300 the movie
Actors: Gerard Butler, Lena Headey, Dominic West, David Wenham, Vincent Regan, Rodrigo Santoro & Andrew Tiernan
Director: Zack Snyder
Screenplay: Snyder. Kurt Johnstad & Michael Gordon
Studios: Warner Bros/Legendary Pictures/Virtual Studio
Like many filmgoers in the west this weekend, my girlfriend and I attended a screening of 300, the film adaptation of Frank Miller’s comic-book series of the same name (most have been referring to the original work as a graphic novel, but they seem to have forgotten it was released in an episodic format initially). The historical epic is surprisingly accessible for the masses, and it’s been long enough since I read Miller’s original work that the story offered a couple of surprises along the way. Obviously, the greatest appeal of the movie is the never-ending array of visual delights, from stunning special effects to Miller’s dazzling character designs. In fact, one’s initial impression of this film is that its appeal rests entirely in the visual experience, that storytelling and characterization are barely secondary concerns. But that’s really not the case. The actors’ charisma — especially that of star Gerard Butler — keeps the audience involved in the plot even when alien and monsters visions aren’t filling the big screen.
Leonidas, king of the Greek city state of Sparta, learns of a coming invasion by the seemingly innumerable forces of Persian king Xerxes. Leonidas prepares for war, but he is enraged when politics and a corrupt clergy blocks him from doing what he knows is necessary. Instead, he leads a small contingent of 300 of the greatest Spartans warriors to head off the Persian army at a tactical bottleneck — the Hot Gates — a narrow mountain corridor near that should provide the advantage they need to overcome the seemingly infinite sea of soldiers and monsters than awaits them.
One could easily argue that the story is one of conservatism and Aryan superiority. The villains of the story are not only hedonists and misshapen creatures, but people of color, from Middle-Eastern soldiers to Asian slave-drivers. The chief antagonist boasts an exotic and homosexual flair, whereas the heroes are stereotypical tough guys through and through. Is the story a hidden tale of Western and Christian superiority? I honestly don’t think so. The fact of the matter is that history and geography serve as the casting agents for the characters on either side of the conflict. In this case, there’s not really any great need to read anything into the cultural divisions for the good guys and bad.
Butler’s performance is captivating. He exudes honor, bravery and leadership. His eyes are thoroughly expressive, able to convey concern and friendship for his subordinates. Butler also brings a certain degree of tenderness to the role when it’s called for. In order for the story to work, the audience needs to believe completely in Leonidas, needs to see what his soldiers and his family see in him. Butler’s performance is one of an impossibly good, determined and powerful man, and he manages to sell.
Another standout performance comes from new Lost cast member Rodrigo Santoro. As the god-king Xerxes, he is appropriately resplendent and arrogant. He’s made up and digitally manipulated perfectly. He is both stunningly beautiful yet thoroughly creepy and unsettling in appearance. It’s easy to believe why so many would be enthralled by his temptations. Santoro’s Brazilian accent can clearly be heard, but it adds an even more exotic quality to the already unusual, lithe and imposing figure.
Ultimately, what’s most engaging about this movie is the visual spectacle of ancient war. The swordplay and spear-handling unfold like some kind of grotesque ballet. The action choreographed perfectly, and the bloodshed is surprisingly eye-engaging, not gory. The ugliness of the monstrosities the Spartans must face is rivalled only by the excesses of Xerxes and his lieutenants. I watched this film in a theatre with hundreds of moviegoers, and there was no rude whisperings, no one checking their watches. Each set of eyes was riveted to the screen. This slice of history is more unreal than real, and there’s no education to be had watching Snyder and Miller’s interpretations of these figures. But 300 is a visual feast, each course just as satisfying as the one before, if not moreso. 7/10