Director: Zack Snyder
Starring: Gerard Butler, Lena Headey, David Wenham
When a film is best known for a single line of dialogue, and that line has become infamous for its recyclability and sheer insaneness rather than its quality or humour, you can forgive me for not having the highest of expectations for it. Telling the story of the Battle or Thermopylae, 300 pits a group of (wait for it) three hundred Spartans against a Persian army of approximately one gajillion. If you’re already questioning exactly how historically accurate this film is, stop. According to director Zack Snyder the previously historically accurate battle formations were changed to ones that made the film ‘look cool’. ‘Nuff said.
Snyder has been Hollywood’s go-to guy for any project with the word ‘stylised’ (or anthropomorphised owls, if Legends of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole is anything to go by) in the description since this 2006 outing, and it’s difficult to argue against this reputation. The film’s look is certainly distinctive, distinguishing it from the sword and sandal epics of old, and the darker visuals lend themselves to the gory violence nicely. However, there is a thin line between ‘stylised’ and indulgent, repetitive crap, and Snyder doesn’t so much walk it as jump across it, spit on it, and then remove the line’s existence from history because it was stopping the group from ‘looking cool’. The visuals are all well and good, but so much of the action is in slow motion that it both stops being noticeable and simultaneously slows the action to a snail’s pace at points.
There are two basic formulas for successful action movies; relentless, balls-to-the-wall action for virtually the entire film, or more thoughtful, ambiguous movies which combine action with non-action sequences. Around ninety percent of 300 is the former, but the remaining ten percent drags to an almost impossible degree. The dialogue sounds as though every line has been specifically designed to be as hyperbolic and kitschy as possible. Whilst fans of the original graphic novel may claim this is part of the film’s appeal, for the casual movie goer, there’s only so many times you can hear one of umpteen variations on ‘FOR SPARTA! FOR FREEDOM! TO THE DEATH!’ before simply tuning out.
Speaking of tuning out, it’s probably best done for the soundtrack too; a frankly bizarre mix of Lord of the Rings-inspired operatic numbers, interspersed by anachronistic electric guitar pieces, it reeks of a film so desperate to be successful with its target demographic that it’s a wonder they didn’t give the Spartans M16s.
The two warring sides, the Spartans and the Persians, are moronic to say the least. The portrayal of the respective armies is so black and white that they may as well be referred to as ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’. The Spartans are shown to be muscle-bound demi-Gods whose penchant for violence is all for the good of their country. The Persians, meanwhile, are deformed freaks (their king Xerxes is nine feet tall for no apparent reason), stupid and barbaric. As loosely as the writers (Snyder, Kurt Johnstad, Michael Gordon) use their historical basis, it’s difficult to see these respective depictions as anything other than both revisionist and racist.
Given the amount of post-production and CGI-enhancing the film went through (only one shot wasn’t done in front of a blue screen) it’s a wonder Snyder and co. decided to use real actors at all. Despite some considerable talent (Dominic West, Michael Fassbender), the ‘acting’ in 300 essentially amounts to yelling epithets whilst waving their loincloths around. Gerard Butler’s acting brief appears to have been to growl two lines, shout one, repeat.
A 2013 prequel to 300 has been announced, which may well prompt a critical reevaluation of 300. I’m sure that the prequel will, rather than focusing on violent action, seek to answer questions raised by the first instalment, such as what happened to Sparta’s clothes? Why are all Persians shown to be subhuman barbarians? Why did everything happen so slowly back then? Until then, however, these questions will unfortunately go unanswered.