REARVIEW: Join Variety critics each Monday as they circle back to discuss the weekend's most talked-about movie
Yes, “300” and its sequel originated as graphic novels, and yes, their highly stylized aesthetic resembles the look of certain videogames. Critics love to make such connections — as dismissively as possible, in most cases — but they aren’t terribly helpful when it comes to analyzing the film.
What intrigues me about “300: Rise of an Empire” (let’s call it “300.2” for short) aren’t such over-obvious comparisons but the more revealing contrasts, starting with just how different it is from other recent military movies. In the four decades since the U.S. withdrew from Vietnam, the war movie has been almost entirely replaced by the anti-war movie, except in cases where Orcs or alien invasion are involved. Hollywood, which had served as a patriotic extension of the American propaganda machine during earlier conflicts, changed its tune in the ’70s, responding with such openly critical films as “The Deer Hunter,” “Apocalypse Now” and “Platoon,” later extending that approach to other conflicts, from “Saving Private Ryan” to “The Thin Red Line.”
Whereas such films condemn the horrors of war, the “300” sequel relishes it. In the hands of director Noam Munro, “300.2” is a downright bloodthirsty affair. The movie plays like an ecstatic, even orgiastic, celebration of violence — moreso even than Zack Snyder’s original, which was tempered somewhat by the tragedy of the Spartans’ sacrifice. Here, galvanized by that massacre, the unified Greeks stage a formidable comeback, and though I’d wager far more than 300 die in the proceedings, the mood is one of thrilling victory (despite what, for me at least, was a totally ambiguous and not-at-all-promising final shot).
This hyper-aggressive mentality reminds me of Calum Marsh’s review of “Lone Survivor” in The Atlantic just a few months back. Under the headline “Every War Movie Is a Pro-War Movie,” he accused Peter Berg’s film and the genre at large of becoming “multi-million dollar recruitment videos—tools of military indoctrination geared toward the young and the impressionable.” In the same review, Marsh quotes Steven Spielberg saying just the opposite (“every war movie, good or bad, is an antiwar movie”), suggesting that it’s largely a matter of perspective: For those sensitive to carnage, it’s impossible not to be revolted by the sight of war, while those partial to spectacle can’t help but be excited even by the most damning depictions.
One of last year’s most underrated movies, “Lone Survivor” manages to have it both ways, representing the visceral thrill of a real-life Navy SEAL mission while also rendering its characters finely enough that their deaths register as tragic. By contrast, “300.2” favors a far more simplistic approach. Where other critics made the connection to comicbooks and videogames, I kept thinking of American football fervor. And where they bemoaned the lack of characters, I found that to be a deliberate choice: The movie is about teams — Us vs. Them — rather than individuals. As such, only the captain (Sullivan Stapleton’s Themistokles) and the rookie (played by Jack O’Connell, whose admirers should stay tuned for “Starred Up”) warrant special attention. The rest have literally been stripped down to stereotypes, so much raw masculinity on parade.
As for the movie’s many battle scenes, these are simply too stylized and hyper-violent to be taken literally. They serve as symbolic confrontations. As when opponents face off on the football field, rival philosophies collide. In this case, the Greeks fight for “an Athenian experiment called ‘democracy’” against a dark-skinned Middle-Eastern aggressor. One doesn’t need a graduate degree to untangle what audiences are really cheering for here. “300.2” wants to rile the crowd. The clues are there in the music, the camerawork and the dramatic construction of nearly every scene, in which the Greeks suffer losses (e.g. the Spartans’ defeat, the burning of Athens) only to rally and overcome.
It is far easier to make a “pro-war movie” when one doesn’t stop to personalize those who are slain along the way, or to linger on the internal reservations of the people doing the fighting. Some months back, I brought a copy of “Saving Private Ryan” to my film studies class, and we looked at the Omaha Beach sequence together. Most people remember this scene for its realism, for the way much of the footage is shot handheld and unstable, as if a newsreel crew were really there. What they don’t recall is how subjective it all is — how much of the D-Day landing plays out either looking directly at Tom Hanks (his shaking hands, his frightened expression) or privileging his p.o.v. (at one point, the sound fades away while he surveys the carnage around him). When seen through Hanks’ eyes, the sheer senselessness of this very necessary military operation comes through.
And yet, the film’s occasional “first-person shooter” style, also visible in footage gazing down from the German bunkers, is as much a videogame convention as any of the tricks Munro pulls n “300.2.” Meanwhile, Spielberg’s storyboard-driven sensibility comes awfully close to the sequential logic of Frank Miller comics. And yet, “300.2” couldn’t be more different from “Saving Private Ryan” in nearly every other respect. When it comes to the politics of war, the subject is strong enough that one can read a wide range of reactions into a movie as straightforward as this over-the-top “300” sequel — including the conversation-killing, “Relax, it’s just a movie.” The question I leave with you then is this: What does it mean that audiences have been so eager to embrace such a gleefully aggressive film at this particular moment in time?