At the beginning of “300”, we hear the background story of King Leonidas of Sparta narrated by one of his men. We hear of his upbringing in the traditional Spartan way: he learns to fight from the time he can walk and is entrenched in violence throughout childhood to train him into a fierce warrior. This has the added effect of introducing the audience to the culture of violence at work in the film.
Throughout the movie, combat is glorified, and because of the historical background of ancient Greece this is not out of place. The battles are brutal; decapitations and blood spurts abound, magnified in great details by the grainy, colorful cinematography. But while the action fits the ancient feeling of the film, the approach is decidedly new, in ways that weaken the film.
It’s directed by Zack Snyder, whose only major previous credit is the remake of George A. Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead.” Perhaps just as important to the film’s concept is the source material: a graphic novel by Frank Miller, whose work was also the basis of 2005’s “Sin City.” From what little I’ve seen of the novel, it seems that Snyder stayed as true as he could to the source.
Visually, this is interesting. It’s not an ancient Greece we’ve ever seen before. Much of the frame takes on a dusty golden brown hue, while striking colors like the red of the capes and blood and the blackness of the hair stand out. Objects are arranged in the frame in a decidedly bold way, giving the film a dynamic and mythic tone.
The element that ultimately weakens this visual concept is the movement of those objects. Snyder employs a very “Matrix”-influenced approach to his camerawork, with much of the action scenes featuring numerous slow motion shots. At times it gets so repetitive that I felt I was watching a DVD that was skipping. What originality the imagery has on first glance becomes pedantic soon after.
The story is based on history and is fairly compelling. Sparta is being overrun by the massive armies of the Persian king Xerxes. King Leonidas, played by Gerard Butler, being the warrior that he is, is predisposed to fight back rather than submit. However, because the city council has not approved open war, he can only take a small number (you guessed it, 300) of soldiers to fight back the invaders in a narrow canyon.
The weaker subplot that often distracts from the narrative is the plight of Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey), who must somehow convince the council to declare war, and has to ward off the ambitious councilman Theron (Dominic West). Also distracting is the constant narration of the aforementioned soldier, played by David Wenham, whose words serve little purpose than to describe to us what we are already seeing.
Overall, it will be known for its bold visual approach, but that cannot mask some of the amateurish directorial choices and the weaker elements of the script.