The UnPopular Opinion: 300
THE UNPOPULAR OPINION is an ongoing column featuring different takes on films that either the writer HATED, but that the majority of film fans LOVED, or that the writer LOVED, but that most others LOATHED. We're hoping this column will promote constructive and geek fueled discussion. Enjoy!
**** SOME SPOILERS ENSUE****
The first time I watched 300, I left the cinema wanting to impale something. I was charged, I was energized, I was swept up in a wash of testosterone and lust and machismo the likes of which I’d never before encountered. It really was a completely visceral and dynamically new experience for me, as different as could be imagined from the classic films I’d grown up watching. It subsequently became the first movie I paid full price to purchase, and I grinned as the cashier took my money.
And then it sat on my shelf, gathering dust for years and years. I never felt much need to revisit that story or experience. I just listened to other people rave about it, generally agreeing, while all the while it sat on my shelf unused. But the more I began to think back on what I’d seen on that day in the cinema, the more I began to suspect that there was a genuine reason I never revisited the movie. And upon another viewing, my suspicions were confirmed. Not only is it a prime example of impressively poor storytelling, but the content of 300 is ugly, broken, and soulless.
"Unless I miss my guess, we're in for one wild night."
Technically - and I think this is a generally undisputed opinion – Zach Snyder does some really great work on a consistent basis. His eye is very aware of shot composition, and his work bears a relatively clear understanding of the visual language as a whole. In terms of things like framing, the question of what colors compliment each other, camera movement, etc… Snyder can generally be counted on to do some solid and striking work. It’s just in every other respect he falls far short, as clearly evidenced by SUCKER PUNCH and 300, as well as WATCHMEN to a slightly lesser degree.
It’s okay to have simple characters with a simple objective pursuing it through aggressively simple means. DRIVE took such a route and it not only worked, but worked beautifully. But then there are movies like 300 where one dimensional cut-outs masquerading as human beings waltz across the screen in time to a symphony of sword clangs and blood spurts and flesh rips and pounding quasi-intense rock-ish music that does nothing but wash away in a muddy mess. 300 is almost the Grecian War version of SUPERBAD, a story only characterized by the extremity of its fantasy and an increasingly grotesque parade of monstrosities.
"Give them nothing! But take from them everything!"
There are of course moments which are entertaining even now to me, sequences full of a kind of visual poetry that I cannot help but be swept up by. And there are some good performances here, actors obviously working as hard as they can with the story and Frank Miller’s extremely stylized dialogue to create something engaging and human and relatable. Gerard Butler especially has some brilliant moments, layering heroism and compassion and fury throughout the movie (not to mention how truly haunting his last look is). Lena Headey turns in some great work as a Queen struggling desperately against a system that prevents her from doing what must be done, and Dominic West is so slimy as to be genuinely uncomfortable to watch.
Yet none of that can make up for something which I find easy to notice and hard to adequately explain, as I am hardly versed in all of the necessary terms and tropes. But I'll try – none of the above make up for the disturbing Orientalism and nigh-on racism present in both the textual and visual storytelling of this movie. When I mentioned earlier “an increasingly grotesque parade of monstrosities,” I didn’t just mean how some of the creatures as depicted in the movie look on the outside. I also meant how even merely the men of Xerxes’ army were depicted on the inside, and what the color choices and camera work revealed about the filmmaker’s opinion of them. Which is to say the aren’t thought of very highly.
"Imagine what horrible fate awaits my enemies when I would gladly kill any of my own men for victory."
"And I would die for any one of mine."
Yes, technically Xerxes and his army are the villains of this movie. But the more I think about their depiction the more I am reminded of the caricatures of Jews that the Nazis used in their propaganda, the squat big-nosed greedy manipulator that sometimes even came with vampiric teeth. The Persians are depicted, through the monsters they use and even their own attempts to merely swarm and kill the defending Spartans, as the “bloodthirsty savage” of America’s frontier days of yore. 300 sees a pack of pale-skinned defenders of democracy fight with all their might to defend against a flood of savagery out of the East, and it makes me genuinely angry just to type about it.
This is a completely, utterly, and insultingly one-sided experience, so starkly black and white that I can not imagine how anybody can walk away from 300 have a single positive idea of the Persian Empire or the people therein. And there were many truly progressive and great things which the Persian Empire did over the course of history, including being one of the first known civilizations to practice any sort of religious freedom and tolerance. It could be argued that positive things about the actual Persian Empire could exist without the movie showing them, but absence is just as powerful as presence. And what 300 chooses to show is an empire of slavers, mindless drones, and monsters. And this isn’t even going into all the strange little tweaks of history in 300, such as how the Spartans snidely call the Athenians “boy lovers” as a part of insulting their valor and combat capability when in fact the Spartans themselves practiced Pederasty just as much as any other Grecian State. I know that 300 isn't meant to be a true historical depiction by any means, in part because there is no such thing as "a true historical depiction." But I nonetheless find it hard to help - the deep demonization of anyone or anything "out of the East" in 300 still troubles me immensely.
"Immortals... we put their name to the test."
And yet, even if 300 weren't all of these things it would still suffer terribly from storytelling mechanics both misused and overused - the speed-ramping/slow motion most of all. In the beginning I didn't have much of a problem with it, not nearly as much as most people, but over time I've come to be of the opinion that it actually robs the movie of any lasting dramatic effect this story might have. By trying to make every moment as cool as can be, Snyder somehow actually manages to strip away any meaning or emotional resonance from those same moments. When everything becomes special, suddenly nothing is special. And it makes me angry in a different way than all the other aspects of 300 which make me angry, because any emotional core brought to life by the acting and inherently tragic moments found in the script is then smothered in a series of camera effects and directorial decisions which make it so that meaning and impact is violently ripped away.
I wanted to love 300, and at one point I did. And I will be ever thankful that it gave work to Michael Fassbender, David Wenham, Gerard Butler, and every other actor involved. But at the end of the day I cannot stand how it insults my heart and my intelligence, how it tramples upon truth in favor of shamelessly manipulating me towards an opinion of nigh-on Neo-Nazi propaganda (consider the celebration of Spartan Eugenics present from the very first line), or how its storytelling repertoire is as one-note as they come. I cannot enjoy that, I cannot recommend that, and I cannot ever consciously subject myself to it again.
"It's an honor to die at your side."
"It's an honor to have lived at yours."
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