300 is defined by what it’s not. It’s a retelling of the 480 B.C. Battle of Thermopylae, in which King Leonidas’s (Gerard Butler) 300 mighty Spartans fought off Xerxes’s (Rodrigo Santoro) gargantuan Persian army for three days before succumbing to defeat, that isn’t historically accurate. It’s a war flick that isn’t the least bit realistic. It’s a series of images that, despite being projected 24 frames per second on a theater screen, is such a distinctly digital creation that it isn’t really a film in any traditional sense of the term. And regardless of those cultural pundits who’ll likely try to analyze it through skewed conservative/liberal filters, it’s not a political allegory of any worth, the story’s oft-mentioned keywords (freedom, liberty, and slavery) left so ill-defined that they—and any ensuing interpretations involving them—cease to have substantive meaning. King Leonidas isn’t George W. Bush. Or Osama bin Laden. He’s just He-Man, leading his all-combat, no-emotion masters of the universe on a suicide mission to preserve every man’s right to a society where feeble children are discarded into skull-lined ravines, and the healthy ones are ripped from the bosoms of their mothers so they might have the honor of training to become brutal, emotionless killing machines.
There’s one more thing that 300 isn’t, and it’s the kick-ass piece of new-cinema pop art that its Frank Miller/Sin City pedigree and stunning trailer promised. Zack Snyder’s big-screen iteration of Miller’s acclaimed graphic novel is the latest hyper-stylized progeny of the blue screen, its blood, gore, and environments having been wholly created on computers, and with all due respect to Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, it may be the most wearisome one to date. Faithfully replicating its source material’s story and many of its actual artwork panels, the film also reproduces its infatuation with manliness—specifically, a type of machismo-ad-absurdum where chiseled studs stand around in flowing capes, posing like hybrids of Michelangelo’s David and WWE wrestlers, their bulging biceps and ripped abs shining in the sunlight while they talk and laugh about murder and death. Mushy displays of emotion are for the weak (or those boy-lovers, the Athenians!); punching each other senseless as a means of strengthening resolve and bringing purpose to life is for the strong. It’s like Fight Club without the tongue-in-cheek satire, a celebration of fascistic war and violence as noble and heroic that cribs, without a shameful bat of the eyelash, from Gladiator, Braveheart, and—in its horrific monsters, hunchbacks, and “immortal” bad guys—every video game that ever concluded a level with a giant boss battle.
Faced with the choice between bowing to the will of Xerxes—a baritone God-King who watches his military force’s conquering cross-continent trek from a throne carried by slaves and adorned with matching horse-head sculptures—or opposing certain subjugation, Leonidas shrugs off his political foes (namely, Dominic West’s Theron) and some fugly, perverted mutant mystics to mount a Greek resistance. This means luring Xerxes’s forces into the Hot Gates, a narrow pass that will negate the enemies’ numbers advantage, though it primarily involves more super-slow-motion than is reasonable. Snyder reduces and fiddles with camera speeds at such laughably alarming rates that the film comes to a virtual standstill, a compendium of bronzed and blackened tableaus of underwear model-ish men set against golden sunsets or splattered in crimson streaks. If 300 is a triumph, it’s only one of superficial aesthetics—a shot of Leonidas literally shielding himself from driving rain while watching Persian ships destroyed by titanic waves is, as with many other compositions, nothing shy of breathtaking. Yet Snyder attaches no larger significance to his arresting visuals. He’s only intent on eliciting “Whoa, dude!” reactions, of which there are fewer and fewer once it becomes clear that there’s nothing sustaining the centerpiece razzle-dazzle sequences except awful dialogue and no-dimensional characters.
Performances are given by pectoral muscles, Matrix-y fight scenes deliver sparse thrills, and femininity is shoehorned into this (often homoerotic) testosterone-a-thon via a half-nude oracle writhing about in willowy garments, fleeting softcore love scenes, and a time-filler subplot (not found in Miller’s original) in which Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) clashes with corrupt politicos at home. All the while, not a second of it makes the least bit of lasting impact. For all its technical dexterity, blurring effects pop up whenever the director’s camera pans too quickly, an inconsistency that’s in tune with Snyder’s flip-flopping between Tyler Bates’s bombastic score and chugging heavy metal tunes, as well as narrative and thematic contradictions such as the reason-guided Leonidas slandering religion as backward and worthless, and then striking his best Jesus Christ pose for his deathbed portrait. Snyder attempts to offset these failings with endless snapshots of meticulously drawn CG splendor. Yet whereas in Sin City, such extreme cinematic artificiality instinctively mated with—and amplified—noir’s exaggerated passions, here it has the polar opposite effect, transforming familiar war movie moments into leaden, empty, fetishistic panoramas of action-figure gallantry and sacrifice. A cold synthetic invention, 300 catches the eye but leaves the heart indifferent—devoid of meaning, to be sure, but, more detrimentally, devoid of feeling.