Thursday, March 15, 2007

Looking To The Stars: 300 - A Review

A long-awaited film inspired by the works of Frank Miller, it has opened to international controversy. With numerous detractors and defenders across a wide spectrum of the population, few can deny the impact it has had upon American culture.

No, I’m not talking about the new Ninja Turtles movie! It hasn’t come out yet.

I’m actually talking about 300 – a film based on Frank Miller’s graphic-novel -which is itself based off of Miller’s favorite movie as a child, The 300 Spartans - which was in itself based on the legends of the Battle of Thermopylae – which are based primarily off of the Histories of Herodotus – the accuracy of which are still debated by historians to this day.

This amuses me greatly, for historians are among one of the many, many groups who have gotten offended about the content of 300 for one-reason or another. I delayed reviewing this movie for a while hoping that I might be able to see it with a clear head and judge the film on its’ own merits. But since the controversy seems to be growing only larger as the movie becomes more popular, I feel it necessary to discuss some of these viewpoints along with the film itself.

So now, as usual, a key to the aspects of the film that we will examine.

PLOT: The big SPOILERS BEWARE part. A basic summation of the story.

INFLUENCE: A measure of how closely the film follows any direct original source material.

CHARACTERS: Are the characters written well and true to the form presented in the original printed page?

ACTING: Separate from Characters, this is a measure of how skilled the acting is regardless of how “true” it is to the comic book personality of the character.

ARTFULNESS: Nice touches and beautiful artistic shots in the cinematography.

FX: The flashy whiz-bang material and how it looks.

COMPLAINTS: A new section unique to this review – I will outline, in brief, the grievances of the various people about the film’s content and the pros and cons of their various cases.

COMIC BOOK GUY QUOTIENT: Another big SPOILERS BEWARE section. Nit-picking over anything relating to “how it SHOULD have been done” and general Monday Morning Quarterbacking.

UNINTENTIONAL HUMOR: Another new section unique to this review – anything likely to make you laugh that probably shouldn’t.

OVERALL: The broad summary of how I felt about the movie in general.

PLOT: King Leonidas of Sparta, blunted by corrupt priests and politicians at home, leads the 300 men of his personal guard to join with other Grecian forces to stand against the invading armies of Persia. Meanwhile, his wife Queen Gorgo uses her influence at home to try and persuade the Spartan nobles to raise the armies to aid her husband.

Give it 10 for 10 for not being half-assed. The Battle of Thermopylae is one of the more inspiring stories in history and 300 sticks very closely to the ideals of the epic legends that inspired it.

INFLUENCES: The dialogue is taken word for word from Miller’s text and the scenes are presented in almost the same chronological order. Every effort has been made to make every frame of the film look like a Frank Miller drawing and every single bit of the original 300 book is included in the film. Like Sin City before it, there is very little that has been left out. 10 for 10 here, as well.

CHARACTERS: This being based on a Frank Miller story, there’s not a lot of characterization. There’s tough guys, weak guys, bad guys and gorgeous dames. Indeed, the film gives a lot more definition and character to the background characters than Frank Miller’s background art (or lack thereof) ever did.

Let’s call this one a no-scorer. The only character whom had any true characterization in the original book is Leonidas himself.

ACTING: In truth, despite the efforts to make some of the background characters more memorable, there are only two characters worth noting.

Gerard Butler as Leonidas – the star of the show and our fearless leader, he finds the perfect note with which to play Leonidas, easily pulling off all of the tough-guy action speeches as well as the more brooding, tormented moments where he must stare into space while pondering the battles ahead.

Lena Headey as Gorgo – stuck with the most thankless role in the film, she bears the brunt of all the original material involving the corrupt politician subplot as well as being the token female Point Of Interest. Thankfully, Headey gives the material an intensity it scarcely deserves.

Let’s call this a 5. Most of the characters aren’t really given a chance at development. Most of them aren’t even given names. But what few characters are developed are memorable.

ARTFULNESS: This film has artfulness in spades. What a shame that it’s such ugly art. Still, the grey, washed-out look of the film – where there are no bright colors save golds and reds – does match the original colorization of Miller’s artwork. And the character design mimics Miller’s to a degree that almost equals the attention to detail paid to Sin City. Indeed, in some points – particularly the battle scenes – more detail is given to individual soldiers than was ever given in Miller’s silhouette-based crowd scenes.

Give this a 6. The film captures the essence of Miller’s style, but it goes too far at points in trying to make a living comic instead of a film.

