I suppose there should be a caveat here regarding my history with 300. I read the original comic series when it came out, high off of repeated mini-series from Sin City (and isn't it odd how a comic series is now referred to as a "graphic novel," as if giving it a frillier name than "comic book" somehow makes up for its shoddy parentage?). I remember being somewhat disappointed in it because it *wasn't* Sin City; I felt it lacked the action and powerful story-telling of Sin City and I was too disappointed to try to work through all its nuance. I haven't read it since, though according to my database it's still in storage. I had seen the trailers and the commercials, and I knew that bringing Miller's story-telling to the screen could really work. So I was looking forward to 300, despite my misgivings about the style.
Truth be told, I walked away from the theater feeling a little non-plussed. Through no fault of the filmmakers, most of the way cool action scenes were given away in those same trailers and commercials. The best effects of the rest of the battle scenes is their being shot in ultra-slow motion, with a little bullet-time effect. So we must fall back on the characters and their story which, to no surprise, are a little two-dimensional. The Spartans are braggarts, with little emotion beyond loyalty to King Leonidas and each other. Only Leonidas himself is portrayed outside of battle; we see him with his wife and son, expressing love to them that he cannot openly profess lest his soldierly mien is destroyed. The Spartans march, then they fight, and at the end of the fight, if they are not dead, they laugh about the fighting. Repeat. And we want them to win, especially when they are doubly betrayed. But this is based more on them being the narrator and protagonists than any sort of fellow-feeling we could muster.
So the only emotionally engaging part of the story falls to Queen Gorgo, who watches her husband leave while fearing he may never return. Her love is also tied to her patriotism for Sparta--she believes her husband is right in his battle and so she must convince the elders of Sparta to send her husband more support. She finds herself engaged in a political battle, a role that women did not generally share in Spartan life, and must determine how much she will sacrifice to get her husband home alive. Ultimately, she sacrifices her personal honor to Theron, the traitor within Sparta herself. As they confront each other, she slashes at him with a sword, spilling forth the gold he carries, gold with the likeness of Xerxes, king of the Persians on it.
I look back at what I have written so far and realize that I have synopsized the movie more than reviewed it. But that is the peril of this film--it is highly stylized and engaging, but it is also very shallow. I have read a number of reports since its release regarding how it is being interpreted--neocons see it as an allegory about President Bush (I'm not sure if he is the King who dies to stop a much more numerous foe, or if he is the corrupt king who cannot defeat a much smaller foe) and the Western world versus Iran, but I can only assume that the people making these claims either did not see the movie or are willfully ignoring aspects of it that argue against their stance. The movie just doesn't have that much philosophy behind it to merit such deep readings. If I were a practitioner of bad metaphors, I would say the movie is like Chinese food: tasty as you eat it, but when you leave the restaurant you realize you want more. Fortunately, I don't do bad metaphors.
I'm sure there will be some Oscar nominations for this movie--make-up, cinematography, and original score seem likely. But the major categories hold no hope for the film. And again, it is a fine film for an afternoon escape. Just don't expect more of it than it can deliver.