Thursday, March 29, 2007

300


300 is one of the most over-the-top, testosterone-fueled thrill rides ever assembled, and it never once contemplates being anything else. This unwavering commitment to its agenda is the main reason it works. This film isn’t about profound truths, philosophy, or even history; this is a film about legendary battles, and the manly men who fought them. Many films founder in their presentations of ancient tales. Troy (2004), for example, never made up its mind as to whether it was going to be historically accurate or true to Greek mythology, and the result was a watered-down, poorly-written Iliad gone wrong. 300 has both feet firmly planted in the mythological realm, complete with bizarre creatures, impossible fight scenes, and plenty of muscles to spare.

Adapted from Frank Miller’s graphic novel of the same name, 300 does have a historical basis. Set in 480 B.C., the film chronicles the battle of Thermopylae, in which a small Grecian force stood bravely against the vast numbers of the advancing Persian Empire. In the film, King Leonidas of Sparta (Gerard Butler - yes, he DID play the Phantom of the Opera) refuses to submit to the will of the Persian King Xerxes. Taking a stand for Spartan freedom, he leads a small band of 300 men against 1,000,000 Persian soldiers.

Many will likely condemn this film for being too simple-minded and chauvinistic, but I’m not sure those are fair criticisms. This film does great justice to the graphic novel, and the graphic novel does justice to the legend. Every aspect of this movie rejoices in a time when honor and glory were completely tied into violence. The truth of that time period may be exaggerated here, but so be it. The men in this story all look and act like He-Man on steroids, and such unapologetic storytelling works when relaying ancient myth. Many comic book adaptations feel the need to make their stories more believable and realistic, but 300 absolutely brings Miller’s fanciful illustrations to life.

The visual style of this film echoes Sin City, one of the true masterpieces of the genre. Both movies were filmed almost entirely indoors, using blue screens and plenty of computer-generated manipulation. 300 is strangely beautiful and glorious to behold, even in its most violent moments. Movies have the ability to show us wonderfully imagined fantasy worlds, though some directors terribly misuse visual effects. Computer animation isn’t always the best option, but I think 300 demonstrates CG effects at their best. If 300 had been filmed traditionally, the inherent silliness of the story would have probably shone through and robbed the adaptation of its potential. By literally painting the backgrounds of every frame, the filmmakers successfully set the stage for the fantastic.

Both the screenplay and the performances help hold the movie together. All actors take the material seriously, which helps us do the same. Many moments are almost cheesy, but the script walks the line successfully in capturing the grandeur of antiquity without being downright goofy. The battle of Thermopylae has been an inspiring underdog story for centuries, and while this film has inspiring moments, it ultimately trades inspiration for style. There’s nothing here to equal William Wallace’s speeches in Braveheart or even the more heartfelt moments in The Lord of the Rings, but 300 thoroughly entertains. It’s exciting, intriguing, and visually captivating, all of which are trademarks of Frank Miller’s graphic novel. Comic book adaptations typically fail or succeed before production ever begins, because the art direction and presentation style usually make or break such movies, just as they do most comic books. The filmmakers of 300 created the perfect setting, and everything else settled into place.

Many will probably complain about all the things this movie isn’t, but let’s be reasonable. No, I wouldn’t recommend using 300 as a citable source for a scholarly paper, but watching it wouldn’t be a bad way to kick-back and relax once you've turned that paper in.

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