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.