Why '300' Is the Most Influential Movie of the New Millennium
In early 2007, I toured Ellis Island with a group of Canadian middle schoolers. (Don't ask why.) As we waited for the ferry, the kids wouldn't stop attacking one another with tree branches and screaming about Sparta. When I asked what was up, they regaled me with the tale of Leonidas I and the Battle of Thermopylae.
An oral tradition nearly 2,500 years old continued with boundless excitement on that bright, cold day. Soon thereafter, I bought a ticket to Zack Snyder's masterpiece 300 and realized that those young men (potential brave warriors of the North, the lot of them) were right. The movie kicked ass and, more importantly, changed movies forever. Nine years later, it's even clearer how influential this picture truly was.
Just days from the premiere of Zack Snyder's latest, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, we already know that fans of DC's grimdark style will be the true victors. Critics, on the other hand, seem ready to treat this latest entry worse than Superboy-Prime treated Thanagar (i.e., not good). I remain ever optimistic. I know Zack Snyder isn't some hacky vid-bro only good for making European lunch meat commercials with Sylvester Stallone. He is an auteur, and his best work, 300, should earn him your unending respect. And even if you don't like it, you have to accept that 300 didn't just change movies, it may have changed the world. Here's why:
300 introduced us to virtual studios300 was revolutionary for its complete use of blue and green screens. The decision not to shoot on location, between the Spercheios River and Maliakos Gulf, but rather in a big, empty room in Montreal, wasn't just for access to flat bagels. Doing away with realism helped Snyder emulate the original comic-book panels illustrated by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley. The production company's name, Virtual Studios, may have just been a coincidence (green screens were conspicuously absent in other notable 2007 releases, such as Woody Allen's Cassandra's Dream and the Emma Roberts vehicle Nancy Drew), but at the time, seeing a realistic-but-not-quite-real environment was fresh and innovative.
Snyder and his cinematographer, Larry Fong, went nuts amplifying the grain, blasting out colors, and popularizing the now admittedly overused technique of letting shots spin down to slo-mo, then ramp up back up again once someone's been slugged in the face. The "tale handed through time" concept allowed for this more dreamlike style, and the only things in the movie that were actually grounded were tactile objects like helmets, swords, and the unbelievable six-packs of all those Spartan soldiers. Snyder wasn't the first to shoot a feature with this aesthetic (we'll always love you, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow), but his film was the one that landed, and still resonates.
The cast was ridiculously stackedAdmittedly, it's a tad ridiculous to think about these obscenely buff, barely clothed men shouting at one another in a Canadian storage unit. At the time, the cast were a lot of unknowns -- but watch again, and you'll find that one of the most maniacal warriors with the tiniest of loincloths is none other than two-time Academy Award nominee Michael Fassbender. (He's the one who, along with King Leonidas, pulls the Hellenic version of the ol' Statue of Liberty Play to kill one of Xerxes' generals.)
King Leonidas, of course, was played by Gerard Butler, whose career path hasn't been quite as noble, but at least he keeps busy. Right before 300 he was in The Phantom of the Opera, which means he was very accustomed to shouting. The sleazy politician was played by Dominic West, thus making 300 the first in a very long series of films where audiences would turn to each other and say, "Wait, Jimmy McNulty is ENGLISH?!" And Lena Headey first caught mass attention as Queen Gorgo; since then, she's appeared in no shortage of fanboys' regal fantasies as Cersei Lannister on Game of Thrones. We're not saying all these actors owe their whole careers to 300, but what other movie would have let them strut their stuff in such a provocative, half-naked manner at a such a clutch moment in their inchoate careers?
"Remember this day, for it will be yours for all time!"We didn't know it back then, but March 2007 was a time of great change. Two enormous pop-culture shifts were happening, and 300 was there to capitalize on both. Myopic critics tried to shoo away Snyder's brilliance by comparing it to a video game. They weren't wrong, they just didn't realize this was part of the magic.
The so-called seventh generation of video-game consoles (Sony's PlayStation 3, Microsoft's Xbox 360, and Nintendo's Wii) had been in the marketplace for around three and a half months and were radically changing the face of gaming. Not long after 300's success at the box office, Halo 3's gargantuan opening ($170 million on its first day) meant that even Montgomery Burns types were calling their brokers and asking, "Tell me, what is a joystick?"
The point is, no one could pretend video games were just for twerps in their basements. We all played them and we all knew them, so we all gasped when a battle sequence an hour into 300 broke with cinematic convention to become brutal, beautiful footage of a side scroller. Take a step back, and you'll realize the series of meet-ups between Leonidas and Xerxes' minions prior to their eventual showdown is basically a string of incremental boss battles.
But it wasn't just video games that made March 2007 a time of glory that warriors will sing about for eons hence. 300 isn't a superhero movie in the typical sense, but it is a comic-book movie, and I say unto you that its success helped prime the pump for the Marvel juggernaut and general "the geeks have taken over" narrative that has been delighting some and depressing others for years. Yes, yes, X-Men was already a hit and Batman Begins had been taken very seriously (wait, comic books can be for adults?), but 300's success was a forward line of attack; our tentpoles were coming from funny books now.
The movie crystallized a new era of American politics300 hit theaters just after President George W. Bush announced his call for a troop surge in Iraq. The vibe at the time was bleak. So the release of a jingoistic action-adventure picture with lots of cool, slo-mo muscle men slaughtering thousands of dark-skinned, bug-eyed crazies was obviously going to raise some questions alongside Bush administration propaganda about "evildoers."
From its first showing at the Berlin Film Festival through its successful opening weekend, Zack Snyder insisted his movie was apolitical, or at least not a commentary about current events. It's quite possible that he was telling the truth, but the blood that was spilled in this digital Thermopylae seeped into our collective soil. Unlike Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers, a fascist film well aware of its ethos and working within those conventions for the higher purpose of satire, 300 doesn't deal in nuance or subtext. These are warriors, there is a crisis, and they are going to do things the right way. (If Leonidas made compromises like those "boy lovers" in Athens, we'd all be speaking Persian right now.)
300 doesn't just portray a harsh, militaristic world in which babies born with defects are hurled into a pit to die, it celebrates it. King Leonidas and his men engage in small talk as they pierce the battle-wounded with spears -- there's no humane prisoner-taking happening here. When Leonidas meets the deformed Ephialtes, who wants nothing more than to help the Spartans in battle, he hits him with microaggressions: you seem like a nice guy, you can maybe fetch us water, but there's no way you can fight. The Spartans win because of their phalanx formation. Ephialtes' deformities literally won't fit in. Sorry, Ephialtes, there's the door: we're Making Sparta Great Again.
For a moment, 300 head-fakes that Ephialtes will somehow save the day, and both he and King Leonidas will find redemption through victory. But no. Ephialtes turns traitor and sides with Xerxes. We in the audience, groomed as we are on wussified Hollywood movies, might think, "Who can blame him?" but part of what makes 300 so striking is that by the end, he is served up as a weasel and villain.
This unabashed, unashamed rejection of good taste in the service of "getting it done" is exactly what Trump supporters froth about when they cry, "We don't win anymore!" and blame so-called political correctness. They hallucinate visions of Xerxes' ships at our shores and war-beasts thundering across our borders, and, perhaps thanks to a few late-night viewings of 300, know that only a ruthless figure who makes no excuses for his triumph can protect us.
It's a bit of a stretch, I know, to give Zack Snyder total credit for electing the next president and ending the world (if I may predict), but not even Patton presented such a hagiographic portrait of the ends justifying the means. And certainly not in such a badass manner.
300 as the most influential movie of the new century? Let's hope history doesn't repeat itself.
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