I believe there is some law that criminally stupid movies are required to contain at least one honest self-critiquing line of dialogue. For example, there’s the not unreasonable assessment, “This sucks on so many levels,” in Jason X (2001), and those grim words of warning from Vin Diesel, “This isn’t over,” in A Man Apart (2002). To this we may now add, “This will not soon be over and you’re not going to enjoy it,” from 300. Amen to that.
I know full well that this view is apt to incur the wrath of the fanboys, who have done themselves proud on the Rotten Tomatoes Website by jumping on any critic who dares not drop to his or her knees over Snyder’s synthetic spectacle. Folks thereon—hiding behind screen names like “Knuckledragger48” and “ILiveinMom’sBasement69”—have been roused into a frenzy of name-calling the likes of which I haven’t seen since junior high school. I suppose my gender will prevent my receiving the full brunt of invective directed at the Associated Press’ Christy Lemire, who has been called a “bitch,” a “whore” and a variety of other names I can’t even suggest here. I’ll probably have to settle for other intellectual favorites like “tool,” “douchebag” and “faggot.” Well, you can’t have everything.
One of the more intriguing aspects of the arguments in favor of the film is that it “really happened.” Well, yes, more or less, that’s true enough, but I’m just a soupçon skeptical of the veracity of the seven-and-a-half-foot-tall fanged giant, mystical Asian warriors with masks hiding their wizened faces and pointy teeth, the lobster-clawed executioner or the goat-headed musician in Xerxes’ (Rodrigo Santoro, Love Actually) army. I don’t necessarily object to the inclusion of these Frank Miller fever-dream monstrosities, but don’t try to tell me they have any relation to the historical battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C. In all honesty, I do object to their inclusion in the context of the film, because they exist—along with the deformed lesbians, transsexuals and nasty nancy-boy Persians—primarily to demonize the bad guys. Every time the movie trotted out another “horror,” all I could think of was the priest in Woody Allen’s Love and Death (1975) illustrating what Jews are with a series of pictures and being asked, “Amazing! Do they all have these horns?” Only to answer, “That’s the Russian Jew. The German Jew has these stripes.”
300 plays to racism and xenophobia in a manner that would warm the cockles of a Third Reich propagandist. This, however, is probably about what can be expected from a film that views a society that tosses underweight or deformed infants into a pit to die as one of the more shining examples of civilization. Even more repellent is how the film later “proves” the wisdom of this approach by having its butch hero King Leonidas (Gerard Butler, The Phantom of the Opera) and his boys betrayed by the deformed Spartan Ephialtes (Brit TV actor Andew Tiernan)—or it would be if you could keep from laughing at Ephialtes’ cheesy Quasimodo makeup).
Snyder continues to claim that his movie is nothing more than a thrill ride and that it has no political motivation (while his co-executive-producer wife, Deborah Snyder, dodges questions about their politics by claiming that such information is irrelevant). But let’s face it, the movie’s a right-wing recruiting screed. What else can one make of a movie that depicts a bunch of macho white guys going above the law to make the world safe from all those depraved brown-skinned Persians and their army of blacks and Asians? It’s just coincidental that any voice not crying out for war comes from doddering old fools or duplicitous politicians? It’s simple happenstance that Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey, The Cave) offers such bumper-stickerese as “Freedom isn’t free?” (Whether it costs a drachma and five cents a la Team America is not addressed.) It’s merely a happy accident that civilizations not entirely grounded in waging war (bear in mind that fighting is all the Spartans exist for) are sneered at as inferior, especially those “Athenian philosophers and boy-lovers.”
The film seethes with homophobia—presumably as a sop to nervous fanboys who need to justify their interest in watching two hours of beefed-up gym rats in leather briefs and little else. Not only does our manly hero espouse his manliness whenever possible (I suppose when you spend all your time in skimpy outfits with other similarly clad, oiled-up and shaved guys, this is essential), but there’s the evil metrosexualized Xerxes forever insisting that Leonidas should kneel before him (no comment). Then again, this is a movie that asks you to root for a guy who, by objective standards, is pretty much a psycho. This is a king whose idea of diplomacy is to kick a mere messenger from the opposing forces down a well for no very good reason, except that he’s just so “badass.”
Even if you can get past any moral reservations you might have about all this, it’s really not that much of a movie. Sure, it looks different from other movies, but so what? After the first half hour, the novelty of its burnished (and clearly CGI) look wears thin. How many times can spurts of cartoonish CGI blood slo-mo-ing through the air like jewels really be impressive? Big effects like the rampaging rhino and the elephant attack are so brief and undramatic that they might as well not be in the film. The dialogue is atrocious and the acting no better. Gerard Butler is a good actor, but here he’s only called open to point his Brillo pad beard at people and scream his silly lines. It doesn’t help that his attempts to bury his Scottish accent make him sound altogether like Sylvester the Cat doing a Marlon Brando impression.
But worst of all, it’s a phony spectacle. It’s less like watching a movie than it’s like watching a parade of production-design sketches flow across the screen. You want spectacle? Go watch an old Cecil B. DeMille picture. You want intelligent spectacle? Check out David Lean. You want this? You can have it. Rated R for graphic battle sequences throughout, some sexuality and nudity.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke