Friday, March 30, 2007

Xerxes' Law: In Hollywood, Numbers Rule

Since its impressive opening weekend at the box office, during which it took in upwards of $70 million, the fantastically gory, pseudo-historical epic "300" has incited a clash of opinions that could be said to mirror the lopsided conflict of its storyline.

On one side of the field are the critics (a small, stalwart band led by A.O. Scott of the New York Times), most of whom agree that "300" is at best a stunning spectacle without much going on beneath its stylized surface. (Scott’s amusing battle cry in the Times ran as follows: ““300” is about as violent as “Apocalypto” and twice as stupid.”)

On the other side is the movie-going public, the legions of comic book geeks, action buffs and casual thrill-seekers that have marched enthusiastically into the nation’s theaters to witness Leonidas (played by Gerard Butler) and his fellow Spartans flex and hack their way into a losing battle against the Persians. The popular vote is in, and audiences seem to love this film.

On screen and off, "300" represents the classic match-up of the few versus the many. And in both cases, it turns out, we shouldn't be expecting a miraculous overthrow. Despite their high artistic ideals and analytical muscle, it doesn’t look like the critics have a chance in Hecuba of winning this one. After all, the setting isn't Thermopylae, it's Hollywood, and in Hollywood sheer numbers will trump the critical consensus every time.

As of this writing, "300" has grossed somewhere in the ballpark of $165 million, slipping from the top box office position only after its second weekend in theaters and still threatening to claim a spot among the top 100 grossing films of all time.

In some ways, the "300" phenomenon is not surprising. The average American loves to see an underdog story (even one in which the underdogs ultimately lose), and even more than that, the average American loves to see physically impeccable actors delivering spirited lines in revealing period costumes. So what if the actors are B-list, the dialogue outrageous, and the action sequences lifted from the blood-spattered pages of graphic novel. Why read Herodotus when you can watch a glossy recreation of this storied battle unfold onscreen, complete with digitally enhanced colors and rock music cranking in the background? “300” may be the stuff of adolescent fantasy, but it’s apparently a fantasy that millions of theatergoers are happy to indulge in.

I should probably mention at this point that I haven't seen “300”, though I have been following the news and hype surrounding the film pretty closely. I admit that when I first saw the movie trailer, sitting in a theater a few months ago, I was intrigued. The images hit me like a ton of bricks, which was of course the point. And while the featured snippets of brazen dialogue were ridiculous, part of me longed to see that famous line about the Persian army, “their arrows will blot out the sun,” not only spoken in context, but also brought to visual fruition on a giant screen. As much as anyone else, I wanted to see the theater go dark amidst a storm of arrows.

The problem is, I’m a big fan of cinematic realism. If I'm going to pay ten dollars to see a period film, I want to be taken to an authentic time and place, not a stylized, sepia-toned exaggeration of one. In other words, I want to see history reconstructed, not reinvented. Sure, historical events can be violent and theatrical, but it's safe to say that no actual battle since the advent of man was capable of delivering the kind of surrealism and bombast that “300” reportedly does. Movies are a powerful medium, and I think with that power comes a responsibility to depict true events with a certain amount of fidelity. Given the factual basis of its story, the overblown style of “300” seems exploitative to me.

I understand that "300" is an attempt to bring the visual flair of a graphic novel to the screen. But according to many critics (and even some fans) this is essentially all the movie manages to do. The film may succeed in its primary goal of blending two mediums together, but it apparently does so at the expense of other key elements that have come to define a good movie, like nuanced acting and plot subtlety. If the critics are right, “300” is unable to free itself from the two-dimensional comic book world that inspired it. And maybe it doesn’t care to.

Hollywood, it's likely, doesn’t care either. With the fiscal equivalent of several Persian armies already behind it, “300” will continue its bold advance into blockbuster territory.

But for holdouts like me, the question remains: Should I see this movie? Maybe I’ll do something the Spartans would never do, and take the middle course: fall back, tune out the din, and wait for the triumphant arrival of the DVD.