Monday, April 16, 2007

Jason watches "300"

Yeah, I know I should've watched this long ago. I've been putting it off because A) I wanted to see it in IMAX, which meant forgoing my local cineplex and going up to the city to see it, and B) The Minister of Common Sense has called it the "worst movie [he's] seen in the last 5 years". Actually, I've been holding off reading more than the title of his review, to minimize his influence on my opinion. I've also talked to plenty of people who thought it was awesome. Rotten Tomatoes has it as a barely fresh 61% rating.

Okay, so there's some good and some bad. I'll start with the good. It looks good, for the most part. In fact, probably about 80-90% of the frames could be extracted and make a pretty impressive painting in it's own right. I can't take anything away from the style. In fact, in many respects it can be seen as a triumph of style over substance. And I don't even mean that sarcastically (okay, maybe a little).

However, the problem with calculating every frame to be as impressive as possible is that eventually nothing stands out. I'd charitably say that this movie skirts that line. When marital pillow-talk is just as awe-inspiring as battle, where's the sense of perspective? Furthermore, it seems an odd choice to slow down scenes almost to the point of stopping them. Zack Snyder is showing his commercial/music video roots and some impressive visual chops there, but that doesn't necessarily translate well to 2 hours. Ultimately, why take cinema, an inherently kinetic media, and slow it down to static shots which, through their sense of tension, evoke motion? It almost seems as if the visual style would work better as a series of static shots. Perhaps some way to "novelize" the movie graphically? Okay, there I am being sarcastic, but my point is why switch media--in this case from graphic novel to film--and not take better advantage of the new medium? In the case of graphic novel to film, it's even a pretty natural translation, as a graphic novel can be treated as an elaborately crafted storyboard. But in this case, it seems Mr. Snyder used the new media to make the graphic novel bigger...and not much else.

Okay, I've already sort of drifted over to the bad points. Here's more: Many CGI shots were just awful. Okay, it certainly put "impressive" over realistic, and that was part of the style that I can't fault. But beasts should still move somewhat naturally and those elephants and the battle rhino just sucked.

The voice-over was annoying, and the dialogue even more so. And the modern colloquialisms were the worst ("We're in for one wild night!"). And the inconsistent references to God or the gods (are they polytheistic or not?) is laughable. The plot need not be mentioned, and Xerxes was more comical than frightening.

But ultimately, I was left with one question that, depending on the answer, could completely redeem this movie and make me hail it as brilliant: Is this satire? Or, to put it another way, am I really supposed to root for Sparta?

In the opening scene, we're introduced to a culture that kills its newborns if they're small, sickly, or malformed. Boys are taught to fight as soon as they can walk, and spend all their short life hoping for a glorious death in battle. And we're supposed to root for them because the main character, King Leonidas, says they're free? This bloodthirsty proudly proclaimed madman king murders a messenger, inviting war upon his people, then goes out on an illegal suicide mission to fight the war with only 300 soldiers. Meanwhile, his wife whores herself out to convince the council to send reinforcements. You can argue she had no choice, and the cruel, traitorous councilman was far worse, but she is still no paragon of virtue. On the other side, Xerxes is certainly power-mad, wants to rule the world, and believes himself to be a god. But, beyond that, he claims (and all evidence suggests) to be a benevolent, kind, generous ruler. Pledge loyalty to Xerxes, and he'll make your life comfortable. Pledge loyalty to Leonidas, and he'll lead you into a glorious death in battle. Who would you rather follow? It's fair to answer you'd rather follow Leonidas and fight for your freedom rather than be a slave to Xerxes, but again, the only reason this movie gives to believe that the Spartans are free is that their King (their mad King) says so!

And then the final moral of the movie. It's glorious to die in battle killing as many enemies as you can, because your example will inspire others until you have an army large enough to defeat your enemy. I hate to bring contemporary politics into this, but since we're in a war on terror in which suicide bombing is the terrorists' primary weapon, is this a moral we want to promote? To put it another way, it's easy to draw parallels between Persia in the movie and the U.S. today, so is this movie anti-American? Granted, I have no reason to believe that connection is intended. And knowing that Persia is modern day Iran, this connection tickles my sense of irony. Even more so, the complaints that it's racist and homophobic become kind of funny if you start to see it as anti-American propaganda instead.

So, in the final analysis, this movie could be a brilliant piece of misunderstood subversive art if it's intended to make you root for the wrong side (or to ignore the fact that . However, I find it hard to give it the benefit of the doubt on this. At most, I can give it credit for being so philosophically blank that you can hang whatever beliefs you want on it.


Erk Schmerk said...

Interesting. Having not seen 300 yet meself (hellooooo Bear Tooth!), I'll have to reserve judgment. Further, having not read the book, I'll have to reserve judgement for that, too. Your takes do strike me as interesting in a few ways, though:

* You didn't like the near-stopped effect of the action sequences. Seems to me like the director trying to impart the graphic novel's effect (like Sin City did in the movie). Striking images of savagery and strength would be the lasting impression, and would appeal to the testosterone-starved social outcast that stereotypically would read the novels.
* Such an in-depth analysis, coming to a (maybe, not really) conclusion that we (the US) is represented by Persia. In a funny way, I approve. But interesting that Iran (ahem, Neo-Persia?) has complained that it makes them look bad.

Um, no. That's it. I really think it's supposed to be more testosterone-releasing endorphine-boosting macho schlock-action movie that appeals to the unthinking masses.

I'll probably love it.

puppymeat said...

Ah yeah, Bear Tooth! Beer and pizza (or perhaps nachos?) would make that movie so much better.

