Spartan '300' Over The Top Brilliant!

Category: 300 Reviews | Posted by: DaisyMay
Article Date: March 15, 2007 | Publication: The Daily Princetonian | Author: Fareed Ben-Youssef
Publication/Article Link:http://www.dailyprincetonian.com/archives/2007/03/15/arts/17723.shtml

Frank Miller's unique and violent "Sin City" pushed the envelope of possibility in film, making it hard to imagine anything coming close to its beauty and innovation. Fittingly, the adaptation of another of Miller's graphic novels, "300," finally surpasses its gritty predecessor. Whereas "Sin City" was starkly black and white, "300" brings Miller's art to life in lush, saturated color. The film succeeds not only as a technical exercise; it also manages to reinvigorate the sword-and-sandal genre that had reached its zenith with "Gladiator." Miller's latest project succeeds as a brutal perversion of that kind of film: It is morbid, over the top and almost always brilliant.

"300" tells the tale of the Battle of Thermopylae, where 300 Spartans stood against the million-man armies of the Persian king Xerxes. On paper, such a plot seems to be a run-of-the-mill epic; however, this film's history has been filtered through Miller's mind. His Spartans are depicted as "the finest warriors the world has ever known," which means that each cookie-cutter warrior fights in just a helmet and a loincloth to show off his perfect six-pack abs. Xerxes' armies, meanwhile, are an amalgamation of non-Western races from tribal Africa to samurai Japan. Miller injects his view of the ancient world with astonishingly graphic violence and sexuality that makes his skewed version of history unlike anything that has been seen before.

Miller's unique vision of the past has been brought to life in comics by beautiful high contrast, exaggerated art. Director Zack Snyder wisely uses Miller's art as the skeleton of the movie meticulously reconstructing each comic-book frame in front of a blue screen to great effect. A scene where the Spartans cheer the sight of the Persian flotilla being destroyed by a freak storm demonstrates how effectively Snyder wields this technique. As the camera settles briefly on the face of the Spartan king Leonidas (Gerard Butler), a bolt of lightning robs the scene of all of its lush color. This powerful image of the rain-drenched king was taken directly from Frank Miller's own work. The many visual references to the work's original medium make for a picture as stunning to look at as it is exhilarating to experience.

Yet the director is no mere slave to Miller's vision, as he ably brings an expert sense of timing to the picture. In lesser hands, the prospect of filming a two-hour battle would be a recipe for a monotonous and boring flick. Snyder maintains the viewer's interest, however, by changing how he films the action. At the battle's outset, Snyder films the warriors from afar, allowing the spectator to view the epic proportions of the confrontation. Slowly, the camera moves closer to the action on screen until the final sequences are shot right in the middle of the mayhem. Such a subtle transition lends an added weight and tension to the on-screen brutality.

The cast approaches Frank Miller's material with gusto, imbuing their Spartan characters with a great intensity. No one better exemplifies the unique acting style found within the film than Butler, who exudes charisma. His magnetism is best showcased when his character meets with Xerxes to negotiate. When asked to kneel, the king offhandedly replies he cannot because "killing so many of your men this morning gave me a nasty cramp in my leg." The actor's ability to tackle subtle comedy gives his gruff portrayal added depth and nuance. Butler's innate charisma is integral to getting the audience empathize with the bloodthirsty Spartans and accept their world so completely.

Within the mostly well-directed and ably performed "300," there is one moment which briefly takes the viewer out on the constructed reality. Inexplicably, the score is briefly filled with generic heavy-metal tunes. Not only does this music clash with the operatic arias and orchestral pieces accompanying the rest of the picture, it also feels like a blatant attempt to make the film more appealing to the teens in the audience. Though distracting, the brief miscue on Snyder's part also serves to show how badly this production could have gone awry.

For the most part, Snyder has taken advantage of all the potential power in a work by one of the graphic novel medium's foremost artists. The picture transcends its own roots to become a unique visual and cinematic experience. "300" is no mere action film but a truly admirable artistic endeavor whose violently beautiful images will be memorable long after the initial giddiness of the battle wears off.

Pros: Zack Snyder's direction; expert pacing of battle scenes; Gerard Butler's intense performance.

Cons: Heavy metal in soundtrack seems forced.