There had indeed been much hype about the film beforehand. The trailers were looking stunning and the stills amazing. Style was at the fore of the posters and pictures and the trailers and clips we'd seen were suggesting much passion and posturing. It looked epic.
Then came the news of the Berlin Film Festival. There was a single report of booing and people leaving the cinema during the film. It seemed it might have been a misleading campaign. Then the next day the Warner Brothers release comes out and we find the film received a standing ovation at the end and applause during the film.
Who was right? The studio, or the slightly highbrow reviewer? I found out when I got to see the film early followed by an interesting Q&A with Zack Snyder himself.
Snyder introduced the film, and he really didn't have that much to say about it, apart from one clear message.
"I hope it's loud, it's much better when it's loud, it's distracting!"
I laughed, and at the same time wondered if there was some truth in that statement.
The film rolled and there was no sound. Suddenly, during the studio titles, the sound kicked in and Snyder's concerns were cleared. It was loud.
300 is based on Frank Miller's graphic novel which tells the story of the battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC, where the King of Sparta led three hundred of his soldiers against the might of the Persian armies. Vastly outnumbered they try to hold the wave upon wave of Persian attackers back and prevent from invading and enslaving their homeland, all the while the politics of their country keep the full army at home.
As soon as the film begins you can see the superb style, the colours, the effects of the skies, everything makes it look like a stylised comic, and it looks glorious. What I thought was more amazing was how little it intruded on the film. Perhaps that was because there was so much to see and, as Snyder had said, distract you from it, or perhaps you just become used to it early on, I'm not sure.
Whatever the cause, you do feel that the style is an integral part of the film, it doesn't detract or overbear at all, and that had been one of my earlier concerns.
It is fair to say the film looks superb, the visuals are amazing, not just the style but the framing of the shots, the choreography of the fights and set pieces, and the superb effect of speeding the film down and up during key moments.
Throughout the action sequences the camera will alter the speed of the film, so that one moment the enemy are tearing towards the Spartan in hordes at full speed, then it drops to slow motion as the Spartan engages an enemy and strikes his first blow. This continues through the fighting and is used to great effect. Never does it feel overused or out of place, and it's fair to say that for the audience the speed changes are spot on and perfectly used.
Combining these effects and styles together does give you the look of a comic book on screen. If there was a process to bring a comic to life, this is the right way to do it. Perhaps even the perfect way.
The action scenes are wild, amazingly conceived and choreographed. The battle sequences are stunning to watch and you do feel yourself pulled into the moment. A few times I would clench a fist and grit my teeth saying "yes!" or "get him" just at a key moment, and I knew I was into the film.
However it doesn't rest on the power of the action. Back in Sparta there are battles of power and politics, and a good performance from the stunning Lena Headey. The style is built through the scenes of the Spartan's Oracle and the scenes of hedonism in Xerxes' camp. In both beauty and ugliness entwine, and in the Oracle scenes the slow motion style is applied in equal measure as the battle to great effect.
This is another aspect of the film, its sexiness. Of course the pumped men in next to nothing will get the pulses racing, but it's much smoother than that and far less in your face. The scene of Leonidas making love to the Queen is superbly filmed and is far more real and touching than a lot of romantic Hollywood films, and yet it retains bags of sexuality. The Oracle scene is another where the sexiness of the film comes through and it looks almost art like in its depiction. These were beautiful moments.
It is a very well visualised, choreographed and scripted, but there are definitely a few moments where the script seems to slip away from the film. There are moments when the characters leap into modern phrases or slang after a strong build up and it seems to just take the pay off away from the scene. This happens a couple of times, most notably is the moment which is in the trailer where Leonidas says "we're in for one hell of a night" and we just went through a big build up with the stacking of the bodies of the enemy. In those moments the scene just falls flat.
However there are times when it works, and works well. It has the effect of lightening the moments before another onslaught of stylised action, one of the best examples of this is the apple scene where levity is mixed with the brutal actions of the Spartan men. It is funny, but it has the perfect tone and lends well to the pause in the action without killing the moment.
The acting throughout is superb and Gerard Butler really does pull out an excellent performance. Vincent Regan is another actor who provides a storming performance equal of Butler, but it is Butler who commands the screen whenever he appears.
I've heard a lot of comments that there's nothing more than shouting attack lines to the camera, and I have to wholeheartedly disagree, there are a lot of these moments, after all these are soldiers trained to kill and die a hero's death in battle. Yet there's a lot more to the performances than that. Butler and Regan pour passion onto the screen (and I don't just mean the six packs and leather pouches), but manage to do so in measure. There are scenes where you can see the fire inside them held back, waiting to burst out in the next battle, and it's these that are the most powerful moments.
Butler manages to capture some of the classic hero qualities and gives a performance that makes you feel like Kirk Douglas in Spartacus, or a classic Richard Burton role, he commands power and passion throughout the film.
There's a lot of heart in the Spartan characters and nowhere is it shown better than in these two actor's performances. It actually feels like the actors are having fun during the film, especially during the more campy moments.
Finally I feel that the sound needs a mention on its own. Not only does the soundtrack itself compliment the film superbly well, but the audio during the battle sequences is stirring and incredibly well created. It lends so much reality to the scenes and makes everything feel so much bigger and more epic.
It's very clear that Snyder has an amazing eye for directing, and this comes through with 300. It also shows that he can do more than put together a visually exciting scene, he can build a powerful narrative and pull together a compelling story. However a few times I did find his desire for levity a little too distracting from the story itself.
You do find yourself being caught up in the power and passion of the tale, and in the end I found myself feeling quite moved and impassioned by it all, the ending is particularly powerful and the whole film manages easily to convey the passion and belief of the Spartan's without making them dislikeable or too over the top.
So in conclusion, the reported Berlin booed screening seems like total fabrication to me and it couldn't have come from this film, ovations sound much more plausible, and yet there were a few missed moments in this film for me.
The power and struggle of the Queen back in Sparta seemed a bit too brief and the film could really have done without some of the modernised dialogue and camp moments. That said, the film is so exciting, and not just visually, that you can't help being taken in by it. Add the style and the powerful performances, and it is a great film.
I wish I had half marks on my scale. I was going to give this four out of five, but after writing the review and thinking of the film, it definitely deserves a five out of five, as I say if I had half marks it would be a four and a half.
Update: I'd just like to thank Gerard Butler Dot Net, Gerard Butler GALS, and Gerard Butler en espanol for being so gracious towards Filmstalker and my review. Ladies, you know who you are and thanks very much for the help today. If you want a Gerard Butler fan site or three, you can't go wrong with these ladies.