Director: Zack Snyder
Starring: Gerard Butler, Lena Headey,
Zack Snyder‘s relentlessly faithful adaptation of Frank Miller and Lynn Varley’s graphic novel is a powerful, though imperfect, piece of moviemaking. Its excesses should be forgiven, because they are also its strengths. Not only is the film visually like nothing out there, it is in style, passion and purity unlike most movies. Nuanced studies of the modern human condition through, say, the careful delineation of suburban social mores and the repercussion of middle-class adultery are a fine subject for film — and hey, the people at Miramax gotta eat — but every once in awhile, you need powerful dudes in big red capes to stand for justice with a simple two-dimensional purity that makes your heart pound. And since Brian Singer screwed up his chance at that last summer, we should be very grateful to Snyder for his green-screen epic.
The Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C., in which 300 Spartan warriors led an incredibly outnumbered force in a battle to the death against the mighty army of the Persian emperor Xerxes, is both a legendary tale of sacrifice and, literally, a textbook case of war tactics. The Spartans met their foe at the mouth of a narrow canyon that forced the enemy legions to narrow down to a wedge, letting the brilliantly trained Spartans whittle down the tip of it over and over, inflicting losses much larger than their numbers should have permitted. It was enough to slow Xerxes down so that a united Greece could regroup and eventually rout his armies.
Frank Miller, creator and co-director of last year’s Sin City, also adapted from his comic books, is about as subtle as a sawed-off shotgun. His tale of King Leonidas’ last stand is brutal, exaggerated and exalted. His Spartans are superhuman, his Persians — and any Greeks who don’t share Leonidas’ noble machismo — are deformed monsters. The fate of democracy and the free world hang in the balance, though in real life Sparta itself was no model democracy, freedom extended only to men of the warrior class, and slavery was an accepted way of life. But you know what? Screw that — we are not here for the subtle, the nuanced, the ironic. We are here for the grand battle, the heroic sacrifice, and both Miller’s book and Snyder’s film deliver.
In the book, Miller’s stark black-and-white drawings were transformed by longtime collaborator Lynn Varley, whose lusciously painted skies and landscapes make the book as distinctive as the brutal black/white/spot-color style of the Sin City comics. Snyder, working almost entirely with green screen, digitally recreates the look and feel—and many specific panels—for his film. Its less boldly unusual than the Sin City film Miller directed with Robert Rodriguez, but no less arresting.
Snyder’s biggest departure from Miller’s work is also one of the film’s strengths. The graphic novel gives exactly one page to Leonidas’ queen, not even naming her (but then, can you blame him—the woman’s name was “Gorgo” …). Snyder and a small team of screenwriters add a parallel plot involving how the queen handles the elders of Sparta while her husband is breaking the rules by fighting his battle. Her role is deftly handled, as well. The authority she exercises and bravery she shows feels right, and the film doesn’t fail to remind us of the less than ideal circumstances a women, even a queen, faced in the ancient world.
It’s unfortunate, though, that Snyder doesn’t quite nail the queen’s one scene from the book. On paper, Miller gave her the actual Spartan expression handed down through history, an exhortation for a soldier to come back with his shield (victorious) or on it (dead). Miller’s queen snaps the line out haughtily, icily, and Leonidas takes it stoically. On camera, Snyder lets the actors soften more, telegraphing the emotions under the surface better, perhaps not trusting the audience to detect the bond between king and queen without using the more common cinematic language for such things.
Another arguable flaw is that Snyder, especially when not working with the added queen subplot, has only one setting: insanely intense. It makes sense that Leonidas and others are always shouting and making speeches — they’re often on the march and addressing 300 men at a time. But the constant shouting and melodramatic declamations becomes wearisome. So does the narrator, whose overwrought windbaggery makes perfect sense in the context of the story, but is just a relentless hammer to the ears of a modern audience. Snyder is brilliant at putting the look and feel of Miller’s work right there on the screen, but he could’ve used a slightly more refined sense of when enough is enough. Comic books thrive on the still image, the perfect pose to capture a scene. Sometimes Snyder poses his actors in brilliant homage to his source material, but at risk of adding hokeyness to the beautifully stylized bombast. It’s a forgivable sin, but one the viewer must resign himself to overlooking.
And of course there’s the action. The battle scenes are terrific stuff, all the punch and power of Miller’s brilliant cartooning is there on the screen. Snyder’s selective use of slow motion gives a Matrix-ish modern feel at times that makes the fight scenes seem fresh … as though any movie with an armored rhinoceros needs to worry too much about originality. It’s epic violence, grand mayhem, all the passion and horror of war is writ large on the screen, and it’s writ in digital blood that sprays everywhere (though, in a flaw of the digital moviemaking, never seems to actually land on any of the actors, who should be so slick with gore they’d look like sea gulls after an oil spill).
The cast does well with the challenges of such broad characters. Gerard Butler snarls and speechifies his way through Leonidas’ dialogue, while Lena Headey stands just as tall but feels a little more real to a modern viewer than the Spartan warriors or the fabulous Xerxes. She’s tough, passionate and beautiful, and while less over-the-top than the male characters, is exactly the sort of powerful woman you’d imagine the king of Sparta would love.
The great thing about “300,” if you’re not sure about whether to see it, is the beginning. What you get in the first ten minutes is exactly what you’re going to get until the credits roll. A melodramatic narrator voices over scenes of a brutal Spartan childhood, including the child who’ll grow into King Leonidas facing down a wolf that’s about the size of a horse. A horse with glowing eyes. If the over-the-top narration and stunningly unreal imagery don’t enchant you — and they should; let other movies be quiet and dignified — you’ve got plenty of time to go to the box office, get your money back, and contemplate the paucity of your imagination.