Movie Review: Yet Another 300 Review (aka I Didn't Like 300!)

Category: 300 Reviews | Posted by: stagewomanjen
Article Date: March 23, 2007 | Publication: | Author: Daniel Woolstencroft
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Let me shout this from the very top of the review, as the doomed king Leonidas and his Spartans are so fond of doing: I DIDN'T ENJOY 300!

There, I've said it. I can hide my controversial opinion no longer. An army of fans - enough to put the fear of God in old Xerxes himself - is no doubt marching this way even as I write this. My review comes a little late to the party thanks to my location (why does the UK get everything last?), and it's easy to attack something that's met with success in order to court controversy, or do something different; but I can't help the fact that, for me, a large part of Zack Snyder's creation doesn't make for very entertaining cinema.

For the record: I'm a fan of the original graphic novel, and a fan of Frank Miller in general. I'm also a fan of Zack Snyder, given that he took on a terribly unpopular idea - remaking Dawn of the Dead - and produced a damn fine movie as a result. There are moments in Snyder's zombie apocalypse that throb with a visceral ferocity, and I had high hopes for 300. But that's always my curse: high hopes = low opinion.

A note to the reader: at this point things get a bit spoilery. I'm assuming that, by now, pretty much everyone's seen 300. If you've not, I'd recommend stopping at this point and coming back when you've been to your local multiplex and made your own mind up. And with that out of the way...

There are so many things wrong with 300; so many irritating elements that detract from what could have been a glorious whole. The ferocity that existed within Dawn is, despite all the violence, missing from 300. Limbs are severed, blood is spilled, and many a beefcake is pierced by a Persian arrow. The problem is: none of it seems real, none of it makes an impact. It's the overuse of CGI that's largely to blame: you can't make computer generated blood look the same way as real blood, it doesn't stain the clothes and skin, it doesn't splatter, it just sprays unenthusiastically, unsubstantially. It's the same with severed limbs; prosthetics give a real sense of ouch when blade meets flesh, but the lightweight CGI limb removal in 300 just doesn't hurt.

It seems that the battle sequences are supposed to evoke emotion and feel powerful simply because they're sped up and slowed down at will by Snyder. While the choreography is at times impressive - one particular sequence sees Leonidas dispatching numerous identikit Persian assailants in a single take - the insistence on messing with the speed robs these scenes of any power. Stylistically they do their job - show slow-mo Spartan violence like never before - but I found myself unable to be enthralled by it.

Much has been written about 300's use of colour, its striking visual style, and the fact that it looks nothing like anything else. And that's true. I'd argue that, most of the time, it just doesn't look very exciting. I found Miller's original art style far more interesting to look at than its cinematic equivalent. Maybe I have a difficult time appreciating cinematography that's been created on a computer - that's something I never thought I'd hear myself think - but at times I was indescribably bored by 300. If the film had been produced using real sets, real terrain, and real environments I might be more impressed by it.

Style aside, I have issues with the performances. Androgyny is a difficult thing to do convincingly on film. More importantly, it's a difficult thing to do seriously - Xerxes is neither. The God-king looks more like a Priscilla Queen of the Desert reject, than the almost-God he's supposed to be. The problem is, how do you convey that on film? Couple that with a voice-over that sounds too much like a camp Michael Clarke Duncan to take seriously, and Xerxes lacks the awe-inspiring qualities every self-respecting God-King should possess.

Xerxes' faults would be forgivable were the Spartans an impressive bunch, but even they let the side down badly. To give credit where it's due, Butler impressed me: at times he conveys a surprising depth of emotion, and seems to have enjoyed making the film. Sadly, at other times he's either bellowing orders (which he admittedly does quite well) or being witty. Butler is the best thing about the film, and my overall dislike isn't his fault.

I also liked Andrew Tiernan as Ephialtes, the horribly disfigured man-beast that so desperately wants to be a Spartan. I actually had more sympathy for this deformed monstrosity than most other characters, Leonidas excepted. But that's pretty much where I stop being impressed.

After seeing Lena Headey in The Brothers Grimm - God knows she was one of the few decent things in that particular feature - I was quite impressed, but she doesn't perform very well here. As Queen Gorgo she's still undoubtedly attractive, and there's much of her on display - I'd argue far more than was really necessary, as king and queen perform a little mini Spartan Karma Sutra before the bold king heads off to meet his doom. Still, better give the adolescents some tits to swoon over, eh? Headey is saddled with a sub-plot we don't need, and some of the worst dialogue in the film, so she's not entirely to blame here.

