By Matt Singer
[“300,” Warner Bros., 2007]
Once the big battle of civilizations begins, it’s easy to see why director Zack Snyder and his fellow filmmakers thought “300” would make a great action movie. The Spartans were basically the only society in history built entirely on a foundation of badassitude: in Sparta, economy, politics, agriculture and education were all minor concerns compared to looking good in a loincloth and stabbing many people with pointy things. Basically, they were good-looking and dumb and it stands to reason they’d make a fine subject for a good-looking dumb movie.
But even though “300”‘s visual style moves beyond simply looking good into a stylishness and pictorial beauty rarely equaled in genre pictures, its dumbness overwhelms its prettiness. If battle footage can be beautiful, some of it in “300” certainly is, but, oh how stupid everything surrounding it is.
“300” is, in some ways, a silent movie. In some ways, it would be better as one. Silent movies share “300”‘s outlandish (and outlandishly) stereotypical villains and its emphasis on movement. But silent movies didn’t weigh down their narratives with endless slow motion techniques and they didn’t ever have dialogue this bad, because they didn’t have any dialogue at all.
“300” runs two hours, but it’s only about eighty minutes of plot stretched by an extra hour/hour-plus by the rampant over use of slow-mo; there isn’t a moment too unimportant that it can’t be given an inflated and unearned sense of grandeur by some thunderclaps, the operatic choral score and a few hundred frames a second (“Must… bend… down… to… adjust… boot… strap!”). Taking the action very, very (very) slowly is at odds with “300”‘s (and the Spartan’s) dedication to badassness: with very few exceptions, Snyder’s slow-mo makes its heroes look about as cool a fighting force as a gimpy elephant. Maybe Snyder got drunk on the admittedly beautiful visuals his blue-screen technique was yielding (his actors were filmed in a big empty stage; all the golden-hued skies and roiling seas were added in post). There will be no need to wait for a DVD and a pause button to soak in Snyder and his animators’ visual accomplishments; he built those pauses into the actual film for us, at the expense of “300”‘s pace and entertainment value.
That may have something to do with the movie’s origins in the world of comic books. Graphic novelist Frank Miller who co-directed one of my favorite movies of 2005, Robert Rodriguez’s adaptation of his “Sin City” books turned the tale of the 300 Spartans who fought impossible odds against the Persian army at the Battle of Thermopylae into a five-issue mini-series for Dark Horse Comics in 1998. Comics distill action into specific moments; the artist essentially acts as writer, director and editor by selecting, designing and drawing those images. In focusing in with his slow-motion camera, perhaps Snyder intended to turn cinema into a sort of moving comic, a series of connected still images.
Unfortunately for him, what makes movies different and special is their ability to present motion, and that is something that is, as a result of Snyder’s slideshow technique, in short supply in “300.” Aside from a very dramatic long take of Spartan king Leonidas (Gerard Butler) mowing down a battlefield full of Persians, most of the fight scenes are indistinguishable snapshots of carnage that in their complete interchangeability show Snyder hasn’t mastered Miller’s knack for moving the narrative along panel to panel.
It’s like something to be admired on the wall of art gallery, not on the wall of a dark room with seats in it. Despite all the artistry, I kept wanting something exciting to happen, and it never really does. For all the posing and rippling muscles and occasional decapitations, “300” doesn’t quicken the pulse or pull the viewer to the edge of the seat. Like a guy rejected from playing one of the 300 Spartans, it’s too dumb and not good-looking enough.
[This review originally ran as part of IFC News’ coverage of the 2006 New York Film Festival]
The creature at the middle of this feature is a mutant: a freakish mixture of fish, lizard, monkey, and Godzilla that devours its victims and then, if it chooses, regurgitates them whole to enjoy their delicious succulence at a later date. “The Host” is a mutant too, a pure pulp concoction with a library of horror quotations, enough brilliantly absurd satire for a stand-up comedy special, and a family at its center that makes the Hoovers from “Little Miss Sunshine” look like the Cleavers. You will laugh and cry; certainly in the way a frightened child cries, because this movie is absolutely terrifying, but also in the way a sissy blubbers when Bambi’s mom eats lead, because the thrills are supported by a compelling story and moving characters.
Like all effective monster movies, “The Host” starts from a place of reality to signal a warning about man’s callous attitude toward nature. In the chilling prologue, based on an event that really happened in Korea in 2000, an American scientist orders his Korean underling to dump hundreds of gallons of formaldehyde down the drain and into the Han River simply because the bottles are a little dusty. Six years later, the chemicals have spawned a truly gruesome beast, who launches an assault on sunbathers by the Han River. Dopey Gang-du (Song Kang-ho) is an unfortunate bystander, and though he survives, his daughter seemingly does not. Gang-du and the rest of his neurotic family (senile father, preppie brother, professional archer sister) barely have time to mourn when they’re quarantined after the Korean government announces that the mysterious creature is also host to a deadly virus. When things look their bleakest Gang-du gets a fuzzy phone call from his daughter. Somehow, she is alive. But how will he rescue her?
A review this short doesn’t have enough space to contain all of my enthusiasm about this movie, or to share even a sample of its unforgettable scenes, both scary and silly. It is, in a deep sense, indebted to the happy horror aesthetic pioneered in the 1980s by Sam Raimi in his “Evil Dead” trilogy. It’s hard to imagine the scariest movie of the year might also be the funniest, but “The Host” nearly pulls it off. When it’s not setting the audience squirming with suspense, its satire of the American war machine and its Orwellian modus operandi is sharper and funnier than anything any we’ve seen from stateside filmmakers (of the government’s treatment of the virus, one character succinctly observes, “If the government says so, we have to accept it.”).
Bong Joon-ho made a quiet but powerful impression on American arthouse audiences last year when his melancholy police procedural “Memories of Murder” finally made its U.S. debut. Though both films feature a general distrust of authority and a bleak worldview, the two are strikingly dissimilar in tone, in scope, and in style. That’s a good thing, suggesting that, good as he is already, Bong is still exploring his possibilities, still coming into his own. He may yet grow into one of the finest directors of his generation, mutating every genre to suit his delightfully fiendish purposes.