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Josh Reviews 300: Rise of an Empire

March 26th, 2014

Im preparation for seeing 300: Rise of an Empire, I recently went back and re-watched Zack Snder’s film 300 for the first time in a while.  While 300 might not be a GREAT film, I do continue to love it.  I’m impressed by Zack Snyder’s creativity in creating an extraordinarily faithful adaptation of Frank Miller’s original graphic novel.  While many of the stylistic devices used by Mr. Snyder are now overly familiar, when 300 was first released I found them to be incredibly original and inventive, a delightful way to bring the extraordinary images of Frank Miller’s panels to life on a movie screen.  Rather than trying to make this story more realistic, Mr. Snyder leaned heavily into the fantasy of Mr. Miller’s graphic novel.  Every frame of 300 has been manipulated digitally to create an exaggerated, fantastical world for this crazy story.  The result is absolutely gorgeous, and a movie that, in my mind, remains a rather unique and wonderful creation.

It’s not a film for everyone, that’s for sure.  There’s an overload of sex and violence that I could see being off-putting to many.  I also think the film is slightly troubling in its embrace of the Spartans (as presented in the film, I’m not going to analyze the story’s historical accuracy) and their brutal warrior creed.  This society that is presented in the film as an idealized, heroic nation is, frankly, quite horrifying to me.  These are a people who kill any baby they find slightly imperfect, who take male children from their mothers to indoctrinate them into a culture of war and violence, and who aspire to nothing more than a Klingon-like “beautiful death” in battle.  This is a hard group of people to root for!  (This was an issue with Mr. Miller’s original story as well.)  But I still find it impossible not to get swept up in the big, crazy, fantastical epic that is the film.

As much as I enjoy 300, it’s not a movie I ever felt cried out for a sequel.  And even if a sequel might once have been appealing, as the release of 300: Rise of an Empire drew near, I couldn’t help but wonder whether the time for a sequel had passed.  It’s been eight years since the release of Zack Snyder’s 300, and, as I noted above, many of the stylistic devices he used in the film (the slow-motion, the speed-ramping, the digital manipulation of the imagery) have now become overused to the point of irrelevancy.

Additionally, while 300 was a direct adaptation of a graphic novel, the story for this sequel is entirely new.  The story is credited to be based on Frank Miller’s graphic novel Xerxes, but that project has never actually been released.  This smells like a story developed because the studios wanted a sequel, and not because of any artistic reason to continue the story.  Lastly, add in the fact that Zack Snyder wasn’t returning to direct the film (he’s credited as a producer), and I was extremely dubious that this film would be any good.

Well, while I still think this is a movie that would have been far more successful had it been released five years ago, color me surprised that I rather enjoyed 300: Rise of an Empire.  I continue to believe that this is not a film that ever needed to exist, and it certainly doesn’t stand on its own as the original 300 did.  But I found it to still be an enjoyable time in a movie theatre.

The film’s structure is clever, in that the film sort of wraps around the events of the original 300.  We spend a lot of time prior to King Leonidas’ last stand, with his 300 Spartan warriors at the “Hot Gates” (the events chronicled in the first film), as we now get to see the death of Xerxes’ father, the Persian king Darius.  We see the transformation of the boy Xerxes into the man-god seen in the first film.  And we see the origin of a new character, the woman behind the rise-to-power of Xerxes, Artemisia (played by Eva Green).  We see that many of the Greek city-states are in conflict with the Persian empire and Xerxes, not just the Spartans.  We see the film’s main character, the Greek hero Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton), as he attempts to rally the city-states to unite to fight the Persians, and we see his naval battles with the Persians that were occurring simultaneously with Leonidas’ last stand.  Finally, we see what happened afterwards, following the slaughter of Leonidas’ Spartan force.

This structure is the film’s strength and also its weakness.  I enjoyed the way this film expanded the canvas of the original movie, telling a much larger story.  On the other hand, this film in no way stands on its own as the original did.  It relies on your having seen and remembered the first film.  It also ends on something of a cliffhanger.  It seems to me that the studio is banking on this being the middle film of a trilogy.  That’s a cool idea if a third film actually happens, but if it doesn’t, then that will hurt my ultimate feelings about this second film.

Sullivan Stapleton isn’t as dynamic a lead as Gerard Butler was a Leonidas in the first film.  (Has Gerard Butler ever been better on-screen than he was in 300??)  But he’s solid enough, and he certainly looks the part.  (The man is buff!)  I was intrigued to see that Themistocles is presented as more of a thinking, feeling hero than the colder, more fascistic Leonidas was.  Indeed, this whole film seems designed in many ways to address my uncomfortability, as mentioned above, with the rigid, violent Spartan society as presented in the first film.  Themistocles and the other Greeks are as uncomfortable with the Spartans as I was, and this film seems more designed to craft our heroes as being both more truly democratic, and also having more heart and humanity than the death-seeking Spartan soldiers of the first film.  It’s an interesting adjustment in tone.

Eva Green is fantastic as the new main villain, Artemisia.  Boy can she chew the scenery with the best of them, and she really gets to cut loose as a wild, wicked woman-warrior in this film.  There’s a crazy version in this film of the usual “villain tries to tempt the hero to his side” scene, in which Artemisia summons Themistocles to her ship and a madcap sex/fight scene erupts.  This sequence raised my eyebrows clean off my head.  It’s nutso and a little uncomfortable (and I deeply question the psychological reality of a multiple rape-victim, as Artemisia is presented as being, using her sexuality in such a way — but I guess this isn’t a film that wants me to spend much time thinking about the reality of this story in any way shape or form) but the scene is also crazy and over the top in the best way.  It’s certainly the most memorable scene in the film, and that’s 99% because of how deeply Ms. Green bites into this role.  She also, I will confess, looks great.

I was surprised and a little bummed that Xerxes wasn’t more the focus of the film.  After getting his origin story at the beginning of the movie, I was surprised that he was mostly sidelined as the villain, in favor of Artemisia.  I suspect he’ll be back front-and-center if a third film is made.

I was pleased that the surviving characters of note from the first film, including Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey), the now one-eyed Dilios (David Wenham), and even the hunchbacked Ephialtes (Andrew Tiernan) were woven back into this story.

While the first film was all about swords and hand-to-hand-combat, this film (while also including a LOT of that!) also contains some tremendously epic naval confrontations.  This was an exciting new direction in which to take the story.  The film also very successfully mimics/continues the first film’s digitally-manipulated look, creating a painterly, fantasy environment for the story to take place in.

Look, if you never saw the original 300, or if you saw it and didn’t like it, then avoid this film at all costs.  If you did like 300, then while this movie is by no means essential viewing, it’s certainly an enjoyable romp and worth seeing.  Shakespeare this is not.  This is a movie with a lot of crazy sex and violence and did I mention violence?  But I found it to be a surprising amount of fun.

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