300 is an orgy of gore, a blood-letting on a titanic scale, a ballet of butchery in which half-naked men and the torrents of blood they elicit move in perfect, slow-motion choreography to a thunderous soundtrack.
And I loved every minute of it.
Like all good Greek stories, this one has a chorus. Dilios (The Lord of the Ring’s David Wenham), a Spartan warrior with the gift of storytelling, narrates the action. The tale is simple; this is not a film you go to for intricate plots and nuanced storylines. The year is 480 B.C. and the colossal Persian army descends upon the Greek city-state of Sparta, a region of Greece renowned for it fearsome warriors. Though King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) knows war is the only option, the priests and other throwbacks from Greece’s pagan past (this is Greece on the cusp of becoming the nucleus of reason, logic and democracy we know it for today) forbid the war on account of an upcoming religious festival (a Greek Sabbath, if you will). Leonidas, who is torn between saving his people and obeying their laws, decides to leave his army behind and gathers only 300 of his finest soldiers to meet the enemy. His hope is that while he is away, his stalwart queen (Lena Headey) can muster support from the naysayers led by the malignant, appeasing politician, Theron (Dominic West).
These reinforcements, of course, never come. It is not a spoiler to say that each and every one of the 300 perish in battle. If you didn’t know that, don’t blame me. It merely means you weren’t paying attention in high school world history when you covered the Battle of Thermopylae. Though the 300 are lost, their sacrifice emboldens the other Greeks, and in a closing scene reminiscent of the final moments of Braveheart, they take up their arms and push the Persians back into the sea.
Many have read a throbbing political subtext into the film, extrapolating their particular ideology and coming out on the other side with a film either in support of or in condemnation of America’s war in Iraq. 300 is drenched in language extolling the audience that freedom is not free and that in defense of that freedom sometimes a nation’s most precious blood must be spilt. Others see the valiant Spartans as the insurgents. Brave and vastly outnumbered, they continually obliterate tidal wave after tidal wave of an enemy a mad king continues to order into battle without regard for the catastrophic loss of life.
Whatever your interpretation (and both are plausible), the demarcation line between good and evil is vibrantly clear. The Spartans, fighting against the enslavement and eradication of their people, are the ultimate examples of manhood — as naked as an R-rating will allow, musculatured like steroid-enhanced GI Joe action figures, devoid of feminine sentiment, with beautiful women and virile children hovering in their shadows — while the camera looks upon the sexual and physical deviants of the Persian army, led by the towering god-king Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) with an indisputable queer-eye. His armies are a Borg-like assimilation of various conquered cultures, each as wildly debauched as they are exotic.
Do not go to 300 if you are interested in an accurate history lesson. This is a film in which history is subservient to aesthetics. 300 is based more on the Battle of Thermopylae as mythology than as fact. 300 takes place in an alternate, hyper-stylized world in which mutated humans — more monster than man — do the bidding of their masters like giant trolls at the command of Orc armies; in which the world is divided into the breathtakingly beautiful and the retchingly grotesque. Everything here is bigger, scarier, uglier, deadlier.
300, based upon Frank Miller’s (Sin City) graphic novel (comic books for the uninitiated), is a film shot in an entirely CG environment. Director Zack Snyder and his CG artists have crafted a feast for the senses and the result is an undeniable technical achievement. Here, actors perform against blank screens on which backgrounds are later painted to represent the distinctive look and motion of comic book panels.
Every pixel has been manipulated to create a world of heightened, accelerated reality. Mountain vistas and ocean-battered shorelines like these exist only in the minds of master animators. The images have been drained of their color, reduced to browns and rusts and, of course, the vibrant crimson of flowing Spartan capes and geysering Persian blood. Some have said that 300 plays like a video game. I didn’t see it. 300 is the lovechild of graphic novels and 21st century cinema utterly in lust with its computerized toys and the worlds they’ve wrought. As spectacle, 300 is nearly impossible to beat, rivaling, at times, some of the best The Lord of the Ring’s animators could come up with.
Do not even remotely consider this movie if you are repulsed by violence. 300 is violence as pornography. Blood-drunk, the film revels in its body count. To watch it is to be baptized in gore. If the sight of blood, much less gushing torrents of it pinwheeling from impaled chests, amputated limbs and decapitated heads makes you squeamish, do not set foot in this theater.
That said, most of the brutality in 300, lovingly lingered upon though it may be, is the sort of over-the-top violence that blunted the more traumatic aspects of such films as Kill Bill. By taking things to such excessive, Kurosawaesque extremes, the filmmakers moved beyond genuine revulsion (the sort one might encounter in a brutally realistic film like Saving Private Ryan or The Passion of the Christ, for instance) and into a realm usually reserved for cartoons.
Because of this, 300 never really touches our emotions. It works on our eyes but never our hearts. I don’t think the filmmakers see that as all that much of an indictment. Fanboys (and let’s be honest here, men in general) will still find it irresistible. After all, this is a film crafted for the sheer enjoyment of our baser pleasures — the modern equivalent of an ancient Roman coliseum show in which we cheer the blood-soaked carnage and tell ourselves that was money well worth spent whilst dabbing blood from our clothing.
I am, however, left with one nagging question: what does it say about me that I enjoyed it so much?