July 30, 2007
Capitalizing on the success of Sin City (2005) and some canny marketing (the screening of a trailer at the San Diego Comic Con was particularly effective), 300 (2006) became a surprise commercial hit despite mostly scathing reviews. Like Sin City and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004), 300 was shot entirely on green-screen soundstages with only actors and the bare minimum of sets and props with CGI locations and characters added later. This approach is perfect for recreating such a specifically stylized world as the one depicted in Frank Miller’s graphic novel of the same name on which this film is based on.
300 is a fast ‘n’ loose take on the Battle of Thermopylae between the Spartans and the Persian army. The Spartans, led by King Leonidas (Butler), faced incredible odds. There were only 300 of them and thousands upon thousands of Persians. The film begins by establishing the harsh, war-like nature of the Spartans and how their society works. Trouble arises when Persian messengers arrive in Sparta telling Leonidas to submit to their leader, Xerxes (Santoro). Naturally, he rejects their offer by killing the messengers.
Leonidas is eager to take the battle to the Persians but the Oracles disagree. It is against Spartan law to disobey them but, hey, Leonidas is the king so he assembles 300 of his best warriors and they set out to find the Persian army. The Spartans find just the right geographical location that allows the Persian army to funnel in making their vast numbers irrelevant so long as the Spartans don’t lose too many of their army. The Persians send wave after wave of men to die at the hands of Leonidas and his very determined men. As the battle drags on, Xerxes throws all kinds of variations at the Spartans: a giant, a heavily armoured rhino, a wave of arrows that blots out the sun and even crude grenades.
Gerard Butler is suitably buffed up for the role and gleefully chews up the scenery with rousing speeches to rally his troops when all looks lost. He’s got plenty of charisma to spare and convincingly portrays a leader of men, the kind of king that men would follow to the gates of Hell if he ordered them. Like Russell Crowe did in Gladiator, he commits fully to the role and sells the clichéd dialogue as if it was Shakespeare.
Director Zack Snyder films everything through a sepia filter giving 300 the look an old photograph. It’s a stunning film to behold with every frame looking like it came right out of Miller’s comic book. The battles are viscerally depicted with plenty of limb-hacking, decapitations and bone-crunching violence to satisfy any action film fan.
300 blends the epic sword and sandal brutality of Gladiator (2000) with the cutting edge SFX and the pulp sensibility of Sin City. The voiceover narration is the epitome of cheesy pretension, laughably solemn, giving the film an appropriately pulpy vibe, but pulpy times call for pulpy dialogue. One really has to enjoy 300 for what it is – an exciting thrill-ride with loads of lofty pronouncements, R-rated violence, monsters and beautiful women. Oliver Stone’s Alexander (2004) might have been more successful if it was more like this film. If they ever try to make another Conan the Barbarian film, they’ve got their visual blueprint. Snyder understands that this film’s strengths lie in its breathtaking visuals and that the dialogue is merely window-dressing. This is melodramatic, visual storytelling at its purest.
The single disc edition features only an audio commentary by director Zack Snyder, screenwriter Kurt Johnstad and director of photography Larry Fong. Snyder tends to dominate the track, pointing out images in the film that come straight from Miller’s comic book. He has an annoying habit of continually pointing out what was added later with CGI by often saying, “That’s a CG shot,” and so on. There are also too many lulls as the participants get caught up in watching the film. This is a pretty disappointing track.