Review: '300' An Artistic Triumph

Category: 300 Reviews | Posted by: admin
Article Date: March 9, 2007 | Publication: WNBC | Author: Steven Snyder
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Historical Epic Not Perfect, But Heartily Completes Mission
There are moments of surreal beauty and wonder in "300," the bloody new war epic based around the popular Frank Miller graphic novel about the legendary Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C. -- unforgettable visual sequences that twist the horrors of war into something poetic, majestic and even sublime.

Much like the movie's heroes, who from an early age are groomed into heartless, fearless, resourceful warriors -- who are taught to savior the battlefield as their most divine playground -- "300" effectively turns blunt violence into something moody and evocative. There is the glorious, slow-motion sequence of an army falling off a cliff, the repeated decapitations that are less about death than the sophistication of a soldier's swordplay, as well as the repeated murder marathons in which the camera follows a single Spartan, speeding up and then slowing down the action, as he hacks through a dozen enemies, each kill a study in physical grace.

And then there are the artistic spectacles -- such as the thousands of arrows blotting out the sun, the earthen tones that saturate this world and cause earth to blend with sky, the unexpected head-to-head match of man vs. elephant and the angry sea tearing apart an entire navy.

As depicted in most of Miller's graphic novels -- including his brilliant "Sin City" -- there are is an exaggerated contrast between good and evil, a fascination with all things morbid and dark, and a stunning beauty imparted to even the darkest of things. And if "300" has anything, it's this sense of sweeping, exaggerated experience, not just telling a story but detailing this world so intricately that the story is the least important thing.

Now given the source material, it's an easy spectacle to put together. The Battle of Thermopylae, forged by a king caught up in honor and arrogance, was a match waged between the Spartan empire and the advancing Persians. Insulted by the Persians' demand for submission, King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) casts aside all sense of strategy and reason, goes against the demands of Sparta's divine elders who are the only ones able to declare war, and takes his 300 best men with him to march across the vast countryside and confront his adversaries in the mountain pass of Thermopylae.

While the film is an inspired bit of production design, ingeniously conceived and skillfully crafted, what it ultimately lacks in its final, sweeping gestures is any sense of gravity. There's no sense here, really, of battle strategy after that initial use of the cliffs.

The battles themselves, while filmed beautifully, don't carry much weight or consequence since the Spartans smash through the enemy lines with ease, and the body count soars without effect. Meanwhile, life back in Sparta, where Leonidas' queen, Gorgo (Lena Headey) lobbies the empire's elders for a surge of troops to help her husband, is mired in its own brooding, exaggerated, heavy-handed controversies.

Why muddy these brilliant images with so many tedious subplots? Every time the slow-motion speeds up, the fast-motion slows down or the intricate battle choreography is put on hold for another scene of confusing conspiracies or awkward politics, we get anxious. Enough talking already.