May 7th, 2008

attempting to give a damn

Review: 300

So, I finally got around to watching 300.

I was disappointed. Frankly, the Spartans deserved better than this.

It's frustrating. There's a story there, but it's almost completely buried by a weak, trite script filled with hackneyed catchphrases and overwhelmed by the poor direction of Zack Snyder (I fear for Watchmen now, since it appears to be in his hands), who seems to be hopelessly fascinated with the gratuitous: I kept trying to get into the movie, but found his style and treatment of the battles very alienating. He seems to like to break the fourth wall with distracting, almost humorously detached special effects for violence. After about the fourth decapitation and hundredth cartoony blood spatter, I almost expected John Cleese's Black Knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail to come out and say, "Okay, we'll call it a draw." I understand that he was trying to emphasize the fog of war, but Snyder used slow motion so frequently that I think the movie would have been about ten minutes shorter if those frames had been run at normal speed.

Also, have these people never heard of accent work? Every time Gerard Butler opened his mouth, I was like, "THIS ... IS ... Scotland?" It was jarring.

It was all uninspired stick figures. We had the Loyal Wife, the Brave King, the Corrupt Politician and the Evil Cabal of Priests. Oh, and the enemy is monstrous and ugly. Literally. You won't need to think: us vs. them is oversimplified to the point of flash cards.

I also think there wasn't enough information about Sparta's culture to provide context for what they were fighting for at the Battle of Thermopylae. Frankly, at the outset, all the emphasis on being rewarded with a beautiful death sounded creepily, eerily close to Muslim martyrs being rewarded with 72 virgins in the afterlife -- if history is written by the victors, as the saying goes, it's pretty easy to mentally recast the underdog/superpower roles. Additionally, a viewer could come away from 300 thinking that the Spartans were just a bunch of barbarians, especially if they didn't stay beyond the slaying of the messenger. In fact, Sparta placed great value on educating both men and women. The reasons for it weren't particularly nice: although Spartan women had more power and respect at that time than women almost anywhere else in the world, this was in part due to a pro-eugenics mindset. They believed that strong, intelligent women were more likely to produce strong, intelligent children, and they educated women with the subtext of producing better breeding stock. Nevertheless, despite the motivations, Spartan women had more status in terms of property rights and education than their peers almost anywhere else in the world.

Some folks have commented on all the bare torsos. To be honest, I didn't really notice except in individual shots, and there, the women in their brief screen time seemed to get more attention with the editing than the men (this movie did little to mitigate my belief that Frank Miller is a bit sexist, and Miho doesn't count because she's not actually human, but a demon clad in human form, like Kevin). Let me explain: two or three people in various states of undress are kind of interesting because you're able to pay attention to each individual. Three hundred people grouped is just a homogenous mass of bodies, and the repetition of features becomes uniform and recedes. Your eye doesn't take in leg after leg after leg: it's just action moving forward. The soldiers were not eroticized by the camera, for example, in the way that the Oracle was.

My husband really likes this movie. I get why: the nobility of fighting for ideals and a way of life that is empirically better than slavery is appealing. The citizens of Sparta believe in the realization of a larger goal, and are committed to the concept that love of country and culture is stronger and greater than any one person. They hold as truth that society enjoys the quality of life it does because there are people who are willing to die to protect it. Absolutely. I get that. My main problem with the movie is that 300 doesn't do its own central themes justice. It fails by smothering and drowning its own content in poor execution. While I cannot say it is entirely lacking, imagine if this material had been in the hands of someone like Ridley Scott, Peter Jackson, or Kenneth Branagh (oh, wait, he already did Henry V :) ). Imagine a quality script and better direction for the actors, with accent coaching and attention to detail. We could have had another Gladiator instead of this cheese. It just could have been so much better. As it is, it's a deeply flawed work that enslaves the free people of Sparta and forces them to submit to being in a bad MTV video. When the DVD case features a quote from Maxim as the promotional verbiage -- well, if that's the best you can dredge up from a review, you know you're in trouble.

Sparta had an exceptional culture in several respects. You just wouldn't know it from watching 300.