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Right now, the title “300” refers to the number of sword-slingin’, codpiece-sportin’ Spartans who fought a behemoth horde of Persian invaders in the famous fifth century B.C. Battle of Thermopylae.


In another couple of months, though, it could be a reference to the Zack Snyder-directed combat pic’s cumulative box office—as in $300 million.


Debuting over the weekend on about 4,800 screens, the no-star “300” took the multiplexes by storm—and Hollywood by surprise—by earning $70 million in three days. That’s $30 million more than even the most optimistic oracular forecasts, including those from Warner Bros., which released the film.


It puts “300” in the record books as the third-biggest opening for an R-rated movie ever, after only Mel Gibson’s equally violent “The Passion of the Christ” and the Wachowski brothers’ equally cyber-spacy “The Matrix Reloaded.” (Not to mention as the biggest March opening ever, and biggest Imax opening.)


And all this despite a pretty dramatic thrashing by critics. At metacritic.com, a tally of 32 reviews nationwide gave “300” a meager 53 rating out of a possible 100. At the high end, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s Gianni Truzzi gushed, “Wholesale human slaughter never looked so pretty!” At the low end, the Village Voice’s Nathan Lee sneered, “It’s a ponderous, plodding, visually dull picture.”


Somewhere in the middle, this critic called it “‘Gladiator’ for the gamer set.”


Indeed, “300” wasn’t shot anywhere near the Aegean locales that hosted the historic fightfest. It wasn’t shot anywhere near anyplace, really, unless you call a warehouse in Montreal a place.


That’s where, in the fall of 2005, a cast of buffed-up, Coppertoned actors, led by “The Phantom of the Opera’s” Gerard Butler (as Sparta’s King Leonidas), engaged in elaborately choreographed combat sequences, dressed in capes and jockstraps, battling a multi-pierced and freakish bunch (the Persians) in a big cold hangar against a green-screen backdrop. All of the sepia-hued thunderheads, all of the magic-hour sunbeams and altitudinous cliffscapes were filled in later by console-tweaking digital renderers.


Director Snyder, a commercials whiz kid whose only other movie was 2004’s digital-heavy remake of “Dawn of the Dead,” put his cast in a room with props and costumes and told them to pretend they were in ancient Greece, fighting for their lives on the cliffs of Malis. And the movie looks like pretend—like the actors have been sucked into a vacuum-sealed video game. Even the blood is computer-generated.


And that, in large part, is why “300” is a hit. Its visual vernacular, rife with heavily manipulated effects shots and fight sequences that have the not-quite-real hyper-reality of God of War or Devil May Cry, is recognizable to the zillion-strong legion of gamer geeks, lured from their dark nerd-caves to a theater near you.


“We’ve been cultivating the techie crowd of 15-to-24-year-olds who play video games and watch DVDs,” said a happy Greg Foster, the chairman of Imax, the giant-format theater chain that enjoyed a whopping $54,500 per-screen average with 300 over the weekend. In an interview in Monday’s Variety, Foster noted that the gamer crowd is a demographic that’s difficult to lure to the movies, “but we finally nailed them.”


So, yes, “300”—with its sloganeering freedom-fighters (“No retreat! No surrender!”) striking fear into an alien-looking enemy representing “tyranny and mysticism”—successfully tapped into a certain militaristic, xenophobic mind-set. Despite disavowals from its director and studio, “300” does make allusions to the war in Iraq.


But that’s not where most of that $70 million came from. It came from a behemoth horde of Xbox-ers—making a rare excursion to the cinema.


___


TOP R-RATED MOVIES BY OPENING WEEKEND


“The Matrix Reloaded” ($91.8 million, 2003)
“The Passion of the Christ” ($83.8 million, 2004)
“300” ($70 million, 2007)
“Hannibal” ($58 million, 2001)
“8 Mile” ($51.2 million, 2002)


(Figures not inflation-adjusted. Source: BoxOfficeMojo.com)

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