300: Rise of an Empire Review
Get ready for more six packs, ramping and CG blood
The best way to describe 300: Rise of an Empire is that it feels like a series of deleted scenes strung together as a movie.It's as though Zak Snyder's original film had been shot as a three hour epic about Persia's failed invasion of Greece and, having decided to concentrate on those brave 300 Spartans, it got trimmed down to a tight ninety minutes. Then someone decided to release all those deleted scenes as a movie, showing the Battle of Marathon from ten years before, the rise of Xerxes, the politics and battles that took place whilst the 300 were fighting and then the naval battle that took place afterwards. That isn't what actually happened of course, 300: Rise of an Empire is an entirely new film but that's how it often feels.It isn't just that the film, itself, feels disjointed, it's also that the visual sensibilities of the first film have been copied so much, especially by the TV series Spartacus, that it now looks rather dated. What once seemed camp and fun, now just looks silly, whilst violence that once felt shocking now appears tame - especially when compared to the likes of the aforementioned Spartacus. This cartoonish tone isn't helped by the excessive use of CG blood that often looks ridiculous and a forgettable cast. There are some returning actors, most notably Lena Heady's Queen Gorgo but this only serves to remind us of the previous film, which was much more entertaining.
The first half of 300: Rise of an Empire is almost all exposition as it shows the original Persian attack on Greece by King Darius and his defeat at the Battle of Marathon, the rise of Xerxes the "God-King" and the events that were happening in Athens at the same time as the 300 Spartans were fighting at the Battle of Thermopylae. All of this exposition was wisely covered in a couple of lines in Zac Snyder's original film but here we are forced to sit through the backstory of Eva Green's character Artemisia and how Xerxes changed from a normal man into a ten-foot ladyboy.
At the start of the film, we're introduced to our new hero Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) who defeats the Persian King Daris I at the Battle of Marathon and kills him with an arrow. Darius' son Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) tries to save his father but is too late and, as he dies, Darius warns Xerxes not to attack the Greeks as "only the Gods could defeat them". Spurred on by his naval commander Artemisia, herself originally a Greek before being sold into slavery, he goes off into the desert and transforms into the "God-King". Upon his return he immediately declares war on the Greeks, sending his entire army and navy to attack them.
Half the film feels like pure backstory that was covered by a couple of lines in the original film.
We're halfway through the film before we even get to the Battle of Artemisium, the first real sea battle that took place concurrently with the Battle of Thermopylae, so you get an idea of how much backstory is involved and how disjointed the plot feels. Before things come to a rather sudden and slightly silly end in another sea-based conflict, the Battle of Salamis, we're treated to more talking and a gratuitous sex scene between Themistocles and Artemisia. Not only does the latter seem implausible but it's shot in such a way that it appears almost laughable, as if the director had no idea how a sex scene should even be filmed.
Of course the historical Themistocles and Artemisia never had a tryst and Themistocles didn't kill King Darius at the Battle of Marathon, in fact neither Darius nor Xerxes were even at the battle. Whilst Artemisia was a real Greek woman who commanded a number of ships in the Persian fleet, she didn't command the entire navy, nor did the Spartans contribute as many ships to the Greek navy as are shown in the film. Although the film has been criticised for historical inaccuracies such as these, that's hardly fair since the previous film also played loose with the facts and these films were always meant to be mythic.
However, what they aren't meant to be is boring and that's 300: Rise of an Empire's greatest sin. Whilst the Spartans in the first film, with their ripped abs and greased torsos, might have appeared faintly homo-erotic and more than a little camp at least the film was fun. Yes, Gerard Butler was channeling Brian Blessed in his portrayal of the shoutiest king in cinema history but you certainly couldn't forget him and he was ably supported by David Wenham, Lena Heady and Michael Fassbender. Now you have a series of protagonists who, with the exception of Artemisia, are instantly forgettable and played by actors that lack the charisma and charm to breathe life into their paper-thin characterisations.
As if in recognition of this, all the characters who weren't killed in the first film make a reappearance, probably to act as connective tissue to the previous story. So, along with the already mentioned Xerxes and Queen Gorgo, you get David Wenham's Dilios standing around with a bandage over his eye, Andrew Tienan returning as hunchback Ephialtes, Andrew Pleavin as Daxos the Thespian and even Peter Mensah as the Persian messenger. There are also shots of Butler and Fassbender taken from the original film, all of which just reminds you how much more fun you had the first time around. In the case of Mensah, his presence also reminds you of the similarly styled but vastly superior Spartacus.
The battles are boring, the CG blood ridiculous and none of the new characters are especially memorable.
The over-familiarity with original film's visual sensibilities is another reason why 300: Rise of an Empire fails; we're just too used to seeing this kind of highly stylised, green-screen production. The constant use of ramping (speeding the film up or down within the same shot) might have looked cool in 2007 but it just seems cliched now. The excessive use of rather mediocre CGI doesn't help, with fake looking water and even faker looking blood, whilst the hundreds of ships all look exactly the same. The film also has particles (dust, embers, pollen) constantly floating in the air, whist the CG blood and water frequently splash on the virtual 'lens', all of which is just to draw attention to the film's post-production 3D conversion but ultimately gets rather annoying.
When you consider how popular and successful 300 was, a sequel of some kind was almost inevitable and you wonder why it has taken seven years. Unfortunately, much has changed in that intervening period and this prequel-sequel-companion piece is too little too late. The film lacks a coherent plot, memorable characters or decent actors and an over-dependence on CG robs the movie of much of its impact. The film's style has now become cliched and the CG blood just looks silly but, worst of all, it's boring and that's just unforgivable.
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