Release Date:  March 9, 2007
Rating:  R (for graphic battle sequences throughout, some sexuality and nudity)
Genre:  Action
Run Time:  117 min.
Director:  Zack Snyder
Actors:  Gerard Butler, Lena Headey, Dominic West, Rodrigo Santoro, David Wenham, Vincent Regan

Filled with violent battle scenes, gory killings and some surprisingly explicit sex, 300 is a perverse form of eye candy. A war epic that arrives in the midst of the United States' ongoing war against Islamic radicalism, 300 offers, at best, only faint echoes of the current conflict. Its main interest is sprawling displays of hand-to-hand combat, aided by computer imagery that sometimes resembles a painting, sometimes a video game, but very rarely reminds one of a traditional film. How one feels about such an odd amalgam will largely dictate how one feels about this movie.

Gerard Butler stars as King Leonidas, who leads 300 Spartans in the Battle of Thermopylae against the armies of Persia. Woefully outnumbered, the Spartans – “baptized in the fire of combat,” a narrator informs us at the beginning of the film – fight valiantly, believing that, as the narrator also states, “death on the battlefield in service to Sparta was the greatest glory [one] could achieve in life.”
Things turn ugly when a representative from Persia arrives to demand “earth and water” from Leonidas – a sign of submission to the Persian ruler, Xerxes, ahead of the advancing Persian armies. No dice, Leonidas replies, shoving the messenger and his envoys into a giant pit.

With that, war is inevitable, but first Leonidas must seek the blessing from a group of Spartan mystics, without which no Spartan army has ever gone to war. And with that, the movie begins to go off the rails, mixing the spiritual and the sensual in ways designed to stimulate areas other than the intellect.

The mystics’ word must be respected; such is Sparta’s law. But they flinch at the king’s request, telling him that his “blasphemies” have already brought miseries upon the people. They must consult the oracle, which, in the spirit of the movie, is accessed through the agency of a barely dressed, beautiful young woman. Seductive images of the woman are followed by ugly scenes of her being taken advantage of by beings with “souls as black as coal” (the narrator again, who will soon drop out of the film, only to reemerge in the late-going). The king, knowing that he’s heading off to war the next day, makes love to his wife, and the movie “lovingly” pictures the encounter through a series of explicit images.

Although denied the required blessing, Leonidas defies the lawmakers and fields his army of 300 to face the Persians. His actions would inspire future generations – and, the film argues, preserve Western civilization.

As interesting as the look of 300 is at times, its origins as a graphic novel also reveal a weakness. These characters speak in the brief “sound bubbles” of that format, expressing ideas through declaration and exclamation, rather than through thoughtful discourse. Nevertheless, some of these soundbytes resonate. “Freedom isn’t free at all,” says Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey), in defense of her husband’s decision to fight the Persians. “It comes with a cost – the cost of blood.” Later, a character states, “A new age has begun – the age of freedom. And all will know that 300 Spartans gave their lives to defend it.”

But it’s another quote that resonates above all others, spoken by a soldier, eyeing the battle and its consequences, who refers to the “grotesque spectacle” before him. For, all talk of freedom aside, what 300 spends most of its running time showing is not the origins of freedom, nor the bravery of fighting men, but a “grotesque spectacle” demonstrating how we pursue our basic instincts: survival, sex and a thirst for brutal, bloody entertainment.

Inspired by the work of graphic novelist Frank Miller (whose work also was the basis for Sin City), the story, ostensibly about one battle, actually combines earlier and later battles between the Greeks and Persians than just Thermopylae. But historical accuracy is not the main concern of 300.

The movie features more bare flesh than any film in recent memory. The flesh is primarily from male upper bodies, but not exclusively so. (Director Zack Snyder says Miller’s emphasis on the bare-chested men grows out of a statue of Leonidas in modern Thermopylae, which shows the nude king clad in only a shield, spear and helmet.) The film’s hyper visual style fits alongside the deafening roar of its musical score and sound effects.

Visually compelling but saddled with a flat script, 300 is a loud, furious view of early warfare – a shell of a great tale that, for a brief time, covers its weaknesses with striking images. But the bottom falls out early, leading to a punishing sit for those who aren’t interested primarily in seeing the myriad methods of death for ancient warriors.

If the film sets a precedent for its striking visual style, we can only hope that the elements that comprise its screenplay go the way of the Persian empire.

AUDIENCE:  Adults only

CAUTIONS:

  • Language/Profanity:  Specific Christian terminology applied to God is used to apply to men, particularly the Persian ruler. See “Spirituality” below.
  • Drugs/Alcohol:  None.
  • Sex/Nudity:  A reference to Athenians as “boy lovers”; beautiful young women are used by the Spartans to consult an oracle; a reference to those who take advantage of these women; the king stands naked, with his heavily shadowed backside to the camera; the king and queen’s love-making is depicted in a series of explicit erotic images; a woman’s chest is exposed; many bare-chested men throughout the film; the queen wears a revealing dress; some homoeroticism; a woman is raped; a Spartan hunchback is invited to indulge his desires during a Persian orgy; topless dancers and a scene of an orgy.
  • Violence:  Skulls and skeletons of dead infants are pictured; a boy is whipped; a snarling wolf is speared; young children are said to be trained in violence, fighting, stealing and killing; a tree is strewn with human corpses; numerous battle scenes are filled with explicit scenes of dismemberment, beheadings and the running through of swords; wounded soldiers on the battlefield are killed while on the ground; soldiers and elephants both plunge over a cliff, to their deaths; death by arrow.
  • Spirituality:  The Persians apply to themselves biblical terminology that applies only to God; charges of blasphemy don’t refer to God; the Spartans seek the blessing for battle from those they describe as “senseless mystics” who consult an oracle; a command to “pray to the winds”; a Persian leader calls himself an “emissary to the god of god and king of kings” and later, “the lord of hosts”; a Persian leader refers to his “divine power.”