Last week I had the chance to see the upcoming movie “300” based on the Frank Miller graphic novel at the first advanced screening Warner Bros. held in Los Angeles. Advanced screenings are an important part of the film development process, as they allow the studio to gauge audience reaction and make adjustments to the film prior to release. In this case, “300” isn’t coming out until 2007, so this is a very early screening indeed.
First up, we’ll give you the studio synopsis of “300”: “The Film tells the true story of 300 elite Spartan fighters who, led by King Leonidas (Butler), fought to the death against King Xerxes’ massive Persian army during the battle of Thermopylae in 481-480 B.C. According to lore, their valor inspired all of Greece to rise up against the invading Persians, planting the seeds of democracy.”
STARRING: Gerard Butler, Lena Headey, David Wenham, Dominic West, Rodrigo Santoro, Vincent Regan
DIRECTOR: Zack Snyder
SCREENWRITER: Zack Snyder
STUDIO: Warner Bros
GENRE: Action / Adventure / Drama
RELEASE DATE: TBA 2007
Based on the comic book series by Frank Miller.
Before we get to the review, I’d like to share some observations from the screening itself. I’ve never been to an advanced screening where there was so much security – they were very selective in who they were going to let see their movie. There was no saving places in line (everyone got a number after their interview), every person was personally interviewed with multiple questions about your employment (to make sure you in no way are affiliated with any kind of press, entertainment company, etc…), a little speech about how they matched your named against a black-list of people they have caught releasing unauthorized reviews prior to final cut in the past, checking every person’s driver’s license (I saw three people sent home because they had no driver’s license), no cell phones allowed (not just turned off, but not allowed) with a full metal detector to get in the door, etc. As Internet leaks have become more and more common, these types of measures must be made by the studios to protect their properties.
Okay, on to the movie.
It’s very, very good, however it’s not a film for everyone. If I had to compare it to other films, I would say there are parts of “Gladiator’s” organized fighting, “Lord of the Rings'” grand-scale battles, the “Thirteenth Warrior’s” feel of going against the unknown depths of man with the stylistic feel of “Sin City.”
And the movie is quite stylistic. Colors are stark and heavily contrasted. While it isn’t as extreme as “Sin City,” the feel of a comic book is present, and the entire film looks “different” than most film. Sometimes, using slow motion, it almost seems paneled. And certain scenes are set up to further this mood, this distinctness.
The story is fairly simple, and told through the eyes of one soldier, exaggerated here and there by him due to his perceptions at the time and not due to intentional puffery it seems.
Sparta is a country of soldiers. While the Athenians and Acadians have philosophy and finer intellectual pursuits, Sparta is a hard, harsh, almost cruel place where only the strong are permitted to survive, where every child goes off to become the perfect soldier (or die trying, which is common), and where even the weakest woman is a stronger and likely better fighter than most of the strongest soldiers of any other country.
King Leonidas, played by Gerard Butler, is the best of the soldiers of Sparta. He is a perfect warrior in an army of nearly perfect warriors. In what is likely to be a breakout performance for Butler, he offers a Shakespearean rendition of King Leonidas. He embodies loyalty to his people, dedication to the principals of freedom, and courage where other good men tremble. Butler’s interpretation of King Leonidas as a stern man willing to do what is necessary, placing freedom above even his own life, is convincingly heroic. We believe a nation would follow this man anywhere, and his presence is dominating and unquestioned.
King Leonidas’ love for his nation is matched only by the love and passion he has for his wife, Queen Gorgo. Sparta’s Queen Gorgo is powerfully played by Leana Heady, and she is an equal match to her soldier-husband. While Leonidas fights for Sparta’s freedom and protection on the battlefield, Heady’s Queen Gorgo uses every political, social, and even sexual tool at her disposal to fight for Sparta back home. This is not a woman buried on the screen by the overpowering presence of men. Instead, Heady’s Queen Gorgo is an alluring, imposing figure of both beauty and intelligence, able to manipulate, control, and persuade better than the most powerful figures of her nation.
As should be familiar to readers of the “300” graphic novel (or history), Sparta is about to be attacked by the Persian army, the greatest army in the world that is threatening to engulf everyone and everything under the rule of their God-King Xerxes, hauntingly portrayed by Rodrigo Santoro.
Santoro, heavily altered by CG effects to appear larger, taller, and significantly darker, offers a truly creepy vision of Xerxes. His voice is a booming bass that carries across the battlefield from atop a massive metallic platform-throne carried on the backs of dozens of slaves, commanding attention in an almost supernatural echoing tone. Santoro convincingly presents an oddly feminine Xerxes, whose soft features bejeweled with treasures of presumably conquered nations suggests a demi-god whose every wish and desire is catered to by his slave-worshippers.
King Leonidas, seeing the threat that Xerxes poses to his nation and to all free people, wants to send the Spartan army to stop him.
