Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
March 2007

It's all Greek to me

History dies all over again in the stylish, but lifeless, '300'

Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: Zack Snyder
Screenplay: Zack Snyder, Kurt Johnstad and Michael B. Gordon, based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley
Starring: Gerard Butler, Lena Headey, Dominic West, David Wenham, Andrew Pleavin, Rodrigo Santoro and Vincent Regan
Rated R / 1 hour, 57 minutes
Opened March 9, 2007
(out of four)

Zack Snyder wants you to know that his movie, 300, is very, very dramatic. With his bold, high-contrast visual palette, he is telling us that it is very dramatic. With the dramatic scowls on the face of every Spartan warrior. With the modern, pulse-pounding music that sounds like it was created for a trailer, or a video game, rather than a movie. With every persistent slow-motion shot. At one point, a Spartan warrior stares at the camera and declares, "This is a very dramatic motion-picture experience!" You know, just to make sure we got the point.

The overall result is a film of such a bloated dramatic tone that it goes way past self-seriousness right into the realm of self-parody. A stylized interpretation of the Battle of Thermopylae, 300 has some of the same intended effects - and is geared toward the same audience - as 2005's Sin City, also an adaptation of a Frank Miller graphic novel. But while Sin City had a rapidly beating pulse and was constantly moving - in story, in mood, in visuals - 300 is dead in the water. Every scene blends in with the rest. It's like a two-hour trailer.

It's certainly flashy and ostentatious enough; no amount of effort has been wasted on costumes and digitally-rendered production design. Skies are painted bright gold, rippled warriors are drenched in CGI blood, beasts and monsters rip through the Spartan army, and the hulking villain, Persia's King Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), is adorned in jewels from head to toe. It's a spectacle, all right - but an empty and ridiculous spectacle. Despite its ambition and stylish theatrics, 300 is a one-note affair.

It's similar, in that sense, to Mel Gibson's Apocalypto. That film, like 300, was so enamored with its own pageantry that much of it just came across as mere nonsense. Apocalypto was a better film than 300, mainly because Gibson is a much better director than Snyder. The action scenes in his film bordered on brilliant and the high-def photography was gorgeously captured by Dean Semler, even if the rest of the movie fell short. 300 falls short all over the place. None if it is terrible, but little is particularly interesting. Most of it is approached with precisely the wrong tone, and all of it is monotonous.

Those with a passing familiarity with ancient history, or with Miller's graphic novels, will recognize the story instantly. In a heavily stylized 480 B.C., the fearless, heroic Spartan king Leonidas (Gerard Butler) leads his 300 greatest warriors against Xerxes and his army of one million strong. Leonidas, and the soul of Sparta itself, refuses to bow to the Persian king's tyranny. And so they will fight, and die, with honor.

Insert clumsy subplot here. The clumsy subplot, in this case, involves Leonidas' wife, Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) as she tries to convince the Senate to send reinforcements. Since the movie is about the meaning of glory, honor and even patriotism, the subplot is there to provide context for the 300 warriors' collective sacrifice, and illustrate the politics that have left them out to dry. The side story does serve a purpose, but it's not particularly well-handled . . . though it does provide a few brief reprieves from Leonidas and Co.

The comparisons between Sin City and 300 persist, naturally. Both spawned from the mind of Frank Miller and both were created mostly with green and blue screens and CGI. But while the former was endlessly creative and entertaining, 300 is stuck in place. Unlike Rodriguez, Snyder doesn't have any sense of fun or humor with his story, which begs the question: How can a movie this deliberately over the top take itself so seriously? Consider his persistent use of slow-motion. Why does he use soooooo much slo-mo? Why, because it's very dramatic, of course!

It's also a dead giveaway for weak material. I don't mean slow-motion in general, of course - it can be a great technique when used correctly. But Snyder uses it as a crutch, like so many melodramatic TV movies. He uses it just to draw attention to an especially dramatic sequence or a particular moment in a battle scene - in other words, he doesn't let the film speak for itself. He undermines the choreography of the action sequences and the plights of his characters. Recently, an L.A.-based critic blasted the mixed reception the film was getting, praising 300 for its "visuals and emotion." First of all, the visuals are overrated (see explanation above) and the film makes nary an attempt to manufacture any real emotion, so I can't say I understand that argument. Nothing in the film is genuine in any real emotional way - that's not a criticism, it's just not the point of the film. But unfortunately, nothing seems alive. There have been other movies created in the same way as 300 - most notably the aforementioned Sin City as well as Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.

There were reasons both of those movies worked better than does 300, and reasons why this fledgling style of filmmaking should still be approached carefully. Lev Grossman may have said it best in a recent TIME Magazine article, which frighteningly suggested that this could be the future of movie-making. Grossman said: "Every frame is neat and perfect, like an oil painting, not a hair or a grain of sand out of place. All noise and dissonance have been digitally eliminated. . . Movies are invigorated by the tension between the director and reality, the struggle of the artist to tame the reluctant, intractable world, and that tension is missing from 300."

All in all, the film comes across like a bizarre, overly elaborate WWE production. I half-expected Vince McMahon to make an appearance somewhere.

None of this is meant to suggest that Snyder is just some hack. He knows what he's doing. And I think he knows what works - I just don't think he knows why it works. And so his films seem shallow because of it. This movie has no idea how hilarious it is because it never tries to be so, and, like professional wrestling, I don't think it has any idea how intensely homoerotic it is. Both elements could work . . . if only Snyder knew they were there. I felt the same way about his much-praised Dawn of the Dead remake from a few years ago. Like 300, it was technically sound and completely competent. But I thought the screenplay stood out much more than anything Snyder did behind the camera. It was well-written, but neither scary nor suspenseful.

Similarly, 300 is capably made, but neither exciting, nor well-developed, nor - contrary to popular belief - much of anything new.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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