Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Movie Chat: 300


The teenage goth girl who sold me and my brother tickets for this told us that it was the best movie she had seen since The Matrix. Turns out I agree with her more than I do with the film's critics, who seem to be in two camps: (1) the folks who don't like the movie because it's politically irresponsible and reactionary and (2) the folks who don't like the movie because it feels like a big, stylized video game.

My Take: that's all true enough, but, to me at least, it seemed like everything was in quotes. This is a "Pro-War" movie and there's lots of "Violence". Everything is aestheticized though to such an extent that my reaction was basically to nod along in appreciation of the choreography, the realization of Frank Miller's images, and the physiques on display.

What made me like it rather than just be impressed by it, is that it didn't feel pushy at all. On the one hand, this meant that I never really got caught up in it or had much in the way of an emotional reaction. On the other hand, it meant that I could sit back and enjoy it without feeling worked over.

I want to see Sin City again - I caught it on its opening weekend and was done in by its length, despite liking parts of it quite a bit - but what I like about 300 is that, unlike Sin City, it isn't obsessively concerned with recreating Frank Miller's images on the screen almost exactly as they appear on the page. That seemed to not only have the intended effect of flattening everything out, but also the unintended effect of being kind of redundant. And fetishizing the images seemed to take the life out of them: their pulpy charm was undermined by the millions of dollars spent to "bring them to life". However, 300 treats its source material slightly less reverently: Snyder and his crew conceive of everything in terms of space, movement, and depth. It's still like the space, movement, and depth in a video game, but there are still moments of brainless blockbuster poetry (I'm thinking specifically of the two bits dealing with walls of bodies and the first slo-mo/heavy metal sequence).

My Even Quicker Take: Yes, it is like a video game, but it gets by because it has a sense of assuredness and willingness to slow down and stand back. I think it's a lot like Hero or The Promise, the difference being that wuxia is still kind of a living B-movie genre, while Sword & Sandal is a thing of the past. Still, the formula is the same: all these movies build elaborate, spectacular, action set-pieces out of the standard B-movie tropes that grew out of economic necessity. (Hero probably goes over better with critics because of its foreign art house pedigree).

See also: Sean Collins and Jim Treacher on 300.


Mega said...

I was mostly underwhelmed by the movie, but I suppose that's understandable; my take on the comic, if I remember correctly, was that a)it was really cool-looking (I like Miller's stuff, from his earlier work on Daredevil down to his current even-more-extremely stylized stuff, b)it had some cool fights, and c)that my brother, who since the eigth grade has only read one book (First Blood), might read and enjoy it. He did and did.

And the movie does look really neat (although on occasion almost tired, and I agree with the critics calling it "claustrophobic" -- your comments on how they "conceive of everything in terms of space, movement, and depth" fall flat for me because of the compact space of the pass and it's opening where all the action takes place, where there is very little depth to consider or movement possible), and the movie does have some good fights, and my brother -- well, I don't know if he liked it, but I assume he did well enough. I'm pretty sure he caught the Imax version with my dad and about 20 fellow deputies.

My problem was that the film didn't grab me at all, probably less than the comic. The biggest selling point for me -- the visual style -- just flew by, with each really cool looking shot followed by reams of footage kind of blending together until the next really neat sight. With 300 the comic, I can linger on panels I like more. I can fly over the narration if I want to; I can skip lightly from word balloon to word balloon and focus on any particular spectacle for as long as I wish. Not so in the film: I'm forced to imagine that the narration (which reminds me: did you find the volume of speech, especially with the opening narration, to be a bit too quiet?) is as interesting as the all-too-fleeting visuals. I found myself believing, although it's probably untrue, that each cool frame that director Snyder decided to linger upon was snatched directly from the comic. Everything in between, the stuff I found almost bland and when coupled with the narration pretty silly, was unnecessary. With Sin City I thought why not just read the comics? while with 300 I'm thinking you'd be at a huge loss not to put your ticket price toward the book.

To reply to your critical camps, and a third critical response to the film:

I agree that the political criticism is true enough, but found the movie not strong enough in any regard to make me care one way or another. That's not an excuse for it, and perhaps some worry would be worthwhile for the likes of teenage goth girls to whom 300 is their favorite film in like ten years. I don't know. Tim O'Neil I think just posted on this sort of thing (a reaction, at least? I think, don't quote me) with huge excerpts from a
Susan Sontag essay; I should read that.

The video game criticism seems silly to me as a negative or a positive (or a reason why the kids might like the flick.) You write that "it feels like a big, stylized video game" and, while I haven't played many video games in the last couple of years, I'm very sure that if 300 feels like a game it feels like a very small, short game. Especially as what would be a glorified beat-em-up with wifey cut-scenes. The action takes place on one ridiculously tiny level, with just a few waves of bad-guys to clobber, a few different enemy models, only a single difficult boss-fight (the giant), and an end boss who doesn't even enter combat -- you lose before you get there. Not to mention there's essentially a single protagonist, in looks and fighting technique. There are no special moves. And the whole thing, half cut-scene, is over so quickly. If the video game analogy is to stack up, 300 is like watching a stranger play a good-looking but extremely short and boring game on a big screen. It's everything that video games shouldn't be, in the type of game that would unfortunately sell amazingly in the half-baked launch of some next-gen console system.

