When his highly-touted and ambitious screenplay for RoboCop 2 got botched during the filmmaking process, graphic novelist (and, many would say, genius) Frank Miller became understandably gun shy about the movie business. For years, he refused offers to adapt his works for the big screen, not wanting any more of his efforts to get butchered. A funny thing has happened in the last few years, though: a couple of talented, innovative filmmakers have figured out that the way to adapt Frank Miller is to make the movie slavishly faithful to Miller’s vision. Their reverence has won the novelist over. Robert Rodriguez used green-screen CGI to duplicate the look of the comics for Sin City, and he adhered very closely to the source material’s dialogue. Now, Zack Snyder has done something similar with 300. The result is a movie that goes through the roof on the entertainment scale. Every few years, a film comes along that epitomizes what it means to be cool. The Matrix earned that honor in 1999. 300 earns it now.
Set during the battle of Thermopylae, 300 stars Gerard Butler (The Phantom of the Opera) as King Leonidas. Early on, a messenger arrives in Sparta carrying word that Persia’s leader, Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), wishes Leonidas to bow down and recognize his sovereignty. If he will do this, Xerxes will not invade Sparta or turn the women and children into slaves. The proud Leonidas responds by screaming, “This is Sparta!” and kicking the messenger down a pit.
Xerxes consequently assembles a million troops and plans an invasion. With a mere 300 of his best soldiers backing him up, Leonidas concocts a plan to build a wall that will force the advancing enemy troops to pass through a narrow stretch of land. With them unable to get too many soldiers through at any given time, the Spartan warriors figure they can take them out in waves. The strength of their initial defense takes the Persians by surprise. Xerxes responds by trying different methods of attack, including rhino and elephant ambushes, massive arrow bombardment from a distance, and even “magic.” Each time, the Spartans are able to hold the fort.
After a while, all the fighting takes a toll and it becomes clear that the Spartans need help. Leonidas’ wife, Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey), tries to influence Sparta’s government to send additional troops. One corrupt member of that group, Theron (Dominic West), sees her actions as an opportunity to seize some power for himself.
This all makes for a very compelling and dramatic story, but to be honest, the first thing you notice about 300 is its visual style. Like Sin City, the movie was filmed in front of green screens on a soundstage; all the backgrounds and other elements were added later with CGI. Computers also give the movie a sepia tint that captures the look of Miller’s graphic novel. Perhaps more than anything, this is the single most important trait of the film. Frank Miller is the Martin Scorsese of the graphic novel. His works have such a distinct sense of style and storytelling that you’d instantly recognize one even if his name wasn’t on it. You can’t tamper with such an individual formula. To try would equal disaster. 300, like Sin City before it, takes great pains to resemble a Miller comic come to life.
I have often said that special effects have lost their ability to thrill us. Now that we know the power of computers, there isn’t a lot of genuine wonderment left in effects. We easily explain them away by saying, “computers did it!” Not since the first time I saw the morphing effect in 1991’s Terminator 2 has my jaw really hit the floor. That said, I think movies like this pave the way for CGI to dazzle us again. We’ve become somewhat complacent about computers being used to create monsters or aliens or gigantic tidal waves. What’s become more enthralling is when they are used as they are here – to create and fully immerse us in a fantasy world. In this case, Frank Miller created the world and Zack Snyder has used the tools at his disposal to translate it to a different medium.
This is only Snyder’s second film. His first was the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead, which I think is one of the best horror films of the last few years. He has a masterful ability to show action in a way that is energizing. In 300, he shoots many of the most intense battles in slow motion, allowing us to study the brutality of the fighters. The violence (which is graphic without ever being off-putting) achieves an almost poetic beauty. You simultaneously appreciate the skill of the actors’ choreography while still understanding the pride-driven bloodlust of the characters.
Snyder also provides a handful of stunning images that give a sense of the “300 versus 1,000,000” scope: thousands of Persian ships approaching on a violent ocean, a stream of flying arrows blocking out the sun, the sight of an endless line of marauding Persians. One of the most powerful images for me was a line of Persian warriors tumbling helplessly (almost gymnastically) off the side of a cliff after meeting Spartan resistance. Using modern effects technology to portray an ancient period of time and then sprinkling in elements of pure fantasy gives 300 an almost otherworldly quality that you can hardly take your eyes off.
There’s a lot more going on that I haven’t mentioned: an interesting plot, sharp dialogue, a great over-the-top performance from Gerard Butler, the welcome twist of having Queen Gorgo be just as intelligent and powerful as her husband. Nor have I brought up the fascinating assemblage of giants, monsters, and creepy creatures who float through the story, adding something special to the mythological feel of the tale. These things are all crucial to the success of 300. The only reason I have not gone into them in more detail is because you can discover them for yourself. What I want to do is to provide a sense of 300’s experience – and that’s exactly what it is. Sitting there watching the film, I felt full of adrenaline. Here’s a movie that gladly pulls out all the stops to entertain you. The look is amazing, the action is intense, the story is vivid, and the characters are worth taking the adventure with.
I’ve already heard grumbling from some naysayers that 300 isn’t “deep” enough, or that it doesn’t portray the Battle of Thermopylae realistically. That isn’t why you go to a movie like this. You go to it in order to be swept away, amazed, and entertained. On those counts, 300 delivers in spades.
( out of four)
300 is available on DVD in several formats, including a single-disc “movie only” version (with director commentary), as well as HD-DVD and Blu-Ray versions, both of which come stocked with bonus features. For this review, I checked out the 2-disc Special Edition on DVD.
Given the unique style and massive popularity of 300, it is not surprising that Warner Home Video has loaded the set with a truckload of bonus features. First among them is “The 300 – Fact or Fiction?” This half-hour mini-doc has experts discussing the known historical facts of the Battle of Thermopylae, as well as Miller and the filmmakers discussing how and why certain liberties were taken. This is a great feature because movies like 300, when done right, make you want to learn more about the real thing. In this case, you can do so right after watching the film.
“Who Were the Spartans” examines how the actors developed their characters. Although all the intense action and mind-blowing visuals were front and center, 300 worked as well as it did because of the strong characterization. This bonus feature gives the actors their due.
Also included are twelve “webisodes” taking us behind the scenes. These short subjects cover a wide range of topics, from cast bios, to special effects work, to stunts and wardrobe, to showing how the actors trained to get in such amazing physical shape. Each webisode is informative, giving greater appreciation to the work that went into making this movie.
A bonus feature called “Making 300” is surprisingly brief, but that’s understandable considering that the other features quite extensively document the film’s making. One of them - “Making 300 in Images” - uses time-lapse photography to document the on-set production.
Near the end of the disc, there are three deleted scenes with introduction from director Zack Snyder. Two of them reveal an interesting coda to one crucial character’s story arc, and the third is a cool battle scene involving giants and midget archers.
Perhaps the most valuable bonus feature is “The Frank Miller Tapes,” a tribute to the artistry and groundbreaking vision of Miller. In addition to its subject, various comic book colleagues and people associated with the production of 300 appear to talk about Miller’s body of work. It’s a wonderful tribute to a man who has provided the world with some really special stories.
The bonus features here are so good that I absorbed them all in one sitting. 300 on DVD naturally looks great and sounds great, and it’s the kind of movie that any home theater enthusiast will get maximum benefit from.
300 is rated R for graphic battle sequences throughout, some sexuality and nudity. The running time is 1 hour and 56 minutes.
To learn more about this film, check out AskMen.com: 300
Return to The Aisle Seat