As a big fan of Frank Miller and Lynn Varley's graphic novel of the same name, I really wanted this film version to stroll into my local Cineplex victorious, having traversed the perils of adapting comic book to screen the way Miller did himself when he and Robert Rodriguez made Sin City. I'd have loved for the comic book icon to be two for two in his adventures in Hollywood. Judging by the crowd reaction when I saw the movie, his record probably stands intact; personally, I declare this one a draw.
I should note, Frank Miller actually had little if anything to do with this adaptation. Director Zack Snyder (Dawn of the Dead) definitely has a healthy respect for the source material and its creator, however, and the filming style of 300 takes a big cue from Sin City. Shot entirely in front of green and blue screens, it brings the comic book to life in a sensational fashion, using nigh imperceptible digital effects and a gorgeously blown-out color palette. Fans of the book have probably already noted Lynn Varley's name listed with Miller's on all the promotion, and that's because her painted color had as much to do with the novel's success as Miller's writing and drawing. Snyder took great care to make sure both of their work was represented on the screen, and you'll want to gorge on all the delicious eye candy he has put together.
In fact, the main reason I'm tipping this into the "recommended" slot is you should take the time to see it on the big screen. I can't think of a movie in recent memory that was this consistently conscious of the framing of each shot. Miller drew 300 as double-page comic book spreads, meaning that each image was twice as long as an average comic book (roughly 17" wide, 11" tall). 300 was a true widescreen comic, and Snyder has composed his movie to look like the book. This means a lot of straight-on shots, with the action centered in the frame and the actors looking directly into the lens. For the more grounded scenes, the ones more concerned with dialogue and the intrigues of the story, Snyder and cinematographer Larry Fong (TV's Lost) hold steady; it's only when the action begins, either on the battlefield or in the bedroom, that the camera moves, and when it does, it's with the flow of that action. The camera eye is always looking at the story, is always in service to what is happening. You will be very aware of the borders of the image and of what is contained therein, and it's because Snyder wants you to be. He's practically begging you to feast on every pixel.
Unfortunately, it can sometimes be too much. Even while the images show structural restraint, every picture is bursting with color and detail. The simplest of acts are injected with grandiosity. I expected at some point King Leonidas (Gerard Butler, the Phantom in the big-screen Phantom of the Opera) would have to bend down and tie his shoe, and with each flick of his laces, there would be the swell of a symphony and lightning bolts shooting from his fingertips. While Snyder intends to pump up his audience and inspire breasts swollen with the glory of the Spartan crusade, it struck me as unnecessary pomposity. When too many words are shouted and every escaping strand of hair on each and every warrior's head is given great importance, the playing field becomes too level.
The story of 300 is a historical epic based on the Battle of Thermopylae. When King Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro, also from Lost) brings the Persian army to Greece, he warns Leonidas that he will be coming for Sparta and suggests the good king lay down his arms. Even the Spartan priesthood, pockets bulging with Persian coin, tells Leonidas to back down, and since their word is bond, Leonidas has to find a way to circumvent the law. He leaves the bulk of the Spartan army behind, taking only 300 loyal subjects with him to try to keep the Persians from coming ashore long enough for his wife, Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey, Imagine Me & You), to hopefully marshal the support of the kingdom and send the rest of the troops to crush the invaders. On the beach, Leonidas and his warriors face impossible odds and incredible sights, including rhinos, elephants, malformed fighters, and masked swordsman called "Immortals."
Many of the battle scenes are incredible. I was worried Snyder would play too much in slow motion. These days, far too many filmmakers have dined on the Lord of the Rings trilogy one too many times and suck all the thrill out of their action sequences by dialing down the speed. It's not the preciseness of the movements that make swordfights exciting, it's the swiftness of motion and the peril of chaos. Snyder manages the best of both worlds, moving the time signature up and down as the many skirmishes require, letting us appreciate both the skill of the fighting and the danger of its consequences. My favorite scene was when two lone Spartans take on a rush of Persians, bantering back and forth as they cut their enemies to the quick. Snyder and Fong establish a graceful choreography between camera and performer, using morphing effects and advanced cutting and zooming to guide our eye through the carnage. It's stunning.
And yet, there is also a tenuous marriage between the special effects and the reality of the fiction. Miller's impressionistic ink line allows him a lot of latitude. He can create grotesque figures like the monstrous battling slave the Persians unleash on Leonidas or the Spartan hunchback Ephialtes (Andrew Tiernan) and have it work within the context of his art; whereas Snyder can't quite make them fit into his landscape, no matter how painterly he tries to make it look. This is particularly apparent with Xerxes, who is meant to be a giant towering over Leonidas. The Persian king's movements look awkward, and when he is meant to appear with his smaller rival, it still looks like they were shot on two different screens and then shoved together, like a double-exposure photograph. Snyder also runs Xerxes' voice through a filter that deepens it and adds a slight echo, and the sound doesn't fit the actor's mouth.
This is one of many things that kept me from being able to completely lose myself in the world of 300. All of the others fit the same bill, however, in that they end up jarring with the rest of the film. The score by Tyler Bates (Slither) might be overwrought, but at least when it's a traditional orchestra, it fits the grandeur of the battle. When he switches over to guitar-based nu-metal, it just seems silly, making 300 come off more like a video game than a movie. Elsewhere, the persistent voiceover narration moves from being a charming nod to the Grecian oral tradition to an unnecessary intrusion. More than once I found myself thinking it would have been far more effective for Snyder to let the action play and leave out the wry commentary. It often felt lazy, committing the cardinal sin of voiceover by filling in a storytelling gap. On the other hand, my movie companion, who enjoyed the movie much more than I and who is also far superior to my dull intellect, made a good case for the emphasis on this as a story being told, as being passed down as a remembrance of events, making it the key to Snyder's exaggerated world. If the Persians are outlandish in their piercings and golden chains, and their beasts and behemoths are larger than life, they enter the realm of myth or, at the very least, a propaganda machine. I'd have to see the movie again to hear if the narration bears this out, but I'm willing to be swayed.
When it's all summed up, however, I think my basic problem is deeper than that. Frank Miller is a master of the broad stroke. He has an uncanny knack from wringing subtlety out of blunt force trauma, something Zack Snyder is unable to master. A comic book page is a much more suitable place for creating a sense of mythic wonder. The art can establish its own world without playing with real toys, something the film medium, even with all of its computer graphics and high-tech effects, still can't do. Snyder can manufacture the ground beneath their feet and the skies above their head, but his actors will still be human, and as a result, I'm still going to demand a little humanity from them. We are told that Leonidas loves his queen and that the soldiers care about their fallen comrades, but Snyder is too busy making the winds blow with great force to take the time to pause and enjoy the simplicity of a human sigh. The result really is more like a video game than a moving story about heroes making the ultimate sacrifice for their families and their country, and that's the fatal flaw that stops 300 from being the great war epic it could be (and was on the page) and relegates it to being just a decent action flick.