Saturday, January 05, 2008

300 (2006)

If you managed not to be part of the stampede to the cinema to see this, don’t think you are home-free yet. Sooner or later your friends will pressure you to watch it on DVD. Eventually you will probably forget about all the bad reviews this movie got and cave in to the peer pressure. That’s what I did. Am I happy about it? Meh. I can’t say that I want to sue to get my two hours back, but my time would probably have been better spent re-watching “Gladiator.”

The first thing everyone will want you to know is that “300” is based on a true story. That is the case to some extent. This story does come down to us from the ancient Greeks. How much the story was embellished by the Greek historian Herodotus is anyone’s guess. Three hundred Spartan soldiers and a thousand or so other Greeks, led by the Spartan King Leonidas, supposedly held a mountain pass against a truly massive Persian army, killing thousands of the enemy before they were finally surrounded and overwhelmed. Many of the Greek forces retreated or surrendered, but the Spartans fought to the last. Theirs is truly one of the great stories of all time.

Unfortunately, I don’t think that “300” fully succeeds in giving this story the telling it deserves. I don’t deny that it is entertaining, but there are some fatal flaws. First is the abysmal voice-over narration. Voice-over works for some films (“Fight Club,” for example), but the narration in “300” is painfully pretentious and ponderous. They should have used narration to fill in the historical context where necessary and just let the action speak for itself. Another major problem is that the exclusive use of CGI for backgrounds and extras may have saved money, but it gives the film a 2-dimensional, claustrophobic feel. This is an epic story; the film should feel EPIC. Instead it looks like a movie made from a play. (In fact, this film is based on a Frank Miller graphic novel.)

I won’t harp too much on the acting. The soldiers don’t really act so much as flex their well-oiled muscles, but hell, it’s an action movie. We’ll give ‘em a pass. I expected more, and got less, from the non-combatants. As sleazy Spartan politician Theron, Dominic West OOZES smarm, and that’s all he does. As Queen Gorgo, Lena Headey does little more than clench her jaw and look really good in various filmy, Greek outfits. I will say she looks really good naked, getting pounded by King Leonidas (Gerard Butler.) The Persian Emperor Xerxes should have been the juiciest small role in “300,” but Rodrigo Santoro plays him as a pissy, S&M queen.

Many will give director Zach Snyder credit for making what turned out to be something of a blockbuster movie on a $60 million budget. I would suggest that in this case a bigger budget and a different approach might have resulted in a much better movie. The film is supposedly a frame-by-frame reproduction of the graphic novel by Frank Miller, and its great failing is that it never breaks free of those 2-dimensional origins. This approach worked for Robert Rodriguez’s “Sin City,” but a war epic like “300” needs some real panoramas and on-location shots to make it pop. I happen to like comics and graphic novels; if I want to read a comic book, then I’ll just read one.

Ultimately, the best thing about the movie “300” is that it gave comedienne Sarah Silverman the chance to make this joke about how the movie got its name. “They rated how gay it is on a scale of 1 to 10.”

2 stars

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