The ability to sequelize, prequelize, and sidequel-ize (it is a thing) has become commonplace in Hollywood. Nonetheless, the fact that Zack Snyder and Warner Brothers found a way to continue the story of 300—a film about 300 Spartans who (spoiler alert) all get massacred at the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC—is a real studio hat trick. Particularly when this week’s 300: Rise of an Empire manages to be all three of those things at once.
Rise of an Empire is firstly a prequel to the original 300, as it recounts how Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) became the God-King. Next, it’s a companion piece to the original 2007 film that tells of how Athenian ships, commanded by Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton), went to war with the far superior Persian fleet. And finally, it picks up the pieces of both battles when Athens and Sparta join forces against the dastardly Persians following the death of the noble King Leonidas, glimpsed in Gerard Butler’s divine physique via stock footage.
More than a bit ambitious, 300: Rise of an Empire threatens to drown in its “tidal wave of heroes’ blood,” not to mention muddled narrative strands, if not for its true secret weapon: Eva Green as Artemisia.
Yes, despite the marketing of Stapleton’s Themistocles as the new Leonidas, and the return of the original’s Lena Headey and David Wenham for extended cameo roles, Rise of an Empire belongs entirely to Green who watches her co-stars with devilish glee, knowing no matter how hard they try to flex their muscles, acting or otherwise, that at any moment she will devour the screen whole and leave only scraps of bare bones for the rest. The French beauty isn’t just beaming that wolfish grin because she is about to kill or screw those other characters (which she does too); she knows that she has already conquered the film, and their attempt to leave any sort of fleeting impression next to her is as likely as Leonidas returning from the Battle of Thermopylae.
Ironically for such a boy’s club franchise, Green’s Artemisia becomes the focal point of the film when at the halfway mark, it segues into her origin as a Greek woman (true) who rose in the ranks of Persian power until she became the preeminent naval commander for Darius I, Xerxes’ father. Indeed, in the movie’s version of history, it is Artemisia who lets Darius die after he loses his taste for Greek war following the Battle of Marathon, and it is Artemisia who coaxes a weak-minded Xerxes throughout a decade of brainwashing to believe that he is actually a God-King, destined to reign over a devastated Greece, the homeland that killed her family and stole her innocence so many years ago.
Artemisia so dominates 300: Rise of an Empire by getting all the best lines (“Today we will dance across the backs of dead Greeks”), all the best scenes (she makes out with the severed head of a Greco enemy who said one too many mean things about her), and all the best kills, that it becomes a hindrance for the rest of the picture. In comparison, Sullivan Stapleton, best known for Cinemax’s Strike Back TV Series, is not allowed to showcase any of the actual talent he promised in 2010’s Animal Kingdom. Wearing a royal blue cape, as opposed to the blood-red cloaks of the Spartans, there is little else meant to differentiate him from Leonidas. In fact, despite the Athenians serving as a caricature of how graphic novelist Frank Miller viewed anti-war liberals in the original 300 (ineffectual, effeminate, “boy-lovers”), the Athenians and Spartans are indistinguishable save for color-coding garments in this go-round.
The single thing left to believe that this is based on Miller’s unpublished Xerxes graphic novel is that the film paints the entire war as the makings of a spiteful woman. It can’t get much more Frank Miller than that. In this kind of story, the dangerous woman dominates all. Even in the absurdly cartoonish sex scene between Artemisia and Themistocles, a titillation so gratuitous that it borders on glorious, Green still ends up on top. Essentially the movie in 90 seconds, you can struggle, resist, and boast of defiance, but at the bottom of a shattered table and wounded pride is another sequence where Green walks (or limps) away with the whole damn thing.
Director Noam Murro, whose sole previous feature credit was 2008’s quirk-bland hybrid Smart People, does a serviceable job emulating Snyder’s visual gusto for hyper-real comic book violence. Limbs are cleaved from bodies, flesh is lit in exalted fire with slow motion, and the speed ramping lingers on all the right decapitations. But for all the tedium that sets in by the 30-minute mark of Zack Snyder’s 2007 video game cinematic, there was no denying that Snyder took a visceral pleasure in the wondrous slaughter, much like Miller’s original graphic novel. Conversely, Murro maintains the speed-ramping gore galore, but the heart isn’t onscreen, despite all the disemboweled organs decorating the movie’s CGI landscapes. Like all of 300’s subsequent imitators, including Immortals and Starz’s cult hit Spartacus series, the blood fetish is more than quenched in a stylish way, but few have the tangible joy for it that explodes in Snyder’s hands.
Luckily, there are still several sequences that gorehounds and mere action fans can get behind. While not as simply pleasurable as the ancient conceit of “few who stood against many” (also known as Brave White Men Dying Bravely Syndrome), the inherently more complex naval battles of the sequel, particularly during The Battle of Artemisium, create greater visual diversity. In particular, the first day of warring features Artemisia’s ships descending upon the humbled Athenian fleet in the midst of a CGI hurricane with Persian ships crossing slowly sloping tidal waves like the Wildebeests crashing down on Simba. It is giggle-inducing in the best way possible. Similarly, the final action sequence of the film, set during the Battle of Salamis, features a stampeding horse of more heroism and charisma than any Greek soldier in the movie; this black stallion gallops across multiple sinking and burning ships on a suicide mission to land Themistocles’ blade against Artemisia’s. When even the horse’s eyes get the deified slow-ramping treatment as it deals crushing death to Persian skulls, the movie captures glimpses of the batty excess that made the first one so popular.
Ultimately, for fans and detractors of 300 alike, the first film is still the stronger effort. The clarity of the Hot Gates’ legacy leant itself to the ultimate expression of a “bro movie” (or a fascist’s for its harshest critics). Also, as hammy as it could be, Butler’s performance oozed charisma with one ludicrous line after another. By attempting to be many things in its continuation of that short story, 300: Rise of an Empire never quite succeeds at any one element, and suffers from a confused timeline in relation to Xerxes sacking Athens, his conquest of Leonidas, and just when exactly each battle is occurring. The film’s grace note is the deliriously macabre performance from Green whose talent, and ability to chew scenery, eclipses even Butler’s efforts, but is found wanting in a heroic foil. There is still enough gore and several clever set-pieces to satisfy fans, as well as an open-ending for more bloodletting to come. To a few that will be enough to stand strong, but for many, a hastened retreat is likely the best course of action.