Every few years, a sci-fi/fantasy film comes along that changes every thing; the rules, how films are made, our expectations, the industry, the whole enchilada. In 1968, the release of 2001 set it all off. 1975 gave birth to the summer blockbuster with teeth when Jaws scared the living crap out of its audience. In 1977, Star Wars rewrote the concept of sci-fi movies and the world's culture was changed forever.
Then in 1986, a sequel to a movie about a stowaway alien was taken to the next level with a commando of marines wiped out, leaving a woman and her flame thrower and an assault rifle. She took on a 15-foot tall alien queen and her army of drones in order to save a little girl and audiences in the theaters stood up in Super Bowl glee, cheering like mad raging fans when the bay door opened and Ripley stepped out with her yellow loader. With Aliens James Cameron re-wrote the "us vs. them" alien theme and created the first tough-as-nails heroine. That alone was a revolution that merited Sigourney Weaver the front cover of Time magazine.
But Cameron would come back a few years later, proving that with an astronomically insane budget (for the time) of 100 million dollars, one could make a special effects driven movie and still have a superb story to boot. And he also managed with great directorial skill to actually make Arnold Schwarzenegger semi-funny. With Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Cameron created a rift in cinema. Film buffs can now tell simply by looking at a movie's special effects, that the movie is either pre-T2 or post-T2. After T2 things changed. Movies like Jurassic Park were now possible. And the string of disaster movies that followed were also made possible. You can thank James Cameron's vision for this.
Then in 1999 the mother of all cinematic culture shocks took place when The Matrix gave birth to the third millennium. The Wachowskis simply tossed the book out of the window and inspired themselves from so many other sources it's hard to point to a sure source; but one thing is certain — The Matrix changed it all. Special effects were completely innovative. The storytelling was unheard of in mainstream cinema. The visuals were unparalleled. The philosophical complexity is still perplexing philosophers of all kinds to this day. The lay masses were prepared for some flashy, wire-fu, gunslinging, fast-talking coolness, but what we got was something that changed our culture forever.
It was time for the next step, the next bounding leap to the next level. There have been some contenders. The shoulda-coulda-beens, like the Sin City blunder. Or even the Lord of the Rings trilogy – which I affectionately call the Bored of the Ring trilogy – which was nothing more than a big bucks production of a not so interesting book which replayed variations of the same fringing score over and over again.
Ever since the first clips and stills from the production of 300 surfaced on the web, hopes had risen that perhaps this was the next step, the next cinematic evolution. It had all the promise, a classic telling of the mythological story of the Spartans; hero mythologies and archetypes is what the human psyche is built upon. It's why The Matrix was such a success. But sadly this film is not one of them.
But that’s not to say that the film isn't a great work of art. It is, succinctly put, a bloody fantastic work of art. The story is simple — very simple. The preview says it all. The thousand nations of the Persian Empire descend upon Sparta. There, it's said. But it's not a spoiler, everyone has seen the previews. But the simplicity of the story takes nothing away from the film. Is there nothing as simple as the smile of a child? Yet it fills us with happiness and contentment.
So can esthetically pleasing violence and death. In the end this film is all about death and meeting it with honor. The Spartans are a society of warriors, trained from birth. They are inspected at birth and if they are not perfect, they are discarded in a pit. If they are chosen, they are trained by men to fight and to never surrender, to never give up, and that death in battle is the greatest of honors. One must return from battle with his shield, or on it — any other way would be a disgrace. And this is how the film begins, a short training montage of sorts which shows our protagonist rapidly growing up into the warrior King Leonidas.
Leonidas soon gets a message by horse that the Persians are coming, the Persians are coming. The messenger ain't no Paul Revere but some arrogant Persian errand boy who gets quickly "dispatched" by the King after getting shot down by the queen in what is the most remarkable comeback in years. But then, it could only happen in such a movie. Les jeux sont fait. The war is inevitable. Leonidas must consult the Oracle. This time it isn't a little old lady baking cookies but a young naked teenager smoking who knows what and babbling into her attendant's ears that Sparta cannot wage war.
