13 March 2007


I am not even a little bit interested in following the lead of the whole rest of the internets, and discussing how the film version of Frank Miller's 300 does or does not endorse the cult of violent masculinity represented by George W. Bush and the neoconservatives. That would be giving the film entirely too much credit.

Of course, I should probably admit that I wouldn't hold that against it either way. Just because a movie has a regressive and possibly unmoral perspective on masculine violent behavior doesn't make it "bad": not because of its complex moral fabric do I hold Clint Eastwood's The Outlaw Josey Wales as one of the very best modern Westerns. If we of the Left are going to slam they of the Right for viewing all art as propaganda and judging aesthetic value solely on its goodthink (for the second time in four posts: read this, it is perfect), then it's just damned foolish to turn around and criticise a movie for being politically disagreeable.

Anyhow, I have a better reason for not making a political argument against 300: it's not good enough to deserve it. It's just a typical stupid action movie, with an extra dollop of stupid on the side.

The original comic miniseries was not, shall we say, a triumph of narrativity: 300 Spartans fight millions of Persians, and act all virile and honorable and hawk-ey. It was essentially a pretext for Frank Miller and Lynn Varley to create several extremely gorgeous tableaux, spreading across both pages of the open book (indeed, this was its gimmick, although insulting a sincere attempt to extend the limitations of comic art with the word "gimmick" is mean-spirited). It was a triumph of the graphic, not of the novel. And triumph is exactly the right word: you'd have to go pretty damn far to find a comic book with such a high page-to-gorgeous-image ratio.

Zack Snyder's adaptation is certainly aware of this, at least as far as he obviously wants to fill the movie up with striking imagery. And to that end, he uses the same greenscreen technology with computer-generated sets and backgrounds that brought another Frank Miller book to life in Robert Rodriguez's Sin City. He does not use it as well.

Before seeing the film, I wondered if I'd be able to keep thoughts of Sin City out of my head; having seen it, I have a very hard time comparing them at all. While the earlier film used CGI to create a heavily stylized world with heavily stylized lighting, 300 looks essentially realistic, although like reality coated in the world's ugliest shade of copper. This is extremely bad, because much like Rodriguez, Snyder has largely seen fit to leave Miller's dialogue and characters untouched, and these are not remotely realistic. It was the chief victory of Sin City, perhaps, that the extremely heightened reality of the visuals was so complete as to actually make the wildly over-boiled dialogue not just acceptable but necessary. That film was a complete hyper-stylized whole. In 300, with weaker actors and much less interesting visuals, the dialogue comes off as badly as anything you ever did hear, not so much the parody of old-time epics it could/should have been, and more like listening to eight-year-olds on a sugar high playing "Spartacus."

This is a film that basically lives and dies on its visuals, and it knows that, and the visuals suck. Sorry for the briefly non-professional moment there. No, I'm not. Because the visuals suck. The are some very good shots stolen baldly from the graphic novel, which I'm honestly okay with, but mostly this is just one poorly-framed moment after another, with all of the BIG EPIC MOMENTS looking rather shockingly like actors staring at a flat wall where blatant CGI thingies were composited in later. Movies are 2-D, of course, that is their dark secret, but the best ones don't seem to be. 300 is flat, as flat as any contemporary movie I've ever seen. I'm not going to get into...okay, so I'm almost positive the reason why is because the actors were being lit and shot on a tiny greenscreen stage with more attention paid to getting them exposed properly than to the actual shape of the lighting. Another point for Sin City, which took its cues from film noir and had some of the harshest, highest-contrast lighting of any recent movie. (Another reason for the flatness is that the transition from digital video to film resulted in a simply unbearable amount of visual noise; but that might have just been my print).

Worst of all, for an action movie, 300 is pretty inert. There is such formal rigidness to Snyder's adaptation of the extremely kinetic comic that it feels more like Noh theater than a motion picture. The most egregious example of this is the constant reliance on slow-motion to stress moments of "excitement," usually just before the moment when the fake-looking CGI blood spurts out of the now-dead body. But it's more general than that: the whole film feels like an endless series of still images, and this is more or less the opposite of "action."

300 is frankly dull, and that is not something I would have ever predicted possible. But it is: dull images, dull movement. The sound design, I suppose, is not dull, but this is largely at the cost of it being shrill and grating.

Zack Snyder's only previous feature was the remake of Dawn of the Dead, which was rather surprisingly good, and successful in all the ways that 300 is not: fast-paced, full of recognizable human beings, littered with really effective setpieces and scare moments, and well-realized visually. So I hate to lay all the blame for this film on his feet; but there's nowhere else to lay it. This is a terribly directed film, slow and plodding and not nearly imaginative enough, and of course it's already become a rousing success. Nobody ever lost money betting on the tastelessness of the American public.



