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Once in a very great while a film that comes along that surpasses the regular expectations of what exactly movies are meant for. It’s not just a form of escapism; it’s a means by which one can view the supernatural and realms beyond mortal grasp. The visual embodiment of fever dreams, hallucinations and worlds allegedly beyond imagining. The impossible is very possible in such a film. Things you can only visualise in your head are laid out before your eyes on a 40 foot high screen. 

As it goes, in the last dozen years or so, the push to make the unreal reality has given us a blooming in the field of Computer Generated Imagery. While filmgoers have witnessed some amazing strides and triumphs (the first Matrix, the Lord of the Rings trilogy), the majority of films that have relied on CGI to imbue films with awe and impossibility have failed almost universally in one aspect: The films simply have no heart. The injudicious ladling of blue screen simply leaves one cold and the film sterile and unmoving. Many times you will see a CGI spectacle that will feature heaping helpings of computer-generated special effects as if that were the entire reason you’re shelling out your hard-earned $11. Often the production seems to be self-impressed with tossing in as many visual gadgets and bells and whistles as they can, to the detriment of simple straight storytelling. The biggest example I can think of to point out this unfortunate attitude are the last Star Wars films (and even the “Special Edition” versions of the original trilogy). What started off as an interesting story about a farm boy meant for bigger things in life (and the droids who love him), turned into an orgiastic deluge of blue screen that I could not care less about. It seemed almost as if having fewer toys at the director’s command in the mid 70’s made him work harder to get his story across.  Later on, it turned into special effects just for the sake of having special effects. And accordingly, the storylines and the acting in those films suffered exponentially. Pity, that.  

I tell no lies, dear reader, I was not looking forward to 300. Having seen the ads on television, and uninspiring posters around town, I wasn’t breathlessly awaiting another cold, CGI fest a-la Sin City (I get the clever, but outside of Elijah Wood’s creepiness and Mickey Rourke’s performance of a lifetime, it just didn’t move me). It took an effort to clear my mind of prejudice and be open to whatever the film would reveal itself to be. I have rarely been so happy at having so utterly misjudged. 

300 is a marvel, an amazing moment of cinema. It has raised the bar on what the world will expect from CGI-based films for a very long time.

So I can wax rhapsodic about the film, I will give the Ganesha-Notes synopsis. 300 is based on Frank Miller’s comic of the story of the last stand of the ancient Spartans against the invading Persian army at Thermopylae. 300 of the finest soldiers of the ancient world, led by the mighty (-not a word I throw casually around) King Leonidas, versus the vast resources of self-proclaimed Man-God, King Xerxes. The odds seem impossible, 300 men (with a slightly larger troop assist from the neighbouring Thespian clan), against what looks like all of Persia (and a lot of eastern Asia). The crux of the film is whether Leonidas’ courageous and loyal men actually stand a chance. One of the more compelling notes of the film is that you actually believe they do. The Spartans brave stand inspired all Greeks to band together to fight for their freedom from tyranny.  

Told from the earliest parts of Leonidas’ life, you see the world of the Spartans, and how their entire existence was based on strength. Only strong, strapping Spartan babies were allowed to live and weaker ones literally cast aside, into a pit left to die. Leonidas’ uncanny fighting skill and bravery earns him the devout loyalty of his men, and the unwavering love of his wife, Queen Gorgo.  

Gerard Butler’s Leonidas is a career-making performance; he is utterly believable as the Spartan King. Leonidas is awe-inspiring, imposing and mighty, yet there is no doubt that even in this society where emotion and sentiment are signs of unforgivable weakness, his love and respect for Gorgo is deep and true, and marks every decision that he makes for his troops and his people. The physical transformation the Butler undergoes for this role is breathtaking; he looks completely believable as a king whose entire life is defined by strength and violence. Even the Ancient Grecian facial hair and plaited coiffure don’t look the least bit silly on him. You’ve come a long way since Dracula 2000, baby!

Lena Headey plays Queen Gorgo, and I was very pleased to see her totally embody this character that was every bit as strong and an equal to her husband. The love scenes between the two were amazingly sexy and convincing as a couple who were not in the bloom of first love, but held all the passion of a couple who had matured and loved each other more deeply with the passage of time. Gorgo’s sacrifices as she desperately tries to help her king and her resignation to their fate are deep and heartbreaking.   

I've since seen side by side comparisons to panels of the Frank Miller comic and yes, the director and production team have hit the nail there. However, for myself what 300 reminded me of wasn’t so much the recreation of the comic book, but the bringing to life of those ancient Greek vases seen in nearly every museum. The ones that relate an entire myth or story of a great battle using pictures inscribed around the clay urn. 300 is filmed in colour washes of russet reds and gold, giving further similarity. Then you have the physiques of the Spartans, which would seem possible only on a heroic Greek urn, but there you see them, these actors who honed their bodies to exactly fit the ancient ideal.

By the way, 300 has my vote for Best Costume at the 2008 Oscars - I’m just putting that out there…  

The sharp contrast of the ancient story and the entirely modern camerawork are a perfect mix: King Leonidas’ first rush through an entire troop of Persians is punctuated with sudden stops and starts throughout the long take that make you feel the impact of every blow and also show the deft and superlative fight choreography. The sound during these scenes was like a rushing in the ears and gave them even more power and adrenalin. The music of 300 perfectly matched the film, blending ancient sounds and modern aggressive rock, yet the modern additions didn’t take you out of the world that director Zack Snyder carefully crafted.

Much kudos to Zack Snyder for this triumph; I saw his Dawn of the Dead remake from a couple years ago and could never have foreseen that same person could have made a work of art like 300 ( -with all props to its incredible production crew). While DotD certainly showed some originality and promise, the director of that film is light years away from the director who gave us the giant pierced, bejeweled, seductively androgynous King Xerxes, incredibly played by an unrecognisable Rodrigo Santoro ( -almost made me loath him on Lost a little less – almost…). I guess the masculine femininity of King Xerxes was meant to make up for the omission of a certain prevalent aspect of Spartan life (– Read your history books, kids.). Snyder shows us trees of death on which an entire massacred village lies impaled, walls of conquered bodies, seminude, dancing teenage oracles (-Gotta give it up to the Miller fanbois), charging rhinos and elephants, angry giants, gold-faced Ninjas, Zeus’ destruction of an entire Persian fleet, and a hunchback at a transgender orgy. Really, who could ask for anything more? Yet throughout this very surreal spectacle, the film never loses its humanity. King Leonidas’ struggle to save his kingdom, his men, and to return to his wife and young son, remains very at the forefront of the story. The dialog in the film is well written and oftentimes very funny, many times capturing the gallows humour of men who know this day may be their last. The one incongruous note is the ending where King Leonidas’ trusted soldier, Dilios (- David Wenham in a not-as-convincing Ancient Greek feathered Rod Stewart wig), is sent by his King to tell the tale of what occurred at Thermopylae. This scene goes on for such a long time and the speech that Dilios (who has been our narrator throughout the film) delivers is so long-winded and saccharine, that it groans with unnecessary weight. Still it’s a very minor misstep. Outside of that one discordant note, the movie is just brilliant and deserves all praise.

Very well done.


 ~ Mighty Ganesha

March 19, 2007




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