Directed by: Zack Snyder
Starring: Gerard Butler, Lena Headey, David Wenham, Rodrigo Santoro
Rated: R for graphic battle sequences throughout, some sexuality and nudity.
Parental Notes: This is a hugely over-the-top film with oodles of graphic violence and one fairly intense sex scene. It’s all very cartoonish, though, so it may be just fine for some teens.
After the film adaptation of Frank Miller’s graphic novel “Sin City” in 2005, there should be little surprise among the movie-going public at the fact that the new movie adaptation of Miller’s “300” is a huge, over-the-top film. It is more than a little heavy-handed, and those who pay attention to current events may have trouble distancing this evil-Persians-vs-good-Westerners tale from U.S. rumblings against Iran. Still, if you are looking for battlefield action and unbridled machismo, “300” will deliver both to you in spades.
“300” is based on the story of the battle at Thermopylae in 480 BCE, when a small force of Greeks fought the Persian army led by King Xerxes. The Spartan-led forces held off the Persians for three days and bought time for the Athenians to prepare for the campaign which ultimately smashed Xerxes’ army and ended the Greco-Persian wars.
The Persian leader Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro, “Lost”) is a powerful God-king whose army numbers over a million men. He sends word to the city-states of Greece demanding submission and symbolic gifts of soil and water. King Leonidas (Gerard Butler, “Phantom of the Opera”) of Sparta refuses and throws the messenger into a pit. However, Leonidas’ determination to go to war against Persia is halted by the corrupt priests, who tell him that the Gods want the Spartans to celebrate an upcoming holy day and forbid him to go to war.
Leonidas gathers three hundred soldiers and heads out anyway. The entire force is expecting death in battle, which for the warlike Spartans is something to be desired. Thermopylae provides an excellent spot for the face-off; there, the cliffs create a narrow pass which 300 men can defend without becoming surrounded. Xerxes leads his multitudes of soldiers and flings them at the Spartans, who fight with incredible skill against the unbelievable odds. Meanwhile, back in Sparta, Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey, “The Brothers Grimm”) tries to rally support for the king and finds corruption at the heart of the Spartan government.
There are some nice bits of history in the film, from famous quotes (told that the Persian arrows will rain so thick as to block out the sun, one Spartan says, “then we shall fight in the shade!”) to the description of the authoritarian Spartan lifestyle. The Spartans even fight in phalanx formation at times, which will warm the heart of any student of ancient warfare. Of course, this is a Hollywood film, so the soldiers frequently break ranks and engage in the whirling, showy fighting so prevalent in modern films and so impractical in real life. One can only admire the artistry and try to ignore the utter stupidity of any such battle maneuvers.
The battle sequences are shot in beautiful, crisp definition, with super-slow-motion deployed here and there so we can admire the arcs of CGI blood and spinning decapitated heads. It definitely looks like a graphic novel come to life, which is nifty, but it is also reminiscent of a video game: where else would huge blood spatters not make slippery puddles on the ground?
One criticism which the film richly deserves is the propagandistic simplification of the two sides. The Spartans are all unbelievably good-looking, from the ultra-manly soldiers (each with rippling, well-oiled pectoral muscles and a six-pack of abs) to the strong and beautiful women. The Persian army, meanwhile, is peopled with dark-skinned folks of every nation and deformed monsters, and is led by a completely shaven and very androgynous fellow dressed head-to-toe in gold jewelry and wearing thick makeup. Characters are either evil or good, there is no middle ground here. Evil characters always behave treacherously while good characters always behave in a laudable fashion. It is utterly cartoonish, a history written by the winners dialed to eleven.
Overall, “300” is a decent action flick and is visually stunning, but folks who like to analyze their entertainment may find it a bit unsettling. This humble reviewer can’t help wishing that they’d gone for a bit more historical accuracy and a bit less for simplistic, over-the-top storytelling.