[16 March 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
300 defies description. Every attempt by mainstream critics to categorize or contextualize the film is more or less wrong. This is not some manner of anti-war propaganda piece (or worse, a pro-US boast for its Arab/Persian aggression). About the only real connection to the world of video games comes in the stylized presentation of violence which, frankly, is no more poetic than what Frances Ford Coppolla accomplished with the infamous “baptism” scene at the end of The Godfather. It is neither a historically accurate recreation of a famous battle, nor is it a slam against any specific region or peoples. What Zach Snyder has accomplished here is something quite miraculous. What he’s made—thanks in part to Frank Miller’s imagination and a ton of computer processing power—is a real Rorschach test for why people go to the movies.
Think on that for a moment—why DO you go to the movies. To be entertained? To spend a few hours away from the family? To lose yourself in worlds only imaginable through the lens of a cinematic artist? To be moved? To laugh? To cry? As the famous one-line once said, to kiss $8.50 goodbye? Within each or all of these questions lies some element of the answer. Of all the mediums, it is often said that film is the least personal and most group-oriented. There are those who argue that horror films are scarier with an angst-filled audience surrounding you, sharing the dread. Others recognize that the mob mentality of such a communal experience renders even the most routine comedy uproarious. So it’s clear we come to film as kind of a litmus test, to weigh our opinion against that of our fellow filmgoers to determine an entertainment’s true value.
So in truth, 300 cannot work the same for all of us because it is the kind of movie that challenges the very nature of why we love, or hate, film. It takes a decidedly hoary old genre—the sword and sandal epic—infuses it with all the technological magic it can, and then sticks a fuse of fantasy straight into its belly. Once said wick is lit, the resulting fireworks either inspire or enrage you. There is no real middle ground here—people either adore or deplore this incredibly well choreographed dance with death. Far better than the highly overrated Gladiator (a true blight on Oscar’s already tenuous history) and a mighty millennia away from the pulpy peplum of the ‘50s and ‘60s, Synder wants to turn such tales back on their origins. He wants to use celluloid to re-establish the literal meaning of such a tale’s ‘epic poem’ status.
No two words better describe this film. This is vision amplified by ability, lyricism made manly by the imposition of well-formed physiques. Make no doubt about it, the Sparta at the center of the story is a brutal world overloaded with ego, testosterone and sweat. It’s the kind of country that kills off the weak and unwieldy, even hours after they are born, and believes in such forgotten human virtues as duty, honor, and glory. It may seem overly simplistic and a tad shortsighted, but this is not the modern world. This is not a planet interconnected and constantly communicating with each other. This is the land of myths and legends, oracles and gods. This is a place of men, in all their strengths - and all their superstitions.
As a result, some may be put off with all the moralizing and mysticism. They will see the sequence where the diseased priests prophesize—with the help of their naked teenage girl Oracle—that no war can occur during the High Holy days and scoff at such a suggestion. They will see Xerxes in his fey, flouncing demeanor, face painted up like an Egyptian drag queen, and giggle at the implied femininity. They will wonder where the various monsters come from, how an executioner can look like a boss from their favorite Playstation product, and believe this a film for an entirely different generation. But the truth is that 300 is a return to the world of visual storytelling, a place rarely visited by our mainstream manufacturing plant known as the Hollywood film business.
Indeed, we have forgotten the power in images. We forget what it felt like when the Mothership first appeared over Devil’s Tower in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, or when Neo first realized he could defy both time and physics in The Matrix. Peter Jackson or George Lucas can overwhelm us with their ideas (and the realization of same) and yet the effects seem to fade the minute we leave the theater. This is home video’s truest legacy. As a result of such overwhelming access to any and all cinematic stimulus, we’ve lost the inherent naiveté required to really enjoy someone’s creative approach. Instead, we play a never ending game of considered comparison, wondering what that scene reminds us of, contemplating if said shot actually adds to a film’s overall narrative language.
It’s a shame our eyes are so jaded now, because lying in wait, right outside the typical and the remade, are persons ready to reinvent the old magic. They will take a sword fight between two Spartans and hundred of Persians and manufacture it in such a way that every clang of metal, every spray of blood, becomes another stroke on a grand master’s canvas. They will render even the most meaningless scene—a conversation between husband and wife, king and queen—into a stunning experiment in shadow and light. Call it an attempt to jumpstart our imagination or a metaphoric map to rediscovering our inner joy, but 300 is built for spectacle, not scholarship. All it wants to do is present a piece of the movies’ past in a new and novel light. And it accomplishes said goal amiably.
This is a rousing, reinvigorating effort, the traditional reason why people USED to go to the movies. A couple of famed critics who sadly stand as the last of a literally dying breed used to say that movies act as kind of a mental vacation. They are meant to whisk you away to places, and introduce you to people, that you wouldn’t normally visit in reality. Like 300, film is supposed to inspire awe and disregard expectations. It is its main purpose for being. But for some reason, perhaps due to their ready availability and post-modern disposable nature, we no longer value such statements. To the new moviegoer, film is fodder for endless online conversations, debates over issues that, more times than not, have very little to do with the movie in question.
But Zach Snyder steps up and asks—nay, DEMANDS—to be taken seriously as a director of sound mind and superb vision. This is a movie as sumptuous feast, an eye candy extravaganza that never once becomes overpowering or overblown. Instead, all the stunningly stylized violence fills a void usually lacking in this kind of action film—the sadistic nature of war and battle. Where once gore was avoided to keep the nobility of the heroes intact, Snyder uses it as a symbol of determination. The more blood that’s shed, the lesser the enemy’s resolve. He also accomplishes his fatalistic determination by careful, clever casting. No one would ever imagine the man behind the mask in Joel Schumacher’s Phantom of the Opera would pack on the pounds, bulk up his body, and turn into the very emblem of Spartan pride. But Gerard Butler is a stellar King Leonides, containing everything we’ve come to expect from such a character. When he makes his stand against Xerxes, determining the fate of his men, and his country, the power within his persona—and the performance - shows through.
In addition, 300 does indeed reinvent the notion of how action accentuates and accessories a film. In something as obvious as a battle scene, where we know blows will be exchanged, it is up to the filmmaker in charge to keep us engaged and interested, less it all become a mere free for all. With his carefully controlled compositions, expert framing, and desire to deliver both the Spartan and Persian attacks in grand operatic style, Snyder gives us real insight into combat. We learn the strategies meant to conquer as well as the mistakes that lead to defeat. We also recognize where heroism and valor lie. It’s not in the remarkable moments where heads leave bodies in balletic grace, nor is it in the sequences where arms and legs are sheered away. No, where true gallantry lies is in the guts to face almost impossible odds, and laugh squarely in the face of said annihilation. And nothing cackles quite as convincingly as 300.
So complain all you want to about the lack of factual accuracy. Argue that Snyder is all style and no substance, or that his cast is made up of out of work Chippendale dancers trying to turn slaughter into something serene. But whatever you do, don’t dismiss 300 as anything less than a work of visionary expertise. While your aesthetic complaints may have merit (albeit a minor amount), from a truly technical standpoint, this is what the cinematic artform actually looks and feels like. Instead of chastising a movie for taking such a risk, we should be celebrating. It’s a shame we’ve lost that ability. Thankfully, we have electrifying efforts like these to remind us of what we are missing.