Friday, November 16, 2007

All Dressed Up and Nowhere to Go

By Mike Gillis

I suppose it's odd I'm here chatting about "300" on the day "Beowulf" is being released theatrically. "300" is so yesterday and not even in 3-D.

But that's exactly the problem with "300" and probably, eventually, with "Beowulf". Pictures are made to titillate -- with sex, violence, language or technology -- not to stand up to time.

Looking back at the the reviews collected for "300" on, the top two, from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Film Threat, respectively, both give the picture high marks for its technical achievement.

That's the bar. Many other reviews give the picture points for its visuals, knocking it a bit for its testosterone take on the famous Battle of Thermopylae, in which 300 Spartans staved off thousands of Persians. Of course, the story is a bit more complicated, which makes the film and its graphic novel counterpart by Frank Miller a bit disingenuous.

Who cares. It's a sword and sandals picture meant to entertain, not teach. I get that.

And truth be told, it's a stunner to watch. The battle sequences are sometimes breathtaking, the landscapes are stunning and the villains are as nasty as any. All the more impressive, I suppose, because the whole picture was shot against a blue screen and the sets added by computer later.

To be honest, I hadn't really been interested in watching "300", but had to test out a new sound system, and once in the thick of the action, I fell for it. But something else happened: I had also tested out my sound system with a brief viewing of "The Fellowship of the Ring," Peter Jackson's epic take on the first book of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and realized while watching the opening battle sequence, which was also created in a computer, that it already feels outdated. Not the movie, but the technology. Not quite like comparing it to a Hanna-Barbera cartoon, but you begin to see the machinery at work because the "wow" has worn off.

Then comes "300" and we're "wowed" again. And then "Beowulf."

Is that the only test of a movie these days? It's technical advancements?

Of course not. There are still plenty of great, little pictures being churned out every year. The best of them seldom get the attention they deserve, but they exist, and that's good. Some of them even embrace the digital future in the best possible way. A scene would look better with a tree in the background? Add one. I guarantee no one will notice the trickery.

I'm not a crank fed up with the bells and whistles of movie making, but what's happened to the epic? Where are the "Rans" or even the "Glorys"?

Watching a few scenes of "300" again, I know it will suffer the same fate as most of the "technical achievement"s before it. It has the benefit of two fine performances -- Gerard Butler as King Leonidas and Lena Headey as Queen Gorgo -- but it is beyond me how it survives the test of time.