Q: What do you call one hundred Persians at the bottom of the ocean?
A: A good start.
I like Frank Miller -- he's been at the forefront of getting comics and graphic novels recognized as serious work, and I'm glad of that -- so I was looking forward to this film. And now, though I may be a lone voice crying in the wilderness, I have to say that I didn't really like it. Sigh.
In 480 B.C., King Xerxes of the Persian Empire attempted to invade Greece. A force gathered from the various Greek city-states of the time went to Thermopylae (literally hot gateway), the only pass through the mountains the Persians could use, and held off the Persian hordes long enough for Athens to prepare for a naval battle. They fell after three days, betrayed by a Greek who lived nearby. Their sacrifice made Thermopylae into a byword for tactics, determination, and courage.
That's the real story in a nutshell. It sounds grand enough to me -- what more could you want, than these few overwhelmed soldiers fighting and dying to defend their homes and families, for their own honor and for the sake of their comrades?
Apparently, you want giants, pseudo-samurai, battle rhinoceri, a frighteningly androgynous god-king that travels around on his own portable staircase, and redundant voice-over narration that made me want to yell for the projectionist to turn the sound off. (Don't even get me started on the wrinkly 'priests' covered with boils who keep control of the young, beautiful oracles and can only be bribed with huge amounts of gold. I think maybe they were early Ferengi. This was more a sci-fi movie than anything else.) You also want faded-out color, grainy film, and a hugely annoying obsession with slow motion.
Honestly, isn't that done with yet? Ever since The Matrix, every action film that also wants to be considered 'artistic' resorts to the slow motion thing, and it's driving me crazy. This film was just a few minutes shy of two hours, but it would have only been ninety minutes if the action had just gone at normal speed once in a while. Entirely undramatic sequences still got the slow treatment, for no reason I could see except to remind the audience that they're watching something Grand. Once it almost turned into a music video, and I seriously considered leaving the theatre.
Anyway. Gerard Butler plays King Leonidas, leader of the Spartan troops. You can tell he's king because his beard precedes him by a good half-hour. He's also the spokesperson for Democracy in Action against the horrible Xerxes, whose troops are all mistreated slaves. Never mind that historically, Sparta had only a few elements of what we would call democracy, being instead more totalitarian, regulating everything down to the length of a man's hair; and the Persians were enlightened despots who valued truth and justice above all things, and generally won the respect of those they conquered.
There was at least a good female role, in Lena Headey as Leonidas' queen, Gorgo. Yes, Gorgo. I'd wondered why no one called her by name during the film. But she's as strong a character as any of the men, fighting a political battle to rally the reluctant Spartans to her husband's aid. (Maybe she should also try to get some kind of railing around that giant hole in the middle of the town square.) She gets a far better inspirational speech than any of Leonidas', strangely, but I was just glad to see that women weren't completely neglected as I feared they might be. Dominic West is playing a bad guy, a career politician and Gorgo's main opponent. I'm not used to him as a bad guy, so this was kind of strange, but he is a good actor.
I have nothing bad to say about any of the acting, which makes the movie's faults seem that much more awful. It goes so far over the top striving for glory that it just slides down into the valley of ridiculousness on the other side. Life was brutish and short then, and I didn't need three slow-motion decapitations to prove that. (There may have been more than three, but I sort of stopped looking.) The rare scenes where the film succeeded in moving me were the small, human scenes. The Spartans discover a burned-out village, and a terrified child passes out in Leonidas' arms. Two soldiers tease each other and boast in the pauses between combat. That's what I was hoping for from this movie.
Instead, I got a movie to which I can only give two idols, darn it. It was at least visually stunning, when it wasn't lapsing into Matrix-land, and those brief moments of simple humanity really do shine, in spite of all the tedious fighting in between. Yes, after the first few minutes of it, I can only say it lapsed into tedium, I'm afraid. The best advice I can give you? Take the money you would have spent here and go buy a copy of Gates of Fire, by Stephen Pressfield. It's just as blood-spattered, but underneath that blood you'll find real human beings, and it'll make you cry for them.