The King cannot in good conscience leave his country undefended so he takes 300 of his best "bodyguards" and goes for a stroll on the beach. Not very long afterwards, the all-out war begins, and this is where the film really shines. What did you expect? This film isn't about peace, bunnies, and daffodils. It's about the kill, the blood, ripping wounds, fire, screaming, chest pounding, testosterone, ferocity, manliness, honor, destroying your enemy, fun times.
If seeing Leonidas eating an apple with delight while standing on a pile of eviscerated bodies and speaking of civility doesn't crack you up, this movie isn't for you. This movie is for the animal inside — the one that wants to rip off the head of the co-worker who's pissed you off one time too many but you can't do anything about. For the one who's punched in a wall a few times. For the one who wants to scream. For the one who wants to fight. This is a man movie. It's not a girly movie, it's not a date movie, it's not a family movie, and it's not for the warm fuzzy people. This is for those who dreamed of being those Greek heroes.
I say this because when I was in the theater, there were all the people who could be offended by this movie. Young children under the age of ten should not being seeing decapitations and dismemberments the likes of which are shown in this film. Not to mention the orgy scene. I don't know if I'd like to answer those questions as a parent, after the movie. Then I got that funny feeling looking at all those hijabs in the row in front of me during the very nude sex scenes. Here we have a restrictive culture where showing a woman's hair is proscribed, coming to a movie with naked teenagers' breasts the size of a building thrown in their faces. Oh the irony. Plus, you'd think that the sight of a man's naked ass wouldn't incite so much giggling in 2007. But I digress; I should be reviewing the film.
From start to finish the film is visual feast that grips you from the fuzzy Warner Brothers logo to the end credits. Everything, every smallest detail is bathed in this light Gaussian blur with a golden overexposed hue. They never let go of it, except perhaps for the night shots, which take on a spirit of their own. Graphically from the start you know the movie is all CG with the exception of our heroes and their foes. But after maybe 30 seconds, you stop caring. You begin to look at it in another light, as perhaps the greatest mesh between live action and animation ever combined. All this latticing creates an ethereal glow to the storytelling that elevates it to its proper level, mythology. You feel now that you are neither in your time nor your world. It simply works.
To top it off, the story is very well laid out. For those expecting one great big battle scene and then a cut to credits, you'll be disappointed. The story, as stated earlier, is simple, but not feeble either. There are flashbacks. There is also the question of politics – it's Greece, if this film didn’t mention politics I was walking out – and with politics come political games and backstabbing. How little things have changed over time. There's also the passionate love story between Leonidas and his wife, who becomes influential during his departure. The meeting between Leonidas and Xerxes, the Persian God-King is intimidating and hilarious at the same time. Leonidas has the same funny bone has a certain William Wallace.
And the acting, for such an epic, effects-driven film, is rather impressive. Gerard Butler brings just the right level of intensity to his King Leonidas, which is, of course, kind of over the top. But a leader of men must be strong and intense to charge them into battle and almost certain glorious death. And Lena Heady, as Queen Gorgo, plays a rather strong woman in such a man's film and doesn't serve as set decoration, despite being very pretty. This review won't bother with all the players. But all of them are played very well. None stand out as bad apples. There is no Katie Holmes in Batman Begins here.
The film isn't a revolution for cinema as the trailers foretell, but it does open doors for the way we can tell other great stories of our mythological past with greatness, like never before. The CG effects are so perfectly well-mastered that at no time, lost and immersed in the story, could I tell this was shot in my hometown of cold Montréal and not in Thermopylae, Greece. This movie succeeds in the way that I want to see more mythological stories told in this fashion now. The stories are plentiful, and now the technology to bring them to life is more than advanced, and the creative minds born and bathed in comics, graphic novels, modern sci-fi and fantasy are making movies. The time has arrived.
A bloody five out of five.Powered by Sidelines