Sunday, March 25, 2007

Review - 300

Hollywood has mangled, altered and butchered as many works of literature as it has adapted over the years, but the work of graphic novelist Frank Miller appears to be sacrosanct amongst filmmakers. The last screen version of a Miller comic book was Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City; a cold-blooded, nihilistic movie which played more like a frame-by-frame reconstruction of the illustrations which inspired it than anything resembling a fresh film experience. Of course, fidelity to the source material is admirable, but the slavish attention paid to Sin City’s look appeared to be the film’s raison d'ĂȘtre, and no attempt was made to adapt Miller’s comic for a completely different medium. It resulted in a flat, episodic and hollow experience.

A similar fate befalls 300, an aesthetically striking film which tells the story of the 300 Spartans who bravely fought to the death in order to defend their country from a million-strong Persian army. I can’t vouch for 300’s credentials as a comic book, but as a film it’s a dispiriting, alienating experience. Two hours of purposeless visual trickery depicting people we don’t care about, in a world we don’t recognise, engaging in a series of barbaric acts. Fans of Miller’s work will undoubtedly be delighted to see his stories, once again, finding a their way to the multiplex intact - and I suppose, in a way, that can be seen as some sort of achievement - but that’s about the only thing 300 achieves.

300 is predominately the story of Leonidas (Gerard Butler), one of the few members of the titular group who is lucky enough to have some sort of character. The film opens by detailing his backstory; how he was trained to be a great warrior almost as soon as he could walk, how he was sent alone into the wilderness to prove his worth aged 7, and how he eventually grew to become the King of Sparta. It’s 480 BC and trouble is on the horizon. As Leonidas instils the same virtues of honour and bravery into his own son, under the loving eye of his wife Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey), a messenger arrives with a handful of crowned skulls and a warning for the King. He tells Leonidas that Sparta will be destroyed unless it submits to the rule of King Xerxes, a man whose vast army has already conquered most of the surrounding lands, but Leonidas politely declines, pulling his sword on the messenger and his comrades. “This is madness” the now-worried stranger pleads; “THIS. IS. SPARTAAARGHH!” Leonidas replies before kicking him down a handily-placed well.

Thus, the stage is set. Leonidas selects 300 of his best men and heads north to intercept the marauding hordes, defying the orders of the priests and the council in the process. What follows is a lot of macho posturing, plenty of violence, and nary a worthwhile human emotion in sight.
300 has been directed by Zack Snyder, who brought a snappy inventiveness to his Dawn of the Dead remake, but given the curious translation of this story from page to screen, one wonders how exactly to analyse his role in the proceedings. He uses the illustrations of Miller’s comic as a guide and recreates the action in a literal fashion, but surely a director should do more than simply point and shoot? There doesn’t seem to be any interpretation of the material here, just a reproduction, and Snyder’s staunch, straightforward rendering of the narrative lacks any sort of personality or shape. 300’s pacing resembles a slow march, with one battle against numerous foes being followed by another battle against an even greater number, and the film simply repeats this pattern ad nauseum. Snyder throws in a bit of half-developed political intrigue to try and beef up the plot, but the lack of sophistication in the writing and the strictly mediocre performances from Headey and Dominic West (as a corrupt senator) render this aspect of the screenplay redundant.

With 300’s script failing to capture my attention it was left to the film’s other departments to try and impress. Gerard Butler certainly does his bit to grab the viewers with a loud, hammy, and oddly endearing piece of acting which gives the film a commanding central figure to work around. Butler’s performance shouldn’t work - he makes little attempt to hide his Scottish accent and he's constantly either shouting or grimacing - but he brings a certain gravitas to the film and he at least manages to inject a little wit into his performance. I liked the sight of Leonidas chomping on an apple while standing on a pile of bodies, and his statement that “there’s no reason we can’t be civil” as a vanquished foe is impaled yards away. But Leonidas is the only character who is endowed with even a smidgen of depth, and there’s no sense of empathy with any of the figures involved in this bloodbath. The battle sequences have no impact as a result; various anonymous figures are stabbed and chopped up and it’s all utterly meaningless, with Snyder’s attempts to wring a sense of pathos out of the later stages falling well wide of the mark.

Snyder has made every effort to ensure the carnage looks nice, though. Utilising the same green screen technology that Rodriguez employed for Sin City, 300 creates a whole world inside a studio, and the results are often impressive. The film is bathed in a golden light and some sequences work on a vast scale, with the sight of the Persians’ countless arrows blocking out the daylight being a particularly memorable image. But the visual splendour of 300 is somewhat undermined by the ugliness of its perspective. An undercurrent of racism, homophobia and fascism seeps through every frame of the picture (although the film does manage the rare feat of being comically homoerotic and homophobic at the same time). The enemy facing Leonidas and his army are, without fail, black, arab, deformed or gay; while the Spartan forces are, without fail, perfect specimens of masculinity whose toned torsos are shot with a reverence which would make Leni Riefenstahl blush. The Spartans preach complete devotion to the state and discard any infants born with imperfections, and the film plays up the grotesquery of the Persians at every opportunity, depicting Xerxes himself as a pierced, mincing queen.

Is there any sort of intention on the part of the filmmakers here, or are they simply respecting their source material? If the latter is the case, then what was Miller’s intention with this exaggerated juxtaposition of values? Of course, one could argue that the film is so divorced from reality there’s hardly any point in looking closely at such themes, but 300’s constant extolling of such virtues is a strange aspect of the picture which makes a very dull film even more unpleasant to watch.

300 is a film which arguably achieves what it set out to achieve - it faithfully adapts the work of Frank Miller for the big screen - but that’s a meagre accomplishment when it fails to offer anything beyond that level, and the film’s lack of respect for the basic pleasures of cinema is thoroughly depressing. What price a well-crafted narrative, evocative writing, rich characterisation, or emotional weight? 300 can’t find room for any of these notions in its endless orgy of violence. When Snyder shoots a sex scene between Leonidas and Gorgo he films it in the same mechanical, over-stylised method with which he shoots everything else - it’s lovemaking without any feeling - and one quickly gets the idea that it has been inserted purely to titillate the target audience before Snyder hurries along to the next testosterone-fuelled impalement, beheading or dismemberment. There’s so much blood spilled in 300, but it’s a movie without a soul.