'300: Rise of an Empire' has some substance to go with style
Published: Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 6:26 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 6:26 p.m.
It's amazing how a little self-awareness makes “300: Rise of an Empire” better than the movie that spawned this would-be franchise.
'300: Rise of an Empire'
Starring: Sullivan Stapleton, Eva Green, Lena Headey, Rodrigo Santoro
The cast and crew of this sequel realize that what they have on their hands is an extra bloody, extra colorful swords-and-sandals war epic, not a mythic tribute to a borderline-fascist ideal like we got in “300.” By reigning in their ambitions, injecting a little bit of estrogen into the tidal wave of machismo and bothering to flesh out their characters somewhat, the team behind “Rise of an Empire” has crafted a movie that has all the brutal appeal of its predecessor but with a smarter, less-reactionary subtext.
It's the little details that make the difference. Director Noam Murro replicates the overall aesthetic that Zack Snyder brought to “300,” but he drops some of Snyder's more outlandish elements (the deformed enemies and semi-mythical creatures, for instance) and uses a slightly darker color palette that works well in the many aquatic settings of “Rise of an Empire.” This results in a movie that still has plenty of style while not straining for the mythic status that Snyder desperately strained for.
As far as the story is concerned, “Rise of an Empire” is part prequel and part sequel. With a narration by Cersei Lannister ... rather, Spartan Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) as a framing device, the movie begins years before the Battle of Thermopylae at the Battle of Marathon. There we see the Athenian general Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) lead his outnumbered forces to victory over the Persian forces of King Darius. Themistocles even shoots Darius with an arrow, which eventually kills Darius and sparks an intense desire for vengeance in his son Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) and Darius' best military commander, Artemisia (Eva Green). In the present, Artemisia attacks the Greek navy, led by Themistocles, as Xerxes fights the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae.
This extra context adds much-needed depth for the main characters and gives “Rise of an Empire” a dash of historical melodrama. Themistocles is fighting to preserve Athens' experiment with democracy and for the hope of a united Greece. Xerxes is trying to simultaneously avenge and surpass his father. It's not exactly Shakespeare, but it gives both characters some personality, and the actors playing them acquit themselves in solid if unremarkable fashion.
In a welcome surprise, though, the most interesting characters come from the women in the cast. Several seasons in Westeros (“Game of Thrones”) have given Lena Headey plenty of experience playing a hardened woman with deep wounds, and she exudes formidable anger, grief and steely resolve as Gorgo. But the woman who subjugates every scene she's in (except one, which we'll come to in a moment) is Eva Green as Artemisia.
As a Greek who suffered horrific crimes at the hands of her own countrymen, Artemisia is the fury of women scorned personified, a long-haired, crazy-eyed, leather-clad Amazon with a penchant for beheadings, swordplay and violent sex. To see a woman cast in and fully commit to such an outrageous role is rare indeed, but Green makes it work, S&M outfits and all. The script even gives her a nice boost by portraying her as the real power behind Xerxes' throne. Whenever Artemisia is on screen you can't take your eyes off her, both out of fear and out of ludicrously over-the-top sex appeal.
This makes the one really troubling scene in “Rise of an Empire” all the worse, though. After a couple of minor setbacks, Artemisia invites Themistocles to her ship for a negotiation session. When logic fails, she tries to seduce him, but instead of merely repelling her advances, Themistocles decides he's going to force Artemisia into submission. At this point they engage in what can be best described as battle sex.
For all its titillating appeal, the scene wipes out much of the terror Artemisia has accumulated to that point. (It's also troubling given her backstory as a former sex slave.) Artemisia gets her revenge of sorts, but the scene seems unnecessary given that we know she's eventually going to lose the military battle anyway. Whether it's a deal-breaker depends on the viewer.
There's enough good stuff in “Rise of an Empire” to warrant a recommendation. The world may not have been crying out for a sequel to “300,” but it offers enough solid entertainment to merit a return to the battlefields of ancient Greece. Tonight, we dine on spectacle.