Warner Bros.
Mark Harris
March 19, 2007 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Why is a testosterone-heavy film like ”300” so sterile?

Remember Olestra? You know, the magical fat alternative that was supposed to enhance the greasy mouthfeel of our favorite junk foods and then zip right through us, leaving no trace of anything that would trouble our waistlines or arteries? The stuff that sounded good until all those stories about ”anal leakage” came out? I just saw 300, Zack Snyder’s blood-and-body-oil blockbuster about the battle of Thermopylae, and I think I had an Olestra experience. Not only did the movie immediately exit my mind after I saw it, it practically slid away while I was still watching. I think the reason — other than its belligerent stupidity — was Snyder’s decision to use CGI for just about every element of 300 except the actors (for whom it might have done the most good). Oatmeal-colored CGI skies that don’t look skylike; CGI hills that don’t appear hard to climb; CGI blood that spurts in unconvincing geysers; a dinky CGI thunderstorm that looks like a tempest in an iMac. Nothing in 300 has weight, dimension, or density; every overstylized, joysticky frame has been sprayed with a coat of I Can’t Believe It’s Not Movie. Warning: May cause brainal leakage.

Computer technology is not the enemy of art, or of great filmmaking, as anyone who has seen The Lord of the Rings (or even Letters From Iwo Jima) can attest. But CGI is no friend to a director who imagines it will help him achieve a kind of visual perfection that would otherwise be thwarted by the annoying humanness and/or variability of stuff like production designers, extras, weather, changes in the light, physical landscape, and the spur-of-the-moment inspiration that can bring a film to messy, exciting life. It may sound silly to fault a movie like 300 for ”perfectionism,” considering that the goal on its petite mind is nothing loftier than to reach into the psyches of its fanboy fan base and offer their militaristic and sexual anxieties a well-lubricated man-fondling. And even if 300 had been made the old-fashioned low-tech way, it would have been just as gory and dim-witted. But at least it wouldn’t have been sterile, a sad fate for a movie built on testosterone.

Any director striving to get his movie exactly right has my sympathy — abandon that objective too hastily, and you land in hell, where every screen shows Wild Hogs. But some otherwise good filmmakers are succumbing to the delusion that perfection is actually achievable as long as they control everything themselves, and the result is movies that don’t feel perfect — just overcontrolled. The work of David Fincher, the meticulous sadist behind Fight Club and Seven, has usually left me impressed and unmoved; every bruise and dripping wound is rendered with exactitude, and each camera move is choreographed to the millimeter, but the films seem oxygen-deprived, hermetically sealed. His new movie Zodiac is a thrilling leap beyond his earlier work, partly because it dives into a subject very close to the director’s heart: the madness- inducing frustration of trying to get something right for years…and still not being able to do it. Zodiac offers the exciting spectacle of a filmmaker leaving his and his audience’s comfort zone. And yet, in some ways Fincher, who insisted on 50 takes of some scenes, remains his own worst enemy. There are sequences in which his skilled cast — Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, even the untamably anarchic Robert Downey Jr. — look even more wiped out than they need to. A director who demands 50 takes either doesn’t know how to get what he wants or can’t open himself to what other people bring to the table; he’s too stuck on his own fixed vision to let any air in.

Fincher isn’t alone. I can still remember each follicle of Hugh Jackman’s stubble and every shaft of poignant light on Rachel Weisz’s sickbed in Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain, but his schematically pictorial movie felt as lively as a ship in a bottle, with no unplanned humanity to sully the visuals. Why make a movie about the untidy agony of losing a spouse if you’re going to art-direct every emotion in it? And I can’t really recall much about Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige other than its scene-by-scene flourishes; it’s a magic trick that ends by making itself disappear. If the post-human digital environment of George Lucas’ last Star Wars films is the model for 300, then the refrigerated, do-it-my-way-or-else solipsism of late-period Stanley Kubrick may be its more ambitious equivalent — the gold standard to which Fincher, Nolan, and Aronofsky aspire. Given their immense talents, I wish they’d pick a different role model. Kubrick’s greatness is irrefutable, but movies, and moviegoers, would benefit if a few more of our best directors longed to be Robert Altman or Sidney Lumet, to name just two of the smart, prolific, pessimistic humanists whose movies teem with noisy life, with grace notes that can still surprise you because, once upon a time, they surprised the directors. Film (and digital video) is still a collaborative medium. And when a director’s closest collaborator is his computer, who can be surprised when the results feel as forgettable as a game of solitaire?

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