Comic books aren’t exactly known for their subtlety, and that makes writer/director Zack Snyder the perfect man to bring Frank Miller’s 300 to the screen. Miller’s written some genuine classics in his field — Sin City, The Dark Knight Returns — that have inspired films that managed to successfully marry Miller’s pulp tales with the kind of grandiosity only available on the silver screen, and his graphic novel based on the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C. certainly isn’t lacking in style. But in Snyder’s loving but shaky hands, 300 is more spectacle than anything else, a thundering ode to orgiastic bombast that’s peppered with moments of genuine power or thrill but ultimately weighed down by its own self-righteousness. Snyder wields his film as a four-year-old might brandish a revolver, delighted by its weight and look but only barely conscious of its power and meaning. Still, there are times when 300 is an absolutely jaw-dropping combination of violence, emotion, and cocksure swagger, and for a few brief seconds something dark and almost beautiful shines through.
From the first frame of the opening titles, Snyder pours it on thick. Lightning tears the bruised sky as Dilios (David Wenham) narrates the story of a young Spartan boy who, in order to prove his worthiness, was left to die in the wild, only to triumph over adversity by slaughtering a wolf and returning to his people. That boy grew to be King Leonidas (Gerard Butler), a ruthless warrior whose character is only as deep as his willingness to die for honor, glory, and the other grand ideas that get floated in swords-and-sandals epics. Dilios’ narration is lifted pretty much straight from the graphic novel, which presents an interesting quandary: The closer Snyder adheres to the book, the lesser the impact of the film. Not by much, but it’s there. Such narration is an understandable tradition in comics, as it allows multiple characters to reveal themselves to the reader and provides a perfect complement to the image to create the book’s overall tone. But Snyder’s got an army of computers, an overpowering score, and often painfully self-aware cinematography already beating the viewer over the head, and hearing Dilios’ take on things doesn’t help much.
That’s probably Snyder’s biggest problem: He goes for too much, way too soon. When a messenger from Xerxes, king of the Persian forces, visits Leonidas and demands the Greeks pledge fealty to Persia, a sequence that could have been mined for the subtle emotional changes working through Leonidas and his countrymen instead becomes an ode to slow-motion posturing, with the messenger’s horse reared up and photographed in a pointless state of near freeze-frame, and slow dolly shots that push in on random children and townsfolk as Tyler Bates’ score takes it up another unnecessary melodramatic notch. The exchange between the defiant Leonidas and the incredulous messenger is inevitable: When the emissary blurts out, “This is blasphemy! This is madness!,” Leonidas predictably growls “This is Sparta!” before kicking him into a bottomless pit. It’s one of the moments that borders on schlock, when the movie threatens to get too full of itself.
Thankfully, salvation is soon at hand. Leonidas fails to receive approval to go to war against Persia, but circumvents the law by taking 300 of his best warriors as a personal expeditionary force to fight off the invading army. (The political ramifications of which are clearly not lost on me, but I’ll save that for later.) Leonidas and his men head north to the shore and meet the swarms of invading Persian forces; the chaos, when it comes, is beautiful. For the first major crunch, Snyder drops the score and focuses on the visceral thrust of the opposing armies, as spears and swords begin to shed copious amounts of blood. Heads roll, limbs are lopped off, and the whole thing unfolds with a brisk and palpable energy. It’s as if Snyder wanted to make the movie just for the chance to show off his action chops. Parts of 300 feel like an echo of Gladiator (a hollow film to begin with): shots of wheat fields and worried wives, with a lonely alto trilling through some melismatic open vowel that’s meant to be ominous or creepy or something. And for a moment, it looks like the battle scenes will unfold with the same choppy look of Ridley Scott’s film. But Snyder suddenly infuses the scenes with a dazzling fluidity, thanks to the use of three individual cameras running at 150 frames/second to film the fights. The three overlapping lenses allow Snyder to shift perspective and adjust film speed without actually cutting, creating a kind of unique detachment in the way the battle unfolds. It also manages to mimic the way your eye reads a comic book panel, alighting on one detail or another while gradually collecting the entire image. Snyder choreographs some truly stunning brawls here, and it’s easily the best thing about the film.
Unfortunately, Snyder loses momentum by regularly transitioning between Leonidas’ men and the events unfolding back in the city, where Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey), finds herself in a battle of political will with Theron (Dominic West) about whether to send troops to support her husband’s small band of fighters. Snyder’s point here isn’t political; this isn’t a message film, or a satire, but a chance to see some pretty graphic decapitations while men ride charging rhinos. “Honestly, I didn’t mean for the movie to be interpreted that way,” Snyder has said of any attempts to read the film as either supporting the current administration (the president as heroic Leonidas, defending his home at any cost) or damning it (the president as Xerxes, using his might to inflict his will on a smaller nation). And while Snyder’s neutrality is a minor blessing, it also means that he doesn’t invest the political subplot with the same energy he brings to the main story. Every time the film leaves the beach of Leonidas and his bloodied men for the dry affairs of the city, I had to keep reminding myself what it was that Gorgo wanted; something good, something for Leonidas, that much I remembered, but it always took a beat or two to place it.
The film thrives in its bloodiest sequences, even as Snyder turns Miller’s already broad graphic novel into a pompous story that occasionally skirts the borders of unintentional comedy. The Scottish-born Butler, who looks chiseled out of granite, brings a ferocity to the role of Leonidas, and even manages to inject a few moments of levity that give the character a hint of depth. The rest of the cast performs admirably, meaning that they manage to sell their lines with conviction, which is no easy feat when you’re up against a greenscreen and a horde of digital mutants.
Snyder came from music videos, and made his feature debut with the reimagined Dawn of the Dead. His taste for gore is front and center in 300, but he tries to balance it with a story about integrity. But the emotions here are cheap, no more than aimless ideals used as an excuse for slaughter. Leonidas at one point chides the Persians for their hubris, a statement so blissfully unselfconscious that it should have revealed something true, if warped, about the character. Instead, all it does is inexplicably rally the troops, and it rings false. 300 is a sight to behold, but hardly a rousing one.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.Blood For Blood, And By The Gallon
Film | March 11, 2007 | Comments ()