Paean to the Male Warrior
Late in the first act of 300, Zack Snyder's adaptation of Frank Miller and Lynn Varley's graphic novel about the Battle of Thermopylae, the Spartan King Leonidas visits an Oracle and her guardians to see if they approve of his stance to lead an army that will face the invading Persians. There he begins to outline a plan -- to meet the enemy at a narrow mountain pass, where their overwhelming numbers would "count for nothing." The guardians don't seem to let him finish, but I anticipated the revelation of more strategy to come.
However, as the first battle commenced, it became clear to me that Leonidas (Gerard Butler) had indeed finished outlining the plan, for the rest of the defense depended entirely on the supreme fighting skills of the 300 defending Spartans vs. the much much much larger but less well-trained Persian army. In one sequence during that battle, Leonidas leads the charge, and as the movie speed-ramped between normal and slow motion during a long single take, slowing down and whooshing whenever the King connected his weapon with an enemy body, I had two thoughts: (1) this looks really cool -- it's visually composed very well; and (2) it makes me think of a chain-combo from the video game God of War.
That could sum up 300 right there. It's downright beautiful at times, as the movie adheres to a strict computer-enhanced filtered color-and-lighting-scheme, with an eye for composition and framing in pretty much every shot. And it may be hard to fault it for not being very cerebral because it's going for a zoning kind of a feel, almost like a video game. The style and the narrative themes turn out to be one-note, but it's a note attempting an extreme form of catharsis. Bluntly put, this is a guy movie, made for guys who want a release of hyper-aestheticized bloodlust. It's an explosion of the primal male id, where the only emotion that matters is righteous pride.
The male specimens on display here hark back to the image of the idealized Olympian figure, and many of the scenes in the movie are lingering shots of bare-chested men and their hardened physiques, with their capes billowing just right so as to create the perfect curls that emphasize strength and dominance the way comic books have done for decades. But this is also an indication of how the look of the movie is so controlled that all living breath has somehow been vaccum-sealed from the film. It makes no mistake about being a polished show, and its aspirations don't reach far beyond utter spectacle.
The story aligns with the visuals by presenting only stark archetypes and narrative patterns. Presentation of the conflict is very simple and never truly dips into suspense. Basically, it's a given that the Spartans are stronger, more bold, and more skillful than the enemy -- in other words, we are told they are superior and indeed they demonstrate this, wiping out hordes and hordes of Persian soldiers in every battle scene. Their honor, courage, and reserve are unwavering. With no need to prove their strength to us -- no truly challenging trials to endure, no cracks in their morale -- we simply watch. We look and we see the constructed visuals, listen to dialogue spoken (or bellowed) as direct, formal announcements, and understand that 300 is like a giant painting presented to glorify an event exemplifying the greatness of the ideal warrior man. If you're looking for nuance, look elsewhere, for this, apparently, is Sparta.
(Released by Warner Bros. Pictures and rated "R" for graphic battle sequences throughout, some sexuality and nudity.)
Review also posted at www.windowtothemovies.
Listen to the ReelTalk Radio Show discussion of 300 by clicking here.