300. 2006. Directed by Zack Snyder. Screenplay by Michael B. Gordon, Kurt Johnstad, & Snyder.
Starring Gerard Butler, Lena Headey, David Wenham, Dominic West, Vincent Regan, Michael Fassbender, Tom Wisdom, Andrew Pleavin, Andrew tiernan, Rodrigo Santoro, Giovani Cimmino, Stephen McHattie, Greg Kramer, Alex Ivanovici, & Kelly Craig. Legendary Pictures/Virtual Studios/Atmosphere Pictures/Hollywood Gang/Warner Bros.
Rated 18A. 116 minutes.
Zack Snyder is a director I’m not particularly sold on. I did love how he remade Dawn of the Dead because he kept enough to retain the wonderful legacy of George A. Romero while also throwing his own spin on things. Later, his adaptation of Watchmen was good enough, though to be fair no film adaptation could/would ever make Alan Moore’s words fit properly into the form. Other than these two films, as well as 300, Snyder to me is a second rate filmmaker. He knows how to capture an image, how to make it pop, and how to give his films an impressive atmosphere. But Snyder seems to consistently lack the essence of a visual storyteller. He’s more of a visual mood painter, as opposed to a painter that evokes poetry in his imagery.
I don’t read too much into any of the so-called political analysis critics have heaped onto this film. Sure, you can try. Ultimately when it concerns the Spartans they are a tiny group, tough, though against all the odds stacked high in the favour of their enemies. So how can you try to say they’re representative of a right-wing element, or a superpower? Don’t think so. Also, there’s the fact this is based on Frank Miller’s comic – before Frank got a little Conservative himself – which is itself a historical fantasy, inspired largely by the 1962 film The 300 Spartans. While its basis is in Greek history, the comic and film are meant as part fantasy. Isn’t that obvious? Shame I have to say that. Furthermore, we get solely the Spartan perspective throughout this story. That should speak for itself.
But aside from that 300 is not all it’s been cracked up to be. The look is astounding, even if there’s CGI dripping from most of the frames, the actors do a fine job with their characters. There’s just something missing. Not only that, the look – to me – is not revolutionary as some have claimed, likening it to the groundbreaking work in The Matrix. Honestly the films of Tarsem Singh, particularly The Cell at times, really came to mind. Not everything feels lifted, only a few points where Snyder’s imagery and technique feels similar. Regardless, the constant fixation on an arresting visual style draws us away from the characters, effectively leaving us with CGI and action that never lifts this up past mediocre cinema.
There’s a wonderful atmosphere and look to 300 that compliments its graphic novel roots. While I do find some of it is definitely similar to Singh (The Cell, The Fall), the action sequences are exciting and the visual flair gives them an extra edge. So no, it isn’t as groundbreaking and astonishing as others make it out, but it does look great. I’m not a big lover of CGI. As a huge horror fan, I’m often repelled by the need to use CGI instead of practical makeup effects. Of course there are particular images you just aren’t going to make look proper if you use practical effects – mostly in terms of difficulty and practicality, budgets, et cetera. However, it feels like the intent for 300 was always layer it down in CGI, crunch up the contrast and other visual elements until the look is like a Renaissance painting. Only a Renaissance painting is beautiful not just because of its look, but due to the fact underneath that look there is purpose, reason. Snyder doesn’t achieve any of that extra stuff. Just flash.
For all its beauty, there are times I don’t like certain scenes. Some of the stuff with the sun rising or setting in the background, shots of the sky, it comes off as gaudy and overwrought instead of well put together in its complexity. In addition, Snyder overuses slow-motion to the point of agony. I get it, we want to slow down and let the eye catch on some blood, gore, and the impressive fighting skills of the Spartans against the massive Persian army. Overboard, Zack. Way overboard. It’s as if every minute (or less) we’re getting a shot slowed to a crawl, until finally it becomes all but ineffective.
Tyler Bates has gone on to do some good composing. He almost killed his career here, using unauthorized pieces of other scores including significant bits from the Shakespearean adaptation Titus. And funny enough, the whole score isn’t that impressive anyways. Since this film Bates has done genuinely nice work, including John Wick and Ti West’s The Sacrament. But a lot of this stuff here is generic. Others have said quite the opposite, that is really amps things up. Certain pieces work. Most of it just doesn’t feel up to par with the epic filmmaking attempts by Snyder. There’s a mixed-mashed sense to a lot of the composing here, which doesn’t end up coming together in the right manner. If Bates had stuck to one style instead of crossing from orchestral pieces into quasi-heavy metal riffs and thumping drum kits, the music would’ve probably complimented the action correctly and in turn intensified a lot of already loaded moments.
This is a mediocre action film with historical fantasy weaving through its cracks; a 3-star piece of cinema. Zack Snyder tries best he can to elevate 300 into the realm of innovative action where work like The Matrix still reigns supreme. Not all is bad. The film has its moments. Lena Headey and Gerard Butler sell their characters well, their performances both fierce and emotional at the correct times. Outside of them and a couple of the other cast members (Rodrigo Santoro as Xerxes is damn solid and also fairly unnerving), nothing is any better than the sum of its parts.
While some will hail this as a great achievement and an awesome bit of cinema post-2000, I’d take a lot of other movies in the past 16 years over this one. 300 is enough to satisfy a bit of hunger for action, a slice of history, some historical fantasy, too. Otherwise it is a run-of-the-mill movie with Snyder’s brash style laid over top. You can still have fun here, just don’t let anybody confuse you, and don’t get confused yourself – there are better movies out there in the same realm. Snyder isn’t some contemporary action genius, even if he keeps being handed massive amounts of money to make his middle of the road films.