Something I read critics saying (in both negative and positive reviews) was that the movie was an epic; this was also thrown about in earlier, pre-release hype. After the first (and was it the best? the first big slow-mo metal fight) battle I thought: cool, but is that all they've got? And it just about was; the boyfriend-banter was a cute touch in that one scene, but only that. It's been a long time since I've seen Braveheart, or Gladiator, or (thank god) The Patriot, but I saw all of those movies between the ages of 10 and 20, and those are the "historical" battle epics I think of and think reviews and marketers of 300 were referencing (one of my roommates, who hadn't seen the trailer and knew nothing of the comic but had heard bits about the film and glanced at a few posters, thought the movie was literally Gladiator 2.) To think that even the entire film of 300 comes close to the sense of "epic," not to mention the choreographical skill, of the first long gambit in Braveheart, or the hatchet-chase after the son-thieving brits with lil sniper kids in tow of Patriot (again, politics, hell even any much thought at all, aside), or the battles in Gladiator, or do you remember the suspense and sheer pulse-poundingness of fight in the end run of Last of the Mohicans? That anyone could think any part of 300 came at all close to that shit makes me highly suspicious; I call selective, or simply bad, memory on all of them. And I wanted much more metal or nu-metal or even raver techno drum and bass, along with a lot more visual snap, to kick in and get the film moving along, because even the orchestral music failed to inspire any sense of epic-ness. It felt like the filmmakers were just mashing "epic" buttons all over without questioning the assumption that it was interesting to sit through.

Sorry to fill up your comment thread with this thing. I was quite happy to read someone who didn't fall into the two critical pratfalls you mention in your first paragraph, and didn't fire back at those critics in a haughty tone.

Jon Hastings said...

Thanks for the comments!

Genre-wise, I think 300 has a better claim on the "epic" title than Gladiator in that it seems to be conceived as a semi-facetious Western Civ "origin story". But it's more like one, extended episode from an epic than a fully-realized epic. (Which is also kind of like Hero).

I wasn't really emotionally or viscerally engaged with this movie at all, and I'm actually kind of surprised that I wasn't bored with it. Walking out of the theater I thought that must be because it was much shorter than Sin City (which I think I would have liked a lot more without the middle section), but I checked and the two movies both clock in around 2 hours.

What I meant by "video game" stylization was that the battle choreography all seems to be thought out in terms of "combos" and that the battlefield was severely limited. I guess it does feel smaller than a Dynasty Warrior stage, but it has the same bounded-in quality.

I'm interested, though: what's your take on Hero? 300 isn't nearly as masterful as Hero (but considering that this is Snyder's second feature, I'm willing to forgive that), but it seems to me to be the same kind of movie. (You can even read troubling political messages into both of them). I haven't read anything that has talked about 300 in this way.

Again, I don't think 300 is as good as Hero, but parts of it are almost as good. 300's two main problems are that (1) there isn't enough variety - unlike in Hero or The Promise, the set piece battles are all more-or-less the same - and (2) Snyder is only able to convert his themes/ideas into choreography in fits and starts. For example, Leonidas gives that speech to the differently-abled Spartan about how Spartans need to fight side-by-side, but Snyder shoots the next battle sequence so that it looks like its every Spartan for himself. It isn't until the end of that fight that we get an overhead shot that shows us that they actually were in a phalanx formation (I might be misremembering this, though). Compare this to the fight choreography in The Lord of the Rings movies, which emphasizes the issues of fellowship, loyalty, sacrifice, etc.

Still, though, I liked the movie. There are very few action movies that are as strongly conceived and well-made as Hero and LOTR has set the bar for epic adventures. 300 falls short, but I don't think its an embarassment.

As for why the goth girl liked it: as I've said, I had a distanced appreciation for the movie, and my guess is that is kinda/sorta the way teens respond to something like this. They're not so interested in it as a movie (i.e. in terms of character, story, themes, etc.) as they are as a kind of video, design, spectacle, thingy. Like The Matrix, 300 creates its own little, self-contained world.

(Oh, I had no problem with the volume - maybe that was a local issue).

Mega said...

Jon- low on time, but wanted to quickly say that I haven't seen Hero. When I do (added to my netflix, but who knows?) I'll try to remember to come back here and give my thoughts, even if it's months down the line.

Your further comments make me realize that my gripe with the film was simply it's size. It's funny, but I, too, thought Sin City was way longer. 300 just felt small. I'm sure it was some elements causing it more than others, but with the fight settings and the seemingly-short and few battles and so on, everything else was made to feel small to me, too. The dialogue felt small (I wouldn't doubt that it was), the narration (again, local volume probably perhaps) felt small, everything just felt the opposite of epic, in a movie that otherwise felt like it was trying for epic. Perhaps I'd have enjoyed it more if they played down the "big" aspects of it -- CG shots of massive armies, the burning village they happen to encounter on their way to the pass (how the hell does that make any sense, btw? the persians have already destroyed a village beyond the pass? i don't get it, but have no grasp of the geography there), the sweeping vistas occasionally viewed. Maybe I'd like '30' more than '300.' Or how about '3.' I mean, the movie is kind of throwing actual history to the wind, so why not whittle down that cast of extras, more clearly define the core group of Spartans, give them special moves, make it really like a beat-em-up vg. Cut the orchestral music and ramp up the guitars and beats. Go all out in that direction, I suppose. Oh well.

You've reminded me that I should watch LOTR again. I think my brain wiped itself of Return and Towers after Jackson denied me my favorite parts of all the books (both in Return.)