Hail to the Spartans

Category: 300 Reviews | Posted by: admin
Article Date: March 9, 2007 | Publication: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel | Author: DUANE DUDEK
Publication/Article Link:http://www.jsonline.com/

Neither history nor cinema is especially well served by "300," which is, nonetheless, a remarkable intersection of technology and imagination.

The battle at Thermopylae in 480 B.C., a suicidal last stand by an army of Spartans and Thespians estimated at about 5,000, against Persian invaders, estimated at from hundreds of thousands to millions, set the stage for a later Persian defeat and for its own transformation into a metaphor for the ages.

I could have missed it, but I never heard Thermopylae mentioned, though it was frequently referred to as the Hot Gates, after the hot springs there. If not, it's tempting to consider such an omission as a metaphor of its own, for the oversimplification of a complex world into its idealized and elemental basics.

The result should have great appeal to gamers and head-bangers, and may even cause historians to tremble at the sight.

Generalists, too, will marvel at the virtual world created by director Zack Snyder and his merry band of digital designers.

More troublesome, though, is the freak-show excess of a film, based on a graphic novel by "Sin City" and "The Dark Knight" creator Frank Miller, that eagerly embraces its inner comic book.

"300" - the title refers to the number of Spartans in the battle - isn't history the way that professional wrestling isn't sports. However, that admission is not much of a defense for dubious and often extreme attempts to serve the bread-and-circuses sensibility of juvenile audiences with Tolkien-like fantasy elements.

Such humbug aside, however, the greater impression is of a ghostlike void painted in shadows: of an Etch-A-Sketch design by Hieronymus Bosch; of a staggering shades-of-gray snow globe that fills with blood, not to mention severed heads and limbs, when shaken. The realism that digital technology now allows, if not demands, not only defies reality - all but one of the exterior scenes were created in computer and shot on a sound stage - it is more holographic than cinematic, and its coldly efficient, Photoshopped perfection threatens to become the defining aesthetic for an emerging generation of filmgoers.

Gerard Butler plays King Leonidas, who like every Spartan male was "baptized in the fire of combat" and taught that "death on the battlefield was the greatest glory." His sculpted pecs, washboard abs and leather loincloth are the uniform of the day for an army made in his buff image.

But when Xerxes, the Persian god-king - portrayed by Brazilian actor Rodrigo Santoro (in the larger-than-life image of Ra, played by Jaye Davidson in "Stargate") - demands fealty, Leonidas takes his warriors into battle, in defiance of an oracle warning of defeat and of the politicians whose weakness guarantees it. Leonidas' plan is to lure the Persians into the narrow pass at Thermopylae, where his army will pick off a superior force so massive that the ground shakes when they are on the move.

And for a while it works.

But although the corpses of the increasingly grotesque Persian fighters are stacked up like firewood - by Spartans who joke while doing it - the Spartans themselves join the pile soon enough. Waves of attacks unfold dreamlike, as if the characters are staggering underwater, or with bullet-time precision across frames moonlight-blue or the color of winter wheat, against which the blood-red cloaks of the Spartans stand out like resistance and honor in a colorless world.

300 ***