300 (Zack Snyder, 2007)
At Silver City with Steph, Chan, Andrew and Krystle. We had originally planned to see the IMAX version but it was sold-out so we had to "settle" for good ol' 35mm.
Trailers looked fantastic and I loved what Robert Rodriguez had done with Frank Miller's 300 spiritual predecessor, Sin City. Needless to say, I had high hopes.
Every scene in 300 is a beautiful mesh of – first and foremost – composition (thanks mostly to Frank Miller) and production design. Zack Snyder does an admirable job of infusing Miller’s stills with a beautiful sense of motion – most often of the slow variety. For a film that’s all style and no substance, you could certainly do worse than 300. That’s the good news. The bad news? It’s still all style and no substance.
Even in the realm of exciting and action-filled battles, 300 disappoints. I’d love to be able to say that it simply gets old, but truth be told, it’s never very exciting to start with. I was puzzled by how the battles which seemed most exciting (e.g. rhino attack, elephants, bombs) were only briefly shown, as if the budget for these scenes was cut halfway through post-production. All the fight scenes seem to blend together in a mish-mash of generic-looking enemies and Spartans with few identifying tactics or landmarks to make each battle distinct. The cinematography for the most part is also guilty of the same offense committed by many an action film cinematographer in our post Saving Private Ryan era: artificially creating a sense of chaos using a handheld shaky camera and shooting in close-ups. While Ryan popularized it by making good discerning usage of it, too many filmmakers since (Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring comes to mind) have tried and failed miserably to emulate it. All 300’s cinematography does is serve to replace a genuinely created sense of action created through exciting choreography and camera movements with an artificial and less satisfying (not to mention headache inducing and comprehension retarding) freneticism.
That said, 300’s most notable flaw seems to be that it lacks any sort of narrative drive, and not simply because we already know our valiant heroes are doomed to fail (if that’s all there was, we wouldn’t be able to watch our favourite films over and over). There is simply nothing here, to use my blog title, to keep our brains alive: no plot-driving action, no suspense, no three-dimensional character, and what little dialogue exists is either completely expositional or naively clichéd. A common grievance with action films is that they mash together a convoluted plot as a sorry excuse to string together a few highlight-reel scenes. I wish that could be said about 300, which makes no such token effort as it mercilessly cranks out one action sequence after another. Apart from their final heroic death, the order of any of the battles could be rearranged without taking away from the story because they all completely exist outside of it (which is to say that 70% of the movie exists outside of any narrative).
If the old adage is true, that conflict is the essence of narratives, then it’s pretty clear why 300 fails. The plot offers slim pickings as the majority of the film is taken up by random battles. And the only possible point of suspense: whether or not the Queen will be able to convince the council becomes a moot emotional point relative to the Spartans since the council’s decision will only affect the larger (more objective) mobilization of all of Greece and will not save the 300.
The Spartans themselves also pose a problem to the advancement of any sort of narrative. They are the most dedicated of soldiers, unwavering in their courage, loyalty to Leonidas, and cause. All this I can only assume was true, in which case, its undeniably admirable… and incredibly boring from a narrative and artistic point of view. Despite all its visual movement, the characters are faced with no moral/emotional conflicts and as such they might appear to be good or heroic, but from a storytelling perspective also causes them to seem inevtiably bland and undynamic.
Like a true Spartan warrior, Snyder’s film focuses on little else besides action, bodies, and battles, without time for moral/emotional conflicts or even self-gratifying revelling. I imagine Snyder himself tried to "immerse" himself in the time, place and mindset of the warriors. Unfortunately, it’s a role he should have left to his actors and focused more on his own role: making a compelling film.
- Why Jeffrey Overstreet won't see 300: Obviously not a review. Overstreet brings up an interesting point though which doesn't get aired very often. And I can certainly confirm his suspicions about the film lacking any real edifying meaning while flaunting sex and violence.
- Trailer & Teaser: I suppose it makes sense. Seeing as how the film is simply a pastiche of iconic images, it might not make a great narrative film but it sure does make for amazing trailers and teasers! I prefer the teaser to the trailer personally...