Digitally-manipulated postmodern super-hero mythology — yeah, baby! I am disgusted with myself, but I must confess up front. I wallowed, blissfully, in this two-hour exercise in visual S&M. I’m referring of course to 300, a graphic novel (i.e. adult comic book) by Frank Miller, brought to the screen (whether it needed to be or not) by Zack Snyder and company. A truly phenomenal bit of blood porno, 300 retells the legend/hype of 300 warrier-maniac Spartans making a stand against tens of thousands of Persians at Thermopylae. The real skirmish happened around 480 BC when Persian king Xerxes sent his bigger-than-God army to conquer Greece. But he didn’t count on the foolish bloodlust of the Spartans, who make their stand at the mouth of a narrow canyon, where they can maximize their numbers.
Yes, it’s a suicide mission — but god-almighty it offers a wild ride for the neural synapses. Making full, even ridiculous, use of leading-edge digital technology, the production breaks into visual territory that actually has no precedent. Sure there are the slow-motion, stop-action effects we’ve seen in Crouching Tiger, or The Matrix. And there are dazzling color effects — draining out everything except bronze and sepia-tones, and then pumping up the reds for all they’re worth — we’ve seen in recent work, such as Pan’s Labyrinth. But the overall package — artfully packed with more 12-pack abs, thighs of steel and just plain ripped-and-cut male bodies than I would have thought even existed on one small planet — is thrilling. Yes, I’m aghast that I am confessing this. Blood porn, to be sure. But in a socio-political era (ours) that is fast outpacing even Nero’s Rome for decay and decadence, 300 provides a splash of much-needed catharsis. And I must quickly point out that masculine beauty aside, there are scenes of breathtaking poetry in which the potential of digital sculpting is pushed way out to the front of the wave.
The film, by and large, amounts to a bunch of choice hunks — clad only in hammered shields, bronze helmets and leg armor, leather cod-pieces, and red capes (be still my heart) — staving off the evil invaders in three unbelievable battle scenes. The visual energy gathers and thrusts you right into the middle of the slash-and-burn scenario. Sound effects are every bit the equal to the astonishing, thundering, wrap-around imagery. This film re-coins the cliché, “awesome.” Never has blood splattered with such effect! Even the decapitations are exhilirating. Seriously. This film puts the gore back into gorgeous.
More than once, however, I wished that I could turn the sound off, as I winced through the speeches garbled by Scotsman Gerard Butler, as King of the Studs Leonidas. Photoshopped into a frieze of blazing eyes, cheeks stained the color of night and legs like cast bronze, Butler looks like a million dollars. Two million. But he couldn’t deliver a convincing line if you put a gun to his head. Ditto every other actor, especially the ludicrously-cast Lena Headey, as his Queen. Headey belongs in Reno, not Sparta. You get my drift.
At times 300 had the fluid, hallucinogenic feel of a really well-crafted Toyota commercial. Then, given the close attention to lats, deltoids, abs and glutes, it was clearly a Calvin Klein ad for body building. Or, in its eerie, visceral beauty – perhaps an Odd Nerdrum painting. Only Xerxes, played by an African drag queen was mis-art directed. Taken as a whole, this Festival of Grade A Beef bonanza tripled the screen’s testosterone factor.