It's not that I disliked the near-stopped effect in and of itself, it's that it was overused to the point of inappropriateness. It's the difference between putting a little spice in you food and eating a big pile of salt for dinner. And the Sin City comparison is apt (both based on Frank Miller books). I almost added a comparison of the two to the post, but it was already long enough. In short, although Sin City ripped imagery directly from the graphic novel, it was still very cinematic. Without having read the novel, I enjoyed the movie and then was surprised how exactingly scenes were recreated when I read one of the books. In "300" I could've guessed it was based on a graphic novel without knowing that, and without having seen the novel I can with utmost certainty guarantee that most scenes are copied directly. It felt like a graphic novel was used for storyboards.

As for the Persia=USA connection, yeah, I liked the irony, especially given how pissed of Iran is about it (what's the rule, we hate those who remind us of what we hate in ourselves?) But I don't necessarily believe that's the conclusion you're supposed to make. It's just an example of how philosophically empty the whole affair was that you can hang whatever interpretation you want on it.

Yeah, you'll probably love it. And the more I (assume I) misinterpret it, it grows on me.

Erk Schmerk said...

Ah, yes. The nachos. Or the 7-layer bean dip. Or any of the wraps. Or burritos. Mandorily served with a pitcher or two.

Yes, it even made Austin Powers 3 stomachable. And Cats vs. Dogs.

So yes, 300 would be OK there. Pan's labirynth opens this weekend, so I guess I'll be able to tell you if they're slipping or not!

baceman007 said...

Media that promotes military service as wonderful is nothing new. Just look at G.I. Joe. I would say that we shouldn't root for either side and just try to take this as a semi-historical telling of a battle. As far as the King going on an illegal raid I would say that was one of the few well done things in the movie. Not the whole old deformed guys humping young girls part (aka oracles), but the fact that it highlighted a government, and religious system, that was failing its people. Overall dying in battle to keep your culture, if you believe in it, is an understandable message, but since the Spartans were so ruthless it's hard to care about them getting killed. Still I have no love of the Persians. I'm speaking entirely historically of course. People that think their Gods kind of suck in general. So I liked the King more than Xerxes, but only by a small margin. They both sucked. Here's a question. When the King says to gollum, excuse me the hunchback, "may you live forever." Do you think he intended that as an insult?

puppymeat said...

I don't mind media promoting military values, but "300" promotes glorious suicide, and doesn't give a good reason for it. As far as historical accuracy, it's so obviously not there, and intentional so, that I had to look for meaning in allegory, and I didn't find much there, either (or rather, I probably found more than was really there).

As for "may you live forever", I think that's definitely intended as an insult. And goes to my point--when a society gets to a point that living is an insult, why should that society survive?

The more I think about it, if you believe it's serious, "300" sucks. If you think it's just clueless, it's hilarious. If you believe it's satire (and I have no reason to believe this other than my desire to believe), then it's brilliantly subversive.

Dadmaniac said...

OK. I plowed through this and all I can say is youse guys are analyzing the hell out of it. Not that it's a bad thing. Just that at my age, it's much better to just "check your brain at the door" and let the good (or bad) movie wash over you. And speaking of good "movies"....kind of: I just got the Venture Bros. Season 2 last night. Only watched the first two episodes...but it's fantastic. Way better than season one. Go Team Wiener...I mean Venture.

baceman007 said...

I actually got asked to go and see this again in IMAX format. The first time I watched it was in an Odyssey theater. I enjoyed it more the second time, not much more, but more. Still IMAX has really relaxed their standards. They're allowing screens that are about as large as Odyssey screens and calling it IMAX. Fucking lame man. Boo to relaxed standards for better profit. That's what American car companies did and look at where they are today. Theaters need to provide much better viewing options if they don't want to go out of business with such awesome options available for the home that keep coming down in price.

puppymeat said...

I doubt I'll watch it again, just because I'm so busy with other movies. But the more I think about it and intentionally interpret it as anti-American propoganda, the more I like it. I tell other people my theory and they treat me like I'm crazy. I haven't had this much fun arguing about a movie since I said that "V for Vendetta" asked the question, "If Osama Bin Laden fought Hitler, who would you root for?"

Sucks about the smaller IMAX screen, though.

baceman007 said...

Well it is anti-American if you look at Xerxes as the imperalist personification of current US policy. Still I find it difficult to root for either side in this movie. The Greeks humped little boys and created a race of super soldiers by abusing them, and Xerxes enslaved people. So yeah.... Then again we're kind of all currently enslaved by money and resources controlled and distributed only with the welfare of the very wealthy in mind.... Anyway, I'm going to think on this some more before I rant.

baceman007 said...

Well I tried to come up with a good rant, but as I went over the bits of history that I know I realized that all governments and governmental systems usually end up collapsing and at the very least fail their people and take a dump on their principals. So I guess I'm too depressed to rant. Still it's one of many historical situations where you don't know who to root for. I do have to say that the Greeks not being wiped out by Xerxes at this important historical cross-roads seems to have worked out best for me personally since I don't really buy into religion and mysticism, but it's a crappy choice to make. Oppressive government 1 that claims you're free, or oppressive government 2 that tells you outright that you're not free but that they actually give a crap about you. Both end up using cannon fodder in the background in the end to do the bidding of their top 10%, just like modern day governments. Sigh, now I'm just depressed, and I think I may have over analyzed this movie anyway. I just watched master and commander too and I thought it was really funny that the super oppressive British were using enslaved Irish men to fight the oppressive French far away from England in an unnecessary battle that had very little strategic bearing on the possible invasion of England itself. Makes you think that humans don't do a whole lot of thinking, and don't need a ton of motivation to yell "Spartans Prepare for Glory" even if they don't understand what they're fighting about. Now I've made myself sad....