Released in 2007, 300 was an anomaly. An R-rated sword and sandals action film with starring relative unknowns based upon an obscure graphic novel, Zack Snyder and his iconic style was unleashed upon the world. Striking color schemes, slow motion fighting scenes, goofy scenery chewing speeches, super abs, old fashioned xenophobic savagery – 300 answered the eternal question of what would happen if an 18 year old uber nerd was allowed free reign to make a movie. A retelling of the battle of Thermopylae, in which a small group of Spartan soldiers undertake a heroic sacrifice against an overwhelming Persian army, 300 became a global phenomenon which helped launched the careers of director Zack Snyder, along with Gerard Butler, Lena Headey and Michael Fassbender (yes – he is actually in that movie). Any film that makes close to half a billion dollars worldwide will be mined for a sequel….which would be difficult since nearly all of the principal heroes die in the film. Yet here we are with 300: Rise of an Empire, the sequel/prequel/interquel
First things first – if you’re a fan of 300, then you’ll probably enjoy this film. Even though 7 years have passed between the two films, they share the same sweeping, thematic style. Although not as groundbreaking as the original, Rise of an Empire is a beautiful film, although more muted than the original. You’ll get plenty of slow motion spear thrusts, jumping sword slices, and every bead of sweat and blood, this time with the benefit of 3D. In fact, unless you engaged in geek research, you would have no idea that Zack Snyder didn’t direct this film, instead only serving as producer. Instead, Noam Murro takes the helm – but it doesn’t really matter. Rise of an Empire’s disadvantage is its status as a follow up film, not only being compared to the original, but also shows such as Spartacus. The action still holds up, but doesn’t have the jaw dropping impact of the original.
Rise of an Empire takes a peculiar approach in regards to its story, serving as almost a visual appendix of the 300 universe. Ever wonder what caused the Persians to be pissed at Greece, and what the hell the battle of Marathon was about? Any curiosity pertaining to the origin of Xerxes? How did Sparta handle the aftermath of the death of Leonidas, besides doing crunches and bragging about death? You’ll find out all of these things during 102 minutes. Rise of an Empire solves the problem of following the previous film by telling a parallel story, involving the Athenians battling the Persians for freedom, as well as the aftermath of the Battle of Thermoplyae. Shifting the focus of the stories from the Spartans to the Athenians helps the movie retain a certain freshness. Instead of asshole brash killing machines, the Athenians are portrayed as noble flawed, yet skilled warriors, fighting for unity and justice of Greece. It’s also a more grounded movie than the original, with less fantastical elements, and a more adult story. As the leader of the Athenian army, Themistocles’ journey of freedom and redemption has more resonance than Leonidas ranting about DEATH AND GLORY while kicking messengers down pits. Personally, it allows for easier support and investment in the story. The movie spends an inordinate amount of time explaining the backstory and desires of the principal characters. Some may enjoy the added character development, while others will just bide their time into the next set piece.
Anyone who watches genre movies understands that it takes skill to add believability and soul to an often ridiculous setting. Gerard Butler was the primary reason for 300’s success, and his shadow looms large throughout the film. The movie makes a wise decision in presenting Themistocles as a more human character. Played by Sullivan Stapleton of Cinemax’s Strike Back, he’s portrayed as a quiet thoughtful warrior wracked by responsibility and guilt, yet resolute in his dream of a united Greece. My first impression was that he was a bit dull, until I realized that I was comparing him to Leonidas. In actuality, he serves as the heart of the film, playing a more difficult character. Lena Headey aka the chick from Game of Thrones reprises her role as Queen Gorgo, basically serving as the narrator of the film. From her initial haughty arrogance when rebuffing Athens call for help, to bitterness and sadness from her husband’s death, to her eventual resolute fury when seizing revenge, she plays her role effectively. But the star of the movie by far is Eva Green, as Artemesia, naval commander of the Persians and the primary antagonist. As a Greek who swears vengeance on her own people, I can’t recall the last movie which starred a terrifying, sexy, powerful, psychotic and charismatic female villain. Every scene is dominated with her presence, almost to the point of her serving as an anti-hero. Similar to how 300 was the Gerard Butler show, this film is her personal playground.
Watching a violent yet erotic sex scene in 3D in a crowded film is an experience in itself. If you need one reason to see this movie, then see it for her. As for the other characters, they serve as bridges from the first film, as well as plot devices to give weight to the primary characters. I haven’t mentioned Xerxes as a major character, because quite frankly, he doesn’t earn that role. But there’s nothing wrong with a towering walking Oscar statue prancing around like a prima donna.
I definitely recommend this film. It’s not without flaws – there’s less humor than the original. In addition, although it tells a nobler story, it has less weight of consequence due to its status as a prequel/interquel as well as sequel. And it also has a rather infuriating ending. However, if you like seeing men with 8 packs fighting on burning ships while riding a horse under water, then go see 300: Rise of an Empire. And seize your damn glory. -Shahid