Inspired by graphic novelist, Frank Miller’s highly stylized, and much celebrated reincarnation of the Battle of Thermopylae, Zack Snyder’s 300 (2006) is a thought-numbing would-be epic of impeccable carnage – mostly created through the magic of CGI. The film charts the ruthless and relentless journey of that noble sect of Grecian warriors – The Spartans as they prepare to do battle against insurmountable Persian forces.
The Spartans are led by valiant King Leonidas (the spectacularly muscled Gerard Butler, who claims – in one of the behind the scenes featurettes – to holding a strict regime of 4 hr. daily workouts 3 months prior to the film shoot); a bit of a maniacal crazy, obsessed with an inherent code of ethics that cannot be tempted or compromised. The Spartans march as one indestructible conquering machine. Throughout the film’s rather flimsy narrative, Leonidas makes repeated references to the fact that free men will always fight with more honor/valor and blind determination to preserve what is theirs than an army of slaves.
On the home front, Leonidas is loved by his Queen, Gorga (Lena Headey), respected by his people and worshipped by his soldiers. However, in Sparta’s council of elders there is much consternation over the question of leadership, particularly from Theron (Dominic West) a Janus-faced traitor who trades on his political authority for leverage with both the council and the loyalties of its Queen. At the onset, the Spartans wage an all out slaughter against the Persian forces in one magnificent victory upon the next. But the tide turns out of favor when Leonidas discourages a humpback cripple, Ephialtes (Andrew Tiernan) from joining their forces. Ephialtes betrays his king for superficial and earthly rewards.
The great disappointment of the film is that, though its visuals remain bloody and faithful to Miller’s original comic, their overwhelming spectacle is married to a rather passionless hodgepodge – more decorative than narrative and allowing for even less of a personal investment from the audience than one might expect (As example: the central male/female relationship between Leonidas and Gorga fails to generate even an ounce of believable passion beyond the friction of bodies rising and falling in connubial bliss.)
Understandably, speaking parts are neither the point nor the purpose of Miller’s comic or the film’s screenplay. That works in service of the graphic novel, but it is a bit more problematic for cinema. In depriving us of words beyond mere sound bytes, the film becomes a derelict of mottos – not motivations. The Spartans causes: honor, family, glory, freedom never surmount the bone-crushing epic splendor of an ancient carnival freak show, with the Spartans appearing as though they have taken their memberships to Gold’s Gym too seriously and are now suffering from a bad case of penis envy and roid rage.
As Leonidas, Gerard Butler clearly has both a physical and emotional grasp and presence. Yet, he is oddly deprived of humanity – circumcised in favor of a bloodless façade cut from the same cloth as Arnold Schwartzenegger’s Terminator. His actions thus appear more instinctual than articulate – less the meticulous plotting of a master warrior and superior general than the rabid backlash of a wounded animal.
Larry Fong’s MTV style camerawork and William Hoy’s editing – though considerably more smooth than most of their generation – nevertheless contributes to an artifice of superficiality instead of total audience engagement. The battle sequences are not so brilliantly staged as they remain plastic and waxen vignettes – a sort of stop motion tableau of Miller’s novel – artful, perhaps, but one dimensional nonetheless. In the end, 300 inspires praise for its ability to provide an exceptionally accurate recreation of Miller’s comic styling. However, taken from its printed context, the filmic excursion remains as flat as those imaginative images on the printed page.
Warner Home Video’s 2 disc DVD is generally pleasing and captures the CGI splendor of the original filmic presentation, though not without a few flaws. The stylized color palette is dramatically recreated. Blacks are solid and deep. There are no clean, pure whites. Occasionally, digital grit (apart from that inherent and planned in the original theatrical release) is quite thick and obvious – particularly during the final battle sequence, where close ups of Leonidas reveal a tiling effect on his headgear.
The audio is an aggressive 5.1 Dolby Digital. Extras include an informative – occasionally rambling audio commentary track, plus a litany of behind the scenes featurettes on disc 2, delving into every conceivable aspect of the film’s creation. Oddly, the original theatrical trailer is not included.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)