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Review: '300' far from perfect

Story Highlights

• "300" from Frank Miller's graphic novel about Thermopylae
• Movie is extremely violent, but in antiseptic video game way
• Message of "300": Pile on the blood and thunder
By Tom Charity
Special to CNN
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(CNN) -- The fanboys are raring for this one. As of Wednesday, two days before "300" opened, the Internet Movie Database gave director Zack Snyder's historical epic a user rating of 8.6 out of 10, based on more than 7,000 votes. The breakdown reveals that 6,000 of the voters are males under the age of 29, and that more than 80 percent rated the film a perfect 10. (The figures weren't much changed as of Friday.)

All this excitement for a historical epic set in ancient Greece, starring such actors as Gerard Butler, Dominic West and David Wenham. What gives?

Seven years ago, "Gladiator" used CGI to paint in crowds and armies and even resurrect actor Oliver Reed after he died during the shoot. But "Gladiator" looks like an artifact from a bygone age beside "300," based on a Frank Miller's graphic novel about the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C.

Ridley Scott dragged his crew to Italy, Malta, Morocco and Britain. Snyder recreated ancient Sparta and famed Thermoplyae -- where 300 Spartans held off an invasion force of more than 100,000 -- without leaving his virtual studio in Montreal. Photo-realism is dead, or at least on its way out.

"300" morphs between live actors and a graphic animated world that is both cheaper and more malleable than the usual movie sets. Instead of the traditional cast of thousands, the credits list more than 200 visual effects artists. Along with "Sin City," the previous adaptation of a Miller work, "300" etches out the horizons of a new cinematic landscape.

So one can see why there would be such enthusiasm for the project. But, having actually seen the flick in question -- unlike, perhaps, a number of its eager IMDb supporters -- I'm afraid I cannot share their enthusiasm, though I suspect it delivers exactly what they think it does: blood and thunder.

Really stylized blood and thunder, too. Thermopylae doesn't look remotely like Greece; it looks more like the inside of a computer game.

Reproducing Lynn Varley's double-page panels as if the comic book were their storyboard, Snyder and cinematographer Larry Fong bleed detail and color from the grainy, sepia visuals, save for the Spartans' swishing crimson cloaks, the bronze of their round shields and rippling torsos.

Perhaps it's this remove from reality that allows the filmmakers to revel in an orgy of violence with impunity. The battle, which dominates the movie, is a nonstop slaughterhouse with the ferocious Spartans lopping and chopping their way through their innumerable foes (including rampaging rhinos and elephants, scuttled off the cliffs to their doom).

War receives the kind of gloss you'd find in, well, a video game. (Indeed, the actors have little to do besides assume picturesque positions and chew the virtual scenery.) When the audience cheers one particularly aesthetic decapitation it's because it's not quite the same thing as watching an Iraqi execution video. And to be fair to Snyder (who also made the "Dawn of the Dead" remake), he does have a flair for dismemberment.

Nevertheless, it's not so much the body count or even the blood lust that's disturbing. It's that the film, with its macho militarism, seems out of step in a war-weary time.

Gerard Butler's glaring, glowering, bombastic Spartan king Leonidas is the Jim Jones of military strategists: never retreat, never surrender, death on the battlefield is the greatest glory. The rhetoric echoes sentiments expressed by Japanese imperial loyalists in Clint Eastwood's "Letters from Iwo Jima," but there's no criticism implied here. These are the good guys.

They even couple their death wish with ahistorical sentiments about "defending freedom" from Persian slavery and mysticism, though this hardly jibes with the regime the movie itself reveals.

It's noticeable, too, how Miller and his collaborators strain to disavow any whiff of homosexuality (well known throughout ancient Greece), even as they strip their buff warriors down to highly impractical leather briefs. Athenians are dismissed as "boy-lovers," but Spartans are real men.

Meanwhile, Xerxes, the Persian king, is bedecked in jewelry and facial piercings, and has an effeminate, clean-shaven look. He's also distinctly dark-skinned and not at all Persian-looking.

All of which may be beside the point, I know: the kids just want to have fun. Many of them will. But what does that say about another Greek contribution -- Western civilization?

"300" is rated R and runs 116 minutes. For Entertainment Weekly's take, click hereexternal link. "300" is a Warner Bros. film; Warner Bros., like CNN, is a unit of Time Warner.


300

King Leonidas of Sparta (Gerard Butler) leads his small army into battle in the highly stylized "300."

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