“300: Rise of an Empire” Movie Review
In the six years since “300” hit with full bombast and bloodletting, the aftershock can still be felt in several corners of the film world. Upon release, “visionary” was the most common descriptor used to trumpet the film’s novelty, mostly a nod to its visual style. Zac Snyder’s “Watchmen” employed the same dark, glossy, high-contrast color palette as if it was the most fitting way to project the graphic novel onto the big screen (Snyder would hope to seize the style as all his own with “Sucker Punch”). Snyder himself was awarded the Superman reboot; Gerard Butler was catapulted into popularity, landing in a series of hazily memorable action films and romantic comedies. “300” is a testament to the power of recognizablility—not many folks loved “300”, but it is nearly impossible to forget. It all seemed confidently fresh: the cinematography, the battle cries, the swinging weaponry tracked in slow motion.
“300: Rise of an Empire” is on a mission to reignite this wonderment. Again, Frank Miller provides the inspiration (from an unpublished work), the lead is a far from a household name (Sullivan Stapleton), and the stylization returns, though without an accompanying feeling of ambitiousness. Also as with “300”, “Rise of an Empire” is a piece of historical fiction—though to say it is a loose retelling of actual events would be a monumental understatement. The principal players are probably the only, if not one of the very few, elements to have carried forward over the last 1500 years, so scholars of ancient Greece and Persia need not waste any breath debating the historical merits. Interestingly, the Battle of Artemisium of which “Rise of an Empire” depicts unfolded concurrently to the Battle of Thermopylae, from the original “300”, hence to call this a true ‘sequel’ would be inaccurate, at least in a linear sense.
This small fact establishes a creative kinship between the two films, and King Leonidas appears momentarily to offer a satisfyingly resolute look—his failing effort was simply a prelude to the Persian Empire’s eventual reckoning. And so hope is carried on through the equally chiseled, ruggedly handsome Themistocles, an Athenian general whose clever battlefield tactics are one of the film’s bright spots. Opposite him is Artemisia, played by the luscious Eva Green, whose backstory of rape, torture, and imprisonment at the hands of the Greeks almost had me switching sides. Her quest for vengeance is zealously unrelenting, her presence ghoulish as she saunters flightily to and fro with a cackle reminiscent of the voice of Zuul. All the while she is kept on a short leash—quite a long short leash, that is—by the gold-dipped King Xerxes, who assumed omniscience after bathing himself in a pool of evilness.
There may be more to that last plot point, but something to dazzle your eye is surely around the bend to be a distraction. The success of “Rise of an Empire”, like “300” before it, is painstakingly variable. I say painstaking because film aficionados, casual moviegoers, and everyone in between will differ on what the film seeks to accomplish.
Is the artistry the statement? “Rise of an Empire” is cool to watch, and understanding that I am expected to suspend all belief at the door (and actually invite in absurdity), I had fun cycling through all the maudlin images and plethoric naval battles. The film is nothing if not a brainchild of rampant imagination, one satiated by the visceral triggers of violence and sex. Of course, the comical elements stand out the most: as when Ms. Green decapitates an underling, kisses his lifeless head, and tosses it aside in an instance of utterly useless slow motion.
Is the modern cultural relevance the statement? Ideas of ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’ are what drive these men, along with loyalty to homeland, family, and friendship. Grandiose rhetoric only goes so far to the discerning ear; while lines like, “We would rather die on our feet than live on our knees” offer flashes of inspiration, great war films work our core to such excoriating effect that the do-or-die mentality becomes our own. (Think what “Saving Private Ryan” did—a breathtakingly realistic invasion showed us the chaotic horror of war, the worst of the worst; over the next two hours we encounter ethical dilemmas and hear boyhood stories, thickening the life of war; by the end, we may not know the environment, but because parts of us are in these men, we know the feelings.) In “Rise of an Empire”, the only emphasis on our humanity comes from a father/son story threaded in less than delicately (and I would guess only the most patriotic of us would agree that dying for our country is a responsibility akin to dying for our family). Even the film’s marketing campaign is inconsistent: “Rise of an Empire” posters tell you to “Seize Your Glory” in a blatant nod to the self. Are we trying to rally around the troops here, or not?
It may help to think about what we are being asked to take away from with the film. This is different than being asked what we remember about the film, and I hesitate to give any filmmaking team short shrift just because they convinced Ms. Green to go topless, thereby allowing them to fully justify their ‘R’ rating (that’ll just make the kids want to see it more). But overall, “Rise of an Empire” is the kind of film in which I feel like I am not being taken seriously as an audience member. In our position, asking for something we haven’t seen before, heard before, or considered before is the very minimum we are allowed. “300” may pass on a few of these marks; “Rise of an Empire”—though you need to wait until its climatic, final scene to see if it will—did not.
Maybe the action sequences drowning out these cookie-cutter themes is a backhanded way to acknowledge our society’s quickness to neglect substance, so far as we have a glut of flashy images to keep us fat and giggly? I doubt this is true, and in it I assume a lack of substance, but my critical sense sometimes tries to appeal to even the most skeptical viewers. After all, why not just go for some escapist kitsch? Because there is good escapist kitsch, and bad escapist kitsch, and as Potter Stewart famously penned when writing about how to recognize hardcore pornography, “I know it when I see it.”