A suggestion for when you go and see "300": wear galoshes, real tall ones. By the time the film is over you'll be knee-deep in testosterone. I have never seen a more intensely hyper-masculine film.
The film is a cousin of 2005's "Sin City" in many ways. Both are based off of graphic novels by the legendary comic book creator Frank Miller. Both stick very close to their source material; the directors composed each film by essentially using the original art as storyboards. The distinct Frank Miller look was recreated in both films by utilizing extensive blue-screen work. And finally, "300" and "Sin City" are two of the goriest, most violent films ever made.
Given the subject matter of "300" - the legendary Battle of Thermopylae - how could it be anything but bloody?
How about a brief history lesson? In 480 B.C.E. the Persian army of Emperor Xerxes - scholars estimate somewhere in the neighborhood of 300,000 troops at this particular battle - invaded Greece. They were met by a tiny force - modern historians believe 7,000 - led by King Leonidas of Sparta. They held the Persians at Thermopylae, a tiny mountain pass that gave the Greeks an advantage: the Persians' numbers were useless since so few could move through the narrow valley.
The backbone of the Greek army was Leonidas' 300 Spartan warriors. This group and 700 soldiers from Thespiae would fight a last stand, refusing to retreat. Through their sacrifice Greece was able to triumph over the Persian empire. This was the Spartan way. Sparta was a grand, militaristic culture, its soldiers were some of the greatest the human race has ever known.
The protagonist is Leonidas (Gerard Butler) and the film starts with his rise from childhood, through the Spartan training of adolescence, to his place as warrior-king. Trouble begins when Leonidas receives a messenger from the Persian empire who comes with a simple request from his master: "earth and water." Leonidas will not be tempted. He rebuffs the offer, forcing war. However, neither the Spartan council nor the Oracle will permit Leonidas to take the Spartan army to war. Thus all he can do is take his 300 on a mission to block the advancing Persians - a quest that he knows will take his life. He will stand up on behalf of free men, in opposition to an emperor who demands that all men fall in worship to him.
And so begins the coolest, most exhilarating movie so far this year.
The film has a unique look and feel to it - which is one of the last things that one might suspect. The epic battle film, and its subgenre "the sword and sandals" picture, have been done so many times before with several recent examples. What gives "300" its freshness? What prevents it from blending in with the newest entries in the genre? Namely "Troy," "Alexander," "Gladiator," "Braveheart," "Kingdom of Heaven," and the "Lord of the Rings" films? What differentiates it from these others?
Let's consider a theory, a very simple one. The cinematic experience is not just one of storytelling. One of the things that movies can accomplish much more effectively than most of the other arts is to simulate experiences. And one way to create that simulation is to only develop characters to a certain degree or to have specific characters designed such that an audience can live vicariously through them. You see this in slasher movies where the characters are usually only very generally defined teenage shells. Or another example would be in "The Last King of Scotland" where the protagonist is a westerner dropped into Uganda, much the same boat of the film's audience members. Hence one can more easily tune in to the experience. "300" does this in how much it develops its warriors. During the brutal battles we do not emphasize with the Spartans, we are the Spartans. And, oh, is it ever a great experience to be a Spartan in the midst of battle.
Compared to those other recent epic films, "300" does a much better job of plugging the viewer into the heart of the action to experience the Battle of Thermopylae. There are a few reasons for this. One of them is that plot, character, and story are not as central to "300" as they are to "Braveheart," "Lord of the Rings," or "Gladiator." "300" is less than two hours, whereas others are in the two and a half to three hour range. And, despite the shorter run time, "300" has both more action and more intense, highly stylized action. The film is primarily a visceral, instinctual experience, as opposed to an intellectual one. It aims at the backbone instead of the heart or the brain.
Interestingly, though, with as hyper-masculine as the film is, it's still one that many women might also enjoy. After the film ended my girlfriend and one of her friends were quite vocal in their approval of the film's cast of half naked, six-pack-having, buff, alpha male Spartan soldiers. Leonidas's wife, Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey,) also plays an important role and has a particularly satisfying moment near the film's end.
The final bit of praise I can heap upon "300" and the reason it receives an +A: I fully intend to see it again, and pay for it again, in theatres. That's the mark of the great, superb film. Not only am I willing to and wanting to watch it again, but I'm wanting to lay down cash to see it again. Very few films fall into that category. Definitely take advantage of the power of the big screen to intensify the "300" experience.
And don't forget the galoshes.