Almost ten years after Zack Snyder’s adaptation of Frank Miller’s 300, we, the moviegoing public, get a sequel to the stylized fantasy retelling of the second Persian invasion of Greece. While the moment in history these films represent is a truly fantastic tale, the films set aside the known version,in favor of a more idealized action spectacle.
In the actual war, as Leonidas and his small army battled Xerxes I’s massive Persian ground force, an Athenian General, Themistocles, rallied an Allied Grecian navy into battle against an equally massive and intimidating Persian navy. The Allied forces suffered heavy casualties and after hearing news of the defeat at Thermopylae, retreated and allowed the Persians to overtake Boeotia and Attica. Refusing to fall in the face of one defeat, Themistocles led a daring defense in the straits near Salamis. Known as the Battle of Salamis, this naval feud resulted in Xerxes’ first massive defeat and marked a turning point in the Greco-Persian Wars.
Similarly, the film takes place before, during, and after the events of 300 and follows Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) from his victory at the Battle of Marathon, to his defeat at Artemisium, all the way to the final moments of the Battle of Salamis. After slaying Xerxes’ (Rodrigo Santoro) father, Darius I (Yigal Naor), during the Battle of Marathon, Themistocles appeals to all corners of Greece to ally themselves against the coming onslaught to little avail. The Spartans show a disconcerting indifference towards the plight of Greece, and Queen Gorgo (Lena Heady) herself refuses Themistocles’ offer.
Meanwhile, Xerxes, devastated by the loss of his father, turns to Artemisia I of Caria (Eva Green), a Greek naval strategist who has allied herself with the Persians, for guidance. Motivated by rage and vengeance, Artemisia, with the aid of Darius’ final words, persuades Xerxes to submit himself to strange magics and become a demigod in order to return to Greece and crush all it’s city states. Intoxicated by Artemisia’s influence, Xerxes concedes, makes her a commander of his naval forces, and launches another assault on Greece, just as Themistocles expected. As Leonidas and his 300 Spartans arrive at The Hot Gates, Themistocles prepares for a naval assault at Artemisium against Artemisia’s massive Persian navy.
Following in Zack Snyder’s visual footsteps, Director Noam Murro makes a film that passes as a sequel to 300, but ultimately feels much, much different. Where 300 is based off Frank Miller’s re-imagining of the Battle of Thermopylae, Rise of an Empire is based off Frank Miller’s unfinished sequel to 300 called Xerxes. Without the template of Miller’s frames, this film is forced to become it’s own entity as it cannot rely on having Miller hold it’s hand in each scene. In a way the film feel somewhat more complete and original than Snyder’s 300, but at the same time it has a hard time living up to the insane stakes set up in the original. Yes, in a way, both Leonidas and Themistocles faced incredible odds, but Leonidas’ story of facing inevitable death played out better and felt more epic. The large scale naval clashes in this movie sure are spectacular to witness, but the 300 versus millions angle the first used felt far more intimate. In this film there’s plenty of fodder on both sides to explode in garish arcs of strawberry jam-like CGI blood, where in 300 each fallen Spartan was a detrimental loss.
Much like the film, Sullivan Stapleton has difficulty living up to Gerard Butler as a protagonist. Where Butler was a mish mash of muscle, intimidation, bellowing screams, and general manliness, Stapleton more or less just looks the part. He physically tackles the role, but he lacks the charisma necessary to make an hour and a half of screaming interesting. He doesn’t necessarily do a bad job, it’s just he can’t quite fill the larger than life shoes that Butler left behind after 300’s closing moments. Similarly, this film’s ending in no way matches the heroic defiance of Leonidas as he faces thousands of descending Persian arrows.
This movie isn’t without its merits though. I saw this film in a double feature with the first the night before it officially opened, and as a result I was able to better compare the two director’s visual styles almost side by side. Snyder’s ridiculously overdone slow motion and direct panel to frame copycat attitude are still somewhat present in Murro’s film, but Murro handles these things in a far more tasteful way. The amount of slow motion used is about 200% less, making it cheapen the times you do see it less. When things slow to a crawl, Murro is able to better highlight the dramatic tension of the moment far better. The action is still here, and it is just as gratuitous as it’s predecessor, which isn’t a bad thing at all.
Eva Green also turns in another great performance as Artemisia I. She’s a capable and smart enough woman to understand just what she’d gotten herself into when she signed the contract for this film, and she sneers and hisses her way through the film and flat out has fun being a bad girl in a campy macho death fantasy. I was truly surprised by how much fun it was to watch her perform, because the trailers did not make her look captivating at all. At the end of the film though, I realized that I hadn’t had this much fun watching her since her turn as the infamous Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale. She is absolutely the best part of this film, and my hat goes off to her for not only having fun and not taking her role with the overdose of deadly seriousness that Stapleton does, but also for making her scenes (even the unexpected and graphic rough, angry sex scene she takes part in) enjoyable to watch.
Overall, this sequel does at times feel better than the original, but in the end, it is the same movie with a few different twists and characters. If you liked the first, you’ll probably like this one too, but if you have any appreciation for historical accuracy or intelligent filmmaking you might want to skip this and seize your glory elsewhere.