If you were a diehard Spartan in one of 10 major cities this evening, then chances are you got to enjoy the first 13 glorious minutes of 300: Rise of an Empire, which was screened by Warner Bros. for fans in 3D. However, for the many more who didn’t have such fortune as to bask in the crimson ecstasy of slow-ramping IMAX immortality, we’re here to give you a taste of the bloodletting to come. And there is a lot.
Prior to the 300: Rise of an Empire preview, a relatively full New York theater (at least in the fan sections) was greeted to a video introduction by Lena Headey, who was her usual poised, easy-going British self. As the actress noted in her video salute to the fans, it has been seven years since the original 300 graced big screens like a slow-motion ballet of gore and overcompensating masculinity. However, Headey has become an old pro of mythology and fan-heavy entertainments, including her cult beloved TV series Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and her beloved (period) TV series Game of Thrones. So, clearly an old hand at this, she smiled as she reminisced on the first film being a visual and visceral treat, as well on how any recordings of this footage would be a betrayal of her trust. And we all know how Spartans deal with trust.
Once the actual footage opened up, the movie earned its 300 moniker with the immediate return of King Leonidas and his brave, dead, dead, dead martyrs on the field of Thermopylae. Their eulogized sacrifice is so grand that it actually begins as a stone mural of hagiographic splendor. Sadly, it turns to the grim and bloody shot witnessed in the 2007 film. Yet, there is a new addition, for standing over the noble Leonidas is the dastardly Persian God-King Xerxes, bathed in effervescent gold as he swings down an axe upon Leonidas’ head (as seen in the 300: Rise of an Empire trailer) for an assured decapitation. Surprisingly though, the skull removal is tastefully avoided for a fadeout by new director Noam Murro who chooses to show a restraint not normally exercised by the previous installment’s helmer, Zack Snyder (who co-wrote the screenplay and is producing this sequel).
But fret not gore-hounds, this is not a sanitized vision of the Frank Miller world. In fact, the next shot would have done Miller proud: as the opening voice over narration begins for this film (provided for by Headey’s Queen Gordo for this installment, as opposed to David Wenham’s fabler services from 2007), a frightening vision of the sacking of Athens is visualized, including a well-endowed starlet being disrobed of her dress’s top in fine-tuned slow-motion. There is also our first taste of bloodletting at this 30-second mark, as the great Athens burns.
Cut to Queen Gorgo standing with a naval ship full of brave, half-naked Greeks ready to lay down their lives with every passing word from the lips of Leonidas’ widow. Gorgo regales her warriors that Greece has not been united by the death of 300 Spartans, but by the threat to their freedom from Xerxes…which began 10 years prior to these transgressions (including the previous film). In a surprising and refreshing move, Snyder’s screenplay has dug deeper into the Ancient Greco history than Miller’s own book did, as he flashes back to the previous war between the Greeks and Persians from a time when it was Xerxes’ father, King Darius I, who found himself “annoyed by Greek freedom.” Enter the Battle of Marathon.
During this epic battle, which we are only treated to a snippet of, it is Athenians (not Spartans!) who are depicted in a heroic light that will shine throughout the centuries! Despite being portrayed in Frank Miller’s graphic novel and the subsequent film as “boy-lovers” and effete pedophiles, 300: Rise of an Empire takes a more charitable approach to the ancient city of intelligentsia by presenting them…pretty much as Spartans, save for their capes are blue.
In particular magnificence is our first glimpse of Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton), a strapping young Athenian who lays siege on one Persian corpse-in-waiting after another. This is where the 3D blood really flies. The battle shows how much Snyder’s slow-motion ramping has been successfully emulated in the passing seven years and is executed with genuine competence here, albeit some of Snyder’s more joyous flourishes appeared to be absent in this brief tease of Murro’s approach to the style. Nonetheless, plenty of blood flies, and even more people die as Persians are stabbed, impaled, disemboweled, and gutted in the case of one particularly stupid invader who jumps into Themistocles’ spear. Still, the money shot is undoubtedly when Themistocles’ horse gets into the carnage as the white sheets of the night sky flash a deadly sheen in its eye, and its hooves find a stumbled Persian’s head in marvelously detailed slow-motion. Surely this horse’s name is Lightning, for it brought the thunder on that Persian’s cracking skull.
