How many Spartans does it take to screw in a lightbulb?

Plenty of stabbin' goin' onI’ve got to admit I was biased against 300 from the start, because I don’t like Frank Miller. I don’t like his art, and his writing only works for me when he sticks to one or two of his strong areas.

And I can never tell where he’s coming from — he always strikes me as being completely humorless and devoid of self-awareness. Everything of his I’ve ever read has been locked in adolescent male comic book-reader fantasy mode, without ever maturing past the “fuck yeah!” moments. I’ve got no problem with bone-crushing awesomeness for its own sake, but when you’re in your late 40s and still making stuff that doesn’t seem to serve any higher purpose than making 14-year-old boys say “RADICAL!” then it just smells like arrested development.

But for all I know, he totally gets it, and there’s a level of depth there that’s just way, way too subtle for me to pick up on. I loved the SinCity movie, even though I hated the comic books, because of the visuals and because it seemed to hit exactly the right tone: it was purposefully, gleefully brutal and over-the-top pulp.

300, though, is your standard, straightforward ancient war movie. Lots of guys slapping each other on the back, talking about honor, making speeches about freedom, then commence with the stabbin’. There’s not a lot of new material covered in the speeches, so the movie makes sure to repeat each one at least twice. King Leonidas shouts out “For Sparta!” and variants so often, at times I thought I was watching a high school football movie.

The Spartans themselves are portrayed as a kind of cross between neo-conservatives, smug libertarians, and Klingons. Even though they’re ancient Greeks, they make a point of mentioning that it’s those pansy-ass Athenians who are into the buggery. The Spartans are all about reason, not anything fruity like Gods or philosophy, and everybody in the government is corrupt, easily bought, and slow to act. And of course, the only honorable death is a warrior’s death. Unless I mis-heard it, at one point a character actually says, “Freedom isn’t free.” The whole message of the movie is basically the lyrics to a Hank Williams Jr. song; I kept hoping that Leonidas would confront Xerxes and shout, “This is no rag; it is a flag!

Now, that’s not to say the movie’s completely without irony. Most obvious is that it’s easily the gayest war movie I’ve ever seen. Leonidas makes a dismissive comment about the “boy-lovers” in Athens, then spends the rest of the movie with the rest of his buff pals wearing nothing but capes and leather briefs, their hairless chests on display like well-buttered dinner rolls. Nothing exactly wrong with that; I’m just sayin’.

And for a movie so gung-ho hell-yeah this is a MAN’s war, dammit!, it’s overwhelmingly pretty. Astoundingly so, in places. Every shot is perfectly composed; I can’t remember the last time I saw a movie where I so frequently and consistently said “wow” when seeing a new visual. Not even Sky Captain had as many “wow” moments. Now granted, a lot of it had the feel of a Skittles commercial. And the bit with the Oracle, while interesting, reminded me a little too much of a Calvin Klein ad. But more often, I was reminded of Jacques-Louis David, in particular the shots that seemed straight out of Oath of the Horatii. For imagery alone, it’s genuinely stunning.

As for the action scenes, I was underwhelmed. The first couple of battles are great, but it all quickly gets monotonous. The problem is that nobody does anything particularly clever, so it’s just wave after wave of disposable Persians getting stabbed by a bunch of indistinguishable Spartan guys. They do all they can with film speed changes and Matrix-style spin-cam tricks to make it seem like something different is going on, but the fact remains that you’re watching two hours of a bunch of dudes defending a canyon.

And Leonidas’ little maneuver at the end was just plain dumb. I guess it was supposed to be deeply poetic or something, but just didn’t make sense, didn’t work in terms of story, and showed nothing other than that Leonidas can’t aim for shit.

Now, I’m always bitching about how moviemakers have gotten too preoccupied with being hip and post-modern that they crank out shallow, irony-laden nonsense. So what’s wrong with an earnest, straightforward action war movie with some great visuals? Does the touchy-feely San Francisco anti-war liberal only complain when the movie doesn’t agree 100% with his politics?

Well, there’s some of that, I’m sure, but I think I would’ve enjoyed the movie more if it just hadn’t been so shallow and juvenile. How cool would it have been if it actually had something to say to measure up with how great it looks?

2 thoughts on “How many Spartans does it take to screw in a lightbulb?”

  1. I’ll give it a C.

    I read the book two years ago. It only took 15 to 20 minutes to read. That experience felt about right. Over the last few months, I was wondering how they were going to get a full length feature out of a book that short. It appears that the answer is lots of slow motion.

    Some of the parts are beautiful, but it’s not sticking in my mind at all.

    Also, I think it has a few too many teeth on display.

  2. Many beards and teeth, yes.

    To me it seemed like a 2 hour love letter to stubbornness.

    Also it was the Spartans that were into ritualistic man-on-boy love not the Athenians, but that would have watered down there ability get dudes in the audience to yell ‘Fuck Yeah’. I’d give it a C as well, but I have to say, it gave us a great catch phrase: “MAKE YOUR BREAKFASTS HEARTY!”

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