Released 2007. American/historical fantasy directed by Zack Snyder.
An initial viewing of the 300 reveals that it is certainly a visually stunning movie if nothing else. Later reflection reveals that it is… certainly a visually stunning movie and little else.
The film begins promisingly. We are introduced to the kingdom of Sparta, where the adolescent future king Leonidas is being trained in the ways of the Spartan warrior civilization. Eventually, as an ultimate test, he is banished to the wilderness where he must pit his cunning and strength against the elements, including a rather large, ferocious and (we assume) hungry wolf. All of this is rendered with breathtaking cinematography and perhaps some of the best CGI we've experienced at the movies to date.
From here we quickly segue to the adult Leonidas, deftly played by Scottish actor Gerard Butler. Butler's performance is one of the highpoints of the film. He hits just the right notes of bravery, loyalty, humor, intelligence and animal ruthlessness required for the role and achieves the difficult task of making a comic book character believable.
When an emissary of the tyrannical king (and self-proclaimed god) Xerxes arrives, forcefully suggesting that the Spartans surrender their empire, lest they be destroyed, Leonidas responds in the only manner befitting a Spartan king. He throws the messenger and his henchman down the nearest well.
Due to political infighting, deceit and treachery, Leonidas is prevented from engaging the full Spartan army against the mighty forces of Xerxes and so recruits 300 of the most loyal Spartans to greet the Persians at the Hot Gates at Thermopylae, a narrow range of cliffs that provides the only entrance into Sparta for the approaching hostile forces. An epic battle ensues between the noble Spartans and the evil Persian Empire…and that's pretty much it. After the battle sequence begins it pretty much occupies the remainder of the movie.
This is not to dismiss the battle sequences out of hand. They are gloriously rendered and visually awe-inspiring to behold (provided you have a taste for slow motion decapitations and that sort of thing). However after a time, they become somewhat repetitious and even tedious and unintentionally laughable. The problem lies, I think, not with the amount of screen time devoted to the battle, but the lack of emotional involvement in the death and carnage. Aside from the aforementioned strong lead performance by Butler, the remaining performances are uninspired and do not transcend their comic book origins and as a result we couldn't care less about their ultimate fates. Even the most gifted actors can only do so much with dialogue like "WE ARE SPARTANS!", "WE ARE FROM SPARTA!", "LONG LIVE THE SPARTANS FROM SPARTA!" and so on. Eventually even the noble king's potential demise left me unmoved. Indeed, the dialogue, plot and character development of the film might as well be derived from a WWE (Word Wrestling Entertainment) Battle Royale. As for thematic content, the central idea to the movie seems to be that the Spartans were pretty tough dudes. Oh yeah, there is a couple of clichéd speeches about freedom and bravery thrown in for good measure. But mostly they were some mean hombres.
I know some readers will argue I am expecting too much depth from a film inspired by a graphic novel. Critics much less forgiving than myself have seen fit to criticize the film for its lack of historical accuracy. This seems akin to criticizing Peter Pan for its scientific inaccuracy with regards to the laws of gravity and aerodynamics. After being treated to scenes depicting giant wolves, elephants the size of skyscrapers and various manner of mutants (apparently ancient Greece had a mutation problem. Who knew?), I had pretty much determined that this was fantasy and was prepared to accept it as such. The issue, of course, is not one of authenticity, but realism, or the perception of reality, however fleeting. As the movie progressed, its hold on this perceived reality became increasingly tenuous until at last it seemed little more that a sequence of pretty pictures devoid of any emotional charge.
I've no objection to a movie being simply mind candy and have enjoyed many a movie on that level (Lord of the Rings comes to mind, for one). But whenever possible I prefer fine Belgian chocolates to a chocolate bar from the corner store. While 300 has the appearance of an exquisite truffle it unfortunately is unable to simulate the flavor.