Saturday, February 4, 2012

Ancient Warpath Fight Club: 300 Does What It Sets Out To Do.

The Good: Decent effects, Interesting moments of character, Good DVD extras
The Bad: Annoying voice-overs, Not much in the way of acting
The Basics: 300 is entertaining and worth the viewing, if only for how visually impressive it is, but it's a hard sell for owning as it does not hold up over multiple viewings.

It's a sad day when our history lessons come from big special effects movies. I'm not saying that there's no value in historical fiction, because there is, but when what we come to know about history comes mostly in the form of entertainment, that's problematic. I'm a rather educated person and the first time I heard about Spartan King Leonidas's and his battle at Thermopylae was in the series finale of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Yup, in the closing moments of my favorite series of all time, Dr. Bashir trades his Alamo annihilation fantasy for the Battle Of Thermopylae. That was the first I had heard of it. My A.P. European History teacher is coming back to take my "5" away on that exam. The first representation I had of the Battle Of Thermopylae was 300, a summer blockbuster film known for its special effects and violence now available as a decent DVD.

300 is a work of historical fiction and it is presented as a cinematic graphic novel. It is based on a historical battle and a graphic novel, but this review will focus solely on the film without comparison to those things. 300 is a worthwhile, if simple, film that is worth watching, but it is hard to argue it is a must-buy. After all, when one knows the story, it's not surprising even the first time around. Rewatching the film simply desensitizes the viewer to the violence and it holds up poorly after the third viewing. That said, it's hard not to enjoy it while it's still fresh and original.

King Leonidas, leader of the Spartans, has grown into a warrior through the traditional Spartan method of - essentially - torturing their children through tests and trials from a young age. When the Persian king Xerxes begins to march on Greece, several of the city-states fall under his influence. Leonidas consults the oracles and is warned not to go to war with Xerxes. Rejecting the oracles, Leonidas marches two hundred ninety-nine other Spartans to the mountain pass of Thermopylae, where Xerxes forces are held on the coast.

As Leonidas and his small army hold off the waves of soldiers, immortals, mutants and giant animals sent to crush Greece, Queen Gorgo works to rally the Greek senate to send reinforcements. Gorgo sacrifices her dignity to be allowed to speak before the legislature, while bought allies of Xerxes work to let Leonidas and his forces die a senseless death. The bloody, futile battle that follows stands as a visual masterpiece that is bound to thrill those who want a violent popcorn movie. Provided, of course, one can stomach popcorn amidst violence, gore and rape.

300 is perhaps most notable for its visual style. While the violence and effects are reminiscent of The Matrix (reviewed here!) or V For Vendetta (reviewed here!), what makes 300 distinctive is the color-shift to make the movie more like a comic book (or graphic novel). The color-shift makes everything more brown and golden and there is a muted, darkened quality to everything, which highlights the shadows, blood and movement. Throughout the film, there is an animated quality to much of the look and while it takes a few moments to get used to, it works out for the story, allowing the viewer to get sucked into a very classical and yet fanciful world. The stark realism of the blood and gore and intrigue set in the unique visual style allows the viewer to immediately accept the conceits that arise as the film continues. Leonidas's army is not fighting simple mortal Persians, instead, there are adversaries that are superhuman; a giant, immortal ninjas, and the godlike Xerxes himself. In fact, part of what makes the visual style so incredible is in Xerxes. Xerxes is played by Rodrigo Santoro, who I watched for his entire run on the third season of Lost (reviewed here!) and he was utterly unrecognizable in his role in 300. It's incredible how the make-up and color-shifting effects make the film work as something truly unique. With Santoro, there is also some serious forced perspective work going on.

It is the visual style, the slowdowns and speed ups and the unreal coloring that creates a world where everything is possible and real and this allows such conceits to fit into the imagination of the viewer. 300 is a fantastic visual marvel.

