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300
Reviewed by Lee Sparks, © 2007

Format: Movie
By:   Zach Snyder (director) & Frank Miller (creator)
Genre:   Comic Adaptation
Released:   March 9, 2006
Review Date:   April 04, 2007
Audience Rating:   R
RevSF Rating:   7/10 (What Is This?)

I was one of those guys who liked the trailer for 300, if not without reservations. I liked the fighting, swordplay, color palette, babes, crazy costumes and monsters. I did NOT like the chunky heavy metal and the promise of CGI bloodletting. Luckily or unluckily, the viewer gets all of the above, sometimes in befuddling excess.

The film must have been a real beast to choreograph. There is an abundance of hand-to-hand combat of a truly impressive nature. There is great physical prowess and coordination on display. The ladies in the audience will be in hog heaven for all the exposed abs and chests (no matter how debatably authentic they are). Guys will feel strangely inadequate and will be seen tightening their belts and puffing their chests on the way to their cars.

Unfortunately, during every combat engagement, there is an aggressive, excessive use of CGI enhancement that grievously distracts the viewer from the physicality of the fighting. Perhaps it is a personal prejudice of mine, but I find that CGI blood does not seem convincing to me, and instead feels more appropriate to a film like Who Shot Roger Rabbit. In 300, with every sword slash, CGI "blood" sprays the screen like a shotgun blast to a wine bottle. It is as if the characters were balloons filled to bursting with tempura paint. To me, it is relentlessly unbelievable. Strangely, and this is not a joke, the blood seems to evaporate in mid-air and never hits the ground. Hundreds of people die in every battle sequence (of which there are many), yet when all is said and done, only their corpses litter the battlefield, not their precious bodily fluids. It's as if their blood were made of disappearing ink.

Likewise, strange powers were afoot when deciding when to apply the CGI blood; men can be slashed with swords and axes, and their surface abrasions will spew blood in slow-motion fountains like there's no tomorrow, yet inexplicably when characters are beheaded, they appear to have no vital arteries. The beheadings are oddly clean; no necks spew.

And this is no subtlety. Several people are beheaded, and the film takes the time to show you their heads flying through the air in slow motion, neck bones protruding, their bodies crumpling underneath them, their knees collapsing . . . all bloodless. It is a glaring inconsistency in application.

And this use of digital FX would seem unnecessary. Clearly the film had a makeup FX crew employed, if the creatures and mutants on display are any indication. The film is as loaded with physical aberration and perversion as it is with beautiful perfection. It is a land of extreme contrasts, not necessarily a bad thing at all. But why the phony carnage and the "real" deformity? I've seen fewer cosmetic dentures in vampire flicks, for God's sake. You'd think a few squibs wouldn't constitute much of a budgetary leap.

The truth behind the decision is likely to allow for concessions to the MPAA that would not involve omitting entire sequences and instead permit careful digital removal of material that was never in the frame to begin with. Cutting out any appreciable volume of the violence onscreen would have resulted in a running time more appropriate for an episode of The Twilight Zone. This notion also allows for the desaturation of the color of the blood from crimson to a more muddy shade of brown. (The color red has long been known as a bane to the MPAA, just ask Oliver Stone.)

The music selections are not as bad as they could have been, but as I told my companion, "a little heavy metal goes a long way, and it's usually way too far." Thankfully the film is not as riddled with Nu Rock as one would fear. I think I recall only two distinct instances of anachronistic music, and the remainder is an insistent deep percussive mix with a generous helping of "dark orchestral." Think LOTR and you get the idea rather clearly.

When people aren't fighting, the movie seems to take a few pages, if not the majority of the whole book, from Gladiator. There is a noble self-assuredness to the characters at "the home front" that allows you to know exactly who the good guys and the bad guys are. (Hint: Leonidas' wife is good, and the guy with all the gold in his pocket is bad.)

What really completes the similarity is the constant employment of "fields of wheat." And wives and children walking in fields of wheat. And people brushing their hands over the tops of fields of wheat. And people remembering their heritage, while standing in fields of wheat. It isn't inappropriate. It's just familiar.

Readers of Frank Miller's graphic novel may recall the pervasiveness of the unclad human body in that story. While the film was in production, it was this element that made me wonder the most how they would film an "accurate" version, because if there is one thing the MPAA hates more than the color red, it is the sight of a man's exposed Special Purpose.

Guys, I am here to tell you, the fear of male membership is unfounded. I think I saw exactly one brief shot of a dude's butt, and that was in a shadow. And then he put the blocks to his hot wife.

Even though I may sound like I have a lot of venom for the movie, overall I enjoyed it and found it a fun experience. It's pitched just about right for a fantasy tale about sacrifice for honor. It's very hot-blooded and earnest, and some of the ardor and passion will doubtless inspire some snickering. There are numerous instances of grotesqueries and monstrosities that lend the affair a timbre of heightened cartoonishness that should go a long way towards indicating the tone and intent of the picture.

It's difficult to take it at all seriously on anything other than comic book terms of excess. The real test for the audience will prove not to be the fake blood, earnest dialogue (with Leonidas' blustering being the most tolerable, and you can tell he means it because of his furrowed brow) or annoying music, but instead will come at the very moment King Xerxes the villain opens his mouth and cuts loose with one of the silliest dubbed voices in recent memory. It's about as jarring as dubbing Don Knotts with the voice of Darth Vader. Lord Humongous himself was more believable. Plus, King Xerxes has all the fashion inclinations of Donna Summer in 1977.

300 is a fun and dramatically bombastic movie, but littered with the same missteps of modernism that crippled Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. Your enjoyment of the material depends entirely upon your impression from the advertising materials, as it is very accurately marketed. If you drop what you are doing every time the TV spot comes on -- GO SEE THIS MOVIE. You'll love it.


Lee Sparks, producer-writer-actor for upcoming Austin Animation AOK feature Viva the Nam and screenwriter for the award-winning short film Fun With Clones (2003). He prefers to put the blocks to his hot car. He likes to crank her up so he can have better access to her undercarriage. So, the blocks, you see, are, um, wood. And he puts his wood right up under the rubber, because, you know, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

 
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