Wednesday, March 28, 2007

300 (2007)

Starring Gerard Butler and Lena Headly

300 is a visually stunning, violent spectacle of a movie that moves along like a freight train in order to tell a pared-down story. It’s based on the graphic novel (comic book) by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley.

The movie title refers to the battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC, wherein 300 Greek warriors led by Spartan King Leonidas fought against an invading million-man Persian army led by Xerxes at a narrow pass leading into Greece. Leonidas enters the battle knowing that he and his Spartans might only be able to delay, not stop, the Persian army. The political will didn’t exist in Sparta or in the rest of Greece at that moment to mobilize and fight.

The movie is narrowly focused. Setting the stage, we meet Leonidas (Gerard Butler), his wife (Lena Headly), and a few other characters, notably the Persian leader Xerxes. Do you want deep character development, or a complicated and subtle plot? You won’t find them here. The film moves quickly along to the battle, gifting us along the way with stunning visual panoramas. The look of the movie is gorgeous. Much of what we see onscreen is created with special effects, and they’re very well done.

If you can, try to see this movie at a theater with Digital Projection. The color saturation is amazing in such a theatre. Not every film necessarily looks best in Digital Projection, but this film was meant for it. It offers iconic images and stylized violence.

This movie has two controversies associated with it, and one puzzle. First, is it too violent? It does focus on a violent (and historically significant) battle. To minimize the violence of that battle would trivialize the sacrifice of the warriors. Still, this is comic book violence, in which many are killed, but few are hurt. The film doesn’t dwell on the suffering of those who are wounded or who die. Some say this comic book quality cheapens violence; this is a question filmgoers must consider when making movie purchases and rentals. Do we want the realism of Saving Private Ryan or Schindler’s List, or the fantasy of movies like 300?

Second, some commentators have suggested that the film’s situation is somehow analogous to our own day, where a leader (the U.S. President) must valiantly confront evil enemies. Having seen the film, it seems a pretty weak comparison. These days we don’t see leaders putting themselves on the front lines of a battle in order to oppose tyranny. Further, the threat from the invading Persian army was clear; there were no phantom weapons of mass destruction used as an excuse for going to war.

Finally, why has this movie been wildly successful? I think this is because it is a well-made movie that sticks to its business and takes us into the iconic heart of a famous battle, replete with glorious visuals. Gerard Butler is convincing as the stubborn King Leonidas, and carries us along to the inevitable conclusion. Though it’s a bit early on the calendar, this is a good summer movie.

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