Tuesday, March 20, 2007

They Died With Their Codpieces On

I'll admit it: I liked 300. It's strange in that it's hard not to like, but equally difficult to isolate any particular moments of enjoyment. While I watched it, there was always a sense that something was missing, and later that night I arrived at just what that was: more violence.

Yes, violence. 300 appears to have this trait in spades, but it's never the kind of carnage or gore that makes you wince or appreciatively chuckle. Like the movie itself, the violence and gore is there, but it really isn't. This heavy digital style didn't stop me from enjoying the hell out of Sin City, but with 300 the violence and gore are two of the main characters. A full CGI experience works with lush backgrounds and special effects, but when it comes to a sword ripping through Persian after Persian, for some reason it doesn't translate with CGI.

Brutal large-scale battle movies like Braveheart, Zulu and Spartacus are effective because the characters have genuine fear of their enemies, and would plainly like to avoid being skewered or shot. The carnage in those movies was painful, brutal and most of all -- exciting. In 300 the blood is digital, as are the wounds and stampeding hordes. The disconnected emotions I felt during the grandest of the battle scenes was similar to what I experienced after a nice game of Halo in which maybe 200 aliens met their spectacular demise. In both cases I saw the deaths and was convinced the characters were dead, but didn't feel it at all because it was clearly just some combination of digital bits. I'm more likely to be motivated to pick up the flag of PETA after a game of Duck Hunt than to feel the weight of mass human loss from 300.

That said, 300 does have a lot going for it. The decision to film a comic book adaptation of a historical event dumps a helmet full of potential on the page before a single word of the script has been written. I've read Frank Miller's 300 (hell, it's only like 50 pages) and loved Miller's approach of illustrating an epic event as it would be imagined by a young person. Miller took great creative liberties in his story, but it's nothing that a young imagination wouldn't dream up while hearing about it in history class. In the hands of Zack Snyder, Miller's imagery is brought to life with loving care. The source material is never dumbed down, and the warriors on both sides are lifted up to a level just beyond reality.

After enduring his odd voice in Phantom of the Opera, I could never imagine liking Gerard Butler, but 300 would be nothing without his strong Leonidas. It might help his cause that he's carrying with him into battle one of the greatest beards the world has ever seen. Xerxes is magnificent, better than I had imagined while reading the book. He looks and acts like some obscure X-Men villain, and his scenes are the movie's strongest. It's this aspect where I yearned a little for 1962's The 300 Spartans, which features Xerxes and his camp much more prominently -- and also has a better overall story. In that movie we get much closer to Xerxes, portrayed in a far less interesting (though no more historically accurate) manner, and the give and take between the two sides becomes more developed. I would have loved to see more of Xerxes' horrifying camp -- his 'human guillotine' was perhaps my favorite part of the whole movie, what a spectacularly wretched creation

I will say this about digital combat: it is a proud age we live in for cinematic decapitations. Until this movie I had never seen a full-on believable beheading (guillotine scenes notwithstanding), but Snyder perfects it with his technology. I hope from this moment forward we never get another awkward jump-cut shot to a dummy with a foam rubber head tumbling off.


Anonymous said...

For your viewing pleasure: http://www.penny-arcade.com/comic/2007/03/21

PIPER said...

You make an interesting point. One that I didn't pick up on but that Ray at therec.com also made. It didn't bother me that the gore wasn't real. I didn't expect it to be real.

What bugged me about the movie is when it tried to be serious fare. It didn't seem right.

But I enjoyed it very much.