Saturday, 3 March 2007

300 (2007)

Battle stations ready!

The Battle of Thermopylae is one of those legendary battles that inspires people to write all sorts of stories about it, no doubt because it's such a compelling event. In the course of the battle, 300 Spartan soldiers together with 700 other Greek allies defended the mountain pass at Thermopylae against 100,000 Persian soldiers. Though Xerxes I won the battle, he did so at a great cost: the miniscule Greek force inflicted such heavy and disproportionate damage that the Persian campaign to invade Greece and conquer Europe was effectively over and done with, for a generation. Bards explain the overwhelming victory of the Spartans to their heroism, military discipline and fighting prowess; modern military strategians merely need to point out the extremely favourable geography and terrain. It is inevitable that the tale be more alluring than any historical account, that poets and artists would embellish the tale with each telling, so that it grows, becomes more fantastic and noble.

Understandably, Frank Miller is of the party of the poets, and his graphic novel "300" has become a pulp classic. As a fictionalised account of the battle, it marries his unapologetically masculine and pugnacious storytelling together with the most macho of stories - the heroic last stand. And like most comic classics and other Frank Miller tales, 300 was destined to be adapted into a movie. Zack Snyder, the man chosen for the undertaking, apparently believes that the greatest challenge is a matter of procedure - by what means should a visually stunning comic book be brought to film? How should the film proceed, what story should be filmmed, since a comic book is basically a montage of freeze frames and a film is a series of unbroken images? And so the decisions are made: 300 is a panel by panel reproduction of the Frank Miller book, with many scenes functioning as the "in-betweens" of the panels. Frank Miller's dialogue is faithfully replicated by the actors, with the director filling in completely new dialogue and scenes very sparingly. In order to capture the extreme visual style, everything aside from actors and props will be created with CGI, as a sort of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow style project.

Yet for all the artistic and technical choices Snyder makes, he fails to understand that in order to make a movie adaptation, one has to realise that what passes on the printed page may not be similarly acceptable in film, and vice versa. A comic book is allowed more lattitude in its politics - for instance, no one would bat an eyelid if an artist publishes a graphic novel about Lucifer, Holocaust denial, or religious superheroes conducting a righteous genocide of homosexuals, but a line in moral and aesthetic sensibility is crossed when they become movies. What we are willing to tolerate as mental escapism, visual sophistry... becomes troubling when they are made flesh, albeit on a screen (This is why Triumph of the Will and The Birth of a Nation would be more acceptable as comic books). The problem with 300 is it's a particularly jingoistic and belligerent novel, less a defense of the struggle of free Greeks against a despotic tyrant than a defense of the fascist state and glorification of the hazing rituals of the Spartan army, disguised as "character building" or "soldier making". If the director isn't too imaginative or is too faithful in his adaptation, this will transform an interesting thought experiment into a morally repugnant movie.

So here's the good news: Snyder is extremely faithful to the Miller graphic novel, and his use of CGI makes the art direction of the movie top notch. Landscapes, sets, and even the sunlight are all CGI-rendered and the colours oversaturated, which give the movie a unique look. You may find it visually unreal somehow, and it can take some time to get used to it. CGI armies, though, have the unfortunate low budget multiple "cut and paste" look, and certain characters - notably a wolf menacing a Spartan boy - look extremely fake. Battle scenes are much better, with the CGI milking out every possible bit of gore and violence, but there is a gratuitous use of slow motion may get annoying for the less impatient audience member.

The bad news? The reliance on CGI backgrounds and sets has a direct impact as well on the actors, resulting them to overcompensate for the lack of context with over-the-top acting. And if you take it the wrong way, there are many scenes where the movie just lapses into a parody of itself, because of its earnestness and lack of a sense of irony.

While 300 is good to look at, its plot is troubling on so many levels. There is of course the blatant historical revisionism and neocon baiting, with its glorification of sacred warriorhood and the fascist Spartan state as the protectors of democracy, truth and liberty. Minute changes, additions, and omissions from the graphic novel serve to take out what little criticism Frank Miller had about the Spartans. Where in the comic book, the Spartans torture and kill every Persian ambassador sent by Xerxes, the movie's dead are victims of the Persians, villagers tortured in spectacular ways. And the change is great - the movie demonises the Persians, whereas they are merely a force of nature in the comic book. The movie expounds on how evil the Persians are through the "LOTR effect" - theirs is the army stocked with human freaks and misfits, Immortals with scarrred faces, led by a Stargate Goa'uld, and having a hunchbacked Gollum as its mascot. Where Xerxes I was a megalomaniac playing convincingly the part of a God-king in the comic, he is now a tantrum-throwing brat in the movie. These changes unfortunately make the movie even more polemic, belligerent, diminishing what little criticism Miller might have made of the Spartans in his book.

300 isn't meant to be viewed as a historical movie (inaccuracies include a senate, when Sparta wasn't just an autocratic state but ruled by TWO kings), but more of an animated comic book that tells an exaggerated view of the last stand of King Leonidas. Its very unique slant on telling the story might mean, however, that you'd want to watch it only if you're a fan of Frank Miller, or a fan of very cartoonish gore.

First published at incinemas on 8 March 2007

No comments: