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First the good news: Zack Snyder's 300 is far, far better than the previous attempt to film the battle of Thermopylae. In 1962 Fox released an international production called The 300 Spartans with Richard Egan, but it's almost unwatchable. That leaves the famous tale of the ancient battle -- often compared to The Alamo -- wide open for a new version.
Zack Snyder's 2006 film is sourced from a graphic novel by Frank Miller, whose star has been on the rise ever since his dark revamp of the Batman mythology back in 1986. Director Snyder hasn't so much adapted Miller's story as simply "click and dragged" it to the screen, retaining the graphic style as he found it on the printed page. The film is a live action - animation hybrid, with real actors composited with computer-generated environments. The heavily stylized visuals work with a color palette even more restricted than that of the original artwork. Another big plus for 300 is that only its crowd scenes and monsters are computer generated. The film plays much better than 2007's Beowulf, where the characters are CGI simulacra animated through motion capture technology.
The story is basic. A million Persian warriors are descending on a Greece too divided to mount an appropriate defense. Even in Sparta, a kingdom of warrior ascetics, political discord sown by traitor Theron (Dominic West) forestalls a call to battle. King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) consults with his Queen Gorgo (Lena Hedey) before setting out with 300 loyal soldiers, on an "unofficial northern foray". Observing Persian Emperor Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) landing his massive armies, Leonidas decides to make his stand in the narrow mountain pass Thermopylae (simplified to just "Hot Gates" for the film). The strategy works well until Xerxes is shown a goat path through the mountains enabling his Persians to outflank the brave defenders. Leonidas and his men fight for honor, and their example goads Greece into uniting against the invader.
300's historical fantasy provides a launching pad for its main attraction, graphic combat violence writ large. The barriers to showing bloody violence for an "R" rating seem to have vanished in recent years, and Snyder's film revels in B.C. bashing and smashing with swords, spears and other pointed objects. Heads, legs, arms fly every which way, with an emphasis on shredded flesh and splattered blood. The Spartans stack enemy corpses to build battle walls. If Attila the Hun could see this, he'd be a happy camper. The movie isn't quite gore porn, but it's definitely aggression porn.
The script is a wafer-thin pack of he-man aggression-enhancement mantras, mostly shouted through clenched teeth, with one's pecs and abs jutting forward like expensive leather upholstery. I mean, these guys have abs going down to their knees. They look like catfish on two legs, with beards. "No prisoners! No mercy!" is the battle cry.
The proper Spartan attitude is inculcated through puberty walkabout rites. A flashback shows young Leonidas on his solo hunt, which ends with a decisive encounter with a wolf the size of a rhinoceros. Naturally, Leonidas lures the wuffie-poo into the narrows of a stone pathway, and fells him with a right uppercut spear thrust to the uvula. The Spartan mothers back home are just as tough as their men. We keep expecting Queen Gorgo to tell her hubby and son that their "Hard and Strong" breakfast is ready. Her famed farewell to Leonidas about "coming home with his shield or on it" is played so straight, that we wonder if Gorgo is concerned about losing a very expensive shield.
Frank Miller doesn't forget the other famous lines. Xerxes boasts that his arrows will blacken the sun, and Leonidas counters with the bon mot that his warriors will just have to fight in the shade, the 480 BC equivalent of a Double-Dog Dare. The rest of the male dialogue is locker-room oaths and threats. A couple of anti-gay barbs are in the mix, a funny choice in a genre traditionally well admired by gay audiences. Miller and Snyder throw in some female nudity to provide balance. Every strategic setback is an opportunity to demonstrate tough guy will power, and every death helps our heroes to focus their limitless hatred. And of course, the ultimate tragic defeat becomes a cue for Leonidas and his men to prove that it's a gosh-darn swell day to die, a joyous Twilight of the Gods. None of the acting in 300 impresses but the needs of the script are fulfilled: all the warriors are appropriately intense and fixated on the mayhem.
300 took some heat for its depiction of Persians, many of whom look like Africans. Xerxes is decked out in trendy piercings and seems more of a fashion model than a ruler of half the ancient world. One can make a political statement that the Persians represent a generic xenophobic enemy; it's also common for people to call 300 a gung-ho metaphor for the Iraq War. The film will strike most viewers as a celebration of the fanatic war-footing state of mind. Back home in Sparta, it would be possible to read the sneering turncoat Theron as an indictment of anti-war defeatists -- if he weren't such a cardboard Snidely Whiplash.
300's ideas are not well enough organized to support political interpretations. The film is more of a visual assault, a glandular fantasy that (as one friend said) either floats your Parthenon or doesn't. Nothing much adds up. The traitor who double-crosses Leonidas, Ephialtes (Andrew Tiernan) is a grotesque hunchback who survived Sparta's policy of killing imperfect babies. When Leonidas won't let him fight, Ephialtes looks to Xerxes for a better deal. There's no particular point to all this, unless 300 really wants us to get on the Eugenics bandwagon.
Queen Gorgo's story arc is a knee-jerk female-empowerment fantasy which just plain panders to the audience. She makes a bad deal with a bad man, and then exacts her expected personal revenge, in a public forum too. Ms. Headey, the star of TV's The Sarah Connor Chronicles, will be one to watch for in more rewarding roles.
Warner's 300 Limited Collector's Edition has plenty to offer the film's considerable fan following. The packaging is an attractive box large enough to accommodate a display image from the film. It's an action scene with lenticular animation, set in a block of clear Lucite. I don't know if the images are all the same. Savant's review copy shows Leonidas throwing a spear.
The DVD discs proper are housed in a handsome hardcover book. Its 52 glossy pages contrast concept art with final movie frames. Disc one has the movie with Zack Snyder's commentary. Writer Kurt Johnstad and cameraman Larry Fong join the director in discussing the picture. They seem like ordinary guys until they let us know that the character name "Astinos" comes from Zack Snyder's Aston-Martin car; I think they want us to know that they move in exclusive circles. Disc two has most of the "spoils of war" extras promised on the packaging. The featurette Fact or fiction contrasts the movie story with historical facts. Experts join Frank Miller to explain the Spartan battle culture. Who Were the Spartans? is more breathless praise for the Spartan way of life, using movie scenes to emphasize their appeal as "ultimate warriors". The Frank Miller Tapes is an interview with the graphic novel author covering his comic book career, that includes comments from his peers and mentors.
Making of 300 gives us our first behind-the-scenes glimpses at the film's extensive blue-screen stage work, mixed in with the usual star interviews. Once again, movie clips dominate but there's plenty of good content on the technical process used to transfer the graphic novel's visuals to the screen. With each book panel rendered as an optimized stand-alone visual, Snyder can be praised for giving the movie a coherent visual flow. Making 300 in Images is a montage of stills suitable for slo-mo viewing. What was actually filmed barely resembles the film's final, golden-toned images -- if it isn't a human figure in the near foreground, it's CGI.
Director Snyder introduces a selection of deleted scenes that won't be missed, like the confused Ephialtes' suicide attempt. A selection of promotional "webisodes" were used to promote the film on the Internet.
A third Bonus disc contains a Digital version of the movie. Paper inserts carry a code for the upload, a promotion for Blu-ray and a price sheet for an offering of official 300 art prints. Finally, an envelope contains six artwork mini-posters, each suggested by a key dialogue line. Example: "You will not enjoy this!" But actually, we did enjoy the movie.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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