Normally I don't get that excited about movies, and I especially don't get excited by the trailers. No matter how interesting a film looks, or how much a trailer makes me want to see a movie, there have been one too many times that I have felt duped. It's a lot like renting a porno based solely on the hot chick on the video case, only to make the painful discovery of just how much magic some airbrushing can actually achieve. So, as a rule, I try to always keep my expectations low. But I'll be the first to admit that the trailer for 300 had me pretty damned excited. And the more I watched the trailer, the more excited I became, thereby increasing my expectations of what the movie had to offer. And even if I had kept my expectations as low as I usually do, it still would not have prepared me for the overall disappointment that was 300.
Based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller, 300 tells the story of three hundred Spartan warriors going into battle against a massive invading army of Persians. Spartans, for those of you not up on your ancient Greek history, are not unlike the Klingons of Star Trek -- they are fine-tuned fighting machines bred for killing. Led by the brave King Leonidas (Gerard Butler), the Spartan army, slicing and dicing like a Super Veg-o-matic, lays waste to their Persian enemies. Meanwhile, back at home, politicians twiddle their thumbs about sending reinforcements to the battle, resigning Leonidas and his men to a certain doom. But since there is only honor in dying in battle, the king and his men are more than happy to take a dirt nap for the team.
Rather than jumping right into what doesn't work with 300, let me say what does work. Visually, the film is a masterpiece. An incredible achievement in CGI, 300 is one of the best looking films of the last few years. But that's all that can be said about the film. And while there is no denying the special effects wizardry of 300, I kept thinking about what an accomplishment Blade Runner was. For its time, Blade Runner was the pinnacle of special effects in film. Everything in Blade Runner was a practical effect--that's to say it was all real, made of models and miniatures and tangible things that can be held in the real world. And what Blade Runner accomplished through real and practical effects -- combined with great story -- no other film has come close to touching. But what 300 achieves from a visual standpoint, made real by computer effects, will be topped in the next few years. So, while the film is a visual masterpiece right now, it will only endure as a footnote.
The weakness that cripples 300 is a moody, pompous, and ultimately tedious script that follows Miller's original graphic novel a bit too closely. Just as the film version of Sin City stuck remarkably close to Miller's original source material, so to does 300 stay true to its origins. But the problem with the graphic novel is that from a writing standpoint it is not Miller's best work, and the incredibly faithful adaptation takes writing that barely worked in the comic medium, and translates it directly to film. Making matters worse is the fact that the new subplot the film brings to the table, detailing political corruption in Sparta, only serves to slow the film down even more.
Some people will no doubt try to draw comparisons to 300 and the current war in Iraq. The film is, after all, a chest-thumping call for battle to ensure freedom. For those who get misty-eyed when they hear the National Anthem, 300 will get them wet between the legs. Likewise, those looking for deep, profound allegories in Mentos commercials will see 300 as some sort of jingoistic glorification of the American war machine. But something tells me no one making the movie was thinking that hard about what the movie was about, as all involved seem to be most concerned with how every single frame of the film looks. This is all about style and texture, but depth and dimension are in short supply.
300 is a difficult film to come to grips with, because while it looks great, it never really works as a whole. And even within the incredible visual style, there are flaws. Director Zack Snyder relies too much on slow motion. If you were to have just half the slow-mo action play out in real time, the film would be at least thirty minutes shorter. Of course, if you did have the action play out in real time, you would not be able to notice the finely chiseled bodies of the cast as they move oh so slowly into battle. In fact, there is so much attention paid to the sweaty male bodies hacking and slicing away, splattered in blood, that 300 starts to take on a weird homoerotic tone, as the film becomes some sort of sword-and-sandal orgy of violence infused with a gay porn aesthetic. It is easy to imagine both geeky fanboys and swishy queens becoming equally aroused over the same scenes, but for completely different reasons.
When all is said and done, 300 is not a terrible film. It is just so flawed that it is very difficult to recommend. I would say that for fans of this sort of movie, it is worth watching. And if you are into the big screen, theatrical experience, then 300 is a good film to enjoy visually while eating over-priced popcorn. You may, however, want to bring your iPod or your Zune, or whatever you use to listen to music, and use that drown out the incessant dialog that begins to leave you wishing that somewhere in the theater there was a "mute" button. If you can wait for 300 to come out on DVD, which given the current turnaround time, should be in about two months, then that is the best way to watch this film--in the privacy of your own home, where you can turn off the sound, and fast-forward through the boring parts. Which makes 300 even more like a porn than some might realize.
David Walker is the creator of BadAzz MoFo, a nationally published film critic, and the Writer/Director of Black Santa's Revenge with Ken Foree now on DVD [Buy it now]