300 (2007) April 19, 2008Posted by gproject in : Recently Viewed , trackback
Directed by: Zack Snyder
The influence that green-screen visual techniques (or ‘chroma keying’, as the process is known) have had on modern film is not to be underestimated. The method known best for producing the animated weather map on the TV news has been called into action on all sorts of films - and not just the typical special-effects extravaganzas you would imagine. From romantic comedies to period dramas, the green screen has been filling gap between what the set designer builds and what you see on screen. But it wasn’t until George Lucas - a pioneer in the blending of chroma key techniques with modern CGI visual effects - took the revival of his Star Wars series into the digital realm with Episode I, that all the possibilities started to emerge. Zack Snyder saw the potential, and a way to bring highly stylised worlds to the screen in a brand new way. 300 is that potential realised.
Set in 480 BC, the film tells the story of the brave Spartan warriors who fought against the odds to keep King Xerxes from invading Thermopylae. Starting with the boy who would be king, we see how Spartans are trained through the eyes of Leonidas, later the royal leader who leads his 300-strong army into battle despite the wishes of their supposedly wise elders. But Leonidas, despite his confidence, makes one fatal flaw. After denying a deformed creature the opportunity to join his army, he is betrayed by the same creature, allowing Xerxes to gain a strategic upper hand against the heroes. With only their instilled sense of honour, the Spartans make a last glorious stand against the Persian army.
In jumping from Star Wars to 300 during the introduction of this review we have, of course, passed over a very important link in the chain that connects these films together. The Robert Rodriguez-directed Sin City took a popular graphic novel by comic writer and artist Frank Miller, tore out the pages, and projected them abstractly onto the screens of cinemas worldwide. It was the most ambitious visualisation of the comic strip style even seen and it used the chroma key technique to make it all possible. The immediate popularity of Sin City opened the door for Snyder to bring this project into production - it as, after all, very similar in concept.
Based on another graphic novel by Frank Miller, 300 has a slightly less idiosyncratic visual style when compared to the monochrome shadow-infused world of Sin City. But Zach Snyder still manages to direct an optical feast, full of comic book inspired angles, mood-stricken lighting and a flagrant attitude towards violence. It certainly earns its ‘R’ rating (UK ‘15′ certificate) with the blood splattering left and right during the action sequences, and even forming the logo for the movie’s title itself. As well as calling the shots behind the camera, Snyder also took a hand in penning the screenplay alongside Kurt Johnstad and Michael Gordon. What is there in terms of dialogue consists mostly of shouting and rousing speeches, although they get a little bit of mileage out the story, which is the surprisingly simple single-threaded tale of the Spartans taking a stand against King Xerxes. It helps that the flaws in this area are covered by frequent bouts of action, which form the film’s strongest asset.
Taking the lead role of King Leonidas is no easy task, but it is handled admirably by Gerard Butler, who gives the character a bit of personality in his quieter moments. It would be easy to reduce him to a simple brute, so it’s nice that we get a little more from Butler’s performance. He is supported by Lena Headey as Queen Gorgo, the wife of Leonidas, and while her sub-plot is an addition to the original story (it never appeared in the graphic novel), there is some argument to say that the structure of the film would seem very one-note without it. Incidentally, Headly does a fine job as the resourceful queen, as do the central Spartan characters played by the likes of Dominic West, David Wenham and Vincent Regan. It’s undoubtedly King Leonidas who takes the most glory (and screen time), but there’s no faulting a cast who had to go through a rigorous training regime and spend two months standing around in little but their underwear.
While it doesn’t quite have the all-round ‘wow factor’ of Sin City, this technological treat drains the most out of its battle sequences and even manages to feature the greatly overused slow motion fighting shots without coming off as a cliché. I don’t think there’s much else beyond the bloodshed though, and with the graphical novel’s conscious weak grasp on historical accuracy leaking through to the movie version, it becomes hard to get fully involved in the actual tale. At the most basic level, this is an entertaining picture with all the trappings of a historical epic, even if it doesn’t quite have the narrative weight to pull that off. Most notably, the film has been a gateway for Zach Snyder, who is using the experience gained here to tackle an even bigger, but not dissimilar project. 2009 will see the release of Snyder’s version of the well-respected Allen Moore graphic novel, Watchmen - complete, no doubt, with the odd bit of chroma keying. 300’s huge box office returns have earned him the attention of the mass audience - now let’s see if he can hold on to it.