Pat "Souljacker" King said...

This review made me want to watch Sin City again. Be warned: I will steal your copy if given the slightest chance.

Cameron said...

you are wrong on one thing and one thing only: it was shot on a BIG green screen.

Tim said...

I think that I will not bother to change my review: it's still cramped and claustrophobic.

Dick Durata said...

You've convinced me not to see it. I wasn't expecting anything great, but if the cinematography sucks it would be a total loss.

Ben said...

Actually, it was shot a blue, not green, screen.

Seems like an unimportant detail but ask anyone who has worked on the production; blue is what colors their memories of the project :)

Your said...

I agree with you completely, about everything but the political aspect.

I don't think being racist is "above" the movie... what, Spartans are fully virtuous and wonderful and manly, while Persians are black, gay, evil, and.. orcs? Wtf?

Tim said...

In the 9 months since I saw the movie, I don't think I've really thought about it much at all, but if I had, I'm pretty sure I'd have come around to the idea that the film's treatment of race and sexuality are Problems with a capital "P" and that rhymes with "T" and that stands for "Tool." Which is what Zack Snyder is.

Basically, I think my review back in April was colored by the conversation happening at the time, leading me to expect something as subtle as a Klan recruitment video. Since it wasn't I surmised that race didn't matter. Now that I've let the movie percolate for a while, I see that I was probably wrong.

That's the problem with writing a review in the heat of the moment, I guess. I think I might write more about that subject soon...

Your said...

I understand what you mean, and I don't think it was a major flaw your review - I don't think it was intentionally racist so much as ridiculously ignorant and one sided that it came off that way.

JC González said...

I agree 100%, and as far as this film's prejudice goes, I left it out of my judgement of it. Because what American hit movie is not racist, sexist, and homophobic?

Matt said...

someone wake me up when this review is over. it's quite interesting how all of the comments agree with the reviewer.

Ryan said...

I'm not gonna be a douche bag about this movie, so I will try my hardest to not be a professional reviewer.

The main thing it seems that everyone who hated this movie hates about 300 is that its art style sucks. Let's look at that real quick. Every battle sequence is nicely done- there is hardly ever one central focus point. If five people are being slaughtered in front of you, fifty are being slaughtered in the background. The skies are a bleak sepia whenever it is a battle scene to represent that nothing is happy about the killings. The CGI gore could have been better, as millions of gallons of blood is spilled, but only a few specks are ever on any of the 300.

I will quickly examine the type of person this film is meant for: a republican. It is violent, it is sexual, it is racist against, what a surprise, middle easterners. So at this point reviewing this movie as a Democrat is like critiquing John McCain. Duh.

Being 15, I'm not the most sophisticated person on the block, but I'm smart enough to know when I should or shouldn't be watching a movie, and all of you that agreed with this review, shouldn't.

Karen said...

I find it stunning that one of the most gorgeously stylized films of the decade gets a highly unprofessional 'sucks' comment from the reviewer. Once you get through all the pseudo political nay speak of the review you find a shallow, ignorant and self serving argument about production values. I found this review about as insightful as a fart in the wind.

Steven said...

It was a guilty pleasure film that I thought was fun to watch. It wasn't the greatest film of all time but it was worth watching just for the experience.
I don't think there was any hidden political messages (or any messages for that matter)in the movie.
It was an action film that was fun to watch and nothing more.
To me it was an action film acting as an action film. Nothing more. Nothing Less.
It was worth seeing.

Vianney said...

Finally saw it. And yeah the video quality was quite disturbing, actually.
It was a guilty pleasure film, that felt way more guilty than pleasurable really.
Some really nice shots, and for a few minutes early on i hoped for interesting cinematography, but the color scheme was almost painful, and everything else you said is pretty much on the mark.

For the record i don't care one bit about the 'racist' debate, even years later, this is really not the point of the book or movie. You've got the goodies, the baddies, and that's it.

RickR said...

I did work on the movie, and you're right about the bluescreen.:)

No, "300" is not a good movie, though it's watchable. The #1 criticism I'd level at it is that it's repetitive, the fight scenes become dull because that's all the narrative really offers. I will say that, from a production perspective, it was very well planned.
There are a couple of arresting, take-your-breath-away images in it, but that's about all it has to offer.

But I'm very interested to hear what Tim thinks of Zack's latest, "Sucker Punch".