[7 March 2014]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
With its unusual approach, slo-mo splatter, and acres of semi-naked male flesh, Zack Snyder’s 300 was a motion picture game changer. From its George Lucas level of digital manipulation to the slightly homoerotic source it started from (Frank Miller’s fictional retelling of the famed Battle of Thermopylae), the movie turned tired old Greek history into the stuff of gory battle rent boy brilliance. It was hamfisted and macho, made up of rippling biceps, undeniable abs, and enough muscular thighs to make Colonel Sanders swoon with delight. It was and remains an experience of defiance, of men standing on their own and struggling to show the rest of Greece how not to bow down to tyranny.
Now comes a “wraprequel” - a wrap around narrative which sets up the first 300, with events happening concurrently and afterwards included - entitled 300: Rise of an Empire and, if anything, it’s even more crazy than the original. Director Noam Murro, pulling the Tobe Hooper duty for Snyder’s Spielberg ala Poltergeist, mimics the first movie’s stylized battle ballets to a fault, then adds his own distinct dimension in the form of gallons and gallons of grue. Every hit, every moment of well honed steel slicing flesh, turns the screen into a spin art version of bloodletting. Gore floats across the 70 foot cinematic canvas like a serial killer channeling Jackson Pollack.
The most important thing here, though, is the new focus on the female. While 300 was a man’s man’s man’s world movie, Rise of an Empire shifts over to Queen Gorgo (Lena Heady) and her hard road trying to protect Sparta after the death of her husband King Leonidas (Gerard Butler is back, if only in snippets from the original film). There’s also a new character, Artemisia (Eva Green). She is Greek, but after being captured and brutalized by the Persians, she is adopted by their leader, Darius I (Yigal Naor). This makes her “brother” Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) angry and as they grow, it becomes an interpersonal struggle to find their father’s favor.
Ten years prior to Thermopylae, another Greek named Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) confronts, Darius in battle, and mortally wounds him. Sensing that Xerxes is not a powerful enough leader, Artemisia screws with his brain, turning him into a “God King.” She then convinces him to let her overrun Greece with her massive naval forces. Unfortunately, Themistocles is prepared for her arrival, and they spend most of the movie trying to out-maneuver each other, militarily. Finally, Xerxes takes Athens, which leads both Artemisia and her foes to face off for final control of the seas.
Even with all the man meat in evidence, 300: Rise of an Empire belongs to Eva Green. Her Artemisia is a powerful presence, scenery chewing and challenging the male dominated dynamic of such scenarios. She’s all flashed white teeth and narrowing eyes, a single moustache twirl away from a classic villain character. Yet thanks to the backstory given her, and the non-traditional role she maintains, we forgive the occasional overacting throwbacks. While Murro is busy filling the screen with expertly placed plasma, his actress is creating a character we can root for, even if she’s clearly in the “love to hate” category.
Indeed, Artemisia’s struggle is an understandable one, an inner fight forged out of her horrible early circumstances. The movie goes to great lengths to show how, as a very young girl, she was raped (inferred, not shown) repeatedly by her Persian captures. Her change of heart comes when Darius adopts her, allowing her a place next to him in the court. She trains hard and becomes an expert warrior. Her hatred of Xerxes is based in his cowardice, and then his misplaced hubris. While she is out on the water winning battles, he is off in his tent surrounded by nubile, naked women and slavish sycophants.
As much as the golden giant God King meant to the first film, Artemisia means that much more to 300: Rise of an Empire. Her strategies are understandable and her defeats even more so. She is pride and prejudice within a leather bodiced bravura. She even uses her feminine wiles to get back at Themistocles for what he did to her dad. As dimensional elements - dust, water spray, fire ash - fall around them, these two enter into a sexual coupling that is destined to de-evolve into military meaning. She thinks he can be wooed with his…manhood. He proves that the only thing that sways him is the concept of conquest…and the saving of Greece.
In fact, the broader scope of 300: Rise of an Empire may be its sole Achilles Heel. While the fighting and flesh rendering are reminders of our first foray into this material, the whole political subtext and power struggles, as well as the various locations for these battles, tend to confuse, if only slightly. One moment, we’re 10 years in the past. The next, Athens has fallen and Themistocles is begging Queen Gorgo for Sparta’s help in driving back the Persians (Lena Heady disappears early on, but gets to return with a hero-moment vengeance). Thankfully, the arterial spray segments keep things from getting too Star Wars prequels complex, even if the final resolution suggest a last movie in this flexible film franchise.
Indeed, with the return of bit players from the previous outing (the man who trains Artemisia is also the messenger cast down the well by King Leonidas, the turncoat hunchback is back for more treason) and its links to the characters we’ve come to know before, 300: Rise of an Empire reminds one of Sam Raimi’s raucous Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn. It’s not 100% the first film, but it’s enough of it to keep this movie from having to maneuver under its own power. It will be interesting to see if the money is there to manage a third installment. While Murro has the style, it will be the substance that turns the next potential 300 into either a hit or a miss. This time around, the sisters are doing it all for themselves.