Saturday, March 10, 2007

A Wild Night At Thermopylae

The steady march of the cinema popcorn season continues like the tramp of an army of sandled feet towards the sea with yesterday’s release of “300”. Based on a Frank Miller graphic novel retelling the ancient Greek tale of the Spartans’ battle against the invading Persian army at Thermopylae, Zack Snyder’s film is so uproariously gory that you almost need a splash guard in front of the screen and garbage bags for everyone in the first ten rows to keep the blood off.
The story is a simple one: the Persians come to town looking to leverage a controlling interest. For Sparta’s King Leonidas (played by Gerard Butler), the choice appears simple: kneel and be given a place at Emperor Xerxes’ (Rodrigo Santoro) right hand, or fight and be annihilated. What the overconfident Persians don’t quite understand, is that the Spartans get off on facing insurmountable odds and certain death. For them, it’s the path to glory and immortality. But Leonidas has to contend with traitors among his senate who use customs and the laws to block him from taking the full might of his army to battle. So, with a gaggle of his 300 best, the king heads off to Thermopylae, where he thinks he can hold the invaders at a natural bottleneck long enough for the rest of the Spartans to shake off the distractions of the traitors, mobilize themselves and rouse the rest of the Greek city-states into joining the party. The question is, will Leonidas’ 300 last long enough to give the others a chance to get their act together?
There’s a lot to like about “300”. Relentless action from start to finish creates a good pace and keeps the movie honest – it’s a slugfest and doesn’t try (much) to be anything else. The fight sequences are choreographed nicely, although it would have been better if the Persian forces had been allowed to display a little more skill. The special effects were also pretty cool: from the epic grandeur of the landscape to the chaos of a sea storm, the swarming of arrows that blot out the sun to the menagerie of grotesque minions that Xerxes hurls at the sweaty Greeks. And, as with Miller and Robert Rodriguez’ take on Miller’s “Sin City”, “300” has some very slick shots and sequences pulled right out of the comic book. This movie is an impressive thing to look at. Let’s also give credit to the voice-overs of the soldier/narrator Dilios (David Wenham) that add the feel of the classic oral storytelling tradition to the images unfolding before us.
But while the story succeeds as a pure action flick, it lacks depth. Leonidas does a lot of talking about living free and refusing to tolerate tyrants. But aside from its effects on the king himself, you never really get any concrete sense that life for his people would be much different under Xerxes if the king surrendered. Because we don’t really get to see what makes the Spartans’ lives worth living, “300” lacks the emotional punch of “Braveheart” or “Spartacus”. It never really tells us how is one warrior king different than another. Sure, a lot of Xerxes’ people have enough body piercing to keep a whole block of tattoo and piercing parlours busy for a year (at least they have the sense to wear armor – it’s a miracle the Greeks, as portrayed in the film, weren’t dead within days of all the infections they’d pick up in all the many, many wounds they’d receive running near-nude into battle), and yeah, he does keep quite the freak-show of monstrous warriors in the elite units of his army, and to be fair, he does push his pawns carelessly into the face of death, but how is that really more menacing than the psychotic bloodthirstiness of Leonidas and his Spartans? Does Leonidas pride allow him to think for a minute about the slaughter of his people that would ensue if his men lose? We didn’t see any real portrayal of day-to-day Spartan life that would make us feel there was any great value to their way of life, or that life under Xerxes would have been significantly different – especially when part of the Persians terms were the offer that Leonidas would be allowed to continue to rule his people, and, in fact, all of Greece. How precisely, then, do the Spartans stand to lose their way of life? In fact, given what we are shown – a corrupt senate that’s unwilling to defend its people, the heartless disposal of “unfit” infants and the brutal training of the young – it would seem the Spartans are equally savage as the Persian opponents. Xerxes may be a cruel, manipulative megalomaniac, but Leonidas is no prize either: he strongly defends a culture which, as mentioned above, readily practices infanticide, he relishes in unnecessary bloodshed (killing the rude Persian messenger and all his attendants when he could have simply sent him packing) and clearly enjoys the slaughter of battle, and he refuses to allow the hunchback (a human resource with as much potential as the untrained ally Greeks who show up to help – potential that Xerxes was smart enough to see) to fight in the battle, using the formation-fighting techniques as an excuse when let’s face it, most of those engagements degenerated quickly into one-on-one melees where an extra spear-thrust would have been useful to the Spartans, and let’s not forget that by turning the hunchback away, the king insulted a man who knew the tactical weakness of his position! Xerxes and Leonidas are both brutal men living in brutal times. Don’t get me wrong, folks, I’m in no way advocating that people facing invasion should capitulate – far from it. I’m only saying that if a story hinges on the audience siding with one group over another, it is absolutely necessary to convince the audience that one way of life is superior to another. This movie wants us to be sympathetic to the Spartans, but it doesn’t really convince us that we should be.
Is “300” a bad movie? No. As an action movie, it’s an entertaining way to spend nearly two hours. Is it memorable? Not really. Given that special effects and big battle sequences like these are best seen on the big screen, “300” is certainly worth going to a theatre to see, but I think if I had to do it again I’d wait for a matinee or cheap Tuesday.
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