Everything old is new again in 300, director Zack Snyder’s account of the barbaric Battle of Thermopylae, a film that is ridiculously stylish and commendably substantive. I expected the former (Snyder’s source material is a graphic novel from cult hero Frank Miller) and was delighted by the latter, as 300 winds up being far more original than I thought possible.
Like Robert Rodriguez in Sin City, Snyder employs cutting-edge visual technology and green-screen effects to essentially photocopy Miller’s acclaimed work of the same name. Because Miller’s graphic novels have been fountains of inspiration for a handful of recent directors, his style has become overly identifiable. Splotches of crimson (usually blood) stain sun-dried backdrops as impossibly chiseled warriors fight long past their dying breath. That’s 300 in a nutshell, though Snyder’s tight epic additionally bathes in every tired cliché of the warrior genre, yet somehow makes it all seem fresh.
Do you know that cocky individual who appears in every decent combat film, the one wearing the disturbing ear-to-ear grin as he mows down waves of enemy troops? Spartan king Leonidas (Gerard Butler) had 300 of these wild-card soldiers on his side when his recruits went toe-to-toe with Persia’s massive armies in 480 B.C. Pigeonholing his enemies into a constricted and controllable mountain passage, Leonidas staged a brave front against escalating forces for three days. Their courageous stand bought limited time for Leonidas’ wife, Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey), who fought to overcome political opposition in Sparta and assemble a properly armed resistance.
Snyder borrows substantially from Miller’s visual palette as he paints 300 on the big screen. Glorious shots of Leonidas and crew gazing contemplatively at matte-painting storm clouds mirror stills from Miller’s source comic. Snyder dutifully copies the look while bringing his own fluid pace to the grainy snapshots.
Three hundred also happens to be the number (roughly) of iconic combat images that Snyder commits to the screen once the fighting starts. Grand battles usually are cut with disorienting speed, producing sequences of chaos. Often, it’s impossible to tell in a battle who is hitting whom. Snyder favors long, unbroken shots of choreographed carnage. His slow-motion approach honors the fighting technique of his soldiers, and gives us ample time to drink in the stunning visuals that complement the conflict.
However, 300 delivers more than relentless, bone-crunching violence. Snyder takes time to explain Sparta’s core beliefs as he illustrates the legendary grooming of Leonidas, trained from birth to be the victor. Spartans, we’re told, have their egos stroked at an early age. The Greek population’s inflated sense of self created a dangerous motivation to fight — when the only other option is to bow before a substandard people, Spartans have no choice but to swing a sword.
Butler becomes the driving force of 300, which projects the intense Leonidas as a leader at several crossroads, all of which trace back to his unshakable loyalty. A tragic hero, Leonidas knows his place — in history, as well as in reality — is at the head of this phalanx of washboard-stomached Spartans. On that note, what is the deal with those abs? Membership at the Sparta YMCA must be a requirement of the Greek nation’s army.
300 suffers from some minor issues. The title misleads, as Leonidas’ 300-man platoon was joined by Arcadian allies before even reaching the battlegrounds. Most scenes don’t benefit from the film’s supplied narration. These lines of dialogue likely appeared in text boxes on Miller’s pages, and Snyder was clearly hesitant to erase them. Plus, Persian emperor Xerxes the Great probably wasn’t the fey glam queen that Snyder and actor Rodrigo Santoro make him out to be — is there a history text that addresses sexual preferences of Greco-Persian figureheads?
Snyder made his debut three years back with an updated Dawn of the Dead, which instantly turned the zombie genre on its ear by making the predatory creatures smarter and faster than normal. Now, with 300, Snyder blends the swift pace and stylish posturing of today’s attention-challenged cinema to the sword-and-sandal genre, a format that to this point has been crucified by bloated entries such as Alexander, Troy, and Kingdom of Heaven. It’s early in his career, but Snyder’s making a decent play for the title Father of Reinvention, and I’m anxious to see what genre he reworks next.
An exhaustive two-disc DVD set includes a few deleted scenes, interviews and featurettes, commentary from Snyder, and on-set webisodes taking you behind the scenes.
For the 300 fan on your shopping list, check out the Collector’s Edition box set, which includes both discs as noted above plus a third bonus disc which adds an additional making-of faturette and a digital copy of the film. The non-digital extras, though, are what are really amazing, including a 52-page oversized book full of art from the film, six photo cards of each of the posters, and — bizarrely — a postcard-sized lenticular shot from the movie encased in lucite. Now that’s Sparta!
Fear my CGI codpiece.