Posted on 11/14/11 12:18 PM
300 is the kind of film where critics seemed to be at a disagreement with most people. It currently holds a 59% score on Rotten Tomatoes. On the other hand, it holds a 90% score by Rotten Tomatoes users, which is more than what a lot of classics scored, while on IMDB it has a rating of 7.8. At the box office, meanwhile, it was a massive success, grossing over 200 mil domestically, making it the highest grossing historical epic unadjusted for inflation, while it was an even bigger hit on the home market. So what's the reason between the huge difference in reception between critics and audiences?
Like director Zack Snyder's Watchmen, it's going to be a little hard writing a brief plot synopsis, but while with Watchmen it was because the plot was too complex to fit into one paragraph, here it's because there's so little plot so to speak of. Basically, an army of one million Persians has arrived on the shores of Greece, causing the King of Sparta to take 300 big muscular men to go fight them, despite the protests of the High Council, who are secretly being paid by the Persians to claim that this is a time of holiness where the Spartans shouldn't fight (King Leonidas simply claims that he and his men are just going for a stroll) That's basically the whole plot of the movie. Okay, there's also a subplot involving the king's wife, Gorgo, trying to persuade the Council to send help, but that part has very little impact on the story. Heck, they could have removed all the council stuff, and just shown the part with Dilios at the end giving his inspiring speech and that would have been enough to convince us that the council agreed to send help afterwards.
It's easy to see why critics weren't as enthusiastic about the film as audiences. Calling it style over substance is an understatement. Most of the runtime is spent on the greatly outnumbered Spartans battling all the Persians with the help of an awesome soundtrack and a lot of slow motion. The film doesn't earn its R-rating lightly, with blood and limbs flying everywhere, enough to please most guys, while having 300 muscular men dressed like wrestlers with capes also makes it perfect eye candy for ladies. In short, it's a definite crowd pleaser, and it succeeds very well in that regard.
However, even ignoring plot and character development, there are a couple of problems I found with the film. The battles are greatly staged with excellent choreography, but they're also lacking in tension. I always feel that the best wars are those which you don't want to happen, because of the amount of dread and hopelessness leading up to it. The battle of Minas Tirith in Return of the King is a great example of that. The tension you feel as you watch the massive armies near Minas Tirith is incredible, and then when the war actually starts it feels almost hopeless because no matter how much the warriors of Gondor try, the armies keep getting closer and closer to the walls. I was practically on the edge of my seat the whole time.
Unfortunately, no such thing occurred with 300. You'd think that 300 soldiers up against an army of a million would be incredibly tense, yet therein lies the problem. The numbers are so mismatched that in order for the Spartans to have any effect on the Persians, each one of them has to kill hundreds. This means that most of the battles are basically the Spartans moving through the Persians and killing them as easily as if they were punching bags. Very, very few of them die in these battles. Heck, we don't even see them get injured (Dilios is shown after one fight scene with a bloody eye, yet we don't actually see that occurring, while the same thing can be applied to all the scratches we see on King Leonidas' helmet, though the rest of his body stays unscathed. I guess the Persians always aimed their blows at his metal helmet, not his unprotected skin)
The Spartans, meanwhile, feel no dread or hopelessness during these battles. They're incredibly confident, shouting battle cries at the top of their voices, and competing to see who can kill the most Persians. It's the Persians who feel frustration and fear, as they try one different tactic after another, from giants, to rhinos, to sorcery, most of which causes a lot of damage to them while doing nothing to the Spartans (whenever an elephant or rhino comes, it has to be shown knocking or trampling Persians, while it ends up getting killed before even reaching the Spartans) Basically, the battles are about as tense as a Tom and Jerry cartoon.
Another problem I found with the film was the lack of sympathy. The Persians are shown to be very cruel, with the leaders and captains yelling and whipping at the rest to move forward, while all of them worship their king, Xerxes, who is carried on a massive throne that needs dozens of slaves to support it, while every time he feels frustrated he executes those who disappoint him. However, while the Spartans have more freedom, they still aren't that much better. There is a scene where the Spartans all stare up in shock at a tree that the Persians have made using the corpses of villagers they slaughtered. Apparently though the Spartans think nothing of throwing their weaker babies off cliffs and putting their kids through brutal training, while in a scene that is almost ironic, they are later shown to be using the corpses of Persians to build a wall, acting as casual as if they were using rocks. Remind me again whom I'm supposed to be sympathizing with.
Moving onto the acting, well it's not like any of the roles here are particularly challenging. However, I will say that Gerard Butler is great as King Leonidas, giving his character a real sense of authority and power (not to mention he gets to yell the best line in the movie "This is Sparta!") Also impressive is David Wenham as Dilios, whose narration of the events is a nice touch. The visual style, meanwhile, is amazing. Since most of the film is done in front of blue screen, it allows Snyder to put his visual creativity to full use.
As pure popcorn fun, 300 is pretty entertaining, featuring numerous battle sequences that are well staged even if they're too one-sided, all in tune to a great soundtrack. If you're looking for a film with a great plot and characters then I'd suggest looking elsewhere. However, if you're looking for some mindless fun, then 300 might just do the trick, despite a number of flaws.