Monday, November 30, 2015

300 Film Review

by The World Weary

Director: Zack Synder
Cast: Gerard Butler, David Wenham, Len Heady, Rodrigo Santoro
Series: 300
MPAA Rating: R
Length: 117 Minutes

Buy on Amazon!


Frank Miller really likes the Battle of Thermopylae. Not only does he reference it in his Sin City story, The Big Fat Kill, but he also (for those of you who didn’t know) adapted it into a five issue miniseries called 300. The actual battle consisted of 7000 or so Allied Greeks facing down hundreds of thousands of invading Persians. Led by King Leonidas of Sparta, the Greeks held off the massive Persian invading force while simultaneously, General Themistocles of Athens prepared to face the massive Persian navy in Artemisium. Staking a defensive position in a narrow path known as “The Hot Gates”, the Allied Greeks held the Persians off for five days. Using superior tactics, the Greeks dealt a crippling blow to Persian King Xerxes I. Sadly though, a Greek traitor, Ephialtes of Trachis, revealed a hidden path that lead behind the Greeks, allowing Xerxes to move some of his army around and crush the Allied forces. After hearing word of Ephialtes’ betrayal, most of the Greek force left. Only 300 Spartans, 700 Thespians, and 400 Thebans remained behind to slow Xerxes’ advance. Most, if not all were slain, technically making the battle a Persian victory, but the word of how the soldiers held a vastly larger force against seemingly impossible odds spread like wildfire, and still echoes across history as one of the most extraordinary displays of patriotism and valor the world has ever known.

With a story that good, it’d be hard to mess up right? Well…

Frank Miller’s story is VERY loosely adapted from that scene in history, and Zack Snyder, looking to capitalize off yet another famed writer’s work has adapted Miller’s more stylized, fantasy-like take on Thermopylae into a panel to frame feature film. I won’t waste too much time with another plot synopsis, as the film fundamentally follows the heroic defense led by Leonidas. There are some differences, such as Leonidas(Gerard Butler) leaving with only 300 Spartan warriors and being joined by a paltry force of Arcadians, Xerxes having access to semi supernatural super warriors, as well as much of the action and subplots. What you need to know though is Leonidas and a small force are going to fight Xerxes’ Million Man March.

Where the comic takes liberties with history, the film does so tenfold. Massive best like men command and punish Xerxes’ forces in the face of a loss against what should have been an easy conquest. Xerxes’ immortals aren’t men in the same way Sauruman’s Uruk-Hai aren’t orcs. And it is here that we come across the first controversy this movie raised. Where all of Greece is inhabited by noble, physically fit, and Democratic people, Persia seems to be comprised of the demon masses of Dante’s Nine Circles, a couple God of War bosses, and thousands of stereotypes to serve as cannon fodder. Even in the comic, Xerxes’ forces were mostly human, albeit still shoehorned into being little more than blank faced servants of evil. Here though, every single foreign being is a grotesque monster that barely resembles a man both physically and in spirit. At the time of the film’s release, the United States was balls deep into our conflict in the Middle East. Fallujah had just become a household name, and we were carving peace signs into our bullets to more efficiently carry our message of freedom across the land. Many viewed this blatant polarization as a xenophobic, pro-imperialist metaphor for our conflict.

In another stroke of controversial muckraking, the Spartans are portrayed as openly homophobic, even calling the Athenians “boy lovers” and laughing in their faces. The great irony here is that the Spartans were well known to encourage male homosexuality within their military. Famed writer Alan Moore has even publicly called out Miller (and by proxy, Snyder) for his blatantly historically inaccurate representation of the Spartans views on sexuality. In a way, I can imagine that Miller must have thought that making the Spartans homophobes would make them more masculine in the eyes of the reader. The funny part is, being a man isn’t about harboring an inexplicable rage toward an entire group of people. Last time I checked, being a man meant you took personal responsibility for all your actions and words and worked to better your family and community.