FX: It could have been a lot better. The bullet-time effects of The Matrix are old-hat at this point and they do not work nearly as well with spears and shields as they do with guns. The scene where Leonidas leads a charge and takes down several Persians single-handed plays like a severely lagged raid-battle in World of Warcraft. Move a little – slow down – and attack. Move a little more – slow down and kill. And the blood which sprays forth from wounds does so in a way that reminds one fully that they are watching a movie.

Give this one a 4. The colorization and slow-mo effects give the whole movie a distinctive look but the blood effects are just plain awful.

COMIC BOOK GUY QUOTIENT: Quite honestly, Miller purists won’t have a thing to complain about regarding things being left out of the movie. I suspect that some might complain about material that was specially put into the movie to round out minor characters and turn the movie into something other than a two-hour long battle.

I’m referring specifically to the subplot with Queen Gorgo that has no effect on the ending of the film as well as the additional scenes with Leonidas’ captain mourning the loss of his son. Still, I believe these scenes did attempt to add something to the film, so I won’t deduct points for their trying to establish a feminine presence or “appropriate” manly feeling. 10 for 10.


NEO-CON PROPAGANDA - The movie is an endorsement of George W. Bush’s presidency and his attempts to start a war with Iran. Metaphorically, Leonidas is Bush, leading a small but determined group of the best soldiers in the world to a glorious victory against what is basically the rest of the world in an effort to secure democracy for future generations.

PRO: The neo-con catch-phrase “freedom isn’t free” is used in the scenes based on original material. Also added is a scene is added in where Leonidas and his men discover a destroyed city and one beautiful (and coincidentally golden-haired and fair-skinned) child who lives just long enough to look cute and die in the king’s arms. All the bad-guys are weird, ugly foreigners or corrupt politicians and clergymen bribed by weird, ugly foreigners. See also, MILITARISTIC

CON: Comparing Bush to Leonidas is a stretch by any decent standard, seeing as how Bush never saw combat during his time in the National Guard. Also, the metaphor doesn’t work given that the American forces entered another country rather than directly defending their own lands.

ANTI-BUSH PROPAGANDA - The movie is a thinly-veiled attack of George W. Bush’s presidency and his attempts to start a war with Iran. Metaphorically, Bush is Xerxes – leader of a decadent, multi-cultural society that is conquering what parts of the world it can’t buy outright.

PRO: Xerxes method of conquest does mirror American Cultural Imperialism – declare war on whoever we can’t bribe. Like Xeres, Bush is thought to have started a military conflict to conquer the enemy his father could not (Iraq = Greece).

CON: Bush has no piercings and does not own a golden chainmail codpiece in so far as anyone can determine, nor has he claimed outright godhood.

ANTI-GAY/HOMOPHOBIC - The movie is a thinly veiled attack on homosexuality.

PRO: There are several insulting references to the Athenians being boy-lovers. The corrupt politician who rapes the Queen does so from behind. The only lesbians in the movie are weird Persian harem girls.

CON: If this movie really wanted to take cheap-shots in this area instead of strictly adapting Miller’s work, the corrupt priests would have been molesting the prettiest boys in Sparta instead of the most beautiful girls.

RACISM - The movie is subtly racist toward non-Caucasians.

PRO: Most of the military leaders on the Persian side that we see ARE black guys with a lot of gold bling. There’s also Mongols, African tribesmen and some very freaky looking samurai types among Xerxes’ soldiers.

CON: There’s a lot of ugly white guys fighting on the Persian side as well and with the exception of Leonidas and the Spartans, nobody in this movie is made to look good. You might just as well argue that the movie is anti-Athenian.

SEXISM - The movie has a very strong anti-Feminist subtext.

PRO: There is no female presence for 90% of the movie and what little presence the film has is made up entirely of women in a position of weakness – harem girls and the molested Oracle. Queen Gorgo is the only female character mentioned by name. A gratuitous sex scene not in the original book is added into the movie as is a copious amount of female nudity that – amazingly – wasn’t in the original book. Also, the new material meant to turn Queen Gorgo into a stronger character depicts her being ready to sleep with an enemy to help her husband and ends with her getting raped. Not exactly a big pro-women thing.

CON: The only women in the original book were Gorgo, The Oracle and two unidentified harem girls in the background of one panel so it’s not like there was a huge amount for the adapters to work with without adding in a lot more new material. Also, it’s based on a Frank Miller story. Was anyone expecting it NOT to be offensive to women?

MILITARISTIC - The movie is a propaganda piece for the idea that only soldiers should have a position of power in a free society.