But the real reason for this featured bloodbath is the film’s invention that it was Themistocles’ own arrow that found Darius I’s heart. In a one-in-a-million shot, Themistocles fires a volley of death from the shores of Marathon across the sea and into the Persian King’s chest while on the sea. Yet, as Gorgo explains to her compatriots (and us), Themistocles knew even then that this killing shot, which made him forevermore an Athenian of political clout, was a mistake….because he missed the true monster, Xerxes. Even as a young man and a league away from the Marathon coast, Themistocles could tell Xerxes was a creature of infinite ambition.
That ambition is revealed in the following scenes, as the remainder of these 13 minutes turns into an origin story for the God-King we know from the original 300. Themistocles’ wound was so grievous that the Persian emperor dare not even have the arrow removed during his travels all the way home to his palace, where both young and hairy Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) and Artemisia (Eva Green) waited by his deathbed. Green is given an especially lavish introduction as she enters the palace and poses for the camera with all grimace and deadly beauty (underlined by her form fitting armor that even at peacetime indicates she craves war). When Darius begs his son to leave the Greeks to their nature, for only gods can stop them, Artemisia pulls the arrow from his chest and lets him bleed out. She then consoles a grieving Xerxes, “Your father’s final words were not a warning. They were a challenge,” she whispers sweetly in his ear. As a king, Xerxes cannot defeat the Greeks. But if he becomes a god? Let’s be honest, if Eva Green whispered that into your ear, you’d believe her too.
Xerxes takes Artemisia’s words to heart and walks for many days and nights, bathed in Persian robes, through Middle-Eastern deserts like a centuries-early messiah. He wanders until he finds an ancient temple watched over by Persian priests with its own super-special, golden Lazarus Pit. They dip Xerxes in the gold, washing away every trace “of humanity from the Xerxes of old.” Enters the young, angry son of a dead father with his hair and a beard in tact. Exits the bald, hairless, androgynous demi-god in need of a Glam Rock band from the 2007 movie. A villain is born.
The film cuts to a montage as Artemisia prepares for Xerxes’ coronation to true power by slaughtering every last single friend, peer, and mentor of Xerxes’ youth in the palace, until it is only her and Xerxes. When he returns, the God-King finds a devilishly smiling Artemisia ready to bow to his supposed supremacy as he rises to the palace’s balcony for his strike a (Fuhrer) pose moment before his legions of subjects. However, his words of claiming glory and vengeance on the Greeks are, as astutely pointed out by the narrating Gorgo, not his own. As he gives his speech, Artemisia lips the words along, fulfilling her intended “manipulation” (Gorgo’s word, not mine). So behind the greatest evil of Ancient Greece is a scheming woman and superstitious myticism from the Far East? Yep, this still feels VERY Frank Miller to me!
Thus ended the new footage, dovetailing into the newly-minted IMAX 3D version of the original 300, which undoubtedly will be making the rounds in wider distribution come March. Overall, it was every bit as epic, boisterous, and staggeringly inaccurate to history as the original (Darius I was not at Marathon and died three years later from failing health while planning an Egyptian campaign for starters, nor was Athens likely burned). However, I can safely say that for fans of the original 300, much of the same goofy splendor and wildly excessive gore, sex, and more gore is present. It is unclear from these 13 minutes if the action will have quite the same eye-catching dazzle of Snyder’s take on this world (it is his specialty). Nor is Stapleton given many (or any) lines to contrast to Gerard Butler’s star-making role. But the same visual beefiness is on full display, and honestly Eva Green feels like a magnificent addition to this swords and sandals franchise.