Published Jun 24, 2014When the original 300 was released in the spring of 2007, there was no Spartacus, no Game of Thrones, and CGI-rendered blood splatters and backgrounds were still novel concepts to theatregoers. All that is to say that, in 2007, 300 felt fresh. And because in Hollywood no good idea goes unfranchised, we get 300: Rise of an Empire.
Narrated by Leonidas' widow, Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey), Rise of an Empire tackles the same Persian invasion we saw in 300 through the lens of Athens. The film opens on the Battle of Marathon in which General Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) kills the Persian King, Darius, in front of his son, Xerxes. Incensed and egged on by Artemisia (Eva Green), Xerxes seeks revenge for his father's death; a spiritual awakening turns him into the God-King we saw in the first film. From there, the events of Rise run parallel to its predecessor, occasionally intersecting with the original's timeline. Themistocles gathers a ramshackle navy and sets out to defend Greece from the teeming enemy hordes on the high seas, thereby setting into motion a series of CGI-enabled battle scenes dragged out by start-stop slow-mo cuts (I wonder how much time they could shave off if the entire film was run in real time?).
Revenge is the film's driving force: Xerxes blames Greece for the death of his father; Artemisia, Greek born but sold into sex slavery as a child, wants vengeance for the wrongs done to her and her family. Her wrath is further emboldened after Themistocles rebuffs her sexual advances, but only after we get one of the more incongruous sex scenes of the past few years. It's tempting to read a modern allegory about a tyrannical regime from the East invading a "free" city in the west, but to do that would give Rise of an Empire too much credit. This film exists so that audiences can witness another orgy of impossibly buff men severing each other's limbs.
That worked well in the original because of that film's simple plot — 300 soldiers defending their home from the invading hordes — allowed director Zack Snyder to turn its violent carnage into a ballet of blood. He opted out of directing his own sequel, ceding control to director Noam Murro, whose only other feature credit is the half-baked 2008 indie dramedy Smart People. Where Snyder used the digital backlot method to build his world, Murro simply fills in his backgrounds in a cost efficient manner.
Snyder still stuck around to co-write the script with Kurt Johnstad from a story hatched by original 300 author Frank Miller. Here, they overcomplicate matters with long back stories and side scenes, curiously giving Stapleton little to work with when it comes to Themistocles, Rise of an Empire's stand-in for King Leonidas, who's reduced to nothing more than a pretty face that will have viewers yearning for the comparatively charismatic Gerard Butler. Conversely, Green doesn't just chew scenery; she turns it into a five-course meal. No wonder we're rooting for her by film's end, rather than the supposed "heroes."
The Blu-ray release includes a number of "making-of" features stuffed with producers and crew espousing the film's technical achievements, while casually skirting around its crass lack of soul. No sales job can hide the fact that 300: Rise of an Empire is the worst kind of blockbuster sequel: overstuffed, humourless and visually dull.