Film review: 300

Even though Armand is back from holiday, he is very busy, he tells me, so I will continue to guestblog…

Anyway, lucky old me got a tickets to the premiere of 300 last week (not, alas, as one of these funky favoured blogger-type people, but through the old-fashioned mainstream media). We got packed into screen 6 of the Vue, Leicester Square – several of the screens were filled with people, and this meant poor crew & cast carted from screen to screen to be introduced to the audience. Which meant we had to wait ages before we got to see it. Still, we got free popcorn.

First however, a warning, spoilers follow.

The basic plot is around the 480 BC Battle of Thermopylae, a battle where (according to the film) 300 Spartan warriors led by King Leonidas held off the 120,000-strong army of Xerxes I, until they were betrayed by John Merrick. Or something like that. The film isn’t that true to history, but then it is based on a Frank Miller graphic novel, and so you know what you’re getting beforehand; you’re not getting Simon Schama strolling across the battlefield drily describing what went on – you’re going to get smacked in the face with a fist with the words “dramatic re-interpretation” all over it. So don’t complain, just sit back and enjoy the ride.

Trying to sum the film up to Tom on the way out, I came up with the three words: “exquisitely choreographed ultraviolence”. The film is visually gorgeous and compelling, yet the acts depicted in are unashamedly brutal and ought to be ugly and repellent. There are severed heads and limbs, impalements, and acts that today would be quite gross abuses of the Geneva Conventions. However, the CGI-enhanced presentation turns it into something else; time is slowed and sped up alternately, as we see the warriors fight and spear and kill in ballet-like motion; the battlefield is turned into a elaborate stage, the warriors lit like models on a catwalk and framed by a perfectly-tailored landscape. The result is so engrossing, so hyperreal, that I ended up being neither appalled nor excited by the violence; instead I was just entranced.

Frank Miller’s fascination with the grotesque and fantastical runs through this thickly, from the depiction of the leprous Ephors, mystical priests who are bribed by Xerxes, to the hunchbacked Ephialtes, who after being rejected, betrays the Spartans. In fact, it’s pretty much safe to say that all the good guys are flawless specimens, while the baddies are thronged with the repulsive. As Tom Reynolds puts it:

It seems that the Persians have a more inclusive role in the society for the disabled, yet they are the bad guys.

The creators of this film best be careful, that sort of thinking got Glenn Hoddle into a lot of trouble a few years ago.

Anyway, the film’s imagery of the flawless, buffed European warriors versus the multitudinous hordes of disfigured Asians isn’t exactly subtle, and as Scaryduck puts it:

Loaded with U.S. vs Them imagery, the Persians are portrayed as swarthy sexual deviant warmongers bent only on the destruction of those good, white, European Greeks. Unable to learn from their mistakes, they use force of numbers against the more intelligent, better organised Spartans to no avail. Because, hell yeah, we’re number one.

Indeed, the best other parallel in fiction I can think of is in Star Trek. The Spartans are the Federation, where a cabal of few (mostly human, mostly Western) highly-skilled, highly principled individuals are fighting against a collective of disparate races assimiliated together into one massed unit, i.e. the Borg, the one continual ever-present bad guys throughout the latter 20 years of the series, which of course was borne out of American fears of the Soviet threat and Reagan’s Evil Empire in the 1980s. I’ll leave you to work out what the film’s creators have used as their inspiration.

Just in case you don’t get this point, then there’s a nice subplot involving Gorga, Leonidas’ wife, who tries to get the Spartan parliament to send reinforcements, culminating in an impassioned speech for “Justice, truth, and law and order”. It’s all a bit too “Atticus Finch in the 5th Century BC” to take seriously, mapping a modern western ideal of liberal democracy back onto a society where democracy was still very much in its infancy at the time. As Tom put it to me on the way back home on the Tube, she might as well have added “… and a separation of powers, a second chamber directly elected by proportional representation and no DRM on our CDs!”

Not that any of this makes 300 a bad film. It’s just that it wears its politics awkwardly on its sleeve; afraid the message will get confused or the audience will come away not thinking precisely what you want them to think, the writers and directors hammer the point home far too unsubtly. Quite frankly, if you’re going to do that, then at least follow Team America: World Police‘s lead and make it funny (warning – rude language in that link).

The political fumblings aside, it is a good film, with a decent enough script and plot. The direction is tight, keeping the film well-paced and not overlong despite the obvious temptation to do so. And it’s helped by a good cast; Gerard Butler gives a mighty performance as Leonidas, like a young Brian Blessed, while the very beautiful Lena Headey as Gorga does well despite the shoddy lines she has to deliver. The supporting cast all perform well, with Butler supported by a load of suitably roary and fighty Spartans, and Rodrigo Santoro playes Xerxes as a superbly camp yet insecure man-god, whilst looking like a nine-foot tall Richard O’Brien; yes, this is the same Rodrigo Santoro who plays the very hirsute (and annoying) Paolo in LOST.

And to bring it all together, there is the beautiful presentation. You might think that it’s a triumph of style of substance, but you’d be wrong; the style is the substance. The film’s depiction makes it go beyond real, into the more than real. It is an interesting thing to think about – this kind of film would have been impossible to make ten years ago, yet the technology available now means we can meld truly fantastic (in the original sense) and compelling effects into live action absolutely seamlessly. What 300 does so well is that it isn’t just a load of effects with the plot and dialogue as cinematic Polyfilla; rather they are combined into a compelling and enthralling whole that cannot be separated. That takes the film as a spectacle on the next level, and that’s what made it such an enjoyable experience.