Judging from the crowds swarming the 8:00 PM screening, this will be a big movie in the US this weekend and deserves debate. Check the review by Twitch's Canfield -- and the comments already posted. Mine are somewhat different.
Zack Snyder's 300 is a big thumping roar of an action movie that aspires to something more only in its closing sequences. Until then it achieves the popcorn movie goal of depicting battles with honor but without humanity in an entertaining fashion.
Gallons of blood are spilt, thousands of limbs are severed, and numerous heads are lopped off, yet there is never the slightest bit of tension generated or concern expended in behalf of the soldiers involved. Director Snyder keeps the pace swift for the most part, though the multitude of extended slow motion footage makes it feel like an American football game broadcast -- there's even an announcer, er, narrator.
The plot description is elegant in its simplicity: 300 Spartans stand off an army of millions of Persians. What I thought about while watching one of the battles was John Woo's Hard Boiled or any number of Hong Kong martial arts movies in which the fights seem to go on forever. That's how they feel in 300, but the difference is that the action is so stylized -- color tinted to make it difficult to make out facial expressions, the Spartans all boasting six-pack abs and looking identical, the blood escaping from bodies in small and large blobs rather than spurting -- that it becomes difficult to be caught up in it.
The advantage of, say, the Woo picture is the action is so fast and furious that, subconsciously, it feels even more violent than it is, because your mind is filling in what the eye is not seeing. That's also the secret to the best horror movies (my first thought is Psycho's shower scene), where the carnage may be bloody, but we tend to fill in the blanks with something even worse.
Here we have plenty of slow-motion slicing of heads and swords ramming through bodies, but it's so slow that you simply admire the ability of the computer artist/make-up people.
The few actors we can recognize have trouble making much of an impression. Gerard Butler is a terrific snarler as King Leonidas, but I kept expecting him to burst into song, a la the Phantom of the Opera. Dominic West was a nasty, one-dimensional villain, and Lena Headey brought a degree of nuance as the Queen.
It would be easy enough to accept 300 as simple entertainment were it not for the inclusion of the Spartans' motivation as a big part of the closing sequences. Until it reached this point, I had dismissed the concerns I'd heard about beforehand as desperately thin, but it becomes clear -- at least to me -- that the filmmakers want the Spartans to be held up as shining examples of goodness. (If they'd expressed even one iota of doubt about the Spartans, I might be persuaded that they want the audience to question their own feelings about whether the Spartans as a society were to be admired or condemned for their methods, but no such shadow of doubt is ever even hinted at.) That's where the picture breaks down completely -- it's too shallow to hold up to close inspection, too thin to bear the weight of introspection.
The way that the Persians are repeatedly identified as Asians, and depicted as brutal nameless faceless hordes, is a standard movie convention. The Persian army may very well have been the most evil ever to walk the face of the earth. But we never see that -- we just see that they number into the hundreds of thousands, that they are relentless, and that their King is very very tall, thinks he is a god, and likes facial jewelry. Sure, they kill and pillage, but isn't that what the Spartans do? The Spartans insistence on breeding great warriors -- illustrated by their disposal of infants who don't fit their "perfect" criteria -- seems just as wicked as anything the Persians do. But it is the Spartans that we are meant to root for.
For a big dumb night out, yes, 300 may fit the bill. But as an invitation to nuanced thought, or to imagine that it has anything on its mind besides presenting the Spartans as a great team of nationalist warriors worthy of imitation, it falls flat.