History can be a little boring. Take Herodotus account of the Battle of Thermopylae, for example. Written two and a half millennia ago, as part of a larger text, it details the brave actions of a Spartan King who made a heroic stand against impossible odds. But how many of us have actually read it?
But, take that same story, spice it up into a movie with some eerie, almost preternatural effects and a pulse-pounding soundtrack and everyone will be interested, you will have a blockbuster. In fact, as is the case with Warner Bros. new film 300, you will have a myth fit for the 21st century.
Directed by Zach Snyder, and based off the Eisner award winning comic books of Frank Miller, 300 begins, as all mythic stories do, with a boy who would be king. A bellicose and energetic narrator, Dilios (David Wenham), introduces us to the Spartan King Leonidas. He tells of the eventual day when a Persian messenger, whose Empire has plagued the region for years, offers the Spartan people a choice of enslavement or destruction.
Leonidas (Gerard Butler) chooses freedom, violently rejecting the messengers offer. But Sparta is mired in politics and Leonidas is forced to protect his people with only 300 of his best warriors. Bravely, he marches them to the narrow pass of Thermopylae and straight into impossible odds as wave after wave of the Persian King Xerxes millions-strong horde army attacks.
With the films heavy CGI use, the battles are absolutely magnificent. Thousands of Xerxes best crush against 300s phalanx in stunning sound and glory. The stop and start slow motion lingers in spots, indulging the audiences blood lust with every thrust of the spear, parry of the sword and whirl of disembodied head.
The effects are glaringly overt, both on and off the battlefield, as Snyder transplants many of Millers original panel artwork to the big screen. Normally this kind of obtrusive effects work is distracting, but the virtual backgrounds and manipulation of color saturation here weave an alluring visual tapestry. Certainly, not every composition or fit of Matrix-style motion-shift works; the films one sex scene looks like a new wave perfume commercial from the 90s. But, overall, this heavy-handed visual approach weaves a symbiotic relationship with Dilios grandiose narration to produce something unique you realize you are not watching a movie, per se, but rather a visualized embellishment of oral history.
Of course, it helps that the film has an impressive cast. Butler produces a charismatic screed of testosterone, channeling a battle-ready Sly Stallone that is actually coherent. Vincent Regan, as Captain, is great, too, as are the rest of the 300 who all handle their clichd and, often historically correct, gallows wit well. And Lena Headey, as the Queen, is a standout surprise, showing that Spartan women were just as feisty as Spartan men.
And, since this is a Greek story, 300 carries among the god-like half-dressed muscular men and thin women a sharply idealistic philosophy regarding freedom and cynical slant on politicians; which, although simplistically presented, are hard to argue with.
All of which is to say, 300 is roaring fun. Not a meditation on historical fact so much as a sand-and-sandal movie brewing with meta-myth and garishly cool effects, leaving no doubt that summer blockbusters can be artful too.
4 stars out of 5