Today: July 21, 2024

300: Rise of an Empire

300 back in 2007 is reasonably well remembered for quite a few reasons, not least for the sheer violence and for it being when director Zack Snyder developed his signature style. However, it was a film with quite a few issues, such as the ludicrous testosterone levels of almost every frame, and a more than slightly dodgy set of ethics and politics. This mainly came from the source material, the comic by Sin City writer Frank Miller. Now in the same year that Sin City 2 finally hit the screens, there’s also this belated sequel to one of his adaptations, 300 Rise of an Empire. Actually, given the way the story goes here, sequel may not be the right word…

At the Battle of Marathon, General Themisticles of Athens (Sullivan Stapleton) fired the shot that killed Persian King Darius. This lead his son Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) down a path of vengeance, guided by Admiral Artemisia (Eva Green), who has her own vendetta with Greece. Now reborn as a God-King, Xerxes brings a new war to Greece, with Artemisia at the head of the Navy. Themisiticles goes to meet her in battle, but knows he needs a great, united force to stop her. Perhaps Leonidas and the 300 Spartans’ stand could be the opportunity he needs…

At first glance, given the way 300 ended, a follow-up seems more than a bit superfluous, given it ended pretty definitively. However, one smart thing this does is to put the events of the first film in the context of the greater Greco-Persian war it’s battle was part of. As such, you really need to have seen the first one, as it is intertwined all the way through this story. We cover the origins of several characters from the first, see what else was happening while Leonidas and his men fought at the Hot Gates, and how the aftermath of that battle was then used as a rallying propaganda cry to arms. This does mean that quite a few cast members of the first turn up (Lena Headey, David Wenham…), but don’t often get that much to do. It’s a pretty organic way of trying to expand the universe, although it does still apply the first film’s loose standards of historical accuracy to the events of the Battles of Artemisium and Salamis. For example, there’s a reason you don’t recall giant iron-clad Persian oil spewing dreadnaught’s of doom from your history lessons…

One of the reasons the first film worked so well was because a lot of it was based around the sheer force of personality of one of the leads. There it was naturally King Leonidas as portrayed by Gerard Butler, and his shoutyness is kind of missed here (there’s a good reason people still quote “THIS! IS! SPAR-TA!!!”). Here it’s actually antagonist Artemisia, played by Eva Green, who incidentally is also in Frank Miller adaptation Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, playing another femme fatale. She has an incredible screen presence, and is definitely having a blast playing a tough as nails admiral. This is also aided by a lot of elaborate costume choices, which a lot of cosplayers are probably going to have fun with for years to come. She’s still hampered by being a very Frank Miller-ish female character (well, at least in spirit; the script is based on a graphic novel, Xerxes, that still hasn’t been released yet), meaning a lot of her existence revolves around her sexuality. But the somewhat ridiculous sex scene she has here does lead to one hell of a one-liner in the film’s finale.

The thing is though, she’s pretty much overshadows everything else the film has to offer. The story, while trying to widen out the scope of events, still follows almost to the letter the same story-beats of 300. Even a meeting between Themisocles and Artemisia happens almost exactly at the same time when Leonidas and Xerxes met first film (although here it goes very different to that encounter; see last paragraph!). There’s the sheer amount of action and carnage one might expect from this franchise, although the CGI blood being shed looks more like Ragu than anything else. The focus on naval warfare gives us something different to look at this film, and the combat is pretty memorable. However, by the end the action does get more than a bit repetitive, even with the sight of a horse leaping from ship-to-ship through fire. Also, while director Noam Munro has adopted Zack Snyder’s style well (including the ubiquitous slow-mo/speed up moments), the whole film has a much darker pallet, making it a lot less comic-bookish and fun. Finally, while the story does take digs at some of the first film’s politics (like portraying Leonidas’ stand as being the suicidal move that it was, only useful in making martyrs to the Greek cause), it’s still a lot of white guys with air-brushed abs killing a lot of people from the Middle East. Well at least the almost fantasy elements from first time have been toned.

300 Rise of an Empire is a good follow-up to the original, but is still not that great. Not that the original has aged all that well. The film is ambitious in trying for this bigger picture approach, going for something like real history, but can’t quite pull off being that and a big dumb action movie. There’s a lot of bloody carnage, but most video-games these days have better looking CG gore than this. Still, Eva Green and a lot of the cast are fun to watch, and it’s nice to get a bit of closure for a few of the characters from the first (and some unexpected extra dimensions from a few who only had a scene or two first time). It’s well worth a rental if you have good memories of the original, and it can divert for an evening, but not much more than that. It does have some excellent choices though, including a very appropriate choice of end credits song; War Pigs by Black Sabbath. Extra points there.

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