There is no disputing that "300" looks good, overloading the eyes on images that have never been captured in quite this way before. As with 2004's "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow
" and 2005's "Sin City
" (the latter, like this film, based on a graphic novel by Frank Miller), the picture was filmed in studio and in front of greenscreens for sixty days before extensive, state-of-the-art special effects took over and inserted the live-action actors into a digitally-created world. The results are visually pleasing, to be sure, but to what end? The story is poorly set up, empty, and self-important without giving a reason for why it should be taken seriously. Emotionally, the film is a virtual dead zone, with half-formed characters not worth caring about who mostly run around and give long-winded speeches at the top of their lungs. And as for the main attractionthe battle sequencesthey are bombastic and carnage-heavy, but bereft of tension and excitement.
Creative licensing is the name of the game as director Zack Snyder (2004's "Dawn of the Dead
") seeks to portray the Battle of Thermopylae, circa 480 B.C., complete with elephants, hunchbacks, and otherworldly creatures added into the mix. With 100,000 Persians, led by the multi-pierced King Xerxes (Rodrigo Santora), closing in, King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) gathers together 300 Spartan warriors to do battle against them and protect their Greek city-state. Defeat is likely and death almost a certainty, but Leonidas is not about to walk quietly into the night.
For months, stunning theatrical trailers for "300" have built up what seems to be a rabid fanbase. The outcome of all this mounting anticipation, however, is a supreme letdown. Playing like a prologue to a larger story and ending at precisely the moment when the movie should have been gearing up for its showstopping third-act (set at the culminating Battle of Plateae one year later), the film is anticlimactic and unsatisfying. Much of the two-hour running time consists of fight scenes, but they arrive before the viewer has had time to get to know King Leonidas and the Spartans underneath him.
Without a person to rally behind, and without a greater cause that means anything beyond what the incessant narrator tells us, the battle set-pieces fall flat and fail to resonate. There are a few dazzling shots, as when the camera moves from one violent showdown to the next in a single, seemingly unbroken take. Otherwise, these sequences are surprisingly dull and more than a little repetitive. There's only so many ways to show swords and spikes stabbing into people's bodies, and director Zack Snyder exhausts this repeated sight before the first hour is up. An effects flaw with the power to take one out of the tale are the copious streams of CGI blood splatter, which never once land on the battling men's skin. It may seem like an insignificant observation, but it becomes a big problem if the audience is to accept the cinematic world that has been orchestrated.
Also getting in the way of the bigger picture are the hundreds of male bodies on display, their chiseled chests, eight-pack abs, bulging biceps, and walnut-cracking thighs so fussed over by the camera that it is almost as if director Zack Snyder was seeking to make a big-screen adaptation of Men's Health and Fitness
magazine. There is also a cut-rate sex scene early on between King Leonidas and Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) that stands in for character development, despite nary a genuine emotional connection between them. Later, when the evil and borderline-offensively effeminate King Xerxes demands that Leonidas bow before him, you half wonder if it isn't a sexual come-on. Straight women and gay men might find some worth in the film's preoccupation with male machismo and homosexual undertones once it hits DVD, but that is all it is good for.
"300" is all flash and no feeling. The performances from fine actors, including Gerard Butler (2004's "The Phantom of the Opera
") as King Leonidas, Lena Headey (2005's "The Brothers Grimm
") as Queen Gorgo, and Dominic West (2007's "Hannibal Rising
") as the traitorous Theron, are overshadowed by a screenplay by Zack Snyder, Kurt Johnstad and Michael B. Gordon that is simplistic and clunky even by the standards of a comic book or graphic novel. Would-be effective scenes, such as a warrior grieving over his fallen son and a key comeuppance at the hands of Queen Gorgo, only can achieve so much when the human element of the film is next to nil. "300" is pretty to look at, yes, but watching it is about as involving as sitting in front of a video game demo at Best Buy.