Monday movie review: 300 – Rise of an Empire (3D)

Following its hit 2006 predecessor, similarly styled TV series Spartacus, and even movie spoof Meet the Spartans, sequel 300: Rise of an Empire could easily have come across as a tired retread, utterly devoid of originality in the aftermath of these hyper-stylised releases. And while the ancient war actioner does seem to suffer from a checklist mentality, it also manages to still exist, and satisfy, in its own right. If you enjoyed the first 300, Rise of the Empire is well worth a cinema visit to appreciate its similar slow-mo spectacle on the big screen.

Based on the as-yet-unpublished graphic novel by Frank Miller, Rise of an Empire depicts events that took place prior to the Battle of Thermopylae, during the legendary underdog struggle, as well as after King Leonidas and his 300 Spartans fell. Viewers discover how Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) became Persia’s God King in the aftermath of the Battle of Marathon. They accompany Athenian general Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) as he tries to unite the Greek city states against the Persian threat. And the audience witnesses Themistocles lead the outnumbered Athenian navy against a mammoth Persian fleet. The latter is headed, surprisingly, by female commander Artemisia (a wonderfully intense, calculating Eva Green) – a Greek woman who has a powerful motivation to see her homeland burn.

Rise of an Empire is for the most part content to follow a formula established by Zack Snyder’s original film (Snyder produces and writes this time, for the record, while relative newcomer Noam Murro directs). Buff, barely armoured men leap bravely into battle despite horrific odds stacked against them. All special units in the Persian army are monsters and freaks. A Greek father and son fight side by side. The cocky villain attempts to buy our hero with promises of power. Leading lady breasts are on display. Women are sexually brutalised. And, of course, there are tedious passages where characters stand around talking about freedom and democracy.

More importantly, and most enjoyably, though, there is still the combat choreography that feels like a dance – a dance punctuated by sprays of viscous CGI blood and gracefully detached limbs.

Like 300, Rise of an Empire is pure excess. There is nothing subtle about it. If you loathe (or have grown tired of) this style of unapologetically artificial movie, stay far away. Your feelings towards this type of genre fare will determine your receptiveness to its silliness.

Then again, it’s a good idea to take into account that Rise of an Empire never attempts to be an accurate depiction of historical events. Too many viewers seem to have forgotten this. Although the original 300 did it more obviously, this is history told through a nationalistic narrative filter. It’s intentionally bullshit propaganda, where the heroes flaunt godlike physiques and are impossibly brave and principled; while the villains are all warped, irredeemable monsters whose ships are powered by shackled, tortured slaves as opposed to cheerful free men. Any student of Ancient History will tell you that use of slaves was as common in Greece as anywhere else, and their concept of democracy was reserved for the absolute white male aristocratic minority. The 300 films are history deliberately presented as jingoistic storytelling in its most extreme form. There is little place for reality.

No doubt about it, the original 300 is a more striking, memorable film; arguably the finest ever example of a graphic novel brought to life. You only have to compare Leonidas’s relentless Spartan king with his Rise of the Empire counterpart, the more jaded Themistocles, to get a sense of the difference between the two films –
the electric, batshit insane energy that is missing this time around; the overkill response to everything. This said, the new movie still delivers the goods. It’s especially beautiful, even in the quieter moments with dust motes floating across the screen in the background.

And if you are a fan of 300 (I am), the amount of overlap between it and the sequel is surprising. Pretty much every character from the first film makes an appearance – Lena Headey’s Queen Gorgo is the biggie in the promotional material. It’s a nice unexpected touch that extends the fantastical universe created here.

The end result is a flawed film that delivers what it promises. And that promise is simply amazing visuals, cool combat, even cooler carnage and everything dialled up to an eleven. It may lack its predecessor’s powerful moments of noble sacrifice but it’s still R-rated escapism of the most superficially gratifying kind. And honestly, sometimes that’s all you want of a popcorn movie for grown-ups.

3.5 stars out of 5.


Thomas Watson said…
To no surprise the story doesn’t have any twist. The whole purpose of the film is to show how to kill people in the most styled way out there.

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