However, because Sparta is the beginnings of a Democracy, he must follow the law. And the law says Sparta cannot go to war unless the Oracle that is controlled by the small ancient order of priests who worship the elder gods give their advice to go to war. Unfortunately, the oracle does not advise war (having been bought off by the Persians).
King Leonidas struggles with the concept of defying the law he was born to defend. Eventually, he decides to “take a stroll” with 300 soldiers as “King’s Guard”, including his Captain, depicted by a grim Vincent Regan, to defend him on his travels that just happen to carry him towards a critically strategic choke-point that Xerxes and his army must pass through to reach Sparta. The council grudgingly permits this through their inaction (though without a vote).
Regan’s vivid representation of King Leonidas’ Captain of the Guard is a picture of loyalty and courage. Every good leader needs a reliable cohort able to execute the plan, and Regan’s Captain level of competence, resourcefulness, and confidence in his King’s strategy is so infectious that one feels like victory is really achievable even in the face of such extreme odds.
King Leonidas and his Captain come up with a plan to rebuild an ancient wall near the sea, and force the enemy into a narrow gorge where the enemies numbers will not serve as much of an advantage (the enemy numbers around 100,000+ is my guess).
The soldiers of Sparta are all dressed in their uniforms: bright red cloaks, distinctive helmets, shields, spears, and swords (scimitars or falchions actually), bare chested in a toga-like wrap, boots, armbands, and extremely muscular. They move with grace, speed, and a certain uniformity. You really get the sense that these are people whose only purpose is to fight, so that the rest of their nation can survive in this harsh world.
From here, the movie becomes a bit of a cross between “Gladiator” and several scenes from the “Lord of the Rings” movies.
Battle after battle after bloody battle takes place. These battle scenes are not your run-of-the-mill confusing mess of bodies smashing together. Instead, care is taken to engage the audience in the fighting tactics of each side, to zero-in on the action in some unique manner and move the camera around to provide the best (and sometimes unusual) view of the conflict. Sometimes a slow motion effect reminiscent of Chinese action films like “Hero” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” are employed to display the precision and speed of the Spartans. Other times portions of the action are sped up, like the drawing of a sword or the readying of locked shields, reinforcing the image of warriors so well-trained in melee combat that their muscles are moving automatically, faster than their own minds could have commanded had they taken the time to think about their next move.
The armies of Xerxes seem inconceivably large and varied, and are as unique as the individual battle scenes. Having conquered most of the world, Xerxes’s battalions are each somewhat elite unites of special fighters and fighting styles. There are bowmen, cavalry, elephant-riders, alchemist-fire throwers, beasts, heavily armored men, lightly-armored whip-wielders, a super-elite Xerxes guard called the Immortals (whose faces are deformed and look a bit like Orcs), and there is even a giant reminiscent of a troll.
The “Lord of the Rings” analogy doesn’t end there however. The whole feel of large portions of the movie is similar to the “Rings” trilogy, with grand vistas, ancient buildings, fleets of ships, and even a Gollum-like hunchback named Ephialtes who follows them (a discarded Spartan whose mother escaped with him at birth to avoid his death due to his deformity – Sparta breeds only perfect warriors). There is some witty banter between the King and his closest friend similar to the banter between Legolas and Gimli in the “Rings” movies. There are even some “creatures” in the movie, such as a goat-headed man and a truly creepy man with blades for arms and perhaps even some dark arts of magic being performed in the corrupt dens of the enemy – but the impression is given that these are maybe exaggerations of the storyteller rather than “real” creatures and things.
While all of these waves of battles are going on, back home the Queen is attempting to persuade the council, using all her influence that she has to offer, to send the full army to support the King.
I will not give away the entire ending at this point, as there are some surprises at the end that, though not wholly unpredictable, are worth experiencing nonetheless without spoilers.
The audience at the screening seemed to love it from beginning to end. However, note that the audience was 400 or so people, mostly men in their 20s (primarily due to the fact that invitations were given out at Los Angeles area comic book and game stores for the most part).
I said earlier that this movie is not for everyone, and it isn’t. It’s “R” rated for a good reason. While there are some explicit sex scenes, it’s the violence that gets the rating here. Boy, is this movie bloody at times. Some of the more in-your-face bloody moments include: a tree covered entirely by dead bodies nailed to it; a wall built mostly with the dead used as the mortar; and a pile of dead bodies about three stories tall. There are limbs severed, spears plunged, lots of blood, screaming, and slow-motion ballet-like dances of spinning death.
In other words, this is not a date movie for most couples. This is a chest thumping, dirty, writhing mass of violence at times. You can feel the testosterone in this film. However, the violence is not the kind that makes you want to be sick at the reality of it. It is all quite stylized and probably less gory overall than Miller’s other big screen success, “Sin City.” Still, it’s there, and if you don’t want to see men fighting and dying, do not see this movie.
I found the movie very compelling, and plan on seeing it again (perhaps even on opening night). It is very “manly” in tone, and one does not leave contemplating the philosophical meaning of things. Instead, it’s the kind of movie that you leave with a feeling of power, from having been witness to something grand.
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