When Zack Snyder’s 300 became an unexpected blockbuster in 2007 (after playing one festival in 2006), the success spawned a slew of analyses in the showbiz press, as pundits tried to pinpoint how this particular movie seemingly came out of nowhere to dominate the spring box office. Was there a huge pent-up demand for sword-and-sandal pictures? Did Frank Miller’s original graphic novel have a bigger fan base than anyone anticipated? Were jingoistic American audiences responding enthusiastically to the villainizing of Persians? Had March become the new May for opening big action spectacles?
Or was it just that 300 looked really, really cool, in a way no movie had looked cool before?
The latter possibility didn’t escape Hollywood producers. Since 2006, the number of action-adventure movies and TV series set in the ancient world has increased exponentially, and a large number of them have tried to ape 300’s look: the overtly artificial CGI backdrops, bronzed colors, forced perspectives, and slow-motion, super-heroic action. Even before Miller wrote and drew 300, he redefined what comics could look like in books like Ronin, The Dark Knight Returns, and Sin City. Snyder’s 300 adaptation strove to re-conceive how a comics-inspired movie could look, giving audiences the feeling of poring over a particularly dynamic panel—or perhaps of admiring a well-posed collectible statuette.
Even now, with the prequel/sequel 300: Rise Of An Empire (directed by Noam Murro, and set before, during, and after the events of 300), the look of the film is integral to its appeal. Rise Of An Empire fudges the actual history of the conflict between the Greeks and Persians, and whenever the characters stand around and talk, the movie becomes stilted and shouty, revealing nothing resembling nuance or depth. But when the globules of computer-generated blood are flying majestically through the air on the battlefield, or a fleet of Athenian ships is ramming into Persian vessels on roiling seas, Rise Of An Empire is honestly pretty badass. It’s just that it’s less badass now than it was eight years ago. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but in this case, the glut of post-300 CGI-heavy movies about gods and gladiators has turned what once seemed fresh into a visual cliché.
Between Clash Of The Titans, Wrath Of The Titans, The Legend Of Hercules, Immortals, and others, the multiplex has seen a steady stream of movies in which men and women with rippling exposed muscles and scant armor draw blades on each other (or on supernatural beasties) while shot from extreme low angles and close-ups that make them look like literal giants. The trend toward brownish tones and flagrantly computer-enhanced violence has even made its way onto television, via Starz’s various incarnations of Spartacus, all of which do a better job than 300 at balancing the comic-book clatter with plotting and characters just as vivid as the battle scenes. But the fighting remains essential to Spartacus’ cult success, because the slowed-down, almost music-video-like images of skin and metal colliding are where the show gets its literal punch.
So it usually goes with visual innovation in genre cinema. How long did it take for The Matrix’s bullet-time effect to go from, “Holy hell, that’s amazing!” to, “Really? This again?” Think about when morphing was all the rage in the early 1990s, or when directors briefly fell in love with that crazy horror-movie/music-video effect that makes people’s heads look like they’re vibrating into some demon-dimension? The larger trends in movies are fairly easy to spot. When Pulp Fiction became a hit, and everyone started making movies about low-level gangsters who knew all the lyrics to both versions of the Gilligan’s Island theme, the boom was noticeable. Ditto the flood of found-footage films. And the surfeit of raunchy, shaggy, semi-improvised Judd Apatow-esque comedies. And the countless other approaches to storytelling that started out exciting, then quickly went stale.
The smaller elements of filmmaking are often harder to recognize right away as played-out. At one of the recent film festivals I attended, I half-jokingly asked a friend whether we’d one day look back at the tuneless, droning, guitar-driven soundtracks of so many contemporary Amerindie movies as a signifier of “the 2000s/2010s,” in the same way propulsive jazz-funk scores now immediately conjure the 1970s, and saxophone-and-drum-machines bring the 1980s rushing back. It’s one thing when a contemporary song dates a picture; it’s something else to deploy a style of instrumentation and production that isn’t meant to wear out, but does anyway, because the score is clearly just following trends rather than aiming for originality.
Think of it like listening to greatest-hits collections by pop acts who’ve had long careers: The musicians start out sounding like themselves, but at the point on the record that marks when their popularity started to slip, the disco mixes and synthesizers come out. Cinema is the same way. Follow the arc of even the great directors’ careers: Sometimes they make movies that others imitate, and sometimes they’re the imitators. And they’re rarely aping other people’s major stylistic touches; it’s the smaller pieces like music, color-tones, or special effects that slip by unattended. There was a time in the 1960s when Hollywood fell in love with European ingénues—probably because piggish male studio executives convinced themselves that the only reason people went to foreign films was for the sexy dames—and so for about half a decade, the female leads in far too many major motion pictures were either incomprehensible, or giving flat line-readings in a language they didn’t ordinarily speak. Even the great American filmmakers working at the time went along with this. (Ever try to connect to anything Elsa Martinelli is saying in Howard Hawks’ Hatari!?)
There are advantages to these kinds of era-specific mini-trends. It can make the decade in which a movie was made instantly identifiable, which is… well, not unhelpful. Also, if a film buff is drawn to a certain kind of look or sound or style of performance, it’s easier to know where to find it. Myself, I have a lot of affection for the slasher movies made in the two or three years after Halloween, when directors were aping John Carpenter’s use of inky blackness and gliding cameras. If I come across a horror movie I haven’t seen, and I see that it was made in 1980, I’m more inclined to give it a look. Conversely, I’m not wild about a lot of the Hollywood studio product of the mid-1960s—in particular the musicals, the comedies, and the epics, all of which I find too bloated—so I tend not to record those when they pop up on TCM, even if they’re new to me.
It’s odd, though, how quickly these trappings become traps. Jump back to the early 1960s, and sword-and-sandal pictures—even the B-movie versions—have the quality of serious drama, with even the non-British actors speaking like posh aristocrats. Post-300, the seriousness and the accents survive, but these films are less dramatic and more visceral. Expectations have changed.
Given that 300: Rise Of An Empire is the continuation of a series—with Zack Snyder sticking around as a producer and co-screenwriter—director Murro probably didn’t have much choice but to follow the visual template provided for him. Other filmmakers working in this genre should consider moving on, though. And perhaps they are. Paul W.S. Anderson’s Pompeii isn’t a very good movie, and it traffics in some of the visual clichés of recent ancient-world epics. (Like 300: Rise Of An Empire, it’s the kind of 3D movie that annoyingly creates the illusion of visual depth by filling the frame with so many floating particulates that viewers risk contracting a respiratory infection.) But the fight scenes don’t look much like 300, aside from a general ruddiness in the color-tinting. Anderson, a veteran action director, works a lot more with practical effects and stunts, rather than relying exclusively on digitally enhanced slo-mo skull-crushing.
The same could be said of the upcoming The Raid 2, written and directed by Gareth Evans and starring Iko Uwais. The film is set in the modern day instead of the ancient world, but otherwise, it’s like the 300 series in that it’s all amplified action. The difference is that Evans, like Anderson, also favors practical effects. And he also likes speed. Both Raid movies feature lightning-quick fight scenes, with remarkably athletic combat choreography that sets the actors and the camera dancing around each other. When The Raid 2 really gets cranked up, it’s one of the most exhilarating action movies I’ve ever seen. But I’ve still already started the clock for the point where The Raid 2’s kick becomes yesterday’s thrill.