A Wider Scope, a Female Warrior, and More of the Same

Director: NOAM MURRO/2014

300, and its brand new sequel, 300: Rise of an Empireseek to portray real battles from history as it related to ancient Greece and Persia. And like we are told at the beginning of American Hustle, “Some of this actually happened!”  For those who saw the first film, 300, there probably isn’t a huge draw to see the sequel for the “history” lesson of the film as much as there is to the stylized violence, and bloodbath that ensues with each stroke of the sword.

This new film takes it up a notch from the original film in terms of violence and political manipulation and introduces a naval battle.  Rise of an Empire is effective in widening the scope and focus of the first film, and in fact creates a 300 universe that future films can build upon with new stories that will move it beyond the war against the Persians. If the flashbacks of the first film were problematic, just be warned that this new film serves as a prequel, a sequel, and a concurrent companion-piece to the first film. It is actually an effective way to proceed because it validates the original film as told from a Spartan viewpoint, but places 300 into a larger context as one part of a much larger battle.

Zack Snyder has stepped back from the director’s chair that he occupied in 300.  As producer, howeverhis touch is still all over this film.  And one of the most obvious, but most effective touches is the inclusion of a strong female character.  Here Eva Green (Casino Royale) steps into the role of antagonist, playing Artimisia, a cunning military leader who is in charge of the Persian fleet with her own reasons for exacting extreme punishment to the Greeks she fights.

Frankly, without her, this film does not work.  She obviously is relishing the role, and it makes the film a bit more fun as she is actually able to pack as much punch as any of the guys in battle, but also brings a great femininity to the role that offsets the femme fatale.  It almost had me rooting for Persia, even though that would have been unthinkable in the original film.

And yet, as strong as she is in this film, I think it also reveals the weak underbelly of this sequel.  Namely, that when she isn’t on screen, the film drags and becomes a cheap facsimile to the original300.  Now, I found the widened focus of Rise of an Empire to be a strong point, but the film can only go so far if the actors occupying the roles don’t engage you enough to continue the journey.  And this is why I found myself rooting at times for Persia when the film is purely designed to affirm Greece, democracy, freedom, etc.  The Greek side is just not as interesting.  There are noble themes of family, sacrifice, integrity, and character, but it is not as compelling of a narrative as the hatred and revenge narrative of Artemisia. At least in terms of how both sides are presented in 300: Rise of an Empire.

At first I thought that they would try to focus more on Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), being that we get his backstory of how he became the god-king.  He was the one who laid waste to the Spartans in 300.  Instead, he becomes a bit player and almost inconsequential to the whole sequel, though still important to the tie-in of the original film.  Artemisia is much more interesting of a character, especially given her heritage, and thus overshadows the very person she is supposed to be serving.  Some of this is by design as a plot device, but some of it is just the ability Eva Green has to command the screen.  As such, I felt that in some ways the larger story was sort of hijacked by her character which made the impact of other characters such as Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey), and even Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton), the protagonist bent on a crusade of a united Greece, a bit more muted than it seemed the script intended them to be.

As a sequel, Rise of an Empire, expands the 300 universe and provides more layered reasoning behind the motives of the two warring parties that is more akin to shows such as Game of Thrones.  It provides a truly larger-than-life female villain who breaks the glass ceiling in this type of genre film. However, the stylistic violence seems like old hat coming 7 years after 300 and other Frank Miller inspired films such as Sin City.  This film is also permanently dark, literally, with nearly zero scenes taking place in the day. For all the talk about Greek freedom and unity, everything is just an extension of war. This includes a pivotal sex scene that serves really as an extension of the war raging the rest of the movie, rather than any act of love or passion.

In the end, 300: Rise of an Empire will deliver exactly the blood and battle that it promises.  For those who are craving what it delivers, it will be a welcomed addition.  For everyone else, it will be seen as a mediocre film, despite the strong performance of Eva Green, and the expansion of the larger context it provides for both film entries. I suspect that while Dave Henry (read his review here) liked this film a lot more than I, he may be right about it being a subversively anti-war film.  The biggest clue will be the closing credits as Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” blasts through the speakers.  For most people, the impact of the film will be over by the time you walk out of the theater.