In terms of stylistic overkill, the new big screen adaptation of Frank Miller’s uber-violent graphic novel “300” ranks right up there with “Moulin Rouge.” Where Baz Luhrmann’s movie musical was overflowing with ripe emotion, though, “300” is a bombastic and cold affair, not unlike watching the story sequences between levels in a video game.
Outmatched by thousands, bloodthirsty Spartan king Leonidas (Gerard Butler) leads 300 super-buff Supermen sporting bikini briefs and capes into the Battle of Thermopylae anyway—for honor, for glory—for no other reason than the superficial titillation of seeing stylized violence from all different angles and speeds.
Director Zach Snyder, who uses a green screen and all-CGI sets to mimic the vivid colors of Miller’s comic, matches the Spartans’ boldness. The backgrounds are flat and blurry and the colors monochromatic, so this technique has the unusual effect of never once placing its characters in a believable environment.
Battle scenes recall the replay option on a football video game where you can watch slo-mo, sudden zoom-ins, and rotating camera angles. This allows you to see the moment of contact or, in the case of “300,” see every detail as a spear enters an ogre’s eye. There is so much slow motion that if they had run the entire film at normal speed, it would have been half as long.
Basically, “300” exists as a showcase for action. Maybe this would have been more fun if the whole movie wasn’t bogged down by a stolid seriousness that rarely lets up, not to mention a philosophically hollow premise. The stubborn machismo that gets Leonidas into this conflict purports to be about freedom, liberty, justice, and every other buzzword that will evoke unblinking loyalty on the part of a modern audience. In a culture that tosses weak babies off a cliff and physically abuses strong children to make them hardened warriors, these ideals ring particularly false.
Like 2005’s “Sin City,” another slavish Miller adaptation, “300” is the visual equivalent of testosterone run rampant. In addition to all manner of creative blood spilling, there is a heaping helping of sex, topless writhing young women, and homophobia. Xerxes is not just a God-King who leads the Persian army. He is also a giant, hairless hermaphrodite with a sexed-up lesbian harem. Early in the film, the Athenians are slandered as “boy-lovers.” Ironically, the always-shirtless Spartans—as rippled and tan as a Chippendale dancer—carry their own homoerotic charge.
Audacious movies are always more entertaining than bland ones, even when they are a spectacular mess. “300” may be riddled with laughable dialogue that sounds better when bellowed and a voice-over narration as resolute as it is ridiculous, but no one will ever accuse it of being flavorless. What made “Sin City” work was how it tweaked the tried and true themes of film noir, bringing a sad resonance to its characters even while Miller spun his macho fantasies. Although the action sequences in “300” are brutal showcases of technical prowess, they are missing any whiff of emotional significance.
Right now, “300” feels like the latest high-tech rollercoaster—the one with the craziest loops that pulls the most G’s. I know this didn’t happen, but I couldn’t help thinking that Snyder was constantly trying to one-up Mel Gibson. He made sure that severed heads would actually fly in “300” (rather than the simple roll/bounce move in “Apocalypto”), and increased the number of martyrs (a la “Braveheart”) by a whopping two hundred and ninety-nine. Nice work, sir.