It is a very rare thing for a highly anticipated film to live up to expectations. Collateral did it a couple years ago and The Others a few years before that. A handful of others have done it or come close, but Zack Snyder’s 300 falls short. Great on images but short on story, the project is entertaining but does not manage to touch you deeply enough to be remembered as great.
Apart from the visuals, which are indeed well done and screaming for a fitter story to fill the world they create, 300 excels at battle sequences. All the modern tricks are employed, from Matrix-like physical exploits to slow motion photography; from intense physical training for the actors to a host of computerized special effects. These scenes are an adrenaline rush and constitute the better parts of the movie.
But we are missing a good story, or rather we have the makings of a good story which needs a lot more attention to fill in the gaps. Part of the difficulty is that the scenes themselves are shot as if a comic book were in mind (and indeed the source material is Frank Miller’s graphic novel of the same name). By this I mean that only the scantest coverage is given to many scenes. A comic book is like a Cliff Notes version of a movie, limiting it’s visuals to the highlights. A movie provides much more and, if it is well made, gives the viewer a better sense of its world.
The best movies based on comic books are the ones which do not lose their sense of themselves as movies. Batman and Superman come to mind. Even Ang Lee’s Hulk, for all its creative flourishes meant to remind us of a comic book, pulled off these unique touches without betraying the medium it was a part of. 300, on the other hand, all too often breezes through scenes as if it were on permanent flashback mode. Because of this, for all the brilliance of some of the shots, and some of the shots are brilliant, the movie is not the sensory delight that it could be, and we wind up feeling like the story was neglected.
And that is a shame, because the outline of the story holds promise. The Emperor of the Persian Empire issues an ultimatum to the Greek City-States to bow before him. Due to quaint traditions, Leonidas (Gerard Butler), the King of Sparta, cannot take his army to war. He therefore goes on an “extended walk” with 300 personal body guards and just happens to confront the seemingly endless Persian hordes. Meanwhile, back at home, Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) tries to navigate the world of politics to garner support for her king. There is plenty there with which to fashion a dynamite story, and there are plenty of interesting smaller bits too: a deformed man whose parents left Sparta so as not to have to leave their child to the elements returns and wants to join the army to prove himself; King Leonidas climbs a mountain to consult with seers and oracles about defending his city; along the way, the 300 Spartans happen upon a village which the Persians have destroyed; a great storm comes to deal a blow to the Persian fleet; the Queen is tempted to adultery in order to gather enough support to save the man she might have to cheat on… there are ingredients aplenty here, it just was not realized as it should have been.
Considering Zack Snyder’s first effort, the well told Dawn of the Dead remake, 300 has to go down as a disappointment even though it is not a bad movie. The director just got caught up in certain facets of moviemaking which have, like a siren at sea, lured other good directors to their doom (think George Lucas). 300 certainly is no disaster, but the movie would be immeasurably improved with more attention to the pillars of directing.
As if to underscore the lack of real directing, David Wenham, he of the eternally plugged up nose, narrates the very life out of the movie. There is very little new information that the narration provides, and absolutely nothing that could not have been provided visually or within the context of the story as it should be. It is very rare for narration to be done well and appropriately… almost as rare as a much hyped movie meeting expectations.