300: Rise of an Empire (2014)
Did 300 need a sequel? No, but in this world of brand recognition if something makes money, chances are they’ll wangle some way to make a follow-up regardless of whether or not there is any story juice left in the carton. Case in point, Rise of an Empire. Based on Frank Miller’s as yet unreleased comic Xerxes, this film acts as a prequel, a sidequel and a sequel to the original film. Pointless? Ultimately yes, but that’s not to say it is completely without merit.
“Today we will dance across the backs of dead Greeks!”
Rise of an Empire tells the story of Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) an Athenian General who, 10 years prior to Leonidas’ heroic defeat, killed the then-king Darius with a single arrow to the heart. Darius’ final words to his son, Xerxes, is that “only the gods could defeat the Greeks”. Xerxes is then manipulated by Artemesia (Eva Green), who twists the king’s last words from a message about the futility of war to a laying down of a guantlet, leading Xerxes to become a “God King” via supernatural means. 10 years later, Artemesia and Xerxes are still hellbent on crushing the Greek rebellion and so Themistocles must lead a hastily assembled army to try and face off against overwhelming odds. The main thrust of the plot is solid enough, concentrating on the historic battles of Marathon and Salamis, although the constant flashbacks and flashforwards muddy up what should be a simple tale. Sullivan Stapleton is fine as Themistocles, although the film has a big Gerard Butler shaped hole that Sullivan struggles to fill. It’s not his fault, however, as the writing is slapdash and not particularly interested in giving him any real depth. Eva Green is the film’s saving grace. Artemesia is fascinating. She’s a proper ladybastard who connives, manipulates and schemes her way into commanding the Persian forces. Green manages to rise above the terrible dialogue and walks away with the film tucked under one arm.
I think my main problem with Rise of an Empire is how desperate it seems to tie itself to the original film rather than concentrating on telling its own story. Yes, Leonidas and the 300’s defeat was meant to inspire and prove that you could make a God bleed, but the film can’t stop itself from trying to legitimise itself as a sequel. Themistocles visits Sparta before, during and after Leonidas’ demise and no real plot relevant stuff happens. Both Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) and Dilios (David Wenham) return, but it all feels concessionary. There’s one visit to Sparta where Themistocles happens to pop by when Leonidas and his men have just nipped out to see the Oracle which ends up being unintentionally funny. Plus, there’s one awful callback line to the infamous “this is Sparta” messenger kicking that made me physically cringe so hard I swear I heard a couple of my ribs crack.
Not being directed by Zack Snyder, the film’s visuals struggle too. 10 minutes into the film, something felt off. Turns out Snyder’s way with the camera is a tough style to imitate. On the surface it’s all there- slow motion shots of blood being spilled, endless “cool” and dynamic shots of stuff, but director Noam Murro doesn’t have the natural flair for it that Snyder does. Some sequences, like a massive battle at sea, look quite pedestrian and normal despite all the slow motion and dynamic camera movements. Don’t get me wrong, the film looks fine and there are some cool moments but on the whole it’s missing a certain something. I’ve always said that Snyder has a great eye for visuals and Rise of an Empire proves this. The film feels like a 300 imitator. It reminded me of the Spartacus TV series, albeit with a much bigger budget.
The writing is another problem. The dialogue is so clunky and unmemorable that I would struggle to recall any actual spoken lines, apart from the awful callback mentioned above. The original 300 is rather misunderstood as the film contains a lot of laconic phrases (well, the Spartans invented them after all) and actual quotations from history. Exchanges like the one where the Spartans are told that the Persian arrows will “blot out the sun” and Stelios replies that they “will fight in the shade” are paraphrased, but true to what actually happened. Rise of an Empire has none of that and the spoken dialogue is just bad, through and through. As far as the script, it pulls the same shit as Rob Zombie did with his Halloween remake. It humanises the monsters. Both Xerxes and Artemesia have tragic backstories and it gets tough to really hate them as proper baddies. I’m all for complex villains, but in a film like this, tragic backstories should be kept to a minimum. Also, I got sick to the back teeth of hearing the Greeks talk about “freedom”. I know it’s a magical American buzzword to get the audience to root for #TeamGreece but still.
“Better we show them we chose to die on our feet, rather than live on our knees!”
Despite all this complaining, I actually ended up enjoying Rise of an Empire. Partly due to Eva Green’s performance and partly because at my core, I’m still a dumb meathead action guy. The battles are exciting and huge in scale and it kept me entertained. I think it speaks rather highly of the film that in spite of the glaring flaws, it still manages to be decent. When stacked up next to the original, it pales in comparison, but as its own thing, it just about works.