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Green-screen blues

300 CGIs everything but the story

Fans of cinematic versions of graphic novels are a rabid bunch, evidenced by the mind-popping numbers (weekend box-office haul: $70 million) generated by the opening of 300, the latest Frank Miller work to make it to the big screen. That those fans are a partisan bunch is evidenced by the astounding mark of 8.4 (out of 10) given the movie by the many thousands who registered an opinion with the Internet Movie Database. By way of context, that 8.4 score, if it holds, would put 300 into the site’s top 50 all-time movies, equal with such flicks as Apocalypse Now and To Kill a Mockingbird, and higher than such modest works as Touch of Evil and The Graduate.

For the uninitiated, the graphic novel, in its modern form, has been around for the past 30 years or so. It is, in essence, a comic book for grown-ups. The “graphic” in graphic novel conveys the illustrated nature of the form but fans of the genre know the word works also as an adjective; graphic novels commonly tackle adult themes using adult imagery awash in violence, sex and profanity. And as the word “novel” implies, and unlike its serialized predecessors, a single work encompasses an entire narrative. Miller is perhaps the most famous of graphic novelists; the first of his works to hit the big screen, Sin City (which Miller co-directed with Robert Rodriguez), pulled in roughly $75 million in box-office receipts alone, enough for somebody in Hollywood to hand him the writing, directing and producing keys to both Sin City 2 and 3.

Miller’s inspiration for 300 was an epic battle in 480 B.C. at the coastal pass of Thermopylae in central Greece. There, a group of 300 soldiers from the city of Sparta anchored a small fighting force that held off the mighty Persian army (numbering, according to Herodotus, the first historian to chronicle the battle, somewhere north of 2.5 million men) for three days—succumbing only then because a reward-seeking Greek (whose name, much like our own Benedict Arnold’s, became synonymous with “traitor” in his native tongue) showed the Persian king Xerxes a secret pass through the mountains behind Thermopylae. Having lost the geographical advantage of keeping the enemy in front of them, the Greek forces died in a withering hail of arrows from all sides.

Though Miller is credited only as an executive producer and as the source author for the movie’s three screenwriters, director Zack Synder (2004’s Dawn of the Dead remake) clearly made the movie in its creator’s image. Only one scene was filmed outside; with the exception of a couple of interior sets everything else was shot against blue- and green-screen. In other words, the actors basically performed in open space, against a background designed to enhance the appearance of video effects.

The result of all this CGI tomfoolery—Synder concocted a process in postproduction that “crushed” all the blacks and enhanced the saturation of other colors—is a singularly captivating look to the movie. The look is fully three-dimensional (in fact, it often seems almost poly-dimensional) yet somehow, at times, so plainly two-dimensional that the scene seems lifted directly from a Miller illustration.

A defining aesthetic in 300 is the portrayal of the Spartan soldiers. Synder, as Miller did, decided to send them into battle minus about half their historical gear and armor—so aside from their helmets, capes, shinplates and shields, these guys are a banana-hammock away from letting it all hang out. Throw in an intensive workout regimen for the actors (and, I suspect, a bit of digital help in defining ab lines), and you’ve got yourself a homoerotic party where everyone brings their own six-pack.

Truth be told, though, the eye-candy effect only goes so far; after the 500th time a spear goes through a body and the two-dimensional blood splatter fountains outward without landing on anybody, you become a bit jaded about the whole thing. The time consumed by a couple hundred of those spear thrusts, for example, could have been used to fill in some of the considerable holes in the storyline.

And the story is where 300 ultimately breaks down. There are a number of narrative chasms in the movie, but none greater than the principal motivation of the Spartan King, Leonidas, in holding fast to his position even after receiving advance word of the Persians’ back-door advance. His reasoning to hold his troops, even after sending most of his support force away, has been the subject of much historical conjecture, and several of those theories wrap Leonidas in intrigue and tragedy. The thread chosen by Miller and the filmmakers makes the king’s decision seem confusing at best and absurd at worst.

As a video game in waiting, 300 is every bit the innovative, unqualified success its fans claim it to be. As a movie, though, it’s just another in a long line of technical spectacles with a hollow core—another digital heart transplant gone wrong.


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