A Review of Zack Snyder's "300"

Matt Barton's picture

Although we normally only review videogames here at AA, I thought I might be permitted to make some comments on the movie 300, which I feel has plenty of connections to the world of not only graphic novels but also videogames. I'd heard the movie described as "watching a videogame," and after viewing it last night, I can see why. However, I also read a review that described it as one of the battles in the Lord of the Rings trilogy expanded to movie-length--after excising out all the character and plot development. Both of these criticisms are fair. 300 isn't really trying to tell a story. It's just an effort to render an epic battle in a sort of highly stylized, highly gritty form. It's eye candy.

I'd like to think that no one would really need to be told the story of The Battle of Thermopylae, which is perhaps one of the most famous "last stands" in history, not to mention one of the most important battles the Greeks ever fought with the Persians. If these battles hadn't been fought, and if the Persians had managed to conquer Athens and Sparta, the entirely of Western civilization would probably be unrecognizable today. So, to that end, if this movie helps spark some historical interest in the typical zombie moviegoer, my hat is off to Snyder.

However, I'm at a bit of a disadvantage reviewing this movie because I'm totally unfamiliar with the graphic novel it was based on. I'm not sure how faithful it sticks to that novel, and frankly don't care. I also haven't seen Sin City, which apparently pioneered this film's aesthetics. It appears, however, that most of the historical material from the film comes from the Greek historian Herodotus, whose account is loaded with fascinating tidbits and great one-liners about the Greco-Persian war. Many of these show up in the film, such as the famous "Come get them" and "We'll fight in the shade" lines. Although not most modern historians treat Herodotus with a grain of salt, his account does have the best stories, and I don't fault Snyder or Miller for using him as the basis for their works.

In all honesty, though, I'm not sure if it was just a hot theater (I was sweating, and it wasn't necessarily from excitement) or what, but after about an hour 300 starts to get boring. The big problem is the lack of true character development. I kept asking myself, why should we care what happens to the Spartans? Why should we care that the captain's son has his head chopped off? I just never really felt an emotional connection to any of the characters, and Sparta comes across as a truly wretched and vile place to live. Why die to defend such a crummy place? The movie is really more about showing you a close-up of someone's limbs being severed in slow-motion. Shocking, perhaps, but not great cinema.

Furthermore, I felt my hackles rising as the director took an increasingly heavy-handed approach to trying to link Sparta with America. If I hadn't known better, I'd think Sparta was the home of democracy and liberalism rather than the grim, totalitarian society it really was. Furthermore, nothing is ever said about Sparta's dual monarchical system. Sparta was always ruled by two kings, not one, though no reference is made to this during the film. Instead, there is constant reference to the Spartan's fighting for "freedom," though it is never clear what this means. I'd think it more likely that they'd be fighting simply for honor, duty, glory, or nationalistic pride. Instead what we end up with is a sort of Braveheart theme.

In any case, the only thing this movie really has going for it is the spectacle. The battles are not necessarily realistic, but they're not supposed to be. Instead, it's more like a roller coaster ride, and therein lies the problem. A good roller coaster lasts, at most, ten minutes or so. 300 lasts for 2 hours. The cinematography is spectacular, and the action scenes are great. However, action scenes alone do not make a great movie. Things start to get repetitive, and the last half hour had me looking at my watch. This movie is a far cry from films like Spartacus or even Troy, and although it borrows some of the cheesier aspects of the Lord of the Rings trilogy (including improbable CGI "beast men"), it lacks substance.

Hopefully, some good will come of this. 300 has a great look that I'd love to see in future films, though I'm hoping for more story and character development next time.