Sunday, March 11, 2007

REVIEW: 300

A small word of caution to any readers whom it may apply to: If you are yourself or are the concerned friend of a high school athlete with ANY games scheduled against one of the gazillion opposing teams in the U.S. called "The Spartans" at any time while "300" is still playing in theaters, please heed the following advice: Watch the hell out!

Yes, once again we dive into the "Braveheart"-birthed subgenre of epics that can be accurately refered to as Loose-History For Varsity Football Dudes and Frat Boys, with Zack Snyder's ambitious "300" jockeying to unseat current-champ "Gladiator" as the default favorite "historical" movie of your local Atomic Wedgie Distributor. This doesn't make it a bad film, not by any stretch, though it does aid in approaching the movie on the proper terms.

The film is a very literal translation of Frank Miller's 1998 graphic-novel, itself a "cool-parts-only-and-cooler-parts-added" retelling of the Battle of Thermopylae (300 Spartan soldiers under King Leonidas versus a thousands-strong multinational horde under the Persian god-king Xerxes for those a little rusty on their Western Civ.) Most historical epics, for better or worse, aim to examine the deeper concepts of legendary events, or tie them to modern paralells, but you'll find little of such here: This is a story of Sparta as the Spartans would've wanted it told. It casts it's Greek heroes in the idealized (and profoundly homoeroticized) terms in which they cast themselves, and likewise Xerxes army appears as a clashing collective of beastial exotica that indeed captures the ghoulish identity ancient Greece assigned to her foes. The Spartans appear as expertly-oiled bodybuilder specimens who go to war naked save for their crimson capes and leather Chippendales speedos; while the enemy is either ugly, malformed or outright monstrous - at least two of the "heavies" are almost literal ogres, while Xerxes himself is a towering, peircing-adorned giant with a digitally-distorted voice.

On the one hand, historians will have something resembling a point when they meekly point out that Xerxes armies probably didn't include a Jabba-esque executioner with giant claw-shaped blades replacing his forearms. But it seems to me a slippery slope to hold such gratuity against a film who's area of history involves a clash between two civilizations so alien to modern audiences that even a "straight" retelling would have all the relateability of an unsubtitled clash between Aliens and Predators.

The nigh-extraterrestrial nature of the onscreen presentation is also helpful in allowing the action to be appreciated on it's own merits: A sampling of any pool of reviews will reveal that critics are already too eager to read political subtexts into a film that's more concerned with making every spear-to-the-gut kill cooler than the last, but I for one am not finding many such reviews worth taking very seriously. "Conservative" critics are largely making fools of themselves trying to cast King Leonidas (Gerard Butler, late of "Phantom of The Opera") as some kind of Bush avatar, while their mirror-mirror dopplegangers on the "Left" are throwing a White Guilt hissy-fit over the fact that all the good guys are caucasian Greeks while the baddies are mostly, well.. not.

This is neither the time, the place nor the material for that kind of introspection - Greek Mythology doesn't really "do" subtext. Thermopylae is here framed in the terms of the East vs. West clash of Grecian reason and Persian "mysticism and tyranny" that have been it's default portrayal in verse, prose and portrait since it occured, and given the end result there's nothing wrong with that: The film is "about" exactly what's up on the screen: Balletic scenes of combat, loving-photographed spears thrusting through enemy torsos, gruesome enemies and thundering declarative narration. It's a film of manly men doing manly things, and depending on your reading of that description you're either going to regard it as High Camp, Holy Writ or some feverish hybrid of the two.

Created almost-entirely using green-screen "sets" and copious CGI, the film is painterly in the most literal sense: Every shot is practically a post card in motion, meticulously composed down to the last drop of spewing digital bloodspray. Every shot of the Spartan's in combat is designed to linger on the striking visual of their battle poses, every sword-stroke and heroic leap looking like the result of a life of practice. Every shot of the Persians is a chance to show off the creativity of the makeup, costuming and armory crew. When Leonidas consults an Oracle, it appears in the form of a nubile girl doing a peyote-fueled cheese-cloth striptease. If there's a "cool" way to behead, stab or slash an enemy using Spartan weaponry, you can bet Snyder and company have incorporated it; along with providing one of the better motion picture realizations of how a Spartan Phalanx likely worked.

When you come right down to it, "300" is essentially a single battle scene blown up to the level of a Wagnerian opera. And, as such, it's a tremendously successful achievement. It's not the transcendantly-excellent work that was "Sin City," the previous high-style Frank Miller adaptation, but it neither wants or needs to be. It's a brawl, writ-large and fully committed to building up it's audience's lust for digitally-stylized bloodshed and then leaving them more than satisfied. This kind of thing isn't everyone's cup of tea, but approach it with and open mind and reasonable expectations and you're likely to at least come away having experienced something altogether fresh.

FINAL RATING: 8/10