Unfortunately, the screenplay follows closely to a graphic novel format. Making the film look like a graphic novel, with its color scheme and sense of movement, works. Up until the last minute of the movie, the exposition does not. Throughout the movie, there is a voice-over from Dilios, one of the 300 Spartans. Dilios tells Leonidas's story from his harsh childhood through his part in the battle. While the setup story works all right, this conceit becomes more and more inane as the movie progresses for the simple reason that the medium does the work of the voice-over. I mean, it's pretty simple to see what Leonidas is doing during the battle because it's a movie. We don't need Dilios telling us what we are able to see. As a result, a portion of the film becomes eye-rollingly bad because it is not using the medium to its best advantage.

That said, the voice-over is a great deal of the dialogue in the movie. This is not an especially wordy film and 300 does not claim to be. Instead, it's a gore flick, it's a battle film and it works for that. The political intrigue level, with Gorgo's appealing to the Senate with the aid of the Loyalist, is a decent story, but it is fairly predictable, down to how she resolves her interactions with the traitorous Theron. Anyone who has seen any film involving political machinations and betrayal from those who are thought to be loyal, will figure out who the traitors are early on, long before their treachery is revealed.

As a result of the lightness of the dialogue - not thematic lightness, the quantity of lines - 300 is very hard to judge on the acting and character fronts. The character aspects are fairly monolithic in a very Spartan kind of way. They are willing to sacrifice life and limb for country. They are devoted to State, they are warriors and patriots (almost) all. We get it. The problem is, that is all they are.

Leonidas, Gorgo, the Loyalist, Dilios and Captain are all patriots; they are the ideal Spartans. But they don't have quirks or personalities. They are not individuals, they are all the same type put in different roles. And it's hard to care, in some ways, about any one of the characters as a result. Sure, we want to see Leonidas fight and overcome or die honorably, but we never doubt that's the direction it's going in. The film takes a very predictable plot and character sequence.

As a result, it is difficult to evaluate some of the acting. Indeed, one of the few performances that stands out is that of the minor role of the Loyalist, played by Stephen McHattie. McHattie often plays villains, coming to my attention with his role in the two-part episode of The X-Files "731" and "Nisei" (reviewed here!). Far different from his role as an assassin, McHattie plays the Loyalist with a subtlety and humble quality that resonates and impresses the viewer. While Gerard Butler's Leonidas fights with all his body, McHattie portrays the Loyalist with a quiet and grim determination that is no less impressive.

One of the amusing aspects of the casting of 300 is the use of David Wenham as Dilios. Never before had I appreciated how hard Peter Jackson worked in The Lord Of The Rings (reviewed here!) to cast the brothers Boromir and Faramir as I did when watching 300. Quite simply, I kept waiting to see Sean Bean's name pop up in the credits and when it turned out to be Wenham, I nodded and said, "Of course!" The guy who looks like Boromir is the stud who played Faramir. It's refreshing to see Wenham getting work.

Beyond that, the acting is mediocre at best. Lena Headey has a steely gaze that defines Gorgo and Gerard Butler has the ability to yell and run with the best of them, but for the most part, Butler's acting is reduced to swinging a sword and Headey's acting is mostly in fixing that gaze on her target. And performing in sex scenes. Butler and Headey do fine, but there is not much they are called upon to do to define their characters. And once the characters are defined, much of their performance is in movement and maintaining that resolve. Playing characters who do not so much grow and change, but rather fight and snarl is not much to go on.

On the DVD, there is a commentary track that is insightful and enjoyable, but for those who want extras, you'd have to pick up the two-disc version. That has multiple featurettes and other goodies in addition to the commentary track. For my money, given how quickly I tired of rewatcing 300, the two-disc version is not a terribly good value in my book.

But, it's enough to recommend watching 300, if not owning it. Anyone looking to get their fix out of senseless violence and gore and make a good case that 300 has a point. Truth be told, after years of watching politicians not stand up and soldiers acting with questionable honor, it's refreshing to see a cadre of loyalist who will stand against oppression and wrong, even if it is just historical fiction. If you want something as cool and a bit smarter, be sure to check out Watchmen (reviewed here!).

For other works with Micheal Fassbender, please be sure to visit my reviews of:
X-Men: First Class
Jonah Hex


For other film reviews, please be sure to check out my index page on the subject by clicking here!

© 2012, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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