It's not too long before it's clear that the advertisers have invested their money wisely. The opening scenes show the future King Leonidas as a young boy. As he is dragged away to begin his military training, his mother wails in despair. Her appearance is important, as she is the only woman in the film who will manage to keep her shirt on. Like Sin City before it, the men are men and the women are fantasised sex objects.
In fairness, shirts in Sparta do seem to have been in rather short supply. Sympathising with their women, Leonidas and his troops fight bare-chested. Whilst there is some evidence that the Spartans fought in knee length boots and their underpants, it seems unlikely that they decided to forgo chest armour, and opt for wax and baby oil instead. It's not hard to see why many critics have called it all rather homoerotic, but they miss the point; Camp is part of the genre. By giving the goodies posing pouches and the baddies piercings, nipple chains and transsexual attendants, the film is simply taking the genre's 'camp' to the extremes it has taken other characteristics to, be it the spectacle, the violence, the size of the armies or the pompous speeches. Besides, Jacques-Louis David painted them fighting naked, and nobody complained about that.
One of the film's main strengths is sheer energy. As noted above, portentous speeches are all part of the territory, but all too often epic movies get bogged down in them. Here they are used to give the viewer a break from the action, but nobody takes them that seriously. Leonidas yells "no going back", or "freedom", someone gives him the option to surrender, he refuses and it's onto the next fight. The battle scenes are surprisingly short, and punctuating them with these oases of rhetoric gives the film a natural and engaging rhythm.
The emphasis on "freedom" as opposed to religious ideas means 300 is much more Gladiator than Kingdom of Heaven and more Braveheart than Passion of the Christ. In fact, it's particularly reminiscent of Braveheart: a divided group of tribes threatened by a dominant southern nation, talk of, fight for and die for freedom. Ultimately, the heroes are betrayed and deserted, but after their deaths their example and inspires others to fight again and win, despite being outnumbered. Even King Leonidas (played by Phantom of the Opera's Gerard Butler) retains his Scottish accent.
Braveheart, of course, was the film that breathed new life into the epic, and 300 follows suit. The 12 years since Gibson modernised the genre may not seem like a long time, but changes have been so dramatic in commercial cinema that it needed modernising again. 300 is not the first epic to try to use CGI, but it is the one that has realised it has far more potential than simply making things even bigger.
The movie's greatest strength is its visuals. Pretty much every review of the film thus far has mentioned this aspect, and rightly so. The sepia tones, the impressive backdrops, the alternating time lapsing photography, the grotesque characters and the comic book violence all combine to make this a visual feast. The images are bold in every respect, be they the buildings of Sparta or the crowds of soldiers. The colour filters, distorted characters, and voiced-over narration place the story firmly in mythical territory, shifting the emphasis from the facts of the history to its meaning more forcefully than any of the epics which have previously graced the silver screen.
When critics talked about The Nativity Story killing the epic they clearly lacked Snyder's vision. It's true that dull, pompous or overly melodramatic movies will struggle in the epic genre just as they should in any other genre. But, the energy and the look of 300 have set a new standard in epic films.
It's too bad that the ambitious artistry is not matched with similarly innovative themes and ideas. 300 is entertainment, impure and simple. As such it is content to give the audience what it wants without challenging them in any way. It seems to be working too. In it's opening weekend 300 broke US box office records for March, and has performed well overseas. Unfortunately, what this audience bears little similarity with the real world. Life is not simply a mix of testosterone and adrenaline. Those who head off to fight wars dreaming of glory have often found that far from being glorious, death is cruel, brutal, messy and desperate.
Snyder has of course denied that the film should be read in the light of current events, but as 300 is so heavily dependent on Miller's comic book it's largely out of his hands. Whilst it may not have been his intention, he is unable to see past the fact that he shares a common mindset with those who wage war in the name of their freedom. In their world, fighting is valiant and brave. When conflict arises real men take up arms and fight.
Whilst the violence in Snyder's film appeals to men's dreams of significance, the sex appeals to their feelings of inadequacy. With one notable exception, most of the men who have sex in this picture are grotesque traitors as if the filmmakers are projecting their audience's inner losers. Somewhat more troublingly, whilst the sex is almost always some variety of rape, it is highly eroticised. A drugged up teenage girl forced to have sex with a group of repulsive old men should never be portrayed as sexily as it is here. 300 offers a severely skewed image of women, encourage it's viewers that if you are too much of a loser to have consensual sex there will always be another way.
It's a disturbing sub-text, which, like Sin City before it, appeals to men's basest instincts and twisted fantasies. It's a pity, because it will be revisited in years to come as the film that re-booted the epic.
Labels: Other Films