There are many reasons to see 300. Maybe you're a 14-year old with a love of violent entertainment. Or you're a classics professor who longs to get a splitting headache. Or possibly you're an experimental gay pornographer, and want to see the newest techniques in ab-oiling. Perhaps you're a special effects aficionado who's curious about the state-of-the-art in faux decapitations and digitized blood spray. Or you're a big fan of Frank Miller's work, and Sin City just didn't sate your appetite for writhing, speechless women, mutilated giants and two-dimensional tough guys. Speech pathologists may go to 300 to witness how the two-syllable word 'Sparta' can be quadrupled in length and extended even moreso with each bellowed repetition. Or, finally, maybe the phrase 'moving pictures' has always seemed a bit contradictory, and a movie that unfolds with the glacial pace of a series of oil paintings in a series of nearly-still images sounds soothing.
Whatever your reason for going into 300, I can't imagine leaving it very excited by what you get. I can imagine being excited by the prospect of leaving -- for me, the end credits of 300 rolled up on the screen with the comforting shock of a parole notice delivered in the middle of a prison riot. After leaving, I walked through a crowded downtown to the loudest bar possible in the hopes that an adult beverage would wash the taste of blood out of my mouth; even that level of all-encompassing sensory overload still felt like a fortnight in a Zen temple by comparison. 300 tells the classic tale of the Spartans at Thermopylae, where a small band of Spartan warriors (you should, at this point, have a general idea of how many) led by King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) held off thousands of Persian troops. They were few, but perilous terrain and Spartan valor held back the many. There have been multiple re-iteratons of this story onscreen and in print, and 300's source material is a graphic novel adaptation crafted by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley.
Much like Sin City, 300 relies heavily on computer-generated imagery to bring Miller's static images to the screen; unfortunately, all the high-tech wizardry in the film can't bring those images to life. There's a dim possibility that a less-slavish adaptation might have wrung some real storytelling out of 300's pulp, but Zack Snyder (Dawn of the Dead) feels hamstrung here, as if Miller were sitting over his shoulder enforcing fidelity to the source material with a cattle prod. One problem with that attention to the original material is that the original material is nothing great. Reading 300, for me, was a 20-minute exercise, as 'somewhat enjoyable' as it was 'definitively unremarkable'. Watching the film version, as a slender narrative is bloated beyond belief by slow-motion and freeze-frame and a stultifying 117 minutes flows by like molasses, becomes an exercise in tedium.
Many will tell you that 300 is visually astonishing, to which I can only say, Yes, on occasion; but I don't go to the movies for mere visual astonishment; I go for something like a story, something like a narrative, something like character. In this day and age in moviemaking, all you need to have great special effects is money. That's it, and that's all. If you think that having money (or access to other people's money) in any way means someone has wisdom, talent or something to say, let me refresh your memory: Donald Trump. Paris Hilton. Dave Matthews. There's also been some hubbub about how people are frantically searching 300 for political meaning, some link to our current times, some hope that a sow's ear of splatter-action could actually be redeemed as a silk purse of allegory. You could look for political meaning in 300, insofar as you could look for recipe tips in a puddle of vomit: it's hard to say if the hunt would be entirely fruitless, but it's fair to suggest it would be unpleasant.
300 does talk about politics, but even its perception of the politics of savage history is muddled and dim. Like the recent iteration of King Arthur, 300 has the language of modern mumble-mouth liberalism come from the lips of ancient savages. In 300's supposed-to-be-rousing finale, a Spartan tells us that, facing Xerxes and the Persians, the Spartans are set against "mysticism and tyranny" -- this after we've seen Leonidas consult with Oracles and Priests for approval on his battle plans, and had it explained how the Spartans throw maimed and unfit babies to the rocks to die. Anyone who'd try to suggest ancient Sparta was a halcyon era of progressivism is a pure idiot; anyone who'd believe that, even more so. Then again, for the target audience of 300, a background in the classics means they've seen one or two episodes of Xena: Warrior Princess.
You may think that 300 can't possibly be as bad as I've painted it to be, but I assure you: It's worse. I once had the unpleasant experience, back when I wrote about music, of seeing a "secret" Alanis show meant to serve as a warm up for a national tour, at a small club in Santa Cruz. Not having much knowledge of Ms. Morissette's music, I was surprised -- and then appalled -- at the lack of dynamism in the songs. There was no build, no space, no air, no grace: every song felt like a clanging, howling three-and-a-half-minute big finish!, and there'd be a few seconds of blissful quiet before the next hurricane of uselessness began again. So it is with 300: all climax, no build-up, and no sense of shape or flow other than race and thrust and explosion. 300 is the cinematic equivalent of a 20-year-old virgin who's sneaked a pill out of granddad's Viagra stash: Overly long, completely immobile and absolutely clueless about what to do with something it cheated to get in the first place.