In many respects, I agree with these sentiments. You cannot make a film nowadays and not expect to have someone somewhere compare it to our world or point out where you deviated from the truth. Like the old adage goes, “Life imitates art.” Film is a visual medium that allows us to express our feelings and ideas about the world we live in through stories and character. That said though, we’re talking about a Zack Snyder film. This man hasn’t made anything even remotely original in his entire career. His first film was a “28 Days Later’ed” version of George A Romero’s zombie classic, Dawn of the Dead. Every subsequent film he has ever made has been an adaptation of one comic or another, and even a mostly original story like the one found in Man of Steel, borrows heavily from all areas of pre-existing Superman lore. This man probably hasn’t had an original fart escape his ass in his lifetime. So trying to hold Zack Snyder accountable for Frank Miller’s 300’s not so subtle xenophobia, homophobia, and fascist undertones is like trying to hold a dung beetle accountable for the dog shit you’ve got on your shoe. The argument is moot.

Controversies and the like aside, this just isn’t really a good film. The film borrows far too heavily from the comic in it’s narrative structure, leading you to feel as if Dilios (David Wenham), the narrator of the story, is just reading the comic to you and as a result, you never feel as if you’re watching a movie as much as a motion comic. Snyder’s distinct flair for heavy handed stylization doesn’t help. In a way I can admire how similarly Snyder framed the action to the printed version, and also how similarly colored they are, but again, this goes back to how Snyder can’t do anything on his own. Some might argue that Frank Miller’s Sin City, directed by Robert Rodriguez, falls into the same category, and in a way it does, but I just feel that 300 could have benefited from a somewhat more fresh visual style, whereas Sin City kept the same black and white style as a throwback to Film Noir.

Snyder also overdoses his scenes on slow motion action shots. Literally, most of this movie is at slower than normal speeds, probably to highlight the epic drama of the moment. However, after the 400th slow motion shot of Leonidas walking around, screwing his wife, or looking stoic, it gets really old. Rely solely on the slow motion to build the tension ultimately cheapens every moment in the film. That’s not to say it doesn’t look cool at times. One moment that stands out is when Leonidas breaks formation on the first day of battle and whoops some motherfucking ass along the Persian frontlines. For the most part, much of the action follows suit. It looks good, but that’s about it. There’s no dramatic tension to make the battles feel like they mean anything aside from being another plot point to carry you towards Leonidas’ inevitable defeat.

Where this film shines is in it’s leading man and woman. Gerard Butler is masculinity personified. Having trained heavily for the role, he is one of the most physically imposing characters to grace the silver screen. His thick and gruff Scottish accent, while ill suited to a Greek character, only adds to his character’s steadfast toughness and raw power. He mostly screams his lines, which in most cases would be flat out silly (a fact the internet meme community has had fun with), but somehow he had just the right amount of charisma, raw masculinity, and grace to make his loud proclamations carry real impact. When he bellows, “THIS IS SPARTA!” before murdering a Persian, he walked himself into the Pantheon of film’s most memorable protagonists. The incredible Lena Heady radiates as Queen Gorgo. She clearly is having fun playing the tough, smart, regal, Queen of Sparta and as a result it is a joy to watch her. This woman seems to be born to play smart, ruthless, powerful,  and beautiful women. Whether it’s Mom from Dredd, Cersei Lannister from Game of Thrones, or Gorgo, Lena Heady is the embodiment of the strong woman. It’s Probably because she is a smart, funny, beautiful, and talented woman…

When you watch 300, you might have fun, you might even really like the film (as most of my peers at work do), but in the end it really isn’t a substantial meal for your mind. Sure you can turn off your mind to the film’s accidentally (or ignorantly) carried over themes from the book and enjoy the spectacle of it all, but here is a film the could have been more and could have truly said something to it’s audience. Instead it chose to be a mostly thoughtless action blockbuster.

Score: 6.0

No comments:

Post a Comment