PRO: The opening scenes showing how the Spartan methods of child-rearing breed REAL men. Intellectuals (i.e. Athenian philosophers) and The Athenian volunteer-based army (shades of the National Guard) are mocked by the “real” soldiers of Sparta. And of course the soldiers are the only ones willing to fight to protect what they have when the wolf is at the door...

CON: Anyone who knows anything about history can pick apart the idea of the Spartans as the vanguard in the fight to protect freedom in about five minutes.

HISTORICAL - Historians hold that this movie is the worst historical epic in recent memory.

PRO: The Spartan gay-bashing will bring a laugh to anyone who knows anything about the true Spartan culture. The weapons and armor do not match the period. Also, the movie severely undercuts the efforts of the 6,700 other Greek soldiers who fought alongside the 300 Spartans. Also, even the most liberal of historians do not think Xerxes forces literally numbered in the millions.

CON: It may not be historically accurate, but the comic the film is based on was never meant to be a historical or educational piece. Miller freely admits that he did almost no research and that he just drew what he thought would look cool in regards to the armor and weapons.

HOMOEROTIC - This movie is the greatest piece of soft-core porn for gay males disguised as an action movie since Top Gun.

PRO:Nearly every male character in this movie is a buff guy in a leather loincloth and there’s nary a woman to be seen for 90% of the movie.

CON: Too many guys with leather and piercings for this to truly be an enjoyable work for ALL gay men. Also see ANTI GAY/HOMOPHOBIC

UNINTENTIONAL HUMOR: Four things that made me laugh-out-loud in the theater while I was viewing this film.

1. The scene with the Oracle. Originally five panels across two pages in 300 with no nudity at all, the oracle here writhes in a manner suggestive of a pole dancer performing her first set of the evening. Her toga, moved about by a mysterious CGI wind, parts in ways that reveal that not only did the ancient Spartans apparently invent the bikini wax; they also kept their temples at a most cool and – dare I say - nippy temperature.

2. The scene in the second battle – not in the original comic – where a large, burly troll-like beast of a man is cut from his chains and set loose upon the Spartans. Not only is this creature an comical exaggeration of how Frank Miller bad-guys look to say nothing of a textbook marriage of bad make-up and bad acting – it also inspires thoughts that, at some point while Xerxes met with his generals, somebody said “Why don’t we give him to Mongo?”

And with all the characters taking moments to stare meaningfully at the camera, I half expected this monster to look at the screen and say “Mongo only pawn in game of Life.”

3. The first appearance of Xerxes in his fabulous golden chainmail and piercings fetish outfit and the resulting scene where he rubs Leoniads’ shoulders. Scarily enough, this scene IS in the original comic and it’s even weirder on screen.

4. The ironic realization that all of these conflicting groups of people are being offended over what is, at the core, an action movie too stupid to make coherent political arguments and how all of these people are trying to assign subtext to a movie that had no deeper thoughts go into its’ creation than “this would be cool!”

OVERALL: Despite some downright goofy moments and the logical part of my brain looking for deeper meanings that I ultimately realized were not there, I did enjoy this movie. I do not believe it to be a propaganda piece for anything, save the idea that Frank Miller can tell a good story.

Having read 300, I think Miller succeeded since his only goal was to create something that looks good and to retell a legend. And writer/director Zack Snyder was successful in adapting the work to the big screen. Sadly, he didn’t stick to just adapting the work as Robert Rodriguez did with Sin City and his additions only served to make the movie suffer.

While I do think that some people are stretching a bit to attach a political subtext to the movie, I do think Snyder made a mistake in trying to strengthen the role of the Queen in the manner that he did. Because as a general rule, I think it’s a bad idea to add in a rape scene when you’re attempting to expand a female character under the pretense of giving women in the audience someone to sympathize with. As such, I do think that feminists have a number of legitimate complaints about this film –they have more to do with direction and less to do with Frank Miller’s writing.

Is this a great movie? Hardly. But it is a good story and that counts for something. And it looks amazing which counts for something as well. Overall, I’d say that 300 is an enjoyable experience so long as you don’t take it too seriously and don’t look for meaning where there is none.

I give 300 a solid 7 out of 10. It’s not a great film, but it is good for what it is – a solid action flick.

Tune in next week. Same Matt time. Same Matt website.


  1. Good, solid take on the flick. I really enjoyed the Pro/Con bit in particular.

  2. Thanks. I was worried I'd get lamblasted for my review making fun of everyone who is taking this way too seriously.
    Seems to be quite the reverse, actually - at least, based on the e-mail so far.