Should I Watch..? 300
What's the big deal?
300 is a heavily stylised historical war film based on the 1998 comic series of the same name by Frank Miller, the author behind Sin City (1). The film is a fictionalised account of actual events, the famous Battle of Thermopylae during the Persian Wars in 480 BC. The movie was deliberately filmed to mimic the style used in Miller's comics, by superimposing digital images over conventional filming. The film stars Gerard Butler, Lena Headey, David Wenham, Dominic West, Rodrigo Santoro and Michael Fassbender and was directed by Zack Snyder who kept Miller as a consultant and executive producer. Despite a fairly mixed reception from critics, the film was a box office hit with global takings in excess of $456 million and it later spawned a sequel 300: Rise Of An Empire (2) in 2014.
What's it about?
Dilios, a civilian volunteer with the Spartan army, recounts the story of King Leonidas who found himself at the forefront of a Persian invasion after a messenger demands loyalty to the Persian God-King Xerxes. Dismissing the messenger in no uncertain terms, Leonidas gathers up a force of 300 Spartans and sets off for Thermopylae in order to shepherd the Persians into a narrow pass and thus, give an advantage to the hopelessly outnumbered Spartans.
With Leonidas away, his Queen Gorgo pleads with the Spartan Council to send reinforcements but her efforts are continually thwarted by the power-hungry Theron. Facing certain defeat against the massive Persian army, Leonidas must rally his men to hold the pass against all odds even if they are forced to make the ultimate sacrifice...
King Leonidas I
Michael B. Gordon, Kurt Johnstad & Zack Snyder *
Release Date (UK)
23rd March, 2007
Action, Fantasy, War
What's to like?
One of the criticisms I often here about Snyder and his directorial style is that he places too much emphasis on visuals, often at the cost of cohesion or characterisation. You won't hear too much argument from me about that but with something like 300 which works hard to achieve a certain look, this approach really pays off. The film looks amazing with characters, costumes, props and digital sets all looking amazing. It is a feast for the eyes, especially in scenes when elements of the fantastical emerge like the willowy Oracles or the hideous creatures utilised in battle by the Persians. It's not a film that ever gets boring to look at.
The other aspect of keeping things as close to Miller's comics as possible is that the film has a narrative almost built in. This allows Butler and the others to really make the most of their outlandish roles - they might not be the most fully realised but each is memorable in their own way, especially Butler and Santoro as the gilded, slimy ruler of the Persians Xerxes.
- Due to the amount of screen time spent bare-chested, the entire cast underwent eight weeks of physical training organised by Marc Twight, a renowned mountain climber. Twight later admitted that his regime was tougher than anything he himself had ever tried.
- The Battle of Thermopylae has long been used as an example of the advantages provided by better use of training, terrain and equipment. It is also held as an example of the power of patriotic troops defending their homeland.
- The film marks the debut of Michael Fassbender who was astonished at the extravagance provided by the budget. He was paid an allowance for a nearby flat during the shot but upon seeing his trailer, he felt like he could live there instead!
What's not to like?
Ignoring Snyder's flair for visual effects, 300 does has some flaws at its heart. The film's fantasy element is largely unwelcome, although this can be put down to the reliability of the narrator. And the battle scenes, while undoubtedly exciting, do get a bit samey after a while - the film doesn't really tell much of a story or indulge in characterisation of any sort. Leonidas is a fierce warrior and inspiring leader but we know nothing of what makes him tick. Aside from a brief (and needless) love scene with his wife, we only ever see him barking orders or chopping up endless foes. And speaking of Headey's role, it's fleshed out a bit more than it was in the comics but to what effect?
I wanted the film to give Butler, Headey and the others more to do besides viciously kill things with plenty of digital gore thrown in and walk around wearing next to nothing. If all you want in a film is an 18-rated version of Return Of The King (3) with battle scene after gruesome battle scene then you'll probably get more out of this than I did. I just felt that something was missing - as a technical showcase, 300 is impressive but a film needs to be more than a director rummaging through his box of tricks. It needs to engage its audience, make me care about what happens to its characters. At the end of this movie, the only thing I felt was the need for a shower. And maybe a trip to a local gym.
Should I watch it?
300 borrows many of the tricks of Sin City and turns them into a brutal and bloody visit to ancient Greece. But the film is pure Snyder, visually spectacular but also unengaging and lacking a decent narrative. It's infuriating more than anything else - like his adaptation of Watchmen (4), Snyder has the narrative already there but spends too long on the visual effects and not enough on his cast.
Great For: gym memberships, ladies looking for eye candy, meme creation
Not So Great For: men who feel inadequate, history teachers, pacifists
What else should I watch?
Having just poured scorn all over it, I will admit that Watchmen is Zach Snyder's best film so far. It's an intelligent and thought-provoking superhero epic that defies convention, thanks to the brilliant story based on the comic by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. Yet, his stock continues to rise and his recent outings for the DC Extended Universe - Man Of Steel (5) and Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice(6) - have proved divisive, if not outright disastrous. Whatever flaws he has as a director, a film by Snyder seems hard to ignore.
Modern movies never really seem to find their feet when regurgitating historical events. Movies like Alexander (7) flopped hard at the box office while Troy (8) didn't win that many plaudits from critics either. They certainly won't be held in the same high regard as classic films like Spartacus (8) or Ben-Hur (9), both of which have since become iconic Hollywood films.