Monday, March 12, 2007

Film Review--300

If you were king of Sparta, the thundering horde of the Persians come to rampage your precious city, and the city government won’t allow use of the army, would you sit idly by while Xerxes and his Immortals enslave your people, or would you stand and fight? Personally, Xerxes’ way of life looks like a pretty wild time, so I’d have to think pretty hard. But Leonidas has his heart set on staying free, so he assembles a militia of three hundred soldiers, all trained in the hard Spartan way, and with a plan that only he thinks is foolproof, sets out to take on the largest army ever assembled.

Frank Miller’s 1998 graphic novel, inspired by the history of the Battle at Thermopylae as told by original Greek historian Herotodus, is the basis for 300, which sets this as a kind of 3rd generation history, and the last thing any viewer should look for here is historical accuracy. Even if there was a way to verify the facts stated in the original history, the graphic novel veers dramatically from it and the movie, more so. The dialogue is overwrought and the story is poorly conveyed, but no more so than Alexander, Troy, or any other modern “sword-and-sandal” picture (although with less pretention), which means that it’s quite poor, and the actors yelling out bad lines don’t help matters much, but this is not about the story. In the end, it would be better if done entirely the same, but as a silent film. Somehow, though, I don’t think the studios would go for it.

300 is an exercise in the art of violence, both in act and exhibition, and this a beautifully rendered production. All the backgrounds and, at least, a majority of the sets are computer generated. It seems like, more and more, CGI is coming into its own; not for one or two big achievement special effects, but to create entire worlds that are unlimited in their scope. The surreal landscapes come to life, in motion as far as the eye can see, in ways that the old purveyors of blue screen and, especially, backdrop paintings could only dream of. In the foreground, to boot, is a world of creatures and personality that seems to be lifted directly out of a Geiger coffee table book. But this is a good thing. The monsters are well-rendered, definitely not beings I’d laugh at to their faces, and most impressive is the construction of the God-King Xerxes, who is about ten feet tall and looks like a corrupted image of Vishnu. The performance by Rodrigo Santoro (the one redeemable performance in the film), combined with what appears to be an overdubbed vocal track, add together with the image to make the best kind of villain, the kind that you almost want to join with, against your better judgement.

In reference to Matt’s earlier post, yes, there is a little ‘70s van art, but not as much as one A.O. Scott would lead one to believe. Indeed, the sex is straight off Cinemax late-nite, and it isn’t exactly necessary, but neither is it particularly detrimental to the picture. The “oracle” scene even looks airbrushed on-screen, and could be considered by some objectionable, but is strictly for titillation’s sake and, hey, isn’t that why we’ve gone to this movie in the first place? Not to harp on my old friend A.O., but it seems like he really misses the point of 300. He seems almost afraid of the sex and violence, of which it is an orgy of slow-motion effects and, in fact, it may be hard to come up with a movie that features more severed parts, and his viewing is skewed as a result. Scott’s assertion, though, that “Allegory hunters will find some gristly morsels of topicality tossed in their direction…” which is the more disheartening notion. In light of the current climate, it is a little suspect to have your (white) heroes fighting against an evil (brown) regime, but any allegory ends there. The villains are the imperial army, the group that has made its forces by assimilating other cultures and by letting those cultures survive, by taking in those from other nations who are deformed, disenfranchised, and forgotten, those that would be discarded by the home nation. The heroes are a skirmish group led by an arguably mad king who will gladly sacrifice his finest on the one in a million odds that they will succeed and use any kind of bizarre, dark tactics to accomplish his mission. The roles seem reversed to me but, again, any reading beyond the most shallow does 300 a disservice. Am I saying that 300 is dumb? Yep, but that does not make a bad movie. It accomplishes exactly what it wants: to entertain with no attached baggage. Unlike Mr. Scott, I don’t feel the film takes itself seriously in the least, and this may be its best attribute.