Another thing Alana and I did this weekend was see 300.
I've read some so-so reviews about it, mostly complaining that it was a mindless film. They've lumped it in with Wild Hogs and Ghost Rider, all of which are considered somewhat low brow, and all of which took in obscene amounts of money during the cinematic doldrums that is the period between January and May. In retrospect 300 does have a pretty linear plot, and not much character development. I didn't care, I enjoyed it!
The film is based on the Frank Miller graphic novel of the same name. It is a fictional — fanciful, actually — depiction of the stand of 300 Spartans at the battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC. The film takes huge liberties with history, but it's a very close adaptation of the graphic novel. Corrupt controllers of a prescient oracle prevent King Leonidas of Sparta from sending an army to oppose the huge Persian host under the god-king Xerxes. Leonidas uses a legal loophole to take 300 of his men to a narrow oceanside pass, in order to delay Xerxes long enough for the Greeks to amass an army. With about a thousand allies (historically there were over 7,000 Greeks), the Spartans square off against an enemy numbering in the hundreds of thousands.
Those who know me as a history buff realize that I don't usually go for Hollywood's depiction of history. That's not entirely accurate. I despise "historical movies" that take liberties with history because of laziness or incompetence (see my review of Flyboys). However, I enjoy historical fiction. If the fiction is good enough (like most of Shakespeare's stuff, which is excellent drama but horrible history), or if I know the writer knows he's being fanciful, I have no problem with the author tearing apart history. I love alternative history stories, and I quite enjoy fanciful history where it's obvious the writer knew what he or she was doing. A good example of this are the Alistair MacLean novels of the 1960s and 70s, or films like Kelly's Heroes. They aren't realistic, but the authors know they aren't realistic. And above all, they're fun.
Miller's depiction of Thermopylae is fanciful (fantastic, in the true sense of the word), and he knows it. The film is even more fanciful, adding an attack by a giant charging rhinoceros as perhaps a nod to The Lord of the Rings. There's also a giant slave warrior controlled by the Persians that didn't appear in the graphic novel. The horribly disfigured Ephialtes (based on a supposedly real person) was the novel's most obvious fantasy construct, and he is depicted exactly as in the comic version.
The combat style used in the film is also fantastic (and I mean that in all senses of the word). It's based heavily on oriental martial arts, but with enough of a twist to be something new. There are a couple of impressive wire shots, but mostly it's fancy footwork and brilliant spear twirling. And blood. Lots and lots of blood, splattering about like a car soaking a pedestrian next to a muddy puddle. Combat is depicted in a sort of a Matrix style. There's a blur of motion which is abruptly arrested into slow motion. Then the blur kicks in again, followed quickly by more slow motion. This under cranking/over cranking bounce creates a fluid frenzy of action, and yet freezes images. It's amazingly close to how the combat was depicted in the comic book, frame by frame but with a sense of hysterical movement.
Some have called the film "sterile" for its heavy use of CGI. On the contrary, I thought it was the most organic I've seen a heavily CGI-ed movie look. If there was sterility in the images, it was because they tried to match Frank Miller's artwork. I suspect that I got more out of the film than most in the theatre, as I have the graphic novel (in it's original five part comic book release version). There are shots that while, perhaps, "sterile" were direct copies of the comic. The one that captured my imagination the most was a light background with a black face; the eyes were all that was visible. This single shot is almost exactly as I remember it in the comic.
Besides the charging rhino and what not, the film's only major departure from the comic is a subplot involving Queen Gorgo. Leonidas' queen is a very minor character in the graphic novel. Her subplot in the film was created as an example of just what Leonidas was fighting for. Unfortunately, I thought the film clunked a bit when director Zack Snyder (of the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead, a damn fine zombie movie) cut to the subplot. I liked the subplot, it just felt grafted on. I also think it could have been used to greater effect. I didn't mind the subplot, I just thought it could have been handled better.
The cast is mostly made up of up-and-coming actors. Playing Leonidas is the Scottish actor Gerard Butler. I enjoyed Butler's portrayal, but noticed that his accent slipped a few times. His Scottish accent came out once in a while. At other times he seemed to be affecting a Greek accent, and at others there was no accent at all. That aside, I enjoyed his King Leonidas. The most familiar face was that of David Wehnham, playing Delios, one of Leonidas' men. He also played Faramir in the last two Lord of the Rings movies. Lana Headey plays Queen Gorgo, with probably the strongest performance in the film.
There is, of course, a lot of violence and blood (and a total of three decapitations). I was also warned going into the film (by someone at work) that there was a fair bit of nudity. The nudity turned out to be Butler's bare rear end, and the breasts of Headey, and Kelly Craig (a Canadian model, playing the Oracle). I was expecting far more from what I was led to believe (and was a little disappointed there wasn't more, truth be told; surprising thing to say about a film with a harem scene). I suspect that my co-worker believed there was more due to the erotic sex scene near the beginning, where a lot is suggested without being explicitly shown.
300 is doing wonderful business. According to Rotten Tomatoes it has cracked $100 million gross. Not bad given that due to its R rating it was pared down to a budget of $60 million. A surprise is the demographic that's seeing it. There are as many people over the age of 25 going as those under that age. A lot of women are seeing it, too. Mind you, there's plenty of eye candy for the women. Alana commented on the incredible UBD (upper body development) on the part of the continuously topless Spartan men. We also noticed that the two female speaking roles were played by women who were relatively flat chested. Though thin, they are as close to what you are likely to find as "normal" women in Hollywood. Normal women and well developed, semi-naked men; Alana said, "This is a trend of which I approve!"
There's been a lot of talk about the film's subtext and its political overtones (talk that ignores the fact that it's based on a graphic novel that came out in 1998). Ignore all that. The two hours in the theatre sped past in a blur, and yet the stunning visuals still remain in my memory, which is almost always a good sign. Critics of the film industry are at a loss to explain how an R rated film released in March could make so much money. It's because 300 is the type of film Hollywood tries hard to make but rarely succeeds. It's something that I call "accessibly original". First and foremost, for a film to be "accessibly original" it must be entertaining.
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