Of the other assembled Spartans, only a few actually have speaking parts. Most just shout "HOI!" every now and then, and get impaled by something spiky when called upon to do so. Dilios (David Wenham) provides a voice-over that's straight out of the novel, but at times totally surplus to requirements. More often than not his commentary is totally uninteresting. We don't need to be told that someone is angry, as he helpfully points out at one point. There is so much silent aggressive shoutyness - an oxymoron that Snyder is way too fond of - to be in any doubt as to when someone's a bit cross. Other "featured Spartans" include Captain, Stelios, and Astinos, each of which have problems of their own, thanks to "added depth" that didn't exist in Miller's original story.

Which strikes me as odd; at times Snyder has a seemingly desperate need to reuse many of Miller's original frames. Flicking back through the novel upon returning to the comfort of my writer's chair, it's striking just how accurately the film reproduces the novel's look. And, much like Sin City, you wonder "why bother?"

Snyder and co. have added some nonsensical and nauseating new elements that go above and beyond Miller's original. The most obvious of these is the previously mentioned sub-plot during which the queen attempts to convince Sparta's council to help Leonidas. There's some ludicrously heavy-handed dialogue about "going to war illegally" and "sending this country's sons off to war" which must have sounded very clever when the writing team dreamt it up. This particular sub-plot wraps itself up with the queen impaling pantomime villain Theron - shortly after he's given her an impaling of another kind - and exposing his corruption thanks to the large bag of limited edition Xerxes gold coins he had secreted on his person. How neat and tidy.

Then there's the thinly veiled homo-erotic buddy elements between Stelios (Michael Fassbender) and Astinos (Tom Wisdom). Not since Ice and Maverick have two hunks been so desperate for a little man-love. Things just aren't meant to be for our star-crossed lovers though; quite early on in the film we're told that Astinos is the Captain's son, and from this point forward his card is marked. Admittedly, every member of Leonidas' 300 strong party's card is ultimately marked, but singling out this particular character so early on means that when Astinos does finally, and quite literally, lose his head, it comes as no surprise. It lacks any emotional impact. Worse: as the Captain, Vincent Regan isn't capable of producing any real emotional reaction when he's asked to, nor is he as convincing during the subsequent butt-kicking as Butler.

The battle sequences themselves have some additions, seemingly for the sake of eye candy. It appears that there were a few left-over War Elephants from The Lord of the Rings, and Snyder saw fit to include them here. There's also a War Rhino, and a large, angry War Mutant. These new enemies only serve to make things seem less real, and subsequently everything seems less engaging. The Spartans are also assailed by a team of grenade tossing, Monty Pythonesque monk-types later in the film, resulting in much diving and rolling to avoid explosions and the resulting shrapnel. As with many other scenes, this all looks very silly.

Speaking of silly (and Python), the Ephors are more reminiscent of The Holy Grail's Knights of Ni than Miller's original creature. I half expected Leonidas to be tasked with locating a shrubbery. One, almost throwaway, addition that is visually simulating is Xerxes' executioner - a bloated, blade-armed grotesque that's more Clive Barker than Frank Miller. Sadly, the creature never appears again.

The final straw is an unnecessary final sequence showing Dilios returning to Queen Gorgo. Leonidas' last thoughts - "My Queen. My life. My love. Be strong. Goodbye." - are enough of an ending, and demonstrate, if we needed a further demonstration at this stage, that he's sacrificing everything for his wife and son. We don't need to see Dilios returning to Sparta; it's an indulgence that Miller resisted, and Snyder should have followed suit.

It's no wonder Miller is now thinking of directing. Snyder's additions and directorial style are precisely the reasons that 300 doesn't work as a meaningful piece of cinema, and I can't help but think that he's missed the point a little. It's too long, thanks to the unneeded additions, and contains too many jarring styles, both in terms of dialogue and cinematography. Had the film been truer to the source material, and yet conversely had the confidence to define its own style, it would have been far more interesting.

Regardless of its lack of cinematic worth, 300 has pushed many of the right buttons with audiences. I can't help but feel a sense of impending dread as a horde of similar comic-book adaptations march over the hill. I just hope Snyder's Watchmen adaptation isn't one of them.