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What makes Zack Snyder’s sweaty-thighed blockbuster “300” remarkable isn’t its technological achievements — though they are impressive — or that it had the biggest March opening weekend in film history. No, what makes it such a remarkable phenomenon, if not a terribly remarkable story, is that a film that was never intended to carry political or philosophical weight still has managed to spark boatloads of political and moral outrage — on both sides of the ideological gap.
“300” is a retelling of the battle of Thermopylae, in which King Leonidas of Sparta led a unit of 300 soldiers into battle against hundreds of thousands of Persians bent on overtaking all of Greece. Well, not exactly. It’s actually an adaptation of Frank Miller’s graphic novel of the same name, which is in turn an adaptation of the 1962 film “The 300 Spartans.” In other words, it’s a movie based on a comic book based on a movie; so, if you’re expecting a historical epic, you’re going to be sorely disappointed.
What you will get instead is another example of what’s becoming the new era of mythology, a growing force in film exemplified by movies such as the “Matrix” trilogy and “Pan’s Labyrinth.” Where “300” parts ways with these other films, though, is that it has no interest in plumbing philosophical depths. It doesn’t seek the soul of man. It is not a morality play. It is instead a love song to courage and sacrifice and, yes, violence itself.
It is also almost pure us-vs.-them fantasy. Though the Spartans are mere mortals, the Persians they fight are not so much humans as orcs, goblins and disfigured homosexuals. The god-king Xerxes is every homophobe’s nightmare: a lithe, pierced, nine-foot-tall shaved brown man with mascara. His army keeps a similarly large beast-man with filed teeth and raging bloodlust. Then there’s the horribly mutilated fat guy with knife arms that defies explanation — oh, and the nude lesbians that would be really hot, if it weren’t for their scarred faces (yes, Virginia, it’s rated R).
Then there are the Spartans themselves, famed throughout history for their harshness and cruelty. They killed any infant deemed not large or healthy enough, and raised those children they didn’t murder on a steady diet of pain, violence and depredation to hone them into killing men. The film doesn’t shy away from this. On the contrary, it at times seems to glory in it as the path to military greatness and heroism.
It’s these depictions that are causing all the uproar, some of which is well founded (like the movie’s use of homosexuality to upset), and some of which is absurd (like those reviewers trying to find subtext for the United States’ current policy in the Middle East). In the broadest strokes, it’s the characterization of the Spartans’ enemies not as mere enemies but as monsters that really seems to be the one-size-fits-all problem with the film, the cause of all manner of accusations: racism, sexism and jingoism, to name a few (Frank Miller, who created “Sin City,” is no stranger to these accusations, it must be noted).
But it’s hard to get that upset about the ugly spots on the source material when there’s so little substance to it. This is the kind of violent hero worship that’s been going on in movies for quite a while now, and the only thing that distinguishes “300” from its predecessors is its stylistic and technical achievement. The film is gorgeous, the violence a ballet of blood and sweat. Most of the scenes are almost-too-perfect digital artwork, many of the shots living tableaux that look more like stylized paintings and sculpture from antiquity than comic book panels. The movie is, briefly put, battle porn, but it’s also stunning and exciting battle porn, nearly flawless execution of deeply flawed material.
So if you’re looking for something laudable and inspiring to watch this weekend, then “300” is most certainly not for you. But if instead you’re up for some barbaric yawping and maybe some eye candy to go with your popcorn, then run, don’t walk.