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Startling imagery of ‘300’ is something to see

Film doesn’t have fully rounded characters, but it is a visual spectacle. By John Hartl

When Rudolph Mate’s epic about the Battle of Thermopylae, “The 300 Spartans,” was released in 1962, it arrived at the tail end of Hollywood’s longest sword-and-sandals cycle. Critics and audiences promptly ignored it.

Zack Snyder’s opulent eye-candy remake, “300,” on the other hand, is one of 2007’s most anticipated movies. Already it’s generating buzz about how much of Snyder’s portrayal of the 480 B.C. conflict has contemporary relevance.

Is the Greek hero, King Leonidas of Sparta, intended to carry echoes of President Bush, or does that distinction belong to his enemy, the Persian emperor Xerxes? Could it be that the Greeks, who pride themselves on their fighting skills and their knowledge of their terrain, correspond to Afghanistan’s fighters? Do the Persians suggest an invading force lost in a quagmire partly of their own making?

With the actors spouting lines like “Freedom isn’t free at all” and “Never retreat, never surrender,” it’s tempting to pursue 21st century parallels, but in the end they don’t take you very far. The more the characters sound like modern warriors, the less their particular situation seems to apply.

“300” is based on Frank Miller and Lynn Varley’s 1998 graphic novel, and Snyder claims that his personal political position is irrelevant. He has a point: the movie is less about wartime politics than it is about the kind of computer-enhanced imagery that distinguished Miller’s 2005 movie “Sin City.”

It’s a battlefield epic reimagined in film-noir terms. Dominated by haunted landscapes, slow-motion scenes of slaughter and decapitation, and hallucinatory closeups of actors who don’t always register as characters, it quickly establishes a barbarous world with no rules. Implicit is a frankly skeptical response to the very idea of civilization.

The opening sequence, in which a Spartan child is brutally raised to become part of a “warrior society,” sets the tone immediately. Might makes right in this world, even when 300 Spartans are outnumbered by a massive Persian army that means to enslave them. It’s the quality of Sparta’s soldiers that is supposed to make the difference in a showdown with the enemy.

In the ancient-world blockbusters of the 1950s/1960s, a British accent usually indicated a Nazi-like villain, while Americans tended to play the oppressed heroes. Britain’s David Farrar played Xerxes in “The 300 Spartans,” while the incorrigibly American Richard Egan was Leonidas.

Snyder’s remake mixes things up, with the Scottish-born Gerard Butler giving a star-making performance as Leonidas and the exotic Brazilian actor, Rodrigo Santoro, seductively playing Xerxes. The British Lena Headey makes the most of her few scenes as Leonidas’ wife, who bravely faces harassment by her husband’s nastiest rival.

Snyder made his directing debut with the scary, funny 2004 remake of “Dawn of the Dead,” and he once more transforms familiar material and makes it his own. It isn’t easy to warm to the characters, who are invariably extreme, but the film is carried by its startling imagery and by Butler’s passionate authority.