Screenwriter: Zack Snyder, Kurt Johnstad, Michael B. Gordon
Starring: Gerard Butler, Lena Headey, David Wenham, Dominic West
Running time: 117 mins
Despite a cracking central premise and outstanding visuals, 300 ultimately leaves you feeling more gutted than some of the disemboweled soldiers on display throughout the movie. Revolving around the heroic attempts of 300 Spartan soldiers against the mighty Persian army, this is a simple David versus Goliath storyline that unfolds within a highly stylised world. However, the eye candy and basic premise is not enough to sustain the interest for the movie’s two-hour duration.
300 begins promisingly enough with an absorbing prologue featuring the brutal combat rituals forced upon the young Spartan children in order to hone their fighting capabilities. We’re immersed into a sinister and dangerous world, with everything exaggerated to polarized levels of either beauty or grotesqueness.
This world is initially breathtaking, not surprising given that the movie is based on Frank Miller’s graphic novel. Audacious camera movements swoop around the landscape - a seamless mixture of live action and CGI – and it all looks splendid on the big screen. The stark image of an entire village’s occupants nailed to a tree by the Persians is magnificent, as is the battle between the future King Leonidas and the fiery-eyed wolf. The much vaunted battle scenes are also both brutal and bold. Well, at least they are to begin with.
For as we meander from one scene of carnage to the next, we find ourselves moving from the edge of the seat to being slumped back as our minds start to wander. This is primarily down to our gradual desensitisation towards the imagery. What appeared so visually striking in the first portion of the film is soon accepted as the norm once we’re fully immersed. The ‘wow factor’ is gone. So our minds start to crave more than a visual feast. Sadly, we’re barely given a bite where the script is concerned.
Whereas Gladiator wisely took time to flesh out the central story with rounded characters and intricate relationships and motivations, here director Zack Snyder’s focus is solely on how ‘cool’ a certain shot might look. The Spartan army, led by the determined Leonidas (Butler), effectively function as well sculpted bits of meat with rippling muscles and no character. When a moment does arrive when the captain loses his beloved son and the movie tries to heighten the emotional impact, we simply don’t give a damn. We may as well be witnessing someone carving up a sausage on their dinner plate.
A laboured subplot featuring the events back in Sparta, concerning Leonidas’s wife Queen Gorgo (Headey) only serves to bore and hammer home the token message that ‘freedom is not free’. Neither is seeing this film, and you’ll be craving freedom about halfway through.
The po-faced dialogue really starts to grate and comes across as a series of disconnected faux-ancient soundbites. Rousing statements like “Tonight we dine in hell!” and “The battle is over when I say it is over” might sound triumphant in the movie’s trailer, but it becomes so mind numbingly tedious when drawn out over 117 minutes. This also means the actors have nothing to work with apart from fighting, scowling and shouting.
The manner in which the camera revels in images of physical mutilation tends to suggest a ‘pornography of violence’ issue going on, whereby the action seeks to pleasure and stimulate the audience’s sensory responses. Every time someone is decapitated by sword the action turns to slow-mo and dwells on the severed head spinning round oozing blood. There’s your money shot for you. But with porn you can simply fast forward to the next bit of fleshy action and with comic books you can skim the dull parts. You can’t do this when stuck in the cinema. Not unless you slip the projectionist a hot dog or two (which at today’s cinema prices are worth a fortune).
Where the marvellous Sin City fused plot, character and comic-book visuals into a highly satisfying whole, 300 severely lets down the art department by ignoring the need for a foundation of good writing to layer the visuals upon. As Shakespeare proffered - “all that glisters is not gold”. Strip away the striking visuals that quickly lose their appeal and all there is to 300 is a bare bones plot with not enough meat on it.