Now that video games are bigger business than motion pictures, the question facing Hollywood (besides, of course, how the hell did video games get bigger than motion pictures?) is how do you keep cinema relevant to members of Generation Xbox?
The obvious solution: Produce movies that for all practical purposes are overblown video games that play out on autopilot. In the past, films have been turned into games. The Godfather, Spiderman and Star Wars are examples. In the years to come, games are likely to debut in film form largely for merchandising purposes. Movies won't have product placement. They'll be product placement - teasers for software coming soon to a Best Buy near you.
I have seen the future and it is 300. It's a product tailor-made for this business model and, sure enough, Warner Bros. has a console game ("300: March to Glory," MSRP $39.99) freshly on store shelves. No motion picture has so meticulously replicated the look, sound and sensibility of the violent video-game experience. Now fanboys can walk out of the Cineplex, pick up a copy, go home, and relive the story over and over, with themselves in the starring role.
Shooting in Montréal, director Zack Snyder has adapted the Frank Miller and Lynn Varley graphic novel employing a combination of live action and computer animation that cranks the CGI factor so high, even the flesh-and-blood actors look as if they've been airbrushed. The setting is Sparta circa 480 BC, where scrawny babies are tossed onto a communal baby-skull heap and boys are taught to live by a brutal warrior code.
Scottish star Gerard Butler plays King Leonidas. In a land of bad-asses, he's the baddest. We know this because, when an envoy brings a message from the leader of the Persian army poised to invade, Leonidas has them all pushed into a communal bottomless pit.
The plot offers a comic-book recreation of the Battle of Thermopylae. Leonidas and 299 of his buffest friends make a doomed stand against a force that numbers in the hundreds of thousands. Their goal isn't to win but to use their sacrifice to rally popular support for a war with Persia. Watching the king formulate his battle plan is interesting enough. Watching him carry it out for the next hour and a half - not so much. Snyder gives the impression of having seen The Matrix a few too many times. His Spartans fly through the air, freeze in mid-spear thrust, and whirl like musclebound dervishes, slicing and dicing the enemy in an F/X blur. If I'd had a joystick in my hand, I might have thought, Wow, this is pretty realistic. Since I had a bag of popcorn, I tended to hold the opposite view.
The creators of 300 do manage a number of snazzy special effects and a handful of snappy lines. But I weep for the future of the form if it's over-the-top, adolescent bombast like this. It may be the way to make a buck in today's market; that doesn't mean it's any way to make a movie.