, with severed heads and limbs going airborne all over the place. It’s a manly film, full of heroic poses and speeches, a few strategic gambits and just enough of a plot to keep you with it all the way to the fourth quarter. So see it, men of the West, if you want to see some hearty fighting and comraderie and don’t mind some nudity. See it just to support one of the few war movies that wasn’t made explicitly for the purpose of undermining our war resolve. See it if you want to see good men die hard so that others might live in freedom (er, or at least the Spartan version of freedom). Just don’t expect much more than a Lucasfilm approach here, in which an epic story of freedom and liberty is reduced to striking vistas lacking depth.
300 is a fun film. I emptied my box of popcorn. But afterward I felt like what I’d seen on screen hadn’t been any more substantial than that snack.