Athens is really Sparta's weaker cousin.
If 300’s over-the-top style,linear storytelling, boss fights, and CG cutscenes are in fact the cinematic equivalent of a video game, than it’s sequel/prequel, 300: Rise of an Empire, is akin to a water level. The follow-up to the 2007 surprise success is murky, awkward and not nearly as fun as Snyder’s original film.
300: Rise of an Empire follows the story of Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton), the Athenian warrior responsible for killing Xerxes’ father, Darius, and sending Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) on his maniacal war campaign against the Greek city-states. Themistokles is an accomplished naval commander and believes that a united Greece can stand strong against the Persian forces.
When he’s not out disemboweling the enemy, he spends his time trying to convince the Spartan Queen Gogol (Lena Headey) that it is in Sparta’s and Greece’s best interests to unite on the seas against the eastern invaders. The events of the original 300 occur midway through the film and undoubtedly have a strong impact on Gogol’s final decision.
On the Persian side, Xerxes has sent out his own naval commander, Artemisia (Vera Green). Greek by birth, her family was brutally killed by her own “countrymen”, herself held captive until the raiders had no use for her. She was saved by a Persian emissary and is partially responsible for Xerxes god-like status. To say she has a hatred for the Greeks is an understatement.
Artemisia and Themistokles meet over and over again in battle, constantly one-upping each other, but never having ultimate success. Their rivalry—sprinkled with a little bit of begrudging admiration and an awkward sex scene (Snyder’s MO)—is the core of the film and exceeds the simple me versus you of the Leonidas and Xerxes conflict from the first film.
Green’s performance is delightfully over the top, channeling her character’s troubled past into a tormented present, relishing in her power as queen of the navy but jealous at playing second fiddle to the men. Her costumes are almost as outlandish as her penchant for making out with dismembered heads.
On the other hand, Stapleton’s Themistokles, the Athenian golden-boy, is a bit more restrained than the likes of Artemisia, Xerxes and Leonidas. At times, he runs the risk of blurring into the background of brown-haired, light-skinned, Greek hardbodies. Stapleton plays the role well, and keeps the story from becoming too unhinged, but he’s not given much work with as an action lead. His heroic speeches are fathoms below those bellowed by Gerard Butler and, like much of the B-plotlines, echo as sallow shades of the first film.
As noted, each character is set up with a back-story at the beginning (again, like in a video game), so that the audience knows why they are doing what they are doing. However, what gives motivation to a character can also destroy the mythical elements and mystery that made something like the original 300 work.
In that movie, Xerxes was this crazy, seven-foot god-king that commanded an army of monsters that the Spartans had never seen before. Given the story was told largely from the Spartan point of view, by inbred warriors who had never left their peninsula, the over-the-top nature was appropriate and back story was not needed.
In Rise of an Empire, we see how Xerxes went from an everyday-Persian prince to a bald and pierced badass. I suppose this is taken from Frank Miller’s graphic novel about the god-king, but it weakens the villain in the eyes of the audience by removing any hint of danger (especially when that villain rarely does anything after the first ten minutes of the film).
Likewise, many of the larger than life monsters and feats of the Spartans are missing from the naval battles. Grounding the narrative in a more familiar reality takes away some of the other-worldliness, making the myth less entertaining in its over-the-top storytelling.
The cinematography and direction is partially responsible for this lack of awe. Gone are the wide, sun-streaked vistas laid out in the first film. They’ve been replaced with a myriad of night scenes, dark storm clouds and shadows that muddy up the frame. Judging by this movie, the sun-drenched beaches of the Mediterranean sea are themselves a myth, hiding a continuously raging black-water where lighting never stops striking over the murky horizon.
At times the film does reach moments of beauty, such as a sequence involving the ignition of oil-soaked water, or an extended take toward the end where Themistokles does battle with a number of Artemisia’s bodyguards. However, most of the time the camera is close, focusing on the slow-mo bloodletting. The first film was by no means stingy with its use of CG blood, but Rise of an Empire lets the red flow without mercy; it gets old really quickly. Likewise, the use of slow-mo seems to be haphazard, not really adding impetus to the action or demonstrating a particular piece of Spartan flair.
And that’s the problem with the film in general. With regards to both story and style, 300: Rise of an Empire is an ill-defined piece of cinema. While the original 300 was defined by Snyder’s stylistic, the prequel/sequel lacks any clarity. Director Noam Murro does his best to create intense action pieces, but he seems to be split between his own sensibilities and those of his producers (of which Snyder is one).
In this film, we have Snyder’s “epic” slow-mo shots, close-up shaky cam shots, effects laden POV shots, and murky underwater cams. It’s as if the production team couldn’t decide whether to do a straight copy of the first movie or try something new, and instead got something in-between.
The film was shot for 3D, something that is immediately notable and disconcerting when watching from home in the regular Blu-ray mode. While I’m sure the 3D effects like splattered blood on the camera were pretty cool in the theater, at home, without 3D capability, they quickly become boring. There are lots of lens flares and particles of snow/embers/dust flying through the air in every shot.
Extras on the Blu-ray disc include deleted scenes and storyboards, a discussion of the myth and bringing the second story to life, general praise for the cast and crew, and a profile detailing the actors’ training for the film. A series of short pieces details the actual historic events that inspired this film and the original.
300: Rise of an Empire falters under the weight of its simple story. The choice to focus on dark naval battles and de-mythicize its otherworldly villains ruins the purely action-based spectacle of the original film. The title and tagline hint at something epic, but like most video game water levels, even the most hardcore fans will find it frustrating. In the end, it makes one have a new appreciation for what Snyder accomplished stylistically in the first film, and realize how pale the